The final stop on my training camp tour found me in the car en route to Rochester, NY and an early morning workout for the Buffalo Bills. The alarm went off at 5am and I was off like a shot, eager to see the changes in this year's version of the Bills after an exciting second-half to the 2004 season. How would J.P. Losman look? Who's emerging from the pack to back-up Willis McGahee? And what about the offensive line?
Buffalo Bills – Saint John Fisher College in Rochester, NY
A sizable crowd assembled early on this Monday morning, with busloads of campers on-hand for the post-practice autograph session featuring the running backs. The gift shop certainly did a brisk business on this day, as seemingly every child held an 8x10 glossy of Willis McGahee.
The crowd roared as the players hit the field for the 8:40am call time. The quarterbacks played some soft toss in the end zone, the linemen (offense and defense) worked on footwork while the return team took front and center to start the session.
Rookie receiver Roscoe Parrish took his place alongside Josh Reed, Terrence McGee and Drew Haddad and immediately had the crowd awed by his quick bursts up the field. Parrish would later thrill coaches and fans alike with his deep routes and the solid connection established with all three quarterbacks. He caught several fade routes in the red zone drill and showed a willingness to lay his body on the line.
I left this practice with a star and the word "sleeper" next to Parrish's name. (Note: he's since had surgery to repair damage to his right wrist and will be sidelined indefinitely.)
I have to give a nod to special teams coach Bobby April, who was armed with a bullhorn and called out assignments. He was vocal, enthusiastic and praised and encouraged his players throughout the session.
Parrish's injury thrusts Josh Reed back into the front-runner slot for the No. 3 wideout role. On this day, Reed struggled in his middle routes, dropping several balls off the arms of backups Shane Matthews and Kelly Holcomb. Reed's biggest competition for the No. 3 job, Sam Aiken, was most impressive in the red zone drills, using his big frame to create separation.
Another rookie receiver raised eyebrows during the morning session. George Wilson made several spectacular catches on intermediate routes and toed the back line like a 10-year veteran during the red zone drills. He's certainly a longshot to see the field in this lineup, but he looked solid in this workout.
Lee Evans and Eric Moulds were in mid-season form, running a variety of routes and meshing well with the trio of QBs. The common themes of discussion in the crowd were an admiration of the skill position players, but concern over the health of the offensive line. Their fears were well-founded, as word hit that Lawrence Smith will likely miss the season with an injury sustained in the combined workout with the Packers several days earlier. Additionally, tight ends Tim Euhus and Mark Campbell sported big wraps on their knees in the morning session.
Willis McGahee looked ready to get to work and obliterate his totals from a season ago. He showed great change of pace between the tackles and the burst of speed to the outside. With Travis Henry out of town, there's no threat to his job, but he's not resting on his laurels.
The battle for the back-up spot was heated, with ReShard Lee, Shaud Williams, Lionel Gates and Joe Burns each bringing their "A"games in the morning heat. Each player completed their reps with sprints into the defensive backfield to showcase their speed in the open field. Gates made some noise and a case for playing time with his blitz protections. He's still most likely to make an impact on special teams, with Lee and Williams favored to spell McGahee as the season begins.
Rian Lindell worked on longer kicks in this session, prompting several fantasy owners in attendance to implore him to kick at least one 50-yarder this season.
And, of course, all eyes turned to the right arm of J.P. Losman. He hit the field to multiple chants of "You can do it!" I guess there's a bit of resemblance to Adam Sandler, but that got old at about 9 am, a mere 20 minutes into the workout.
As for his performance, Losman certainly showed that he has the arm to make all the throws. He lofted several deep balls to Wilson and Evans, and showed that he can maintain accuracy when on the move. If there's anything that showed a point of weakness on this day it was his ability to hit receivers over the back shoulder in the corner end zone drills. On one play, he under-threw Lee Evans and was picked off by Terrence McGee. On several other reps, he over-shot his intended target.
Fans lauded the team's addition of Kelly Holcomb as Losman's backup. He also looked solid, connecting on mid-level routes, and made a beautiful toss on a pump-fake to a streaking Parrish. With a better corps of receivers in Buffalo than he utilized in Cleveland, Holcomb may surprise if forced into action.
Practice ended and the running backs bolted to the autograph tent. The wide receivers dispersed along the fence after running a few sprints and signed for all the children in attendance.
After doing a couple interviews for local media outlets, J.P. Losman joined them along the fence, again hearing chants of "You can do it!"
With a hearty chuckle, I headed back to my car for the three-hour journey home, thinking that Mike Mularkey has the pieces in place for a contender.
In my travels during the week, I witnessed four AFC contenders and an NFC squad flying under the radar getting ready for the 2005 campaign. Though I saw only one workout for each, you can get a feel for the pacing, energy and spot the areas of concern. And, of course, you get to see fans at their most passionate. Why else would you be sitting in the oppressive heat to watch an early morning preseason practice?
Though it's still over 90 degrees outside and visions of a Major League Baseball pennant race still fill many cities, the smell of fall is most definitely in the air. Bring it!