One phrase that Bills’ offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett has repeated is that the ‘best five’ skill position players are going to see the most time on the field. The five that he is referring to are the five players who are on the field for the offense that don’t include the quarterback or five offensive linemen. At first glance, this seems to be a fairly innocuous, general statement that many coaches would say. However, I think his desire for the ‘best five’ may have a bearing on how many players the Bills keep at each position.
The first thing that I think about when I hear the ‘best five’ is that Fred Jackson is more than likely part of those five players. That means we could be seeing a fair share of CJ Spiller and Fred Jackson sharing a backfield, or one of them playing running back with the other split out wide (most likely Spiller). This also aligns with Hackett’s ‘when in doubt give it to a back’ philosophy that he has been reiterating through the offseason. Frequent usage of Spiller and Jackson might mean than an extra running back gets kept on the final roster, since heavy utilization means a greater need for backups. Rookie undrafted free agent Kendall Gaskins is gaining a lot of steam with Bills fans and media, but it seems unlikely that a 6’1 238-pound running back is going to serve as the only backup to Spiller and Jackson. I see a situation where Buffalo keeps another running back (Tashard Choice) and then keeps Gaskins on board as a flex running back and fullback.
Hackett’s previous offensive system at Syracuse (along with Marrone’s in New Orleans) also used tight ends quite frequently. This situation is slightly complicated because there isn’t a lot of immediately visible tight end talent on the roster (that doesn’t mean that there isn’t talent, just that it’s an unknown). Scott Chandler is clearly the starter, and Chris Gragg has shown enough athleticism and ability as a seventh-round pick to stay on the roster. Lee Smith made several Chan Gailey offenses, but may not fit into an offense more predicated on downfield passing (which just about any offense would be). Dorin Dickerson and Mike Caussin are still relative unknowns despite making previous teams, and Mickey Shuler is a complete unknown. My guess is that they still keep three players at this position, due to their previous usage of tight ends and Chandler’s shaky health situation.
This all leads to the wide receiver position, one that many Bills fans have been enamored with after an offseason of adding considerable talent. My colleague Rob Quinn believes that the Bills are going to keep seven receivers (I believe he said Stevie Johnson, Robert Woods, TJ Graham, Marquise Goodwin, Da’Rick Rogers, Brad Smith, and Kevin Elliott). He said that seven is possible because Smith and Elliott could also be used as special teams players. I tend to disagree, though I don’t think that seven is impossible. First off, I don’t think that the offense and defense will be a 25-25 roster spot split (with three specialists) because Pettine’s defense is going to require frequent rotation of linebackers and really, every position. I expect about 23 offensive players to be kept. With my estimation of two quarterbacks, four running backs/fullbacks, three tight ends and nine offensive linemen, I think six wide receivers is a very reasonable number. My picks for these spots are Johnson, Woods, Graham, Goodwin, Smith, and Rogers. As much as it may feel like we’d be cutting NFL-talented receivers (I like Elliott, Chris Hogan, Brandon Kaufman, Marcus Easley), roster numbers need to fit the philosophy of the team and the coaches. The Bills’ possible high-paced, no huddle offense may not rotate receivers at every opportunity simply because a quick snap will be more exploitative to defenses than making sure there’s a new receiver on the field.
NOTE: Buffalo kept three quarterbacks (including Brad Smith), three running backs, four wide receivers (not including Smith), three tight ends, and nine offensive linemen to begin the 2012 season. Obviously, different coaching staff, different players, but I thought it was worth noting.
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