Posted July 29, 2013

Training Camp Snapshot: Buffalo Bills

AFC East, Buffalo Bills, Snapshots
(Ross Franklin/AP)

Kevin Kolb has a 9-12 record in his 23 career starts and is looking to improve on that in Buffalso. (Ross Franklin/AP)

With the 2013 NFL season rapidly approaching, we’re taking a spin around the league for a closer look at all 32 teams. Track all of our Snapshots here.

The writing for the 2012 season was on the wall for Buffalo after a 48-28 Week 1 loss to the offensively-starved New York Jets. Ryan Fitzpatrick fired three interceptions, while the defense failed to generate any pressure on Mark Sanchez.

Those elements, plus a miserable run defense, were central to the plot for the duration of the Bills’ season, leading to an overhaul of the coaching staff and parts of the depth chart.

This remains a team built, in a lot of ways, to win now (not the least of which being that massive contract given to Mario Williams last summer). How realistic a postseason run is for a franchise with one season above .500 since the turn of the millennium is another story.

Biggest storyline: The QB battle.

Does new Buffalo Bills head coach Doug Marrone think that Kevin Kolb, who will turn 29 in late August, can get this team to the playoffs in 2013? If not, then Marrone may opt to start the clock on E.J. Manuel right now and hand him the starting job.

The decision is not likely to come for at least a few weeks. Marrone said just this weekend that he does not need to name a starter until about 10 days before Buffalo’s critical Week 1 showdown with New England. We can expect to see plenty of both Kolb and Manuel as the preseason unfolds, then, at least over the Bills’ first three exhibition games between Aug. 11 and Aug. 24.

Manuel has a really intriguing package of skills, complete with a potent arm, good size (6-foot-5, 237 pounds) and the ability to escape the pocket. He had a lot of ground to cover this summer, though, given that he was viewed as a relatively raw prospect entering the draft.

Kolb, on the other hand, has six seasons and 21 NFL starts under his belt. He’s never finished above .500 in a year as a starter and his 2012 foray as the Cardinals’ No. 1 guy went down the drain due to injury, but he did help Arizona to a 4-0 start, complete with wins over Seattle (in relief of John Skelton) and at New England.

Most intriguing positional battle: Inside linebacker.

OK, the real answer is quarterback, but we already covered that position. And what the Bills do up the middle on defense looms almost as important a conundrum as the calendar flips to August.

The Bills need to find two starting inside linebackers, because a) they traded 15-game starter Kelvin Sheppard to Indianapolis and b) their flip from a 4-3 to a defense that at least incorporates the 3-4 in a hybrid approach stresses the importance of that position.

Rookie Kiko Alonso, a second-round pick, probably would have to bomb this preseason to wind up outside the starting lineup — the coaching staff has raved about his work thus far, and Buffalo does not have the luxury of bringing him along slowly. The second spot could fall to any of Nigel Bradham, Bryan Scott and ex-Jet Marcus Dowtin, who has experience under new Buffalo defensive coordinator Mike Pettine.

New face, new place: Jerry Hughes, DE/OLB.

Hughes was the Bills’ return on that Sheppard-to-Indianapolis trade a few weeks back. A 2010 first-round pick, Hughes made 4.0 sacks last season for the Colts, but he mostly failed to make any major impact there. His pass-rush ability still could land him a critical role on defense, as he may be needed both at outside linebacker and at defense end, where the Bills are a tad shorthanded after releasing Mark Anderson.

Perhaps Hughes will be a better fit there, standing up on the edge of the line, than he has been at a linebacker spot. His case to start likely will be forwarded by the Bills’ lack of depth on defense, though a sleeper candidate to push him on the outside may be undrafted rookie Keith Pough. He may be more of a special-teams standout in his first season, but similarly to the Kolb-Manuel debate at QB, Pough could sneak into the mix if Hughes cements his bust status. Kourtnei Brown, an undrafted free agent in 2012, also could figure in the fallback plans.

Impact rookie: Robert Woods, WR.

The Bills’ passing attack in 2012 was the Stevie Johnson Show, with Johnson hauling in 79 passes and no other receiver topping Donald Jones’ 41. Jones is now a free agent, and while second-year man T.J. Graham could be the choice for a complement to Johnson, it’s Woods who ought to have Bills fans most excited.

He caught 74 passes last season for USC and an impressive 111 the year prior. Buffalo has talked about using Johnson more as a slot receiver this year, opening up two outside spots for others when three-WR sets are in use. That’s all well and good, but one of Woods’ best attributes is that he could drop in at any of the receiver positions and perform. Marrone and new offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett should be able to mix and match their pairings to create some mismatches — and Woods is more than capable of taking advantage.

Looking at the schedule: The Bills cannot put too much stock into the result of their Week 1 game vs. New England, one way or another. And yet, that’s certainly a tone-setter for the remainder of the schedule.

A win there could send the Bills to a big first half, thanks to a friendly schedule that includes four homes games in Weeks 1 through 6, plus winnable road games against the Jets and Browns. The slate stiffens after that, starting in Weeks 8 and 9 at Miami and New Orleans, respectively, and continuing on through a Week 17 rematch at New England.

Last year’s disappointing 6-10 finish coupled with that appealing start only adds pressure on Marrone to make the right choice at QB. The AFC appears to be less top-heavy than the NFC, meaning that a wild-card spot or two — plus the AFC East, should the Patriots falter — might be there for the taking.

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