The Buffalo Bills are finally back to football, as they meet the Colts tonight at 7 in their first tune-up for the regular season. The game will be sloppy and barely feature the starters, but that’s preseason football for you. Here’s what we’ll be watching to keep our interest sustained through the game:
How do EJ Manuel and Cardale Jones perform?
As the starter, recently signed to a pricey new contract, Tyrod Taylor will be protected in this one. He shouldn’t expect to play more than a few drives. Manuel will likely play out the rest of the first half, and Jones will be gifted the majority of the second half.
With the established pecking order at quarterback, the burden of expectations has mostly been lifted from Manuel. He hasn’t yet lived up to the billing of potential that got him selected in the first round, but at least his team has found a starter, allowing Manuel to develop his craft from the bench. Now a year in with Greg Roman’s system, the expectation is that Manuel will be comfortable reading the field and making decisions or have a more consistent set of throwing mechanics.
For Jones, there are even fewer expectations. We just want to see him go out and sling the ball. He has an outstanding arm, but it would be nice to see if he’s able to dial it in on those difficult throws. As a 6’5” 250 pound bulldozer, it would also be nice to see him knock some dudes over in the running game.
Which receivers stand out?
Much like last year, the Bills have a group of wide receivers who have been impressing during training camp. Preseason games will be a serious opportunity for these players to earn a roster spot, especially with Sammy Watkins being protected until the season begins.
Marquise Goodwin appears to have a strong claim on the number three spot, and the coaches have begun experimenting with moving Robert Woods to the slot to allow Goodwin room on the outside. The key, as always: Can he stay healthy?
Greg Salas, Greg Little, Dezmin Lewis, and Walt Powell have all stood out at times in camp. Lewis may or may not play after his violent collision with Aaron Williams in Thursday’s walk-through, but any one of these players can secure a role on the roster with some memorable routes, beginning tonight.
For Jarrett Boykin, Leonard Hankerson, and Kolby Listenbee (who won’t be playing tonight), they’re on the outside looking in. They need a big catch to remind the coaches that they deserve more reps.
What do the Bills do at linebacker?
The coaching staff continues their love affair with IK Enemkpali despite underwhelming practices; perhaps out of necessity due to the injury situation there. Will one of the young backups like Max Valles or Eric Striker stand out with his reps? Or is the team going to keep treading water with the status quo?
On the inside, we want to be reassured by the first results of the Brown-Brown pairing. It would also be nice if Brandon Spikes looked to still be in form after his year of absence from the game.
What is the defensive line rotation?
All through training camp, Adolphus Washington has been the starter at “defensive end” for the Bills, and they listed him as such in their initial depth chart. It’s not an easy job to hand to a third round rookie, but it may be out of necessity - only Leger Douzable is listed as his backup at the moment. The team started experimenting with using Corbin Bryant in Washington’s place at recent practices, and will this continue tonight? For those of us who haven’t been at camp, it’s also the first chance to see how Justin Zimmer plays against other NFL bodies. The rookie has plenty of athleticism, but he hasn’t convinced the coaching staff of anything yet.
Will special teams be alright?
Last year’s teams unit was rather disappointing, but Dan Carpenter has been on fire through training camp, succeeding on 30 out of 32 field goal attempts. With a new touchback rule in place, the team will be experimenting with placing kickoffs, and this game may reveal if Jordan Gay is going to keep his roster spot in 2016. Finally, last year’s returners performed awfully. With luck, Reggie Bush or Kevon Seymour will be able to deliver some pizzazz to the unit.