The Buffalo Bills are coming off of their most successful season in 27 years, and they brought back most of their players from last year’s squad that went 13-3, won the AFC East and advanced into the AFC Championship for the first time since 1993.
Competition for spots on the 53-man roster will be stiff when training camp opens on Wednesday at the team’s training facilities in Orchard Park. Each year, training camp battles afford an opportunity for veterans to claim (or lose) a starting role, and for rookies to lock down a spot on the active roster.
Which Bills have the most to gain during this critical time? Here’s one writer’s thoughts on five players who could rise up and take advantage of training camp. Feel free to leave your thoughts and comments below.
Dane Jackson, CB
It’s one of the annual rites of training camp: can anyone unseat incumbent CB2 Levi Wallace? This year, second-year pro Dane Jackson gets a crack at taking Wallace’s starting right cornerback job opposite All-Pro cornerback Tre’Davious White. According to media reports this spring, Jackson has been showcasing his skills and holding his own while covering Buffalo’s talented wide receivers. In limited action during his rookie season, the seventh-round selection out of Pittsburgh showed flashes of his potential: he broke up five passes, came up with one interception, recorded 15 tackles and had one fumble recovery in five games. Jackson plays a physical style of cover defense for someone his size (5’11”) and he’s not afraid to mix it up with the taller wideouts. He has an excellent nose for the football and has the potential to contribute both inside and outside. A strong showing at camp could push Jackson to the CB2 job.
Isaiah Hodgins, WR
What’s scary for the rest of the NFL is the impact Isaiah Hodgins could have on Buffalo’s already prolific offense. After scoring a franchise record 501 points, All-Pro quarterback Josh Allen can add Hodgins, who was placed on the injured reserve following a terrific training camp last year, into the fold as the big, physical threat the wide receiver corps was missing last year. Listed at 6’3”, Hodgins—Buffalo’s sixth-round selection in 2020—is the second-tallest receiver on the roster, and he possesses a reliable set of hands that rarely drop the football. A quick learner, Hodgins reportedly mastered Buffalo’s playbook, and his ability to high-point the ball and come down with the catch should prove to be a tremendous asset to Allen and Buffalo’s offense. A sharp, crisp route runner, Hodgins could add another dimension to the aerial attack, and he already turned heads with his play both last offseason and this spring.
A.J. Epenesa, DE
The Bills drafted Greg Rousseau in the first round and nabbed Carlos “Boogie” Basham Jr. in the second round. So where does that leave A.J. Epenesa, last year’s second-round pick? After missing out on rookie minicamps and spring practices due to COVID-19 protocols, Epenesa’s career in Buffalo got off to a slow start, but as the year progressed his playing time went in the right direction. Defensive coordinator/assistant head coach Leslie Frazier and head coach Sean McDermott seemed pleased with Epenesa’s play, even if the stats were less than impressive—14 tackles (three for a loss) with four QB hits, one sack and one pass breakup—over 14 games. The Bills didn’t do Epenesa any favors, asking him to trim down, and it affected his ability to disrupt plays. Epenesa added back the weight he lost last year, which should help him revert back to his quick and effective power rushing days at Iowa.
Ike Boettger, G
Everyone wants to anoint Cody Ford as the starter at left guard, but while Ford earned the reputation as a mauler coming out of the University of Oklahoma, his NFL career has been riddled with injuries and inconsistent play. In 2020, Ike Boettger provided consistency and reliability to a much-maligned offensive line, giving Allen time to hit the open receiver. Boettger took over for Ford in the starting lineup when Ford wound up on injured reserve due to a meniscus tear, and his steady play (zero sacks allowed and only three penalties committed in 12 games) caught the attention of his teammates and coaches. Boettger was especially proficient as a pass blocker but needs to improve at opening up holes for the running game. There’s no doubt Ford is more talented, but Boettger—a former undrafted free agent—performed admirably in his first time as a starter and will make Ford earn the starting role in 2021.
Jaquan Johnson, S
The Bills losing safety Dean Marlowe to the Detroit Lions was a significant departure for Frazier’s defense. While Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer form one of the best (if not THE best) safety tandems in the NFL, the loss of Marlowe means Buffalo’s young and inexperienced safeties serving as backups to Hyde and Poyer have zero combined starts. Enter Jaquan Johnson, who has already shown his worth as a key player on Heath Farwell’s special teams unit and as a safety in practice. In limited playing time (102 career defensive snaps), Johnson—a 2019 sixth-round selection—has displayed athleticism, instincts and ball skills. Even though he profiles more as a free safety backing up Hyde, a strong showing from Johnson would secure his place as both Hyde and Poyer’s backup as the third safety. A lackluster performance and the Bills could be forced to turn to a rookie (Damar Hamlin?) or bring in a veteran.