The Buffalo Bills will wrap up their preseason schedule this afternoon in a matchup versus the Chicago Bears. This will be the last chance for the players on the roster bubble to make their case for the final 53-man roster. Not only is this game important for the end-of-the-roster players, but it could be the deciding factor of who emerges as the winner of some of the position battles currently taking place. Here’s what to keep an eye out for in Buffalo’s last tune-up before the big show starts.
More action for the starters
In somewhat of a surprising decision, head coach Sean McDermott announced that the starters will in fact play in the final preseason game. Obviously, the Bills run the risk of injury when trotting their starters out there in the preseason, but if we think about it logically, it’s not all that different from what NFL teams have typically done in the past. As you may know, last year the NFL shortened the preseason from four games to three games. The preseason game that they “took away” is actually the fourth preseason game (so in the old format the Bills would have another preseason game next week). Typically, when there were four preseason games, teams would play their starters in Week 3, just like they’re doing this week. So it isn’t all that different — Buffalo’s starters will still have plenty of time (over two weeks) to rest or heal up before the season opener on September 11. If I had to guess, the starters might see about one-quarter’s worth of action.
There are still ongoing position battles that have yet to be played out. Here’s where they sit:
O’Cyrus Torrence seems to have right guard firmly in his grasp. He has started each of the first two preseason games, and I would expect him to do the same this week. I don’t think his “competitor” Ryan Bates has played poorly, I just think Buffalo values his positional flexibility more than they value him as a starting right guard.
Dane Jackson won’t give this position away, it needs to be taken from him, and that just hasn’t happened yet. Former first-round pick Kaiir Elam hasn’t even really made it close this preseason. The other horse in this race is Christian Benford, and he seems to be the dark horse to challenge Jackson. As much as it hurts me to say this, I think the current rankings might be Jackson, Benford, and Elam. I suspect we’ll get a heavy dose of Elam and Benford in the third preseason game.
This position battle is the toughest to predict, but I think the Bills might end up going with Tyrel Dodson by default. They’re clearly looking for more out of the position, but no one has taken the reigns. Terrel Bernard missed some time with an injury and I don’t think he’s quite ready. Rookie Dorian Williams has looked solid but I don’t believe they want to rush him into a MLB role yet. Baylon Spector has fallen off and will likely be relegated to a special teams role. Do the Bills really need to turn to 10-year veteran A.J. Klein for their starting MLB? I’m not sure of that answer, but the big hole left by Tremaine Edmunds is still looming in the middle of Buffalo’s defense.
It seems as if the kickoff return man will be almost irrelevant with the new fair catch rule the NFL implemented for the 2023 season. Regardless, this “returner” position may be the difference in who makes the final roster. Could this be Andy Isabella’s chance to make the roster? He has taken some reps on kickoff returns, as well as running back Jordan Mims. Deonte Harty seems to be the man for the job as punt returner, but the Bills have also tried various other receivers in that spot. This week, pay attention to who’s returning the punts and kickoffs. It may be an indicator of who will end up making the final roster.
Lots of action for depth WRs
The Bills have a gluttony of WRs on the bottom of their depth chart, and I would expect them to get a bunch of playing time on Saturday. Buffalo needs to figure out if they are keeping six or seven WRs on the final roster. The way I see it, the Bills should end up keeping six WRs on their roster: Diggs, Davis, Harty, Sherfield, Shakir, and Shorter (especially after his nice performance in Week 2). The question remains if Buffalo wants to keep a seventh WR. The deciding factor will be... (you guessed it)... special teams! As I mentioned above, the returner roles could play a factor in this decision. However, Buffalo will already have four WRs likely contributing on special teams: Harty (returner), Sherfield (punt & kickoff coverage), Shakir (punt & kickoff coverage, backup returner), and Shorter (punt & kickoff coverage). I’m not sure how this will affect a decision by head coach Sean McDermott or general manager Brandon Beane, but it might be another reason they could afford to keep the flavor of the month, Andy Isabella, on the roster.
Allen (not Josh) vs. Barkley
I still think Kyle Allen will be the backup to Josh Allen to start the season. Even though Matt Barkley had his shining moment in the first preseason game, he has still been in Buffalo’s building for a while now and they already know what he can do. I’d expect to see Kyle Allen get a majority of the reps as QB2 in the final preseason game.
Roster bubble players to watch
Alex Austin, CB (#29)
Austin was Buffalo's final draft pick in the seventh round of this year's NFL Draft. I was impressed with Austin’s skill set coming out of the draft and was happy to see the Bills take a late-round flyer on him. Austin has played well this preseason and has had a few really nice tackles in run support. Austin’s most likely destination is the practice squad, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he got picked up by another team if the Bills decide to put him there. The Bills have been particularly good in the “McBeane era” of finding talented DBs late in the draft, and Austin could be the next player in that pipeline.
Kameron Cline, DE (#96)
Cline has popped off the screen a few times this preseason. After spending time on the Bills practice squad last season, Cline is pushing the envelope to earn a roster spot in a very deep defensive line room.
Ryan Van Demark, OT (#74)
Van Demark has turned in a solid showing thus far and looks to continue to keep the positive vibes going this week. Buffalo’s offensive tackle depth chart is far from finalized. If Van Demark proves solid for the third week in a row, I wouldn’t be surprised to see his name on the final roster.
Andy Isabella, WR (#87)
The preseason darling for Bills Mafia. I talked about Isabella earlier and it basically comes down to whether Buffalo wants to keep seven WRs or not. A strong performance on Saturday would go a long way for Isabella. Kahlil Shakir’s rib injury is something to monitor. If Shakir needs to be sidelined for an extended period of time and put on Injured Reserve, Isabella might be on the roster as his replacement.