On Wednesday, the Buffalo Bills announced that they were opening the practice windows for both tight end Dawson Knox and cornerback Kaiir Elam who had been placed on the Injured Reserve (IR) list earlier this season.
Knox first injured his wrist in Buffalo’s Week 5 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars when the teams met in London. While Knox initially tried to play through the injury, after two weeks of what many considered to be subpar play the tight end decided that he would undergo surgery, which resulted in the Bills placing the fifth-year player out of Ole’ Miss on IR right before their Week 8, Thursday Night Football game with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
While a stint on in-season IR only requires that a player miss four games before a team can bring them back, the Bills opted not to bring Knox back ahead of their Week 12 game with the Philadelphia Eagles. The decision gave the 27-year-old, who signed a contract extension before the 2022 season, another two weeks of rest due to Buffalo having the Week 13 bye.
Now that Knox has started officially practicing with the team — and it is important to note that he was listed as a full participant in his first practice back yesterday — the Bills are officially on the clock. They have 21 days to add him back to their 53-man roster. While there are some very vocal members of Bills Mafia who aren’t eager to have Knox back on the field, they’re likely to be disappointed.
Knox has had some very untimely drops that have infuriated the fan base — and even had head coach Sean McDermott voicing his displeasure just days before he sent him off to IR. But he’s also had some good moments in key situations. He has the confidence of his quarterback. And he can block. He. Can. Block. Something that’s going to be key if this Bills team is going to fight to salvage a season that’s been as rocky as they come and has had them headed in every direction except straight up.
It’s unlikely that he takes receiving snap counts away from rookie tight end Dalton Kincaid, who has evolved into everything he was expected to be: a good slot receiver, with good hands, playing a key role as Allen’s release valve. But he’s also been shaken up a bit this season with a documented concussion earlier on the year, and another close call in Week 12. Having the pair of tight ends available will only benefit Allen and Buffalo’s offense, not subtract from it.
As for Kaiir Elam, whom the Bills chose in the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft, his practice window opened at the same time as Knox’s despite being placed on IR a week later. Elam has had a rough second season, moving from starting his rooking year splitting time with cornerback Christian Benford in 2022 — when both filled in for cornerback Tre’Davious White who was still recovering from ACL surgery — to being third on the depth chart this season.
Elam was thought to be a healthy scratch for much of the start of 2023, which, again, infuriated some of the more vocal members of Bills Mafia. However, in what appeared to be a surprise, Buffalo announced on November 2 that they were shutting the second-year cornerback down as he had been struggling and couldn’t seem to shake a nagging ankle injury. Was that why Elam had lost a step? Was that why he seemed to be falling farther and farther behind Benford? Was that why, when White was lost for the second year in a row, it was cornerback Dane Jackson who got the nod to start and not Elam? No one said so. But they also didn’t say otherwise.
While Knox’s return to the team seems to be inevitable, Elam’s path isn’t so clear. In his absence, cornerback Rasul Douglas has emerged as the latest “great” signing with general manager Brandon Beane having snagged the 29-year-old from the Green Bay Packers right at the trade deadline. With Elam gone, Douglas has teamed with Benford as the starting cornerback combination and Jackson has gone back to being a depth player along with defensive backs Cam Lewis and Siran Neal — none of whom are likely to lose their roster spots due to experience and versatility. However, Elam isn’t going to be cut either because he’s a first-round draft pick, and the Bills have too much capital invested in him.
So, what now then? Buffalo has 20 more days to figure that out. Should they not do anything with one/both of Knox and Elam, then they are ineligible to play for the remainder of the season as well as any postseason games Buffalo is in. Simple as that.
But, the Bills could decide that they need them back on the roster — in Week 11, the Bills lost safety Taylor Rapp, Dane Jackson, and nickel cornerback Taron Johnson all within minutes of each other. Only Johnson made it back in time for Week 12. Buffalo was literally out of backups. Everyone was in the game plan — Neal in for Johnson, safety Damar Hamlin in for Rapp, and Lewis in for Jackson.
So, there’s a strong possibility that both Knox and Elam are activated. But that means a couple of other guys have to go. Buffalo’s active roster is already full. Kincaid and fellow tight end Quintin Morris are safe. To make room for Knox, someone else has to go. Wide receiver Deonte Harty who has only been used on special teams and was a healthy scratch in Buffalo’s last game? The speedy return man hasn’t found much room to run, and therefore doesn’t appear to have found any favor with McDermott. Offensive tackle Germain Ifedi who has been a healthy scratch every game this season? It’s reasonable to think that they try to sign the eight-year veteran tackle to the practice squad for insurance.
In Elam’s case, if the Bills are bringing him back it’s purely for depth at a position that they seem to keep struggling with health. That means every cornerback on the roster is safe. So then who? Defensive tackle Poona Ford, who’s been active in just three games this season and recently mentioned that he had hoped to be more of a factor in Buffalo, and has struggled with his role this season? Or defensive end Kingsley Jonathan, who has also been more out of uniform than in this season? But Buffalo didn’t seem ready to lose him to waivers early this season like they did last year, resulting in the second-year D-lineman being added to the 53-man roster in the first place.
Twenty days. We will know in 20 days. Or less, because Sean McDermott used his classic “one day at a time” refrain to describe how they’re handling the situation and evaluating when to bring either Knox and/or Elam back. Experience tells us that means absolutely nothing. They could play in Kansas City on Sunday when the Bills face the reigning Super Bowl champions — or not until next season. McDermott’s choice of words intentionally leaves every option on the table. So, until then, go ahead and debate who should stay and who should go. It’s anyone’s guess at this point.