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Bills continually plowing under bottom of roster, practice squad

By Tim Graham

To everything, churn, churn, churn ...

In hopes of maximizing personnel, the Buffalo Bills have been busy rototilling the bottom part of their roster and practice squad this fall.

Over the past nine weeks, the Bills have made 33 player transactions. Few were forced by injuries. Most were made simply to improve depth and bring aboard raw prospects.

"That's something that we're always trying to do because I believe development in this league is extremely important," Bills coach Doug Marrone said, "and that's the way that we can develop players, bringing players in and out and seeing which one sticks."

While the Bills are mathematically alive in the playoff hunt, much of the focus has shifted to player evaluation for the future. That's why veteran running back Tashard Choice was cut, and former practice-squad player Ronnie Wingo will get a look-see over the final four weeks.

Marrone said he meets "constantly" with General Manager Doug Whaley and player personnel director Jim Monos about tweaking the roster with an eye toward the future.

"That's where sometimes those guys pop, and that's where they come from," Marrone said. "I think when you look at the situation that we're in, when I think you look at salary cap, I think that there are certain positions you need to develop. If you don't develop those positions, you're going to get in trouble from a salary cap standpoint and not be the best team you can be if you're relying on paying players at the highest price to play certain positions."

As you'll see below, the Bills regard some developmental positions more prominently than others.

In the final season with GM Buddy Nix and coach Chan Gailey, the Bills made 28 practice-squad signings or releases. That total does not include players who were promoted from the practice squad to the active roster, only those who were added to the developmental squad or released outright.

After the 2012 Bills signed their eight practice-squad players at the start of the year, they didn't make another move for four weeks.

Under Whaley and Marrone, the Bills have made 25 practice-squad moves already. They've also patrolled other teams' taxi squads, plucking defensive tackle Stefan Charles and guard J.J. Unga for the 53-man roster.

After signing their original eight, the Bills made three moves in September, six in October and six in November. The Bills have made two transactions so far in December.

The Bills already have matched last year's number of practice-squad players promoted to the active roster. They've elevated five, most notably quarterback Thad Lewis.

Of last year's promotions, receiver Marcus Easley is the only one still on the active roster. Wide receiver Kevin Elliott is on injured reserve. Safety Mana Silva left the team without permission in training camp, but remains Bills property.

A breakdown of practice-squad transactions the past two years:

2012

Final practice squad: running back Zach Brown, tight end Derek Buttles, offensive lineman Andrew Jackson, tackle Adam Grant, defensive end Corbin Bryant, defensive tackle Jarron Gilbert, linebacker Brian Smith.

Total moves (not counting promotions): 28.

Moves by position: nine offensive lineman, five receiver, four defensive back, three tight end, three defensive tackle, two linebacker, one running back.

Promotions to active roster: defensive tackle Jay Ross, offensive lineman David Snow, receiver Marcus Easley, safety Mana Silva, Ross again after being cut and re-signed and receiver Kevin Elliott.

2013

Current practice squad: quarterback Dennis Dixon, receivers Cordell Roberson and Tommy Streeter, tackles Edawn Coughman and Jamaal Johnson-Webb, defensive end Ikponmwosa Igbinosun, linebacker Jacquies Smith, cornerback Mario Butler.

Total moves (not counting promotions): 25.

Moves by position: eight defensive end, five cornerback, five guard, two quarterback, two receiver, two offensive tackle, one running back.

Promotions to active roster: cornerback Johnny Adams, quarterback Thad Lewis, cornerback Brandon Smith, guard Mark Asper, running back Ronnie Wingo.

The breakdown shows the developmental emphasis shifted to defensive end, from one move last year to a team-high eight so far this year.

Also interesting is that previous Bills management didn't bother with a developmental quarterback, but the new regime has placed an importance there. Good thing, because Lewis helped the Bills remain competitive when rookie EJ Manuel missed four games with a knee injury.

Kiko Alonso first at ILB, fourth among all D-men in Pro Bowl votes

By Tim Graham

Need more proof fans are smitten with Kiko Alonso?

The Buffalo Bills' rookie leads all inside linebackers in Pro Bowl voting. He has almost twice as many votes as Luke Kuechly and more than twice the votes of Patrick Willis.

The weekly Pro Bowl update shows Alonso has 265,232 votes, more than 72,000 votes ahead of Dallas Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee in second place.

In fact, Alonso ranks fourth among all defensive players. The only defenders with more votes are Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman at 367,076, Houston Texans end J.J. Watt at 278,737 and Seahawks free safety Earl Thomas at 277,482.

Fan ballots make up one-third of the Pro Bowl selection process. Players and coaches comprise the rest.

Other Bills among the top 10 candidates in fan voting are Mario Williams (second to Watt among defensive ends), Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams (third and fourth at defensive tackle behind Dontari Poe and Jason Hatcher), Aaron Williams (sixth at strong safety), Dan Carpenter (10th at kicker) and Marcus Easley (10th among special-teamers).

Stevie Johnson, Robert Woods had 23 targets in first Jets game

By Tim Graham

The last time the Buffalo Bills played the New York Jets, quarterback EJ Manuel targeted Stevie Johnson and Robert Woods 23 times.

Johnson and Woods have been ruled out for Sunday's rematch in Ralph Wilson Stadium.

Bills coach Doug Marrone said they would go with their four healthy receivers.

T.J. Graham, Marquise Goodwin, Chris Hogan and Marcus Easley will need to pick up the slack. Goodwin is the only one of that group with a touchdown this year. Easley made his first NFL catch last week.

Tight ends Scott Chandler and Chris Gragg will be even more important. Gragg also caught his first NFL passes last Sunday, but one of them was a touchdown.

Johnson leads the Bills with 41 catches, 471 yards and three touchdowns. Woods is second among wide receivers with 26 catches, 349 yards and two touchdowns.

Stevie Johnson's chances of playing Sunday not looking good

By Jay Skurski

Stevie Johnson missed his second straight practice Thursday, putting his availability for Sunday's game against the New York Jets at Ralph Wilson Stadium in serious doubt.

"I don't feel as good about him being able to play, but I can't officially rule him out yet," coach Doug Marrone said after practice.

Johnson injured his right groin in a Week 10 loss at Pittsburgh.

Marrone said the team will not call up a receiver from the practice squad, meaning the options for EJ Manuel at the position will be T.J. Graham, Marquise Goodwin, Chris Hogan and Marcus Easley. Rookie Robert Woods has been ruled out because of an ankle injury.

Safety Da'Norris Searcy returned to practice on a limited basis today after sitting out Wednesday because of a hamstring injury.

"I have no issues there. Unless he has a setback during the week, he should be in great shape," Marrone said.

Defensive tackle Kyle Williams (Achilles) was also back as a full participant at practice today after taking his usual rest day Wednesday.

Bills getting healthy; C.J. Spiller off injury report first time in 7 weeks

By Tim Graham

The Buffalo Bills' injury report is notable for names that don't appear on it.

Only three players didn't practice today, and all of them could play Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers:

  • Wide receiver Marquise Goodwin (hamstring)
  • Wide receiver Robert Woods (ankle)
  • Defensive tackle Kyle Williams (Achilles)

Everybody else was a full participant. Nobody was listed as limited.

That means quarterback EJ Manuel, running backs C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson, receiver Stevie Johnson and defensive end Mario Williams are healthy.

Manuel has missed the past four games with a knee injury. Spiller (ankle), Jackson (knee), Johnson (hip) and Mario Williams (hip) all were listed on last week's injury report.

Today was the first time Spiller hadn't been on the injury report since before the Week Four game against the Baltimore Ravens.

"That's exciting," Marrone said. "The more we can get his hands on the ball, there's an opportunity for him to make a big play. That's something we're always striving to do."

Kyle Williams regularly sits out Wednesday's practice to cool his heels.

Goodwin and Woods are recovering from injuries suffered in Sunday's loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. Their availability is less certain.

Marrone said "I don't feel as good about Robert Woods being able to play," but said Goodwin is expected to practice some Thursday.

Woods is a versatile receiver who can play inside and outside. If Woods doesn't dress, then Chris Hogan would pick up some inside duties, and Marcus Easley could help on the outside.

Bills have attempted second-fewest kickoff returns in NFL

By Jay Skurski

Good weather early in the season and a run of kickers with strong legs have limited the Buffalo Bills' opportunities on kickoff returns.

The Bills have just four kick returns through the first five weeks of the season. Only the Atlanta Falcons, with three, have fewer attempts.

"It's definitely frustrating, but a lot of times we go into the games knowing -- based on the kicker in the past couple games, how well he's kicking the ball -- they're going to kick touchbacks," kick returner Marcus Easley said. "As far as the number of opportunities we get, they're coming few and far between. When we do, we just want to make them pay."

Easley has three of the Bills' four returns, for 55 yards, an average of 18.3 yards per attempt. Fellow receiver T.J. Graham has the other, for 19 yards. The Bills' average return of 18.5 yards ranks 31st in the NFL, ahead of only Green Bay's average of 12.1 yards on seven returned kicks.

Continue reading "Bills have attempted second-fewest kickoff returns in NFL" »

Points after: Bills 23, Ravens 20

702704 RAVENS AT BILLS MU#8

By Tim Graham

Quick highlights from the Buffalo Bills' bounce-back victory over the Baltimore Ravens in Ralph Wilson Stadium ...

What it means: The Bills are 2-2 and unbeaten outside the AFC East after upsetting the defending Super Bowl champs.

Player of the game: Starting at cornerback for the first time since last season, erstwhile safety Aaron Williams had his first two-interception game and broke up a couple more long passes. Williams left the game with an apparent shoulder injury in the second quarter but returned, then departed for good in the fourth quarter with a lower-back injury.

Play of the game: With 57 seconds to play and the Bills hanging on by their fingernails, middle linebacker Kiko Alonso got his fingers around a ball batted by safety Da'Norris Searcy. Alonso secured an interception at the Bills' 41-yard line to cement the victory.

Jackson reaches milestone: With running back C.J. Spiller hampered by another injury, Fred Jackson was his usual, reliable self. Jackson rushed 16 times for 87 yards and a touchdown. He surpassed Joe Cribbs for third place on the Bills' all-time list behind Thurman Thomas and O.J. Simpson.

Stat line of the game: Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco was 25 of 50 for 347 yards and two touchdowns but a career-worst five interceptions.

Alonso all over: Alonso became the first rookie linebacker in Bills history to snag an interception in three straight games. He's only the third Bills rookie linebacker with three in a season, joining Stew Barber in 1961 and Mike Stratton in 1962.

Stevie nearly snuffed: Bills receiver Stevie Johnson entered today's game with a 51-game reception streak, fourth-longest in club history. Johnson had one catch for minus-1 yard. But he also made a colossal play by recovering an EJ Manuel fumble deep in Buffalo territory right before the two-minute warning.

Preliminary injury report: Aaron Williams fell hard on his right shoulder while breaking up a long pass early in the second quarter. He went to the locker room early before halftime, played much of the second half but left the game again in the fourth quarter with a lower-back injury. ... Wide receiver and special-teamer Marcus Easley was sidelined in the second quarter with an apparent left ankle or foot injury but returned later in the quarter. ... A knee injury sent right guard Kraig Urbik to the locker room with 5:27 left in the first half. Urbik returned in the third quarter. ... Spiller limped off with a left ankle injury on the first possession of the second half, but came back late in the third quarter. ... Jackson removed himself from the game at the goal line with about two minutes left in the third quarter but returned to action.

Coming up: The Bills have the dreaded short week ahead. They will play the Cleveland Browns on Thursday night in FirstEnergy Stadium.

For Bills' bubble receivers, preseason finale an unfair catch

By Tim Graham

A few Buffalo Bills wide receivers went into Thursday night's preseason finale fighting for their livelihoods. They needed opportunities, as many plays as possible, quality passes to catch.

With less than eight minutes left in a 35-13 loss to the Detroit Lions in Ralph Wilson Stadium, Bills wide receivers had three catches for 12 yards.

Roster aspirants Brad Smith, Chris Hogan, Marcus Easley and Brandon Kaufman haven't had it easy. They spent the summer catching passes from two rookies and a veteran journeyman who has missed much of camp with injuries and a family funeral.

Then, with their jobs on the line Thursday night and 53-man roster cuts due at 6 p.m. Saturday, the Bills used a pair of quarterbacks who weren't on the team four days earlier.

Continue reading "For Bills' bubble receivers, preseason finale an unfair catch" »

Points after: Lions 35, Bills 13

By Tim Graham

Quick highlights from the Buffalo Bills' exhibition loss to Detroit Lions tonight in Ralph Wilson Stadium ...

What it means: On one hand, nothing. It's the preseason. But getting outscored 65-13 over a seven-quarter span could mean a little something. The Bills are trying to change a culture of losing, and with several depth players in the spotlight and fighting for jobs, few showed any life.

Matt Leinart does little: The Heisman Trophy winner looked like a quarterback who didn't know the offense. Because he didn't. He signed with the Bills four days ago. But I'm certain he hoped for better than three completions on 10 attempts for 11 yards and two interceptions that each led to a Lions touchdown one play later. He also was sacked once. His career could be over.

Down on the corners: Buffalo's cornerbacks were atrocious, leading to some gaudy stats for Detroit backups Shaun Hill and Kellen Moore. Matthew Stafford was plagued by overthrows and dropped passes, or else the score would have been more lopsided. T.J. Heath and Crezdon Butler had particularly rough performances, allowing big plays and committing penalties.

Bills star of the game: Thad Lewis didn't look too shabby for someone who just showed up. With limited knowledge of the playbook, he scrambled on just about every play. He completed seven of 16 passes for 132 yards and a long touchdown with no interceptions. He ran seven times for 51 yards.

Play of the game: Midway through the fourth quarter, wide receiver Marcus Easley got a step on a defender up the right sideline. Lewis hit Easley in stride for a 79-yard touchdown.

Unfair night for receivers: One of the most interesting battles was at wide receiver. Easley, Brad Smith, Chris Hogan and Brandon Kaufman needed opportunities, but with a pair of backup quarterbacks, there weren't many quality throws to go around. With eight minutes left in the game, Bills wide receivers had three catches for 12 yards.

Injury report: Rookie receiver Marquise Godwin left at the end of the first quarter and didn't return after getting poked in the eye. ... Hogan was hurt on the second-half kickoff. He remained down before walking off with a limp but returned to the game. ... Smith was in the locker room having his ribs checked out in the third quarter. ... Left guard Doug Legursky was carted off the field in the fourth quarter with an apparent left knee injury.

Penalty rundown: The Bills had trouble with penalties throughout the preseason. They had nine for 74 yards against the Indianapolis Colts, 14 for 106 yards against the Minnesota Vkings, seven for 38 yards against Washington and nine for 60 yards tonight.

Coming up: The Bills open their regular-season schedule Sept. 8 against the New England Patriots in Ralph Wilson Stadium.

What to look for in tonight's Lions at Bills blockbuster

By Tim Graham

Yes, that headline is sarcasm.

But as far as exhibition finales go, there's some interesting stuff to monitor.

Here are a handful of things I'll be looking for tonight, when the Buffalo Bills wrap up their preseason against the Detroit Lions in Ralph Wilson Stadium:

What in the world is going on at quarterback? We won't get any definitive answers for opening day until presumptive starter EJ Manuel's injury status is known. In the meantime, we have undrafted rookie Jeff Tuel and two guys who weren't Bills five days ago. Matt Leinart wasn't even in the league. Thad Lewis was fourth-string with Detroit. How coach Doug Marrone divvies up the reps will be interesting, especially for Leinart. The former Heisman Trophy winner might be suiting up for his final chance to stay in the NFL.

Cornerbacks in focus. Buffalo's best, Stephon Gilmore, will be out six to eight weeks after surgery to repair a broken wrist. The next-best cornerback was in disconcerting dispute when Gilmore was healthy. So now what? Leodis McKelvin would appear to have one spot cinched up, while Crezdon Butler, Justin Rogers, T.J. Heath and Ron Brooks jockey for the other assignments.

One last look at the wide receivers. It's totally unfair that players such as Brad Smith, Chris Hogan, Marcus Easley and Brandon Kaufman are down to their last audition and will have to track down passes from Leinart and Lewis. The Bills have difficult decisions to make after the top four: Stevie Johnson, T.J. Graham, Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin.

Strong undercard battle for the third running-back role. C.J. Spiller is away from the team to mourn with his family after Saturday's tragedy in Lake Butler, Fla. Fred Jackson will be preserved. That leaves beaucoup carries for Tashard Choice, Kendall Gaskins and Zach Brown. Expect the Bills to run as much as they can tonight given their quarterback situation.

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About Press Coverage

Tim Graham

Tim Graham

Tim Graham returned to The Buffalo News in 2011 after covering the NFL for three years at ESPN and for one year at the Palm Beach Post. Before that, the Cleveland native spent seven seasons on the Buffalo Sabres beat for The News and was president of the Boxing Writers Association of America.

@ByTimGraham | [email protected]


Mark Gaughan

Mark Gaughan

Buffalo native Mark Gaughan started working at The News in 1980 and has been covering the Bills exclusively since 1992. He is a former president of the Pro Football Writers of America, and he is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee.

@gggaughan | [email protected]


Jay Skurski

Jay Skurski

Jay Skurski joined The News in January 2009. The Lewiston native attended St. Francis High School before graduating from the University of South Florida. He writes a weekly Fantasy column in addition to his beat writing duties.

@JaySkurski | jskurski@[email protected]

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