Unless an NFL coaching staff is in the first year (or two) of its current regime with their team, most NFL coaching staffs enter training camp and the pre-season with a pretty good idea of which 53 players will be on their team. Entering his fourth season at the helm of the Buffalo Bills, it's very likely that Dick Jauron and his coaching staff - most of whom have been here as long as he has - have a firm grasp on what their opening day roster will look like.
Injuries and unexpected performances obviously can change the game, but the general idea remains valid. These guys know who they'd like to go into battle with.
It's therefore unsurprising, then, that the Bills are essentially defined depth-wise at most offensive positions, as well as along the defensive line. The picture becomes much fuzzier, however, when talking about linebackers and defensive backs. The Bills have 24 players currently on their roster playing in their defensive back seven. 21 of them have very legitimate shots to make the roster.
Even breaking this down into general positions (outside linebacker, inside linebacker, cornerback, strong safety, free safety), the competition is fierce and the flexibility is envious. We've broken this down by position, and then placed every player into three categories: roster locks, in the hunt, or on the bubble.
Locks: Kawika Mitchell, Keith Ellison, Nic Harris
- Mitchell and Ellison are locked in as starters. Harris, a fifth-round pick out of Oklahoma, has had a strong camp, looked very active in the Hall of Fame Game, and is a certainty to make the team. He might be the first linebacker off the bench if either starter goes down as well.
In the Hunt: Jon Corto, Ashlee Palmer, Alvin Bowen
- Corto has made a strong impression on the coaching staff - strong enough, in fact, to make him one of a very few players that the staff might try to force onto the roster. Palmer has opened some eyes with his raw athleticism as well, but no one is sure at this point how soon he'll be available after spraining his ankle against Tennessee. Jauron confirmed Tuesday night that he'd miss at least a week. Bowen had a strong pre-season performance as well; though he had fallen behind Palmer a bit in the pecking order, Palmer's injury gives Bowen another shot to make an impact now that he'll get more reps.
Locks: Paul Posluszny
- Not a ton to add here. Pretty obvious, really.
In the Hunt: Pat Thomas, Marcus Buggs
- The beauty to these two players is that, while they've been taking middle linebacker reps pretty much exclusively throughout camp, both can play outside as well. Right now, we'd be inclined to say that Thomas is closer to making the roster than is Buggs - but Buggs has a bit more than a fighter's chance. The coaches like him, and he (as well as Thomas) give the team a boost on special teams.
So, yeah. Literally every linebacker on the roster - right now, there are nine of them - has a chance to end up on the final roster. Every single one of them. That clearly won't happen, but your guess as to which one (or two, or three) gets cut is as good as ours. Palmer's injury is very unfortunate.
Locks: Terrence McGee, Leodis McKelvin, Drayton Florence, Reggie Corner
- McGee and McKelvin are entrenched as the starters. The coaches have been very pleased with Florence; barring an injury to the veteran, the competition for the starting nickel role is all but over. Corner has had a very productive off-season to date (including a pick-six in the Hall of Fame Game), and he provides great depth and special teams ability.
In the Hunt: Ashton Youboty, Ellis Lankster
- At least one of these players will still be with the team. There's a chance both could stick. But each player is out of "lock" territory for different reasons; for Youboty, it's his injury history, and for Lankster it's his status as a vastly unproven seventh-round draft pick. Both players are obviously talented. They have some work to do, however, if they want to secure roster spots.
On the Bubble: Cary Harris, Lydell Sargeant
- Both of these rookies are listed here simply because the Bills are deep at this position. Both have talent, and the coaches obviously like both of them as well. One or both could wind up on the practice squad.
Locks: Donte Whitner, Jairus Byrd
- The safety position is wide open, folks. Whitner is the jack-of-all-trades defensive back of this team and a defensive co-captain; obviously, he stays. Byrd is a lock as well as a second-round draft pick, though as he's still recovering from sports hernia surgery and on the PUP list, questions remain as to how quickly he'll be able to contribute.
In the Hunt: Ko Simpson
- Byrd's injury has given Simpson an opportunity to take a lot of reps this pre-season, and he's been the second-team free safety throughout camp. He played well against the Titans. Depending on how the numbers game shakes out, Simpson is an experienced option with an excellent chance of making the roster - even though he's been a popular "cut" throughout the off-season.
On the Bubble: Antwain Spann
- The most Spann has done in his very short time with the team is get Dustin Fox waived. He's known for his special teams prowess, but how much of an 'in' does that give him when every safety on the roster can contribute in that area?
Locks: Bryan Scott, George Wilson
- Some may be surprised to see Wilson's name here, but you shouldn't be - Wilson was a special teams captain last year, has outstanding leadership qualities, and can contribute defensively. I wouldn't be overly shocked to see him released, mind you - that's a testament to how closely contested the safety position is right now - but Wilson has things going for him that others just don't right now. Scott continues to impress as a run defender. He can play.
In the Hunt: John Wendling
- If there's one safety that has an 'in' as a specialist, it's Wendling, who for two years has been a key centerpiece to Bobby April's coverage units. The guy simply isn't going to contribute defensively, though, which takes him out of "lock" range. The coaches love him, though. The chances that he makes the team again as a pure specialist are quite good.
We just discussed 24 football players. Only three of them have less than a fighter's chance at making the final roster. At a bare minimum, the Bills are likely going to keep 16 of these players (a minimum of six linebackers, and a minimum of ten defensive backs). Y'all can try, if you like, to pick out five names to cut. Every player here can contribute in some way. The competition is wide open. This is a good problem for the Bills' coaching staff, but they've clearly got some difficult decisions to make.