The Buffalo Bills open their 2023 season against the new-look New York Jets. Media darlings thanks to acquiring a future Hall of Fame quarterback and an appearance on this year’s Hard Knocks, the Jets are out to prove that the hype is real. For Buffalo, they’d very much like to begin the year by reminding the football world that they’re still the team to beat in the AFC East.
In order for either team to accomplish that goal, their big performers will need to step up on opening night. Here are the five Jets we’ll be watching this week.
QB Aaron Rodgers
You may notice a theme here, and starting with the quarterback, it rings true: Sometimes, the obvious choices are the ones to go with in this exercise. Given that the Jets have a talented roster, there are plenty of key components to their team, but none are more important than the man under center. Rodgers has Jets fans thinking Super Bowl for the first time in a long time, and while he may be entering a season where he’ll turn 40 years old, he’s showing little sign of slowing down. Rodgers still has a fantastic arm and good mobility, and his lightning-quick release and ability to extend plays when necessary are still elite traits. When the Bills and Rodgers’ former team, the Green Bay Packers, met last year, Rodgers had a good, not great, night (19 of 30, 203 yards, two touchdowns, one interception) in a game where it felt like Green Bay tried to run the clock out on themselves for most of the evening. Rodgers definitely has some highlight-reel magic left in that arm, but if the Bills can pressure him and hit him early, I could see him making some mistakes.
RB Breece Hall
The dynamic second-year man was well on his way to an incredible rookie season last year before an ACL tear ended his first campaign prematurely. Hall rushed 80 times for 463 yards in just seven games, adding 19 receptions for 218 yards as a receiver. He combined for five touchdowns. Sure, the Jets added veteran Dalvin Cook to the mix, and it’s possible that Cook is the one doing most of the work early in the season while Hall continues to reacclimate to live NFL action. However, of the two players, Hall is the more dangerous at this point in their careers, and making sure that he’s marked at all times is going to go a long way towards allowing the Bills to have success on defense. New middle linebacker Terrel Bernard will need to fly to the ball on run plays, but if he finds himself matched up with Hall in coverage, he’s going to need to key in, as well. Having an All-Pro like Matt Milano next to him should help, but Buffalo’s linebacker group faces a major test on Monday night.
WR Garrett Wilson
Wilson gave Buffalo problems last year, as he had two big games against them. In New York’s 20-17 win in November, Wilson caught eight of nine targets for 92 yards and a touchdown. In Buffalo’s 20-12 win in December, Wilson caught six of seven targets for 78 yards. Buffalo’s secondary should be much better than it was in both of those contests, as Tre’Davious White is back to full health, Christian Benford is healthy, Micah Hyde is back, and Jordan Poyer is healthy. Even still, the Bills need to make someone other than Wilson beat them in the passing game. I wonder if Kaiir Elam will find some playing time in press-man packages?
DL Quinnen Williams
Fair or not, there will be some sects of Bills Mafia that compares Ed Oliver, Buffalo’s top pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, to Williams, who was selected six spots before the Bills took Oliver in that same draft. Granted, each player is asked to do something different in his respective defensive scheme, but Williams developed into a dominant force last year, notching 12 sacks, 12 tackles for loss, 28 quarterback hits, and 55 total tackles. For his efforts, he was named First-Team All-Pro and finished seventh in voting for Defensive Player of the Year. Williams will be squarely on the mind of Buffalo’s new-look interior offensive line, as incumbent center Mitch Morse is flanked by two new teammates in Connor McGovern and O’Cyrus Torrence at left guard and right guard, respectively. Controlling Williams is an essential part of allowing Buffalo’s offense to function on Monday night.
CB Sauce Gardner
It’s wild that, in just his second professional season, the Jets’ top corner is viewed as one of the best, if not the best, corners in all of football. However, it is the truth, and Gardner will be tasked with handling wideout Stefon Diggs for much of the evening. Even if the Jets don’t feel the need to have Gardner travel with Diggs, leaving D.J. Reed to cover him instead, the one-two punch at outside corner in green is one of the league’s best. Gardner has the ability to shut down an entire side of the field, and there isn’t much that he does wrong as a cover man. Sometimes, though, he can be a little grabby, so Buffalo may be able to win with double-moves in drawing some flags on the outside. Of course, that means the offensive line will have to give quarterback Josh Allen time to throw, which leads us back to controlling Quinnen Williams up front. The Jets and head coach Robert Saleh have a physical, disciplined defense that can compete with anyone, and they have a legitimate shutdown corner to help in doing so. Gardner is a key component of what the Jets do well.