The Buffalo Bills, building one of the deepest rosters in the NFL, were always going to have some tough decisions to make on cutdown day. As head coach Sean McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane have built up their team, former starters and roster mainstays are no longer shoe-ins to be playing on opening day. That includes current and former draft picks and a couple veterans with solid paychecks. Nowhere is that situation more apparent than in two of the most competitive units on the roster: at wide receiver, and at defensive line. When the Bills cut down for their opening-day roster, they’ll be waiving players who would be good enough to contribute to most other NFL teams.
The wide receiver pecking order is pretty neatly established from the top down. Stefon Diggs and Cole Beasley are the incumbent starters, while Emmanuel Sanders is a heady veteran who doesn’t need to prove anything beyond his productive practices. Gabriel Davis, the second-year pro on the rise, is also secure in his role.
You can probably take the penciled-in Isaiah McKenzie and write his name in pen, too. He’s an established veteran with a role in the offense, he seems to have earned the team’s trust as their primary kick returner, and he’s stepped up whenever his number is called. Against the Chicago Bears, McKenzie led the team with seven catches and 72 yards on eight targets.
From there, the Bills have to decide: Do they add a sixth receiver? A seventh? By all accounts, Jake Kumerow has led the pack through training camp. The 6’4” veteran has a size element the other receivers lack, and some savvy route running that helped in practice. That said, his preseason performances were underwhelming. He caught a touchdown against the Bears, but only caught two of five targets overall. Against the Detroit Lions, he didn’t have a catch.
Then there’s Marquez “Speedy” Stevenson, who’s been a spark plug in limited opportunities for the Bills. Against the Lions, he stacked up a defender for a 42-yard gain and set up the game-winning field goal. This week, he scored a 79-yard punt return touchdown. He’s clearly a playmaker, and he may not survive the waiver process. So do the Bills keep him? Try to put him on injured reserve, after he suffered a foot injury?
A couple other receivers still have a chance, however slim. Second-year pro Isaiah Hodgins started camp well, but has been slowed by an injury and barely played in the preseason. Duke Williams and Lance Lenoir are also in the mix, but would need a tremendous game against the Green Bay Packers to justify a roster spot.
While receiver was already a talented unit in 2020, the Bills went above and beyond in trying to induce competition in their defensive line for 2021.
Already on the roster and (pretty much) locked into place are veterans Jerry Hughes, Mario Addison, Ed Oliver, and Star Lotulelei. There’s still a small chance that someone like Addison could be cut or traded, but it sure seems like the Bills plan to keep him around as a mentor and situational pass rusher this year.
The Bills have two rookie draft picks who aren’t going anywhere. Greg Rousseau and Carlos “Boogie” Basham Jr. have each flashed talent in their own ways in the preseason, and both are secured.
Add A.J. Epenesa to the list, as well, with the edge rusher looking explosive and dangerous after reshaping his body following his rookie season.
That’s a list of seven “locks”—five DEs and two DTs. Who’s left?
At defensive tackle the best remaining candidates are Justin Zimmer, Harrison Phillips, and Vernon Butler. Zimmer has, reportedly, been having the best training camp. On tape his hustle and athletic ability are apparent in preseason games, even if the stats haven’t followed suit. Phillips has showed well in preseason games, but suffered a “minor” knee injury in the second week. Butler has the most guaranteed salary money of the group, but also had the quietest camp and preseason. So who sticks? Probably Zimmer, who’s been praised by the coaching staff and has the clearest path to the rotation. Phillips might be the next best option, but with his knee injury, do the Bills drop him onto a three-week Injured Reserve to start the season? Or maybe the Bills will roll with Butler for one more year, knowing they’ve used him in multiple positions on the line.
At defensive end, two players are making a strong push for the roster, but is there room to keep both? Efe Obada is the newcomer, an international player on the rise who had 5.5 sacks last year. His path to the roster is to show he can hold up on the defensive interior, enough to edge out a player like Butler or Zimmer. For Darryl Johnson Jr., it’s special teams, where he remains a crucial part of the unit. His pass rushing hadn’t developed to this point, although this year’s preseason games have shown flashes of talent. If the Bills don’t trust him to have a defensive impact, will his special teams work be enough to stick around?
Although Brandin Bryant has had a solid preseason, and Mike Love is in year three of standing out in training camp, no one else from this group has a serious chance for the 53-man roster. Someone may land on the practice squad, where the Bills could use their free promotions for situational reinforcements depending on the opponent.
Imagine you’re the Bills. Which receivers, and which defensive linemen, are you keeping? Who gets cut to make room for them?