Training camp is quickly approaching, which means it's time to preview the most exciting part of the summer. Over the next month, Around The NFL's Conor Orr will break down all 32 teams and give us something to look for in late July.
Training camp report dates: Rookies July 28, veterans July 29.
Training camp location: St. John Fisher College, Pittsford, New York.
Offseason in a nutshell: For the first time, Rex Ryan enters a season in Buffalo with a presumptive -- and productive -- starting quarterback boasting NFL experience. He's had a year to shave his system of the nonbelievers (former defensive end Mario Williams is now with the Dolphins) and financially reward the ones who are willing to take a bigger role, or at least not complain about it as loudly (Marcell Dareussigned an extension last September that carries him through the 2021 season and could be worth more than $100 million). So here we are with Ryan, perennially wedged between a rock and a hard place. The prevailing offseason rumor was that the Bills wanted to cut bait after one season despite the fact that Ryan is really the only coach to have legitimately challenged Bill Belichick in the AFC East over the last seven years. Ryan, after resisting the possibility for years, added his twin brother, Rob, to his staff in what seems like a last-ditch effort to reclaim his status as the best defensive mind in the NFL. (I, for one, still think he is, even if his persona gets in the way at times.) The Bills are loaded with excellent coaches, including soon-to-be head men Anthony Lynn and Greg Roman. They also have several star-caliber players and a new first-round pick on defense who -- if healthy -- could ramp up Buffalo's lackluster pass rush.
Player to watch: Quarterback Tyrod Taylor. The Bills' offense will be interesting to watch this summer for two reasons. One, they presumably want to keep the motion-oriented, next-gen run game aspect -- but reduce Taylor's open-field carries. Taylor is not Cam Newton; he cannot absorb the type of hits to make him an every-down dual-threat quarterback. Two, they want to recapture the magic that Taylor and wide receiver Sammy Watkins discovered late in the season. Taylor was good enough to feed his only downfield weapon consistently, and after Watkins publicly demanded Odell Beckham-style target numbers. Taylor has a unique way of keeping his teammates happy and is doing so at a bargain-basement price.
THREE BURNING QUESTIONS:
The smart money is on no. Watkins (broken foot) has been walking back a proclamation that he'll be ready for the start of training camp, but really, this shouldn't matter. The Bills are in Year 2 of this offense, and Watkins is good enough to negate the lack of time spent with Taylor while he recovers. Their main concern needs to be developing dependable weapons around him. Percy Harvinisn't coming back. Chris Hogan, who signed with the Patriots, is gone, which will be a bigger blow than many people realize. In true Rex Ryan fashion, he used his first three picks in this year's draft on defense and then took a project quarterback who is still at least a year from being game-ready in the fourth round, so reinforcements are slim. Ryan is hoping that a reliable set of hands emerges from the platoon of speedster Marquise Goodwin, Greg Salas and sixth-round pick Kolby Listenbee.
2. Can the Ryan brothers team up and build a winner?
This is a meaningful season for Rex for a lot of reasons. His legendary father, Buddy, passed away at 85 last month, and I don't think it is out of line to suggest that Rex will dedicate this season, and any season after (along with all previous seasons, too, for that matter), to his idol. Ryan is easily motivated, but this is something that can change a man in significant ways. In smaller aspects, Ryan has made other ancillary changes to lighten his load and surround himself with friendly faces. He added Ravens legend Ed Reed to the coaching staff in addition to his twin brother, Rob. He retained loyal lieutenants like defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman, receivers coach Sanjay Lal and quarterbacks coach David Lee. If Ryan is truly up against it, he is going to go out coaching his way with his philosophy -- an understandable route to take after the Jets tried to re-brand and silence him on the way out in 2014.
The opportunities provided to Manuel as a backup this offseason will probably allow him to fly the coop in March and compete for a starting job (or backup job) elsewhere. A former first-round pick, Manuel was the victim of impatient coaching from one regime and the need to post a winning record from the next. Believe it or not, he'll be a major storyline this offseason -- as camp wanes, backups take center stage once every sexy storyline has expired. Manuel could potentially get two quarters worth of work in every preseason game.
Way-too-early season prediction: I've seen two very good Rex Ryan seasons first-hand, and a few not so good. I've learned to never count him out, especially when his back is against the wall. I count 10 winnable games on Buffalo's schedule this season, and I expect the Bills to take sole position of second place in the AFC East with a nine-win season.