Breaking Down Buffalo Bills' 5 Biggest Training Camp Projects
Every team has players who have the potential to be special with a little polishing, and the Buffalo Bills are no different.
The Bills are working to get younger and deeper, which fans and staffers alike hope will end the league's longest playoff drought sooner rather than later. But that can't happen unless players across the board fulfill their potential.
With the Bills packing their bags for training camp which is a mere week away, let's take a look at the team's five biggest camp project. We'll rank the players based on the amount of work needed compared to what impact an improvement from each player would have.
5. Stefan Charles
Stefan Charles doesn't have much NFL experience, but he could find himself with a much greater role in 2014.
You already know about Charles' status as a camp sleeper, according to Chris Brown of BuffaloBills.com and Brandon Croce of Bleacher Report. Charles becomes even more important if Marcell Dareus has to miss any time because of his legal concerns.
Either way, the Bills can use the depth at defensive tackle with few proven options behind Dareus and Kyle Williams. Williams is getting on in age, and despite being a gamer, he will still need relief every now and then.
Charles already has the experience stepping in for Dareus. Per Croce, Charles started for Dareus when he was suspended for the first half of Buffalo's game against New England in Week 17 last year. In Dareus' stead, Charles was relatively productive with six tackles and a sack.
Charles' journey to the NFL has been arduous, so I wouldn't expect him to squander any opportunity he is given. But he still has to prepare for a larger role this season, thus making this a very important training camp for the defensive tackle.
4. Bryce Brown
It was clear in the offseason the Bills are planning for the future at running back.
Both Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller are entering contract years, and as a contingency plan, general manager Doug Whaley brought in Anthony Dixon via free agency and Bryce Brown in a draft-weekend trade.
Dixon will likely end up being a short-yardage and special teams specialist, but the team has higher hopes for Brown. ESPN.com's Mike Rodak said he thinks the Bills would like Brown to turn into one of their lead backs. What makes Brown a project is the Bills' expectation versus his level of experience.
So far in his career, Brown has been underused. In his two seasons in Philadelphia, Brown got more carries (190) than he did in college (104). Brown only toted the rock 75 times in 2013, which was 61st in the league. However, Brown averaged 4.2 yards a pop and scored two touchdowns.
The future of Buffalo's backfield is very much up in the air. Running backs are being devalued, and Spiller could end up being too expensive to retain. Jackson, meanwhile, is 33, and since running backs age in dog years, there's not telling how committed the team will be to him long term, even if he is a fan favorite.
Because of that, Brown has a big opportunity and stands to gain a lot from a strong camp.
3. Seantrel Henderson
Seantrel Henderson is the ultimate project player.
Drafted in the seventh round, Henderson has his work cut out for him to make the 53-man roster. At 6'7" and 331 pounds, Henderson certainly has the physical tools to be a successful NFL lineman. But concerns about his behavior are what caused Henderson to slip in the draft.
By now you've heard about Henderson's failed drug test at the combine. The Bills coaching staff is trying to help Henderson move past that and maximize his talents.
Via Chris Brown of BuffaloBills.com, head coach Doug Marrone has been working personally with Henderson—mostly on the field thus far—throughout minicamp. Henderson seems to be eager to accept the former offensive lineman's tutelage, saying "I feel like that's a good thing for me" when discussing Marrone's experience with Brown.
Henderson wasn't able to even breathe before he got thrown into the mix in minicamp. Cordy Glenn was out with an illness, so Henderson worked with the first-team offense in Glenn's absence. If Henderson stays out of trouble off the field and builds on his minicamp experience in training camp, he can very well turn into the "beast" Dixon told Brown he will be.
2. Preston Brown
All of a sudden, Preston Brown could be one of the more important players to monitor during training camp.
After Kiko Alonso's knee injury rained on the Bills' parade over the Fourth of July weekend, the team turned to Brown as one of the options to fill Alonso's shoes.
Per Tim Graham of The Buffalo News, Bills coaches were impressed with Brown's work during minicamp, and he was even working with the first-team nickel unit throughout spring practices. Following the loss of Alonso, Graham said the team was increasingly happy they used a third-round pick on Brown.
What makes Brown a project is the fact that he is going to have to fill a much larger role than previously expected. The ideal situation would have been for Brown to learn behind Alonso, Brandon Spikes and the rest of the Bills' veteran linebacking crew.
Now, Brown will almost certainly lock up one of the first-team nickel linebacker spots. He was already calling out defensive signals in minicamp, per Greg Vorse of Time Warner Cable News Buffalo. The potential is there for Brown to win a starting outside linebacker job as well.
Based on the team's increased need and the workload he could get, all eyes will be on Brown throughout training camp.
1. EJ Manuel
We have to end with EJ Manuel, whose performance will have the most significant impact on the success of the team.
As a second-year quarterback who missed time during his rookie year because of injury, Manuel is anything but a finished product. He needs to maximize his training camp experience to keep taking steps forward and help his team get to the next level.
Via Dallas Miller at BuffaloBills.com, Manuel told NFL Total Access he is "100 percent healthy" and feeling stronger than last year. He also discussed what he needs to work on most as he enters his second year:
I think that’s one thing I had to learn to be smart when I take off with the football. Instead of trying to get an extra three yards, either step out-of-bounds or slide. Those are all of the nuisances I had to learn. Obviously, I didn’t want to go down with an injury because I’m a competitive player. I go hard each and every time I step on the field.
As a quarterback who looks to be a threat with his legs, learning to protect your body on the run is as important a skill as there is. Manuel is still working on that, and training camp is a perfect opportunity to improve.
A quarterback also has to have total command of his offense, something else Manuel said he is concentrating on:
You want to get in your playbook, you want to learn, or you want to go over your protections each and every day. You can’t learn that stuff if you can’t go over it enough. Those are things that I’ve been doing to help our team win. I think those are all building blocks, and it’s just a part of the process as an offense for us to continue to grow.
It all starts and ends with Manuel. If he refines his game during camp, he can help the Bills be a dangerous team.