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11 Bills will start in new positions

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Posted: Monday, September 1, 2014 12:15 am

So what do you make of the Bills six days from the start of their regular season?

After Saturday’s cut to 54 players — linebacker Nigel Bradham doesn’t count against the roster for the opener as he serves a one-game suspension — Buffalo has 17 new additions, a turnover of 30 percent from last year’s squad.

Of that number, six are starters including three free agents and a trade acquisition — linebackers Brandon Spikes and Keith Rivers and guard Chris Williams, plus  wide receiver Mike Williams — and two rookies, wide receiver Sammy Watkins (first round) and tackle Seantrel Henderson (seventh).

In all, including that half-dozen, 11 Bills will start in new positions.

Wideout Robert Woods replaces the traded Stevie Johnson in the slot, Erik Pears has moved from right tackle to right guard, Jerry Hughes goes from linebacker to his more comfortable spot at defensive end, Aaron Williams moves from strong to free safety replacing Jairus Byrd while Da’Norris  Searcy takes Williams spot.

But despite those changes, it’s hard not to feel Bills fans aren’t particularly enthused about the coming season and, in fact, are a bit wary.

It starts at quarterback where EJ Manuel, in his second season, has done little to indicate he’s the franchise QB Buffalo drafted him to be.

Yeah, he played only 10 games as a rookie after being selected in the first round, but it could be argued that he hasn’t looked as good this year as he did last.

Manuel has earned the right to be judged over a full season. But, starting in training camp, he’s given precious little indication of being the leader or proficient passer the Bills had hoped.

In fairness, though, his front office and head coach haven’t exactly been fountains of confidence.

To be sure, there’s a mitigating circumstance.

With the team to be sold, probably this fall, every administrative job is likely at risk, from President/CEO Russ Brandon, to General Manager Doug Whaley down to head coach Doug Marrone and his staff.

And that reality seems to be affecting decision-making.

It started early in May when the Bills traded first-round draft positions with Cleveland AND sent the Browns next year’s first- and fourth-round picks to move up four spots and take Watkins.

It was an extraordinarily expensive acquisition.

And though he has exceptional skills, Watkins has now twice injured his ribs on hits  that didn’t seem excessive, raising at least some concern that he might be a bit fragile.

Even former Bills general manager Bill Polian, a fan of the former Clemson star, has pointed out that the physical nature of NFL defenses would likely affect Watkins’ game.

Then there’s the issue of backup quarterback.

Last year the Bills’ front office had plausible deniability following the career-ending concussion suffered by Kevin Kolb. Still, bringing in Thad Lewis and Matt Leinart late in preseason wasn’t pretty. The latter was axed a day after the exhibition finale and Lewis, who ended up starting five games, had to learn on the fly.

This year, though, there was no excuse.

Lewis, whom the Bills felt was their veteran backup, was awful in camp.

So, bad in fact, Marrone cut him — leaving only Manuel and undrafted free agent Jeff Tuel as the roster’s QBs — before signing journeyman Jordan Palmer.

Then, after one day’s practice, Marrone tossed him out against the Lions for three quarters and, predictably, he was terrible.

Palmer, waived the next day, was hardly the answer, but talk about setting a guy up to fail.

With virtually no preparation, he took the field with a group of offensive backups in the midst of a totally disinterested Buffalo effort.

Then, Friday night, the Bills signed Kyle Orton, the perfect veteran backup, and the next day waived Tuel, before adding him to the practice squad Sunday.

Still, Buffalo has only two quarterbacks and, if Manuel gets hurt next Sunday at Chicago, Orton will take the field with less than a full week of practice.

Speaking of risky, how about Marrone’s approach on Thursday night?

Desperate to see some encouraging production from the first-team offense, he played it the entire opening quarter.

Thus, not only did Watkins get reinjured, but also Buffalo’s starters still didn’t look good, despite playing against the Lions’ subs.

Taken collectively, it’s hard not to conclude that some of the Bills’ quizzical decisions are panic-induced.

(Chuck Pollock, the Times Herald sports editor, can be reached at cpollock@oleantimesherald.com)

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