The Rex Effect is on full display in Buffalo. The Bills are brazen, heavy-blitzing and perhaps a quarterback away from being a contender.
Site: St. John Fisher College, Pittsford, NY.
What I Saw: Partially-padded night practice, Wednesday, Aug. 12.
Three things you need to know about the Bills:
1. The Rex Effect. Jenny Vrentas' SI cover story says it all. This is Rex Ryan’s team now: aggressive on defense, sound in the run game, and brazen in personality. The Bills have bought in, and fans have too. According to the Bills, they have sold the most season tickets in the franchise’s 55-year history. As Buffalo looks to break its 15-year playoff drought, the city feels confident that Ryan — who declared this will be his last coaching stop — is the man to lead them.
2. The Bills are a quarterback away from being a contender. Though Ryan has brought a new swagger to a team muddled in mediocrity, some things haven't changed in this football-crazed city. Buffalo doesn't have a s tarting quarterback. In the 15 years since the Bills have made the playoffs, they have cycled through 15 leading men. This year, it's a three-way competition between 2013 first-round pick E.J. Manuel, whose growth was stunted by being forced on the field too soon, Tyrod Taylor, the longtime Joe Flacco backup, and Matt Cassel, a 10-year journeyman. None in the trio exactly excites, but Buffalo has so much talent across the rest of the roster, it might be able to win anyway.
3. To compensate for its biggest vulnerability (quarterback) General Manager Doug Whaley built around the position. Whaley stacked his roster with talented skill positions, committed to a strong run game and re-stocked an already dominant defense. Percy Harvin, Sammy Watkins, Robert Woods and LeSean McCoy could be one of the most dynamic skill groups in the NFL. If the quarterback proves at least adequate, Buffalo’s playmakers could carry the offense. Another underrated addition was Greg Roman as offensive coordinator. Roman directed San Francisco’s impressive run game over the last four seasons, and his offense is predicated on deception through various pre-snap motions and formation changes to out-smart defenses. And of course, there’s the defense, a staple of any Rex Ryan-coached team. The Bills ranked fourth in total defense last year, led by a stud front seven: Pro Bowlers Kyle Williams, Mario Williams and Marcell Dareus, as well as Jerry Hughes, who was so impressive during mini-camp that Ryan benched the 27-year-old because he “ruined practice” for sacking the quarterback too many times. That defense was sturdy last season, even in a 4-3 scheme that barely blitzed. Add in Ryan and defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman’s signature creativity in pass rushing and this is one scary good unit.
What will determine success or failure for the Bills: If they consistently win the 13-10, 14-13 type games. The way this team is built, the Bills are only going to win in a grind-it-out, low scoring style. Buffalo will rely on its defense to carry it and for its offense to be just good enough.
Player I saw and really liked. A.J. Tarpley, linebacker. There’s so much emphasis on the front seven in a Rex Ryan-coached team, specifically versatility. When Kiko Alonso was traded to the Eagles, Buffalo looked a little thin at linebacker. Tarpley — underrated out of Stanford — can play different linebacker positions, as well as special teams, and is a dark horse candidate to make the team. At Wednesday’s practice I saw why. Twice he pushed through the backfield to get to the quarterback. Coaches have sung praises about Tarpley’s practice habits and I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s on the 53-man.
Five dot-dot-dot observations about Buffalo. The Bills were liberal with resting key players, some nursing injuries, some just for maintenance. Among those who did not practice: Fred Jackson, Richie Incognito, Percy Harvin, Kyle Williams, Alex Carrington, John Conner and Jimmy Gaines. Also, Sammy Watkins sat out for some drills late in practice … Incognito didn’t practice (ankle) but rode the bike on the sideline, as well as some exercises with super-sized ropes that exemplified just how much girth and athleticism he has… Just one snippet, but Tyrod Taylor stood out among the three quarterbacks for me. Running the read option, Taylor had a few nice plays and consistently found his receivers. Matt Cassel had a few too many overthrows and I saw at least one interception from EJ Manuel….Rookie hazing is alive and well in the NFL, but if it’s as light-hearted as the Bills’ displayed on Wednesday, I’m perfectly fine with that. Teammates taped rookie corner Ronald Darby to the goalpost with athletic tape and then doused him with cold water. Darby laughed during the entire ordeal: refreshing, safe post-practice fun….One of the reasons Harvin signed with Buffalo was that he wanted to prove he was a wide receiver, not just a gadget guy. The Bills seem committed to that, too. “We’re not going to lose the fact that he can be a weapon in other areas,” says wide receivers coach Sanjay Lal. “But Percy is a wideout with us. And he’s going to be a good one.”
The one name on the roster I’d forgotten about. Jerome Felton, fullback. With the run game being so important to Buffalo as it tries to mitigate its quarterback conundrum, I kept a close eye on the backfield during practice. With LeSean McCoy resting, I wanted to know what the depth looked like. I left feeling concerned. Felton, who has reached official journeyman status with his fifth team since 2008, dropped at least two passes during drills and also fumbled on the goal line. Apparently the day before we arrived, Ryan — staying true to character — boasted that Felton was the best fullback in the NFL, which means he must be having a good camp. One practice isn’t indicative, so I’m curious to see how Felton fares this season.
The thing I will remember about Pittsford: The impending arrival IK Enemkpali, the reserve linebacker who was released from the Jets after cold-cocking quarterback Geno Smith, breaking his jaw. What fortuitous timing that Team MMQB happened to be in Pittsford on Wednesday as Buffalo claimed Enemkpali on the waiver. It all unspooled quickly. Bills staffers stayed on message, Jets writers frantically reached out to follow up on the juicy story, and Rex Ryan kept cool as he stuck it to the team that unceremoniously fired him seven months ago. This further cemented that Rex Ryan is going to do things the Rex Ryan way, and that this team is not afraid to take chances on those seeking redemption. Besides Ryan and Enemkpali, Buffalo added Percy Harvin (proving himself as more than a gadget-guy after burning through four teams in four years) and Richie Incognito (centerpiece of the 2013 Dolphins locker room bullying scandal who took a one-year hiatus from football). That’s quite the contingent of people looking to prove themselves, and I have a feeling that’s a theme Ryan will cling to in 2015.
Gut feeling as I left camp: What a fun year this is going to be. So many rich storylines, so much talent and an incredible ceiling — if everything pans out, and there’s a lot of ‘if’s.’ I wish the Bills had even a slightly above average quarterback, but I still think they have the propensity to challenge New England’s reign AFC East, and are a strong Wild Card candidate this season.