Nathaniel Hackett sees more wisdom in quarterback EJ Manuel and big-play potential in Sammy Watkins. He also sees the Buffalo Bills’ offense building on the up-tempo style it established last season.
How will it all turn out? Check back in early August for a better read from training camp. But for now, hope abounds that Hackett’s attack will take a step forward in 2014.
You better believe the Bills are sticking to their fast-paced, no-huddle attack.
Reminded that Buffalo ran the third most plays in the league last season, Hackett scoffed, “Yeah, we should have run more.”
Buffalo’s 69.75 plays a game ranked behind only Denver (72.2) and New England (71.1).
“We look back at last year, and those first four games when EJ had a lot of run going on, it was awesome,” Hackett said. “We were really rolling. It’s funny. You look back on it and as the season went on, with the changes we had at that position, it slowed down.
“The better we get, the more we have of the understanding of the offense, the faster we can go.”
Manuel got injured in the fifth game of last season, and the Bills’ offense was adjusting and improvising the rest of the year.
Hackett sees Manuel demonstrating a much greater understanding of where to throw the ball this spring.
“It’s so much more fun now,” Hackett said. “Not having him as a first-year guy where you sit there and say a word to him and he goes, ‘What is that? OK, that’s what it is, now I go run that.’ Now it comes natural to him, and he can go play football. He can understand what’s happening to him, he can understand where he should go with the ball. So his advancement is growing rapidly, just even in the first couple days of practice.”
The Bills’ offense looked untidy the past two days, and Manuel’s passes hit the ground a lot on Thursday.
But the eyeball tests from spring practices have little bearing on how the team might play in September. Players are rotating in and out on offense and defense. Rookies are learning the system. The players are in shorts. Physicality means nothing. Hackett says he sees important development at QB.
“When you watch EJ last year, when he had a play that he knew, and he could see what was happening to him, and he knew where that ball was going to go, it was beautiful,” Hackett said. “If he had any doubt, it was arrgh; who knows what was going to happen?”
“Last year I’d have to go, ‘Why are you doing that?’ And he’d go, ‘What?’ Now he’s starting to correct himself. He can say I know why I was late. I know why I didn’t see it fast enough. That just needs to continue to develop.”
One certainty is the Bills need more out of their wide receivers. Buffalo ranked 31st in receptions by wideouts last season.
Hackett is excited by what Watkins, the fourth overall pick in the draft, can bring to the offense.
“He’s a guy we’ve got to get the ball to a whole bunch,” Hackett said. “Good players just naturally start getting the ball, whether you call a play for them or not. I think it just shows here in practice. It might not necessarily be his number, but EJ just naturally finds him, throws it to him earlier, he goes up and catches it.”
Hackett acknowledges that Watkins needs to work hard this summer on his route-running. The majority of his catches at Clemson last season came on receiver screens and vertical throws up the field.
“We’ll probably do that some, too,” Hackett smiled.
“I would say up to this point as a pro he’s been amazing, just the way he’s attacked this whole thing,” Hackett said. “He understands that he is a little bit behind from the route-running standpoint. He’s done a great job working hard, starting from the rookie minicamp, really throwing himself into the offense and the routes we want him to run, which are a lot of unique things he has done in the past. ... He’s got a lot of work to do from his route standpoint, which he knows.”
How will Hackett get Watkins and the rest of the Bills’ weapons enough touches?
“More plays,” he smiled. “Run a lot of plays. That’s always been my answer. The more people you’ve got, the more plays you run. That’s why I like the up-tempo stuff.”
The Bills finished a second week of spring practices Thursday.
They have four more voluntary practices set for next week, then have three mandatory practices the following week.