When the Buffalo Bills signed Josh Scobey back on May 3, many Bills fans (including yours truly) began to toy with the idea of the team keeping four running backs on its active roster heading into the regular season. The team already had veteran Anthony Thomas - whom they had re-signed prior to the draft - and had just invested upper-round picks on Marshawn Lynch and Dwayne Wright. I count myself among the many fans who at one time felt that Scobey would have been a welcome addition to our special teams unit and likely could have stuck with the team as a fourth RB in that capacity; alas, his lingering injuries throughout training camp will likely cost him a roster spot.
But now Fred Jackson has emerged. His stellar performance throughout camp and his scintillating touchdown run in New Orleans has brought the "fourth running back" debate back into question for the Bills. It's no secret that the team has great depth at the position, but is it viable to keep four running backs on a team so desperate for depth elsewhere?
The RB Depth Chart
Let's work on the assumption that the Bills are going to keep three backs automatically - Thomas (the heady veteran), Lynch (the scintillating rookie) and Wright (a Thomas clone and favorite of the coaching staff). Who actually is Number Four, then? There are three contenders, and each of them has an argument to make.
The obvious leader at this point is Jackson, whose pre-season performances have been above-average. He looks to be a great fit in this offense as well - his receiving skills are solid, his running skills are good and he's showed promise in blitz pickup. There have been rumors that he's solid as a kick returner as well, but we have yet to see that in a game. Jackson also ran with the first unit special teams in Buffalo's pre-season opener.
Meanwhile, Shaud Williams and Scobey round out the depth chart. The coaching staff is going out of their way to get Williams reps in the pre-season at both running back and kick returner, and Williams' play has been steady. He's been able to stick with this team for a few years now, so it would not be smart to overlook Shaud at this point. Scobey has missed virtually the entire pre-season and camp schedule with injury, but he's pretty renowned for his special teams prowess. If he gets healthy quick enough, he still stands a slight chance at cracking the roster. But right now, this is Jackson's race to lose - if he ends up winning it, however, will it be enough to keep him on the team?
Depth Thin at Key Positions
The real question here is whether or not the Bills have the roster space for a fourth running back, even if we already know that Jackson is talented enough to make this team. There are four key positions at which I feel there are enough questions and depth issues to force a fourth RB off the roster. (As far as the rest of the positions go, here are the breakdowns I'm working with - 3 QB, 3 RB, 5 WR, 9 OL, 5 CB and 3 ST. That leaves 25 roster spots open with these positions.)
Tight End/H-Back: The Bills have six players to divide between these two positions. But exactly how many of those six will be split between the two positions is still up in the air. Robert Royal and Kevin Everett seem like locks for tight end, and at this point my guess is that Ryan Neufeld is a lock at H-Back due to his veteran presence and special teams ability. That leaves Brad Cieslak, Derek Schouman and Matt Murphy fighting for one or two positions there. That's a big decision to make on whether to keep four players or five, spread out over two positions.
Defensive Line: This situation is a mess. Anthony Hargrove is suspended for four games, and it's still unclear whether he'll even make the roster (though his second-team reps have me leaning toward 'yes'). With his situation, do the Bills keep five defensive ends? Aaron Schobel, Chris Kelsay and Ryan Denney are locks, and C.J. Ah You is fighting with Eric Powell for a possible fifth spot - or both could be kept with Hargrove getting released. John McCargo has also had health issues inside at tackle, so do the Bills keep Tim Anderson and Jason Jefferson as an insurance policy? This line is in a state of huge flux depth-wise.
Linebacker: Five players are locks - Angelo Crowell, Keith Ellison, Paul Posluszny, John DiGiorgio and Coy Wire. Mario Haggan, Josh Stamer and possibly Thaddaeus Washington could be duking it out for the last LB spot. Or is it the last two linebacker spots? Haggan and Stamer are both valuable special teams players, and depth isn't exactly frightening at linebacker. Do the Bills keep seven to boost depth and create continuity on special teams?
Safety: Donte Whitner, Ko Simpson, Jim Leonhard and John Wendling are probably locks for the roster. But with Whitner and Leonhard flip-flopping positions often, do the Bills want to keep a fifth safety (like they did last year) to boost depth? George Wilson's position shift has been relatively successful thus far, and rookie free agent Trevor Hooper has made a solid case for at least the practice squad as well. This may be the position that ultimately axes a fourth RB off the roster.
The Ultimate Argument
Across the four positions listed above, I have listed 18 "locks" for the final roster. That leaves seven roster positions open for, at my count, 16 players to fight for. That means nine pretty deserving players will get cut. Assuming that Jackson ends the pre-season as the #4 back, should he get cut for depth at other positions?
My short answer: no. The reason is simple - of those sixteen players fighting for their professional lives, Jackson ranks near the top in terms of just being an overall good, well-rounded football player. I've given roster spots to Haggan and Stamer in this group due to the continuity issues on special teams; other than perhaps Hargrove, Jackson is the most talented player out of the rest of this fringe group. This team needs football players, not numbers. We're still building for the future. My vote has been cast - Jackson can help us in ways other players can't. It's clear that in the end, some deserving football players may get the axe for Jackson, and we may be left short some numbers and depth at certain positions to keep him on the roster. But we need to build around football players, not numbers at each position. That's why, in the end, I believe that Fred Jackson will be a member of the final 53-man roster. Four running backs it is.