Good teams don’t have as many structured position battles as bad teams.
Good teams don’t have quarterback competitions because they already have an established high-level quarterback. They definitely don’t have three-way quarterback competitions. So while coaches will trot out the “competition every day,” “iron sharpens iron,” and “play the best man” tropes, the more good players a team has, the fewer question marks exist on the depth chart of that team.
Though it’s true the 2023 Buffalo Bills don’t have training camp positional battles around every corner, that means the fans can be more hyper-focused on the few that do exist. “Recent draft picks versus more established veterans” is a common theme amongst the training camp battles that will wage throughout camp and the preseason, and we’re going to rank the positional battles to keep an eye on from least interesting to most interesting.
“Interesting” is a completely subjective term defined only through the shims of the author, so feel free to chime in with your list in the comments below!
Kind of boring: James Cook vs. Damien Harris
The reason this “battle” is the least interesting to me attacks from multiple angles: first, it feels likely that there will be a meaningful timeshare regardless of who is listed at the top of the depth chart. Head coach Sean McDermott has gone on record as stating that it’s not good for one back to carry the load, and his actions have consistently reflected that philosophy. Even when a young Devin Singletary was consistently outperforming Frank Gore, McDermott defended the use of multiple backs in a multi-faceted backfield. Second, I think the presence of Latavius Murray could throw a wrench into the idea of it even being a two-man backfield. Murray had a strong season last year for the Denver Broncos and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Bills found a way to keep him on the final 53-man roster and bring the final total to five running backs, further diminishing the “Cook vs. Harris” battle and making the discussion more about who is active on game days and for what purpose.
I’m listening: O’Cyrus Torrence vs. Ryan Bates
The high likelihood is that Torrence will get an opportunity to start. Teams don’t take players in the second round that they then don’t play, and offensive line isn’t a rotational position (usually). So the question becomes more about when Torrence will get the nod and less about if, which makes it less interesting than other battles. Ryan Bates’ contract isn’t prohibitive to have as a “first man up” off the bench and his positional versatility makes it even more feasible.
The most interesting part of this battle is the tonal and stylistic shift that comes from taking out Bates (an athletic, movement player with good positional blocking) with Torrence (a 330-pound mauler with 33.8” arms). That type of stylistic swing from one player to another can alter the way you want to call plays in both the running and passing game, so the timing of the move, whenever it happens, makes it a competition worth keeping and eye out for its trickle effect.
Single eyebrow raising: Deonte Harty vs. Khalil Shakir
Shakir, the fifth-round pick out of Boise State in 2022, showed promise with his few targets last season and would have probably been the heavy favorite for the job if not for the free-agency signing of former New Orleans Saints wide receiver Deonte Harty. The speed at which the Bills signed Harty, who I thought might have been a second-wave free agency signing, could mean their interest in him as a starting player in 11 personnel is real — and the advanced metrics (albeit in a very limited sample size) for the former Saints speedster are incredibly efficient. Whether Harty is a hedge against a lack of growth from Shakir or whether he’s a targeted player the Bills believe can be a weapon for them, should reveal itself early in camp and through his usage in the preseason.
It’s a more interesting battle than at guard because the team can very well rotate the position heavily, which adds to the intrigue and lends itself to “who is really the Bills No. 1 slot receiver” question persisting even into the regular season.
Double eyebrow raising: A.J. Klein vs. Terrel Bernard vs. Dorian Williams vs. Tyrell Dodson vs. Baylon Spector
I think the wrestling fans call this a “fatal five-way.” That by itself makes it interesting.
No positional competition holds up to a five-man competition for more than a few days, so I would anticipate that in the first couple days of summer practice, we’ll have a short list of two of three names that are legitimately competing for the starting Mike linebacker role vacated by former Bills first-round pick Tremaine Edmunds. The Bills have been their typically cryptic and non-committal selves regarding 2023 third-round pick Dorian Williams, with questions about whether he’s part of this competition swirling from draft night all the way until the end of mandatory minicamp. My opinion is that 2022 third-round pick Terrel Bernard will be given every opportunity to prove he can be the answer for this year, while A.J. Klein and Tyrell Dodson provide the higher floor veteran fallback option in case it doesn’t work out.
It feels likely that this competition will be strung out through the preseason and we’ll be tracking preseason game snaps to try and get a leg up on who’ll be out there next to Matt Milano on the first play of the 2023 regular season against the New York Jets.
Head tilt, audible “oh”: Dane Jackson vs. Christian Benford vs. Kaiir Elam
First-round pick versus late-round surprise versus trusted veteran.
The rock, paper, scissors of training camp competitions. Perfectly balanced (as all things should be) to have storylines abound daily. If Elam doesn’t win the job, questions about his worthiness of a first-round pick will be loud. If Benford or Elam win it, the viability of Jackson as a trade piece will start to generate articles. If Jackson wins it, there will be discussions on how different the defense can truly be under McDermott as the play caller if the personnel at corner is identical to previous years.
You add to this the intrinsically volatile nature of the cornerback position, the limited sample size you’ll see on targets during the preseason, and the presence of a defensive secondary-inclined head coach-turned play caller, and you have a recipe for the most interesting training camp positional battle of 2023 for the Buffalo Bills.
...and that’s the way the cookie crumbles. I’m Bruce Nolan with Buffalo Rumblings. You can find me on Twitter, Instagram, and Threads @BruceExclusive and look for new episodes of “The Bruce Exclusive” every Thursday on the Buffalo Rumblings podcast network!