What Should Bills Fans Look for in Training Camp?

Heading into the 2004 Bills training camp many questions loom.

The Bills were relatively inactive during the offseason only replacing Ruben Brown with Chris Villarrial on the opposite side of the line and Antoine Winfield with Troy Vincent as likely starters.

The key to the Bills season however will be the play of the offensive line. This is what Bills fans should keep an eye on during camp and in preseason games. Between now and the start of the regular season how this unit develops under the tutelage of Jim McNally will be 80% of the hope of the improvement of this team. The defense has not been the issue for the most part, so it stands to reason that the play of the abysmally performing offense will be the prime indicator.

It is no secret that the Bills line will have to pass block at an 8+ level on a 10-scale for Bledsoe to be adequate or better. Last season this line, essentially the same line that will start this year with an improvement at right guard and arguably a step down in talent at left guard on Bledsoe's blind side, played well below that level. It was decent in run blocking but below average in pass blocking. Bledsoe typically needs more time and better overall protection that just about all quarterbacks. Last season's line did not provide that by any measure.

Bledsoe does little to help and aide in his own cause but that has been discussed ad tedium over the past weeks and months. Suffice it to say that Bledsoe will more than likely not improve his overall playing style, which has characterized him now through his tenure in the NFL as well as in college, although his numbers surely must increase. Fans hope so anyway. As a result however, that factor needs to be overcome via the play of the offensive line.

Which brings us to the offensive line. There are three things that the fans should look for in the overall development of the line. First, who the starters will be? Secondly, to what extent will almost unavoidable injuries impact its play and effectiveness? Third, to what extent will pass blocking improve?

First, who will the starters be? Fans need to keep an eye on the Mike Williams situation although it would be highly premature to even suggest that Williams will not be the starter at RT on opening day. Williams of all linemen stands to benefit the most with solid coaching. Villarrial almost assuredly starts at RG, Teague at C by default if for no other reason for lack of another center on the team, and Jennings at LT. The big question is who the starting LG will be. Some competition in camp for this spot will be healthy.

With any luck McNally can have two or possibly three guards from the Pucillo, Sullivan, Tucker trio all playing up to snuff which would be a nice depth development. Of course the opposite could also happen with no obvious starting choice jumping out at McNally. Fans will obviously hope for the first scenario.

Second, to what extent will injuries impact the team? On paper the depth for the offensive line is paper-thin at present. Bills fans should hope to Asklepios that they have a repeat of the 2002 season regarding injuries on the offensive line where only three man games were lost to injury along the line and those at the tackles where Price filled in nicely. This could very well be the primary difference between an acceptable season and a disastrous one. Pending the outcome of the aforementioned line competition for the left guard spot the Bills are not rich in depth to be sure.

After the aforementioned players, the Bills will likely stock Ben Sobieski and Marcus Price as their other two linemen on their opening day offensive line rotation. The remaining linemen are all inexperienced. The Bills have no viable center with experience after Teague so an injury to Teague along the way, while perhaps not an enormous talent puzzle, could very well temporarily derail the efforts of the Bills to give Bledsoe the kind of line that he will need. A glaring weakness and inexperience over center is not exactly what will help Bledsoe this season.

To sum up, the health and viability of this offensive line may very well be what holds this team together on the offensive side of the ball this season. Certainly the talent is there at RB, WR, and TE otherwise as it was down the stretch in 2002 when the offense collapsed during the last two-thirds of the season.

Third, to what extent will the blocking improve? The Bills generally speaking have good size, muscle, and tenacity in run blocking. What has been lacking is the level of pass blocking that they have provided. Naturally, and has been the case on all Bledsoe quarterbacked teams, there is lively discussion as to what extent Bledsoe feeds into his own woes regarding pass protection. However that is an issue which will work itself out fully one way or another this season.

Either way, there is glaring room for pass improvement by the line. To what extent McNally has this team coming out of the gates swinging may very well determine the success of this unit for the season. Over the first six games of the season, the Bills face four of last season's top ten yardage defenses, four of last season's top 8 scoring defenses, and four of last season's top 6 rushing defenses. Most of those defenses will also have improved by opening day barring injuries to their starters.

This of course also does not include a now defensively tight Raider D not included in any of the above rankings and revamped with the additions of Warren Sapp and Ted Washington, who will be sure to be fresh in week 2, on the line with John Parrella to round out an excellent back seven in a game to be played on the road in Oakland where the Bills have not won since 1966. .

Of those games the Raiders, Jets, and Ravens are on the road with the Jags, Pats, and Fins at home. The staff certainly has their work cut out for them, Jim McNally in particular. Certainly this is not an enviable position to be in. A sizeable task in itself will be bolstering confidence heading into those first six games of the season among the Bills youthful and relatively inexperienced linemen.

The Bills currently possess only one above average pass blocker from last season and that is Jonas Jennings. The rest all need work and stat. Whether this occurs remains to be seen. However, with Bledsoe behind them the stakes go up and they must be playing without significant weakness by the time the season opens in order to help propel this offense forward this season.

It is clearly the offense that Bills fans will have their eyes on for the greatest improvements and greatest marginal contributions to the competitiveness of the Bills this season. The offensive line will be the anchor and greatest determining factor in how much the offense has improved and will, or will not, provide the protection that Bledsoe needs. Without that protection and accompanying holes up the middle, the offense could once again be less than it should be.

Therefore, anyone wanting to know how good this team will be this season should keep a very close eye on the development and progress of this line under the supreme guidance and direction of one of the best in the business. If anyone can pull a rabbit out of a hat in this way it is Jim McNally. Certainly the first six games of the season will present something in the way of an ultimate test as to his success in achieving this goal.

It is an uphill battle to be sure however not an impossible one to win. It is one which will have to be won however if this Bills offense is to play at a caliber that fans and media have been led to believe will occur. It will not matter how fast Lee Evans is or how marvelous Willis McGahee turns out to be if the line remains average or worse in pass protection and continues to prove to be beatable up-the-middle. Bledsoe requires top pass protection. A failure by McNally and the line to provide it will render this team one-dimensional again. Here's to hoping that McNally further cements his legendary status as one of the great line doctors in the NFL.

Comments: mweiler.billsreport@cox.net

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