At 7PM ET tonight at Ralph Wilson Stadium, the Buffalo Bills and Detroit Lions will square off in each team's fourth and final preseason game of the 2013 season. While NFL fans everywhere welcome the conclusion of the exhibition season and the arrival of meaningful football with open arms, many players on the field tonight are still fighting for the chance to be here a week from now.
Let's run through Buffalo's roster, position-by-position, to note what to watch for and which players are still in the mix for roster spots and in need of a good showing this evening.
Jeff Tuel is expected to start tonight, and as he's also looking like the Week 1 starter against New England, it'd be somewhat comforting to see a better performance than what he did last week in Washington (10-17, 63 yards). It's tough to tell exactly what the team will be able to learn about Matt Leinart and Thaddeus Lewis insofar as making final roster decisions goes, but both are expected to see playing time tonight, as well.
The battle for the third running back job wages on, with veteran Tashard Choice looking to close the door on challengers Zach Brown and Kendall Gaskins. There will be ample playing time available for all three of these runners to see significant carries if the Bills so choose.
Frank Summers and Drew Smith are vying for this job, and it's believed that Summers - an acceptable lead blocker and a solid special teams performer - has the clear advantage at the position.
Four wide receivers are fighting for two roster spots: there's a lot on the line tonight for Chris Hogan, Marcus Easley, Brad Smith and Brandon Kaufman. If Kaufman doesn't see any special teams work against Detroit, you can likely ticket him for the practice squad. If Hogan and Easley shine (or perhaps even if they don't), it could be the end of the line for Smith, pay cut and all. Luckily for all of these guys, they're going to be catching passes from quarterbacks that have been here for less than a week, so things should go very smoothly for them.
Things are still a bit murky behind the starter, where Lee Smith, Chris Gragg and Dorin Dickerson are all competing for two spots on the roster - or perhaps even one, depending on the numbers game. Gragg has logged the most playing time out of the trio by far, but Smith has been steady, and Dickerson is capable of a late charge.
The second-unit offensive line will be the focus in the trenches tonight, with as many as four of those five players making the final 53-man roster. Thomas Welch (left) and Sam Young (right) bookend that unit, and will play an awful lot against the Lions.
Playing between Welch and Young tonight will be Doug Legursky (left guard), David Snow (center) and Antoine Caldwell (right guard). Again: among Welch, Legursky, Snow, Caldwell and Young, at least three - but perhaps four - of those players will make the team.
This may be the most interesting position battle to monitor tonight, with five players competing for two or three spots behind the team's trio of starters. Jay Ross, Alan Branch and Corbin Bryant comprised the second-team defensive line in Washington, with Torell Troup and Jarron Gilbert seeing a lot of action, as well. One final strong performance could really give one or more of these players a leg up in a very heated battle.
A surprisingly strong group of pass rushers seem to have already solidified their spots on the final roster, but there's still one name to keep track of tonight: Jamaal Westerman. With Chris White traded to Detroit, the Bills may be looking for a reserve linebacker with positional versatility and special teams ability to dress on Sundays, and that could very well be Westerman.
The White trade left this position sufficiently short on numbers that the team's linebacker corps may be mostly comprised of outside 'backer, pass rushing types on opening day. Bryan Scott is a name to watch here - is there enough of a role for him in Mike Pettine's defense to justify keeping him? - and the same is true for Keith Pough, an undrafted free agent that will likely see an uptick in playing time with White on the opposite sideline.
Buffalo suddenly has a starting job open at cornerback, even though it's only for another six to eight weeks. Bills head coach Doug Marrone named Crezdon Butler, Justin Rogers and T.J. Heath by name in discussing that job earlier in the week, so those are the players to keep an eye on tonight while you continue to mourn the broken wrist of Stephon Gilmore.
Jairus Byrd probably will not play tonight, but hey - we've been surprised before. If he does suit up, he obviously bears watching. Da'Norris Searcy should be followed closely, as well, as he's had three awful preseason performances and really needs to put together a good outing to close the exhibition season.
What are you eager to keep an eye on tonight, Bills fans?