Bills vs. Vikings: position, roster bubble battles to monitor

Michael Hickey

Starting jobs, prominent roles and roster spots will be up for grabs for roughly 38 Buffalo Bills players when they take the field against the Minnesota Vikings this evening.

The Buffalo Bills square off against the Minnesota Vikings at Ralph Wilson Stadium tonight in each team's second preseason game of the year. There is plenty to keep track of regarding the Bills' various position battles - starting jobs, major roles and back-of-the-roster spots are all up for grabs - and this is your comprehensive list of what to watch for this evening.

Quarterback

Battle: Kevin Kolb gets the start tonight, less than a week after EJ Manuel did the same against Indianapolis. Manuel remains in the lead for the starting quarterback job, but if Kolb can turn a strong week of practice into a sterling performance tonight, things will be much more interesting heading into the all-important third preseason game next week in Washington.

Bubble: It's not clear how much he'll play with Kolb back in the lineup, but Jeff Tuel will look to continue to ride the momentum he established last week in his bid to convince the Bills that he's worth keeping around as the third quarterback.

Running Back

Bubble: The battle for the third running back job remains wide open, with veteran Tashard Choice looking to stave off youngsters Zach Brown and Kendall Gaskins for the job. If you watch (or listen to) the entire game tonight, you're likely to hear these three names quite a bit.

Fullback

Bubble: Keep an eye on how much the fullback position is used tonight, because it was used a surprising amount of time in Indianapolis. The more that Nathaniel Hackett incorporates this position into the offense, the better the chances that players like Frank Summers and Drew Smith are of making the team - and they'll factor into that third running back race more, as well.

Wide Receiver

Battle: With two prominent players (Stevie Johnson and T.J. Graham) sitting this one out, rookies Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin will be the top two receivers on the depth chart tonight. Keep an eye in particular on Goodwin, the electrifying kick returner that has been the team's most consistent playmaker throughout training camp. He has a chance to lock down a significant role on offense if he continues that play into preseason action at receiver.

Bubble: We'll see a lot of receivers slide up the depth chart with Johnson and Graham out (and Brad Smith may not play, either). The names to watch: Chris Hogan is likely to see a lot of first-team snaps, while Marcus Easley will try to continue his momentum from a strong showing in Indianapolis, as well. Da'Rick Rogers will need to show better in his bid to make the roster, the underrated Kevin Elliott is back in the lineup, and Brandon Kaufman will look to continue to make plays with the threes, as well. This position is deep, and tonight's the night for some of these young players to separate themselves from their peers.

Tight End

Bubble: The starting job is settled, but it's wide open after that. Lee Smith, Chris Gragg and Dorin Dickerson are duking it out for one to two reserve spots. Keep an eye on how much Smith, the blocking specialist, plays. Gragg and Dickerson are similar athletes, and while Gragg was a draft pick of this regime (and has had some good moments in camp), Dickerson will try to build some momentum off of last week's touchdown from Manuel.

Offensive Line

Battle: Colin Brown got the start at left guard in Indianapolis, and he's taken first-team reps there ever since in practice. Unless the team is planning on giving Doug Legursky the same fair shot to start with the ones as they're giving Kolb at quarterback, it's looking like Brown may start there again tonight - and if he does and plays well, the starting job may be his.

Bubble: Buffalo will keep at least three reserve linemen - but four is more likely, particularly if reserve players show well to close out the preseason. The loser of the left guard battle will be one, and another spot will be reserved for Chris Hairston when he returns from PUP. The names to watch for the remaining one or two spots: tackles Thomas Welch and Sam Young, as well as veteran guard Antoine Caldwell, who played a lot in Indy.

Defensive Line

Bubble: The starting trio appears to be set in stone, but after that things are a bit muddled. There are five players that Bills fans should be watching closely up front: Jay Ross, Alan Branch, Torell Troup, Corbin Bryant and Jarron Gilbert. All have their merits and have had their moments in camp, but the Bills will be looking for one to step up and really play consistently well to win a reserve spot. Ross appears the safest bet for the roster at this point.

Pass Rusher

Battle: It will be interesting to see whether or not Jerry Hughes or Jamie Blatnick emerges as the top pass-rushing specialist on this team. Both have worked with the first-team defense in camp (though Hughes has done it much more), and both have given linemen headaches with their ability to knife into the backfield this summer. Both of these players look like they'll be on the 53-man roster, but is there room enough in Mike Pettine's defense to be factors on regular season Sundays?

Bubble: While we're at it, Kourtnei Brown has had his moments in camp, as well - though he may not play tonight due to injury. And don't forget about the recently signed Jamaal Westerman, either; he has multiple years of experience playing in Pettine's defense, has some versatility, and can play special teams. He's a dark horse candidate to snag a last-minute spot on the 53-man roster despite being signed just this week.

Linebacker

Bubble: A strong camp in general for the players at this position has alleviated some fears - not to mention solidified the top end of the depth chart - but there are questions about the back end of the roster here. Chris White has shown well as a reserve linebacker and is the team's best special teams player; could he make a guy like veteran coverage specialist Bryan Scott expendable? Keep an eye on both of these players tonight.

Cornerback

Bubble: The top three spots on the depth chart are settled, but it's a mess once you get past Stephon Gilmore, Leodis McKelvin (who remains injured) and Ron Brooks. Ideally, the Bills will like their young players at this position enough to keep six corners in Pettine's defensive back-heavy attack - but these players have struggled mightily throughout camp. Of the team's current crop of players, Justin Rogers (just returned to the lineup from a hamstring injury), Nickell Robey and Crezdon Butler are the names to watch. Butler had a strong game in Indy and has spent time with the first-team defense this week, while Robey is a player that the coaches are high on.

Safety

There actually isn't much to track here. The pecking order of personnel currently in the building is essentially set - Aaron Williams, Da'Norris Searcy, Duke Williams and Jonathan Meeks are the guys - and the only question is how the pending arrival of Jairus Byrd, whenever that happens, affects how many safeties the Bills keep on the 53-man roster to start the season. The timing of Byrd's arrival is the real story here; for now, the players on hand will just focus on getting better.

Kicker

Battle: Dustin Hopkins, a rookie sixth-round pick, remains the strong favorite to unseat veteran Rian Lindell, who has been the Bills' kicker for the past decade. If you haven't seen either kick yet, you'll note Hopkins' superior leg strength this evening. But Lindell is trying to win a roster spot based on consistency, and if Hopkins struggles in that area tonight, Lindell's case strengthens.

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