New-look Buffalo Bills still a work in progress
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (AP)
Bills rookie coach Doug Marrone understood he was in for a long day, when stepping to the podium with a long list of unsettling news to deliver to open this week.
''All right,'' Marrone said, Monday, ''I know we have a lot of questions.''
That's nothing new in Buffalo, for a team that's not made the playoffs in 13 seasons. Less than two weeks before the opener against New England, the Bills find themselves in midseason form when it comes to facing adversity.
Their top two quarterbacks - rookie EJ Manuel and veteran Kevin Kolb - are hurt. That leaves open the possibility of undrafted rookie Jeff Tuel starting the season.
Top cornerback Stephon Gilmore will miss six to eight weeks with a broken wrist.
And don't forget safety Jairus Byrd, who signed his franchise tender last week. The two-time Pro Bowl player doesn't expect to be entirely ready for the start of the season.
These are sobering reminders for a team on its sixth coach since 2000.
''In addressing the adversity situations, I think we're fine,'' Marrone said. ''As far as what we need to do to become a better team, we still have work to do, and it's a work in progress.''
Receiver Stevie Johnson remains confident.
''All the worry is coming from the outside,'' Johnson said. ''But it's not as bad as it looks.''
That remains to be seen.
Here are five things to watch for the Bills, who haven't enjoyed a winning finish since going 9-7 in 2004:
TUEL TIME? Tuel wasn't part of the conversation when Marrone opened training camp saying he intended to have a starting quarterback in place within 10 days of the opener. The competition for the job was supposed to involve Manuel, the only quarterback drafted in the first round, and Kolb, a free-agent addition.
Turns out, it could be Tuel, the Washington State product who is in position to become the NFL's first undrafted quarterback to start in Week 1 directly out of college.
Manuel, who hasn't been entirely ruled out, has yet to be cleared for practice. Kolb is out indefinitely.
Manuel, however, is the team's future, being asked to fill a position that's been unsettled since Hall of Famer Jim Kelly retired.
When healthy, Manuel showed encouraging signs in training camp and two preseason games of being capable of running the offense. He's yet to prove himself consistently against opposing first-team defenses.
SPEED AT WR: Second-year receiver T.J. Graham, along with rookies Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin, have shown flashes of their potential in filling the three spots behind returning starter Stevie Johnson.
Graham and Goodwin have each caught numerous deep passes in camp, showing they have the speed to beat most defenders. And Woods, a second-round pick, has shown ability to play both outside and in the slot.
Add in Manuel's strong arm, and the Bills have the potential of introducing a deep-passing dimension to what's previously been a popgun attack.
THIN AT CB: Gilmore's injury underscores the lack of experienced depth the Bills have at cornerback.
Leodis McKelvin, who's had difficulty keeping a starting job over five years in Buffalo, will now be responsible for covering opponents' top receivers. The No. 2 and nickel spots are up for grabs between third-year players Justin Rogers and Crezdon Butler, and second-year players Ron Brooks and T.J. Heath.
The four have combined for three starts and one interception (Rogers) in 41 NFL career games.
The Bills front-office, now headed by rookie GM Doug Whaley, is open to being second-guessed for failing to add a veteran or two after cornerback Terrence McGee retired and safety George Wilson was not re-signed this offseason.
UNHAPPY BYRD: Byrd has finally returned to practice field, but he's not entirely happy about being back in Buffalo.
The 2009 second-round pick hinted at being disappointed that the Bills prevented him from testing free agency, and then failed to reach a long-term deal before a July 15 deadline. Byrd has declined to say whether he's asked for a trade. He's also unsure how long it will take for him to get accustomed to the new defense being installed by coordinator Mike Pettine.
SUPER MARIO: The Bills need DE Mario Williams to start playing to his $100 million potential following an inconsistent first season in Buffalo.
The veteran free-agent addition led Buffalo with 10 1/2 sacks, but his performance was hampered in the first half of the season because of a left wrist injury that was surgically repaired in late October.
Williams opened training camp complaining of a sore left foot, which forced him to miss the first week of practice.
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org