"I think one of the biggest differences across the board for us this year, not only on the defensive side, but... at every position, is there's so much competition." -Ryan Fitzpatrick
That's the word out of Buffalo's first day of OTAs: competition.
Eighty-eight of ninety players on the Bills' roster showed up in Orchard Park Tuesday to start the first day of OTAs.
And though some, like the still healing Steve Johnson (groin), had to watch uninvolved in street clothes and others, like the physical freak Mario Williams, just shattered already high expectations by dropping jaws across the fieldhouse, what was universally acknowledged was the depth on display everywhere on the field.
What's more, the many new faces looked hungry to impress (rookie cornerback Stephon Gilmore was sticking like a wet blanket in coverage drills), while the many veterans were looking spry and hopeful (those that were able enough to participate, as some were limited or, like Johnson, completely out).
Even coach Chan Gailey ended the day cautiously optimistic in his remarks to the media, "We felt bigger on the field, and it felt bigger on the field. It felt quick on the field. We've got a lot of work to do, but initial observations were good."
No matter that a couple names weren't there (Shawne Merriman is still seeking medical clearance, but seems like he'll be there before too much longer), there was still just a staggering amount of options on the field... good options... at almost every position.
With their acknowledged leader sidelined for now, there are still 11 receiver options in Buffalo, including speedy newcomer T.J. Graham, who filled in often for Johnson at split end Tuesday with largely promising results (one bad drop aside... maybe he filled in too well for Stevie).
The wideouts getting the most initial work were Donald Jones, David Nelson, and Derek Hagan, but it seemed every option got a touch that first day, and Marcus Easley continues to impress with his size (6'2", 217 pounds), hands, and dangerous potential at the position (so, so quick and athletic for such a big man... he could almost play the type of tight end Aaron Hernandez plays).
Put aside the 6'6" colossus of defense, Super Mario, who Fitz described as "like a Madden character you create when you sit there and up-up the strength", and there was still a speed and aggression to the new 4-3 front four.
It extended beyond the first team of Mario, still tender Kyle Williams (who was part of the individual drills, but sat out the 11-on-11s the first day in favor of Dwan Edwards), Marcell Dareus, and Chris Kelsay).
The supposed second-string defensive line looked ready to start (Spencer Johnson, Edwards, Kellen Heard and Mark Anderson) and those left over still seemed capable on the third team (including Jarron Gilbert and Alex Carrington). To me, it'll be interesting to see how healthy Merriman is when he comes back from his Achilles and, if he's anywhere in the general vicinity of 100 percent as he says he'll be, what kind of damage he can do when added to this already potent mix.
The defensive backfield looked stacked as well, even with Terrence McGee limited until training camp. Leodis McKelvin, Aaron Williams, and Gilmore got most of the work, but Justin Rogers had one of the most eye-popping coverage plays. It showed that even with the surpise release of Drayton Florence, there still seems no guarantees for starter at either corner position. The array of weapons is that good... maybe Buddy Nix has known what he was doing this whole time, hmmmm?
With the amount of real competition on both sides of the ball, there has to be a sense of calm falling over the Western New York fan base. With too few options to stop up the injury leak that caused Buffalo's 5-2 start to become a sunken 6-10 disappointment in 2011, this display of depth is just what the doctor ordered to prevent an unfortunate repeat in 2012.
Want more assurance? Though essential center Eric Wood was still rehabbing in preparation for being the anchor of the line come opening day, he seemed ably replaced by Colin Brown (over Kraig Urbik, who was returned to right guard after being the popular replacement at center last season), while newbie Cordy Glenn got the start at left tackle over the returning Chris Hairston (though he'll get his reps, especially considering Chris was robbed of pre-season work last year due to the lockout).
Perhaps returning linebacker star Nick Barnett summed up the feeling on day one and the Bills' attitude going into the season best when he said, "We had a lot of guys hurt who we expected to be there last year." He added, "We got put on our heels. This year I think we have enough depth. If guys do get hurt, I think we have enough to step up and play."
Music to the ears of Buffalo's fanbase and should feed more of that "hope" talk that's been circling around the Bills' wagons in 2012. More and more they seem a team on the rise, ready to take their unlikely expectations and fulfill them in the upcoming season.
Though NT Kyle Williams was correct in warning, "On paper it looks really good, but that doesn't mean anything... we haven't done anything yet." That doesn't mean fans shouldn't take heart from the good news this early on. Sometimes, it's just nice to hear a veteran like Barnett say that, "The young guys look good out there," and actually believe them for once.
It might not be the same old season in Buffalo this year - maybe - but at least the depth to succeed past Week 8 should be there.