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Opinion: Revisiting the Buffalo Bills’ most interesting 2023 camp battles

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Buffalo Bills Training Camp Photo by Joshua Bessex/Getty Images

Things can change quickly in an NFL training camp.

The news cycle comes at fans quickly. Each practice has its own story line along with winners and losers. Narratives are formed and unformed in less than a day. It’s almost an opportunity for NFL fans to feel what it’s like to be fans of sports like basketball or baseball. There isn’t a week or even days in between storylines, replaced instead by rapid-fire narratives with a 24-hour lifespan.

One would be forgiven if they forgot what they were thinking about two weeks ago.

Let’s revisit some of the training camp battles that I had previously deemed as being the most interesting to me. Let’s see how they’re going, whether we’ve gotten any answers, and what we might be looking for moving forward.

James Cook vs. Damien Harris (previously deemed “kind of boring”)

New verdict: still kind of boring.

Cook has gotten plenty of praise in the last two weeks, specifically from Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen, but Damien Harris has received a chunk of first-team reps as well. Nothing has changed from the original outlook two weeks ago in regards to what I’d predict for the Bills’ backfield except for the season-ending injury to Nyheim Hines. Cook will be the “starter” and I’d still expect rotation with Harris and Latavius Murray behind him.

O’Cyrus Torrence vs. Ryan Bates (previously deemed “I’m listening”)

New verdict: I’m leaning in

The overall sentiment from the last time we discussed this was that Torrence starting was likely a matter of “when,” not “if.” Torrence has taken first-team reps on consecutive days, which one would expect for any battle that’s not terribly lopsided, but it’s the way head coach Sean McDermott talked about Ryan Bates that could reasonably lead someone to believe that it could be Torrence starting Week 1 against the New York Jets. He brought up Bates’ versatility and how players want to start, but that versatile skill set can lead to a long career. Sal Capaccio from WGR500 explains it well here on a clip from “It’s Always Gameday in Buffalo” with Matt Bove of WKBW:

Things have changed on this front in my opinion. I’ll now be more surprised than not if it’s Ryan Bates starting in the first regular-season game for the Bills in 2023.

Deonte Harty vs. Khalil Shakir (previously deemed “single eyebrow raising”)

New verdict: follow the money

There’s little way to word this otherwise: Deonte Harty has gotten more publicity during camp than Khalil Shakir. From Josh Allen saying he “can do more than we thought he could” to general manager Brandon Beane praising his instincts, the Bills’ 2023 free-agent signing has had the spotlight more than their 2022 fifth-round pick. It’s important to note that this competition is specifically talking about the slot receiver role, while there is now another competition that’s emerged since the time the original article was written: returner (both punt and kick).

The injury to Nyheim Hines adds a new wrinkle to the competition and while the Bills may decide to split the return man job in Hines’ absence and have Harty return punts or kicks while Shakir returns the other, it’s hard not to admit the lean that seems to be happening towards Harty as the primary slot receiver. The Bills made Harty an early free-agent signing to a multi-year deal, and it seems like they may have done it with eyes on him being the first man up at slot receiver.

A.J. Klein vs. Terrel Bernard vs. Dorian Williams vs. Tyrell Dodson vs. Baylon Spector (previously deemed “double eyebrow raising”

New verdict: the fog is clearing

The first line of my analysis of the Bills’ competition at middle linebacker was as follows:

After a few days (and some Baylon Spector hype), it appears at this point that the job is down to Tyrel Dodson and 2022 third-round pick Terrel Bernard. After Alex Brasky of The Batavia Daily News remarked that Dodson played “like his hair (was) on fire” during the Bills recent “Blue and Red” scrimmage (noting excellent plays against the run) and Thad Brown of WROC-TV outlining some impressive skills in coverage for Dodson, the battle may be leaning towards the more-tenured veteran. But whoever ends up starting Week 1, we have a more clear picture of the situation than we did a few weeks ago.

Dane Jackson vs. Christian Benford vs. Kaiir Elam (previously deemed as “head tilt”)

New verdict: idk my bff John

After an early start to training camp that included being behind Dane Jackson and a comment from defensive backs coach John Butler that indicated the Bills could employ a platoon system at CB2 to open the season (further muddying the waters), Kaiir Elam has come on strong as of late — with Joe Buscaglia of The Athletic remarking that Elam has been a “mainstay” with the first-team defense since day four of training camp. Butler’s comment makes even the appearance of a lead by the Bills’ 2022 first-round pick out of Florida (or anyone else for that matter) a development met with skepticism.

The combination of the historically caginess of Sean McDermott, the team’s previous platooning of Elam and Benford in 2022, and Butler’s comment make for a murky situation that fans might not be able to fully discern until the end of the first regular-season game, regardless of exhibited behavior of the team in the days leading up to it.

...and that’s the way the cookie crumbles. I’m Bruce Nolan with Buffalo Rumblings. You can find me on Twitter and Instagram @BruceExclusive and look for new episodes of “The Bruce Exclusive” every Thursday on the Buffalo Rumblings podcast network!