The Buffalo Bills square off against the Washington Redskins at FedExField this afternoon in each team's third 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.
Battle: Kevin Kolb will start this contest with EJ Manuel sidelined by a knee injury. Because it's the third preseason game, it's expected that the team's starters will play quite a bit - the first unit has been on the field for a full half of each of the first two preseason games, so we can reasonably expect to see Kolb play into the third quarter today. This is an extended audition for him to prove himself dependable enough to start in Week 1; if he continues to struggle the way he did against Minnesota, the team will look hard at Manuel's knee before they start game planning for September 8 against New England.
Bubble: After a hot start to the preseason, Jeff Tuel cooled off considerably when his rep count plummeted after Kolb's return. His pitch count will grow again with Manuel sidelined, and another strong performance could further his bid to make the 53-man roster as the third quarterback.
Bubble: The battle for the third running back spot is wide open, with Tashard Choice still working in ahead of Zach Brown and rookie runner Kendall Gaskins. Gaskins saw fewer reps than expected against Minnesota, so this battle may be coming down to Choice and Brown - and while Choice is still the more dependable of the two, Brown made some nice plays in space against Minnesota and could see more reps against Washington.
Bubble: It's now looking like a better bet than ever that the Bills will keep a fullback this season, and Frank Summers has taken a commanding lead on Drew Smith for that position, as he took 19 snaps to Smith's nine last week against the Vikes. Continue to monitor Summers' work on special teams, as well.
Battle: T.J. Graham will be back in the lineup today after missing the Minnesota game due to injury. Though he's unlikely to start, Graham is still competing for a major role as the third receiver in this offense - though that may be an uphill climb, considering how well Marquise Goodwin has performed this summer. Now that both Graham and Goodwin are back in the lineup together, we may start to see a bit more clarity on that third receiver position. (Then again, we might not.)
Bubble: We talked extensively about the Bills' young and talented competitors for the fifth and sixth receiving slots yesterday. Give this a read, and make sure you rifle through some of the excellent comments, as well. The names to watch: Chris Hogan, Marcus Easley, Da'Rick Rogers, Brad Smith and Brandon Kaufman.
Bubble: Injuries have made this a tremendously difficult position to read this summer. Dorin Dickerson has played well, but he's also had his reps limited as he fights through injury. Lee Smith continues to show well as a blocker, but his limitations as a receiver are very obvious in this up-tempo offense. Chris Gragg has taken a whopping 90 snaps out of necessity, but hasn't done much with the opportunities from a production standpoint. Those three players are jockeying for two spots (or perhaps even one) on the depth chart.
Battle: Bills head coach Doug Marrone mentioned earlier this week that Colin Brown has separated himself from Doug Legursky in the battle for the starting left guard job. If Brown performs well against a very good Redskins defensive front, he could have that job locked up for good heading into the final week of the preseason.
Bubble: Six players - the five starters plus the loser of the left guard battle - are the only locks for the roster. (Chris Hairston would otherwise qualify, but he remains on Active/PUP with no indications that he's closer to returning to the field.) The team will carry seven healthy linemen on the active roster on game days, so eight or nine will be on the 53-man roster. Depending on Hairston's Week 1 availability, as many as three spots could be divided up between players like Thomas Welch, Sam Young, Antoine Caldwell, David Snow and perhaps even a late riser like Zebrie Sanders.
Bubble: Big decisions are forthcoming on the defensive line, where a reserve unit of two or three players will be kept behind the team's three starters. There are a lot of contenders for those two or three spots, and many of them have performed well with varying frequencies this summer. Jay Ross, Alan Branch, Torell Troup, Corbin Bryant and Jarron Gilbert are the big names to watch here, with Ross and Branch the current favorites for the final roster.
Bubble: How many outside linebackers with rush ability will the team keep this season? Five are virtual locks (Mario Williams, Manny Lawson, Jerry Hughes, Marcus Dowtin and Jamie Blatnick), but can a sixth sneak into contention? Kourtnei Brown probably isn't in the mix due to his missing two straight preseason games (including today's) with injury, but don't sleep on a guy like Jamaal Westerman.
Bubble: With so many pass rushers vying for roster contention, it's difficult to tell how many true linebackers the team will be interested in keeping. Many are playing well this summer, but will there be enough room to keep both Bryan Scott and Chris White on the team - and can Keith Pough vault himself back into the race after injuries slowed him in camp? Again, these are difficult choices that the team is going to have to make, and that's not a bad thing for the team.
Bubble: Leodis McKelvin is working his way back into the lineup, and while he may not start today against the Redskins, it's pretty clear that the plan is for him to start in the regular season. In fact, the top three spots on the depth chart are locked down, leaving the likes of Nickell Robey, Crezdon Butler and Justin Rogers (among others, though those are the three to watch most closely) to battle for the remaining two or three spots on the team.
Bubble: Now that Jairus Byrd is back in the fold (he's unlikely to play in DC), it's only a matter of time before he walks back into the starting lineup, likely displacing third-year pro Da'Norris Searcy in the process. Can Searcy hang onto a roster spot even though the likes of Duke Williams and Jonathan Meeks are waiting in the wings, or will he slide right off the team, as WGR 550's Joe Buscaglia believes is possible? A stronger showing in coverage this afternoon could help his case tremendously.