When the Buffalo Bills roll into FirstEnergy Stadium to take on the Cleveland Browns on Friday night, there will be plenty of players looking to make their way onto the 53-man roster. While no final decision on the roster will come for another few weeks, players who perform well in these exhibition contests can make a favorable impression on the coaching staff.
Whether due to injuries, importance, or old-fashioned intrigue, the Bills have quite a few positions up for grabs. Some of the players are fighting for time on the field, while others are fighting for a spot on the roster itself. Here are five positional groups that we’ll be watching closely as players battle for roles.
Yes, it’s obvious, but it’s also the most important battle of them all. Head coach Sean McDermott once again has not announced a starting quarterback, though AJ McCarron and Nathan Peterman continue to alternate reps with the starting unit. Rookie Josh Allen played exclusively with the third-team in Buffalo’s preseason opener against the Carolina Panthers, but he has been working with the second-team over the last week of practice. McDermott even said that it’s possible that Allen sees some time with the ones this week, which is a big change from the previous preseason tilt.
Which quarterback will draw the start this week? The easy assumption is McCarron, seeing as Peterman started the game last week; however, that’s not a certainty. Which quarterback will perform the best with his given opportunity? That’s the most important question. Hopefully, the night is full of more positive signs from Buffalo’s quarterbacks, but especially from number 17.
The starting running back is clearly LeSean McCoy, but the real battle lies with those vying to spell him during games. Chris Ivory signed this offseason, and he has been the presumed second running back due to his veteran status and his contract, which carries a nearly $2.5 million cap hit in 2018. His workload last Thursday night resembled that of a player expected to see significant time in the regular season, as he only touched the ball twice, losing 3 yards on his only carry of the game and gaining 29 yards on his only reception.
Marcus Murphy was the real standout of the group last week, as he carried the ball 7 times for 35 yards and a touchdown while also adding 4 receptions for 30 more yards against Carolina. He was easily the most productive of Buffalo’s backup runners, with undrafted free agent Keith Ford coming in second in that regard. He ran for 20 yards on 5 carries, and he also caught both of his targets for a total of 10 yards receiving on the night.
Murphy (27) and Ford (24) are the youngest running backs the Bills have in camp, and they both took advantage of their opportunities in week one of the preseason. However, veteran backs Travaris Cadet and Taiwan Jones both offer special teams versatility that Sean McDermott covets in his backups. Jones did not touch the ball on offense last week, and Cadet only managed 1 reception for 2 yards. Were they intentionally being used less in order to save them for the regular season? Or have Murphy and Ford surpassed the veterans? The running backs and their involvement in the offense will be worth watching on Friday night.
The real news here involves newcomer Corey Coleman making his debut against his former club a mere 12 days after he was traded. That alone will be worth the price of admission in a preseason game. Add to that the Bills fairly extensive injuries at the receiver position, and there is the potential for some new faces to have a big impact in this one.
Brandon Reilly hasn’t practiced since sustaining a rib injury against Carolina, so it would be surprising if he were to play in the game against Cleveland. Ray-Ray McCloud III and Kelvin Benjamin have both been limited over the last few days, and Benjamin was seen sporting a big ice pack on his surgically-repaired right knee after Wednesday’s practice session. No word has been given regarding McCloud’s injury, but he was wearing the red non-contact jersey in practice on Wednesday, and he did not participate in team drills.
Assuming that those three players are all held out, that leaves the Bills with ten healthy receivers, one of whom (Coleman) is still learning the playbook. Zay Jones has returned from his offseason knee surgery, and he is expected to make his preseason debut. Another player having a strong training camp who should be back from injury is undrafted free agent signing Cam Phillips, who suffered a groin injury prior to the game against Carolina.
Who will step up on friday night? Could UDFA Robert Foster redeem himself after struggling against Carolina? Will veterans Jeremy Kerley, Andre Holmes, and Rod Streater cement a roster spot with continue solid play? What about youngsters Austin Proehl and Malachi Dupre? There are plenty of opportunities to be had.
Similar to the running back position, we all know who the starter is, but we are watching a very interesting battle unfold for the backup spots on the depth chart. Charles Clay is the team’s starter, but it appears that second-year man Jason Croom has surpassed both Nick O’Leary and Logan Thomas on the depth chart at this time.
Croom, a former college wide receiver, converted to tight end for his senior year, and then he signed with the Bills following the 2017 NFL Draft. While he spent the majority of the 2017 season on Buffalo’s practice squad, he has been outstanding so far in camp, showing off great quickness and good hands in practice and in the preseason game against Carolina. It will be interesting to see how the Bills use him against the Browns.
It will also be interesting to see how the team uses O’Leary, the former backup to Clay who seems to have fallen out of favor with new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll. O’Leary is a solid professional who isn’t truly “great” at any one thing—check out this great analysis from Skarekrow for more—but he is good at most everything an NFL tight end has to do. He isn’t the athlete that Croom or Thomas is, but he is steady. He will need to play with some urgency, however, as it appears that his roster spot is very much in jeopardy.
I’m cheating a bit here by not specifying tackles or ends, but the defensive line is full of intrigue regarding players’ roles. With presumed starting left defensive end Trent Murphy again nursing a nagging groin injury, third-year man Shaq Lawson has had an extended audition at the spot where he started 10 games last year. His presence on the first team has given other backups, like the unheralded Mike Love, some time at the back end of the roster, and Love has made the most of it. Love had 2 tackles for loss versus Carolina last week, and another solid performance could give him a chance at making the roster.
Other under-the-radar types who made appearances in the box score with some extended opportunity included UDFA Mat Boesen and everyone’s favorite Marist Red Fox, Terrence Fede. If Murphy continues to miss time due to injury, as has been his trademark throughout his NFL career, the door remains ajar for another defensive end to sneak on to the roster.
The defensive tackle rotation has been a point of change this week as well, and it has also changed due to injury. Gone are John Hughes and Marquavious Lewis, who were replaced by Tyrunn Walker and Albert Havili. While the former is clearly a run-stuffing space eater, measuring at 6’3” and 310 pounds, the latter is built more like a defensive end at 6’2” and 255 pounds. Even free agent signee Star Lotulelei has been banged up this week. The Bills will definitely want to limit veteran Kyle Williams’s reps, which should lead to a heavy dose of Adolphus Washington, Harrison Phillips, and Rickey Hatley this week. Thanks to injuries and some shuffling, however, there is the opportunity for an unknown name to stand out this week.