Globe NFL writer Albert Breer is touring select training camps around the East Coast, and will report from each one he visits. To review his previous reports, check out his training camp tour page.
One of the NFL’s hidden gems of a training camp site, St. John Fisher’s beautiful campus tucked into suburban Rochester lets fans get close to action, gives them an opportunity to run across guys on campus before and after practice, and sets a nice distinctly Western New York scene.
Last year, this camp was, in essence, The Terrell Owens Show. This year has been far more about business with the Bills. Feels like GM Buddy Nix and coach Chan Gailey are pouring concrete into the foundation right now – Very business-like, no-complaining, get-the-job-done tone. That’s good for this franchise, provided they give this regime time, since there’s been far too much upheaval over the last decade.
THREE THINGS TO SORT OUT
The team’s identity: You get the feeling that this team is trying to see itself as the 2008 Dolphins – An overlooked bunch coming off a horrific season using a base of fundamental football and relying on the pigskin simplicity of beating opponents up and wearing them out to win. Will it work? Well, Miami did have Chad Pennington fall into its lap, and quarterback remains an issue for Buffalo. But it’s clear that the intention is to be a physically imposing squad. The Bills were in pads from Day 1 of practice, are regularly enduring 150-minute sessions and both Nix and Gailey are impressed by the no-nonsense approach the players have taken to it. Buffalo has trouble at the tackle spots, but could be very good from guard-to-guard and has an impressive stable of backs. Add that to a defense with a solid secondary and interior, and you can see a team built for slugfests with the Dolphins and Jets. Facing the Patriots’ aerial show might be a bit more difficult for these guys.
The quarterback: For now, it’s Trent Edwards and it’ll be interesting to see how the fourth-year field general plays under more stable circumstances. Early in his second year, Edwards had plenty of people thinking Buffalo might have finally found its first franchise guy since Jim Kelly. Then he was concussed, making for a lost 2008, and all the tumult last year (offensive coordinator fired in September, major injury issues on an already questionable line) put Edwards in a tough spot. We’ll see. The Bills could benefit next year from a deep quarterback class in the draft, and it might make more sense that way anyway, since this certainly could be a hazardous situation for a young quarterback. Edwards knows all about those, and if he can navigate this one, there might still be hope for him. He’s gotten the first-team reps in practice, with Brian Brohm and Ryan Fitzpatrick splitting time with the 2s.
The pass rush: The defense actually might not be so bad, if it can finish games better than it did last year, but with Aaron Schobel on the way out, the Bills will have to find a way to get pressure off the edge. Aaron Maybin, the club’s first-round pick in 2009, certainly should have his chances as the team’s outside nickel rusher, with Chris Kelsay and Reggie Torbor handling the outside linebacker duties on early downs. Buffalo has the makings of a sturdy interior, with nose tackles Kyle Williams and Torell Troup, and ends Marcus Stroud and Dwan Edwards fronting Paul Posluszny, Andra Davis and Kawika Mitchell at inside linebackers. But as it stands now, this team looks like it can be thrown at on early downs, given the lack of natural rushers, and that figures to be issue for an offense that will have problems playing from behind.
TYING IN THE PATRIOTS
The Patriots were the first team to take an Oregon defensive back in the 2009 NFL draft, tabbing safety Patrick Chung. The Bills got their Duck eight selections later, taking Jairus Byrd with the 42nd overall pick. Byrd had nine picks last year. Chung had one start. But the book’s not closed on this one yet, and Byrd thinks that when people see Chung’s best, there won’t be any buyer remorse. “He’s a tackling machine,” said Byrd. “He can cover, he can play the deep middle, he can do it all. He’s a very versatile player. I have nothing but respect for Pat. He’s a hard worker. If something’s lacking, he makes sure he covers it and gets in there and gets the job done.” Byrd followed by noting that Chung went through the natural maturation process (like most rookies) behind the scenes, while his growth came on the field, and added that both had a ways to go. But Byrd also is expecting big things from a guy who was the traffic controller of his college secondary. “Once he gets things right, he’s a leader back there. And he will,” Byrd said. “He’ll be great. There’s no doubt in my mind he’ll do a great job, it’ll happen naturally.”
THE QUOTE THAT CAPTURES
“It’s a motivation, everybody thinks we’re not gonna be so great, probably win two or three games this year. We’re keeping our head, trying to prove everyone wrong.”
-- CB Leodis McKelvin
One of my biggest pet peeves of air travel: What seems like a totally unnecessary waste of time. People waiting until the last possible second to pull their 50-pound bag from the overhead, and clogging the line off the plane. The guy who holds up the line going on the plane so he can set everything up in his seat perfectly. And so on. Get on, get off, be done with it. Anyway, this morning in Detroit, on my layover, the plane gets to the gate around 9:25 or so after taxiing. We wait. And wait. And wait. They explain to us they need a jetbridge. Whatever. It took until 10 to get off the plane, and I had to rush to my other gate, killing valuable work time. Is it really impossible to plan for how planes, y’know, are scheduled to come in? Would’ve been absolutely infuriating if I had a tighter connection. On a positive note: Great drive through the Finger Lakes and really cool little town called Skaneateles I’d never heard of before and, of course, I did get a trip to Duff’s in when I got to Buffalo after practice.
THE GUY TO WATCH
TE Shawn Nelson. A fourth-round pick in 2009, Nelson managed just 17 catches last year, and struggled with the mental part of the transition to the NFL, but the coaches seem to have big plans for him. He can really, really move for a big guy (6-4, 250), and there’s no better friend to an inexperienced quarterback on a run-first team than a tight end than can get down the seam. If Nelson can grasp the offense well enough, and block well (a must for Gailey), he could present problems in play-action for defenses.
Maybe Nix and Gailey are the right guys. Maybe they aren’t. But I think they do have the right idea – Too much was broken here to try and go for quick fixes like this franchise has in the past. Nix is committed to building through the draft (he had a stellar record in San Diego leading their college scouting department) and Gailey is fixated on giving the players he’s given a foundation. It’ll take a lot more than that to get it right here, but that’s a start. … Another guy in the organization not to be overlooked is assistant GM Doug Whaley. Long considered one of the bright under-40 personnel guys in the league with Pittsburgh, Whaley did what many thought he wouldn’t, bolting his hometown Steelers for a new professional challenge. If this is the group to turn it around, Whaley will be a big part of it. … Look for McKelvin as a possible bust-out defender. A broken leg finished his 2009, but he’s got the qualities to be a top-notch corner. Paired with Byrd, it looks like this deep, talented secondary could be in good hands for years to come. … C.J. Spiller’s holdout isn’t a positive, of course. But because his position isn’t one with the steepest learning curve, the tailback should be a factor for the offense. Jets coach Rex Ryan, when talking about the division the other day, singled Spiller out – “The draft pick they’ve got has the chance to be a superstar.”