ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — The Buffalo Bills head to training camp facing numerous concerns despite Rex Ryan’s rosy proclamations regarding the state of his team.
A rash of bad news — injuries, suspensions and legal issues — persistently overshadowed the coach’s suggestions that the Bills “won the offseason,” and were “a zillion miles ahead” of where they were a year ago after Ryan took over.
Last season was no picnic for Ryan, who failed to deliver on a vow to build a bully. Instead, a high-priced and under-performing defense contributed to Buffalo’s 8-8 finish that extended the NFL’s longest active playoff drought to 16 seasons.
This year is already off to a tumultuous start.
The troubling headlines began in February, when running back LeSean McCoy was investigated — but eventually not charged — for his alleged role during a nightclub brawl involving off-duty police officers in Philadelphia.
More bad news came last week when Karlos Williams, McCoy’s primary backup, was suspended by the NFL for four games for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. And that was after Williams created a stir in June for being overweight upon reporting for mandatory minicamp.
Then there are the injuries.
Starting receiver Sammy Watkins had surgery on his left foot in April and is expected to miss the start of camp. Two weeks after drafting Shaq Lawson 19th overall, the Bills had the defensive end undergo surgery to repair a shoulder injury that nagged him at Clemson. Initially pegged as a starter, Lawson will instead miss at least the first month of the season.
Even the media policy the Bills introduced in May was widely panned for being far too restrictive.
Ryan countered the distractions with upbeat defiance following the team’s final practice in June.
“I thought we had a good offseason last year, but not like this. It’s so much different,” Ryan said. “I will challenge any team. I think we’ve won the offseason. But we need to win July.”
A number of things to look out for as the Bills open camp in Pittsford, New York, on July 30:
TESTED TAYLOR: Tyrod Taylor is Buffalo’s unquestioned No. 1 quarterback after winning a three-way competition a year ago and delivering with a promising 8-6 record as a first-time starter. Strong-armed and mobile, Taylor oversaw an offense that led the league in rushing and scored 24 touchdowns of 20 yards or longer.
The 26-year-old also showed signs of asserting himself as a leader.
Taylor’s not even swayed by the potential distraction of having to prove himself while entering the final year of his contract.
“Very easy for me to stay positive,” Taylor said. “I’m here to work. That’s what I came here to do. We’re preparing for the 2016 season and I’m looking forward to it.”
RUNNING OUT OF RBS? The Bills might be suddenly short on running backs with Karlos Williams’ four-game suspension and with rookie fifth-round pick Jonathan Williams facing potential discipline after being arrested in Arkansas on a misdemeanor charge of driving while intoxicated.
The Bills plan to be cautious in how much practice time McCoy gets after he was bothered by a foot injury in June, and after he hurt his hamstring in camp last year. Mike Gillislee, recently re-signed Boom Herron and James Wilder will compete for the primary backup spot to open the season.
O-LINE: Four of five offensive line spots are set after the Bills re-signed left guard Richie Incognito and left tackle Cordy Glenn. The only position in question is right tackle with Seantrel Henderson’s status uncertain as he recovers from offseason intestinal surgery to relieve the effects of Crohn’s disease. Jordan Mills, who took over for Henderson last season, and Cyrus Kouandjio will compete for the job.
WHO’LL CATCH ON? The Bills have holes to fill at receiver after losing Chris Hogan to free agency and following Percy Harvin’s retirement. Among those in contention are Greg Salas and Leonard Hankerson, two late-season additions last year, as well as free-agent addition Jarrett Boykin. Also in the mix are 2015 seventh-round pick Dez Lewis and Marquise Goodwin, who failed to make the U.S. Olympic team as a long jumper.
TWINBILL RYANS: Ryan addressed concerns about his defense by hiring twin brother Rob Ryan as assistant head coach. Though Dennis Thurman retains the defensive coordinator title, Rob will hold an unspecified role involving the defense.
Rex Ryan also shuffled other staff positions by hiring John Blake (defensive line) and adding former star safety Ed Reed (assistant defensive backs). Kathryn Smith takes over as special teams quality control assistant in becoming the NFL’s first full-time female coach.