New-look Buffalo Bills still a work in progress

Bills rookie coach Doug Marrone understood he was in for a long

day, when stepping to the podium with a long list of unsettling

news to deliver to open this week.

”All right,” Marrone said, Monday, ”I know we have a lot of

questions.”

That’s nothing new in Buffalo, for a team that’s not made the

playoffs in 13 seasons. Less than two weeks before the opener

against New England, the Bills find themselves in midseason form

when it comes to facing adversity.

Their top two quarterbacks – rookie EJ Manuel and veteran Kevin

Kolb – are hurt. That leaves open the possibility of undrafted

rookie Jeff Tuel starting the season.

Top cornerback Stephon Gilmore will miss six to eight weeks with

a broken wrist.

And don’t forget safety Jairus Byrd, who signed his franchise

tender last week. The two-time Pro Bowl player doesn’t expect to be

entirely ready for the start of the season.

These are sobering reminders for a team on its sixth coach since

2000.

”In addressing the adversity situations, I think we’re fine,”

Marrone said. ”As far as what we need to do to become a better

team, we still have work to do, and it’s a work in progress.”

Receiver Stevie Johnson remains confident.

”All the worry is coming from the outside,” Johnson said.

”But it’s not as bad as it looks.”

That remains to be seen.

Here are five things to watch for the Bills, who haven’t enjoyed

a winning finish since going 9-7 in 2004:

TUEL TIME? Tuel wasn’t part of the conversation when Marrone

opened training camp saying he intended to have a starting

quarterback in place within 10 days of the opener. The competition

for the job was supposed to involve Manuel, the only quarterback

drafted in the first round, and Kolb, a free-agent addition.

Turns out, it could be Tuel, the Washington State product who is

in position to become the NFL’s first undrafted quarterback to

start in Week 1 directly out of college.

Manuel, who hasn’t been entirely ruled out, has yet to be

cleared for practice. Kolb is out indefinitely.

The Bills scrambled to bring in reinforcements by signing 2004

Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart and acquiring Thaddeus Lewis in

a trade with Detroit.

Manuel, however, is the team’s future, being asked to fill a

position that’s been unsettled since Hall of Famer Jim Kelly

retired.

When healthy, Manuel showed encouraging signs in training camp

and two preseason games of being capable of running the offense.

He’s yet to prove himself consistently against opposing first-team

defenses.

SPEED AT WR: Second-year receiver T.J. Graham, along with

rookies Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin, have shown flashes of

their potential in filling the three spots behind returning starter

Stevie Johnson.

Graham and Goodwin have each caught numerous deep passes in

camp, showing they have the speed to beat most defenders. And

Woods, a second-round pick, has shown ability to play both outside

and in the slot.

Add in Manuel’s strong arm, and the Bills have the potential of

introducing a deep-passing dimension to what’s previously been a

popgun attack.

THIN AT CB: Gilmore’s injury underscores the lack of experienced

depth the Bills have at cornerback.

Leodis McKelvin, who’s had difficulty keeping a starting job

over five years in Buffalo, will now be responsible for covering

opponents’ top receivers. The No. 2 and nickel spots are up for

grabs between third-year players Justin Rogers and Crezdon Butler,

and second-year players Ron Brooks and T.J. Heath.

The four have combined for three starts and one interception

(Rogers) in 41 NFL career games.

The Bills front-office, now headed by rookie GM Doug Whaley, is

open to being second-guessed for failing to add a veteran or two

after cornerback Terrence McGee retired and safety George Wilson

was not re-signed this offseason.

UNHAPPY BYRD: Byrd has finally returned to practice field, but

he’s not entirely happy about being back in Buffalo.

The 2009 second-round pick hinted at being disappointed that the

Bills prevented him from testing free agency, and then failed to

reach a long-term deal before a July 15 deadline. Byrd has declined

to say whether he’s asked for a trade. He’s also unsure how long it

will take for him to get accustomed to the new defense being

installed by coordinator Mike Pettine.

SUPER MARIO: The Bills need DE Mario Williams to start playing

to his $100 million potential following an inconsistent first

season in Buffalo.

The veteran free-agent addition led Buffalo with 10 1/2 sacks,

but his performance was hampered in the first half of the season

because of a left wrist injury that was surgically repaired in late

October.

Williams opened training camp complaining of a sore left foot,

which forced him to miss the first week of practice.

AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org