Today is August 8, and the Buffalo Bills will be playing their second of five preseason games at 7:30 p.m. ET this evening against the Carolina Panthers. In a little over two weeks, on August 26, the team will need to cut their roster down to 75 players, and in a little over three weeks, on August 30, they'll need to be down to 53.
These five areas of the team bear careful viewing in tonight's game, as all five are intriguing story lines that will shape what the Bills' Week 1 roster ultimately looks like.
Wide receiver rotations
Robert Woods is one of the bigger story lines to follow heading into tonight; he had a good week of practice following a strong showing in the Hall of Fame Game, but it still remains to be seen whether or not he'll leapfrog Chris Hogan to work back in with the first-team offense.
There's also the matter of the last two receiver spots on the roster to consider. The special teams abilities of Marcus Easley give him an advantage, but he may still need to impress enough as a receiver to prevent the likes of Hogan, T.J. Graham, and Kevin Elliott from stealing his roster spot. You can expect to see those guys playing deep into the contest.
Interior offensive line
Chris Hairston is healthier than he was this time last week, but he may also need to continue taking reps at tackle until the Bills have more bodies out there. If that ends up being the case, the right guard competition will be limited once again to Kraig Urbik and rookie Cyril Richardson, who will be taking on a deep and talented quartet of Panthers defensive tackles this evening. (That also makes it a good night to evaluate Chris Williams, if you're into that sort of thing.)
Doug Legursky also missed practice time this week, and if he doesn't play or his snap counts are limited, it might be a good opportunity for the Bills to experiment at second-team center. Macky MacPherson and Jared Wheeler could slide up the depth chart, or the team could try someone else in the pivot.
Rookie offensive tackles
The shape of the Bills' tackle position will be decided by the performance of Cyrus Kouandjio and Seantrel Henderson this preseason. That's particularly true of Kouandjio, who has looked ill-prepared to walk into a starting lineup as a rookie, thereby greatly increasing the chances that incumbent Erik Pears will stay with the team and the first-unit offense.
Assuming that Cordy Glenn (illness) returns in time to play in Week 1, Henderson could be competing to be the top tackle reserve on game days. Henderson's play has been a bit better on the left side than Kouandjio's has on the right, and if he can remain consistent, that could depress Hairston's value, or make him a more viable option on the interior. If Henderson falters, however, Hairston could emerge as the top tackle reserve by default.
Defensive tackle rotations
This situation remains in flux a bit at the top, because no one is yet sure that Marcell Dareus won't be suspended for his set of arrests this offseason. Add in a lower-than-expected workload for Alan Branch in last week's game against New York and a week's worth of buzz for street free agent signing Landon Cohen, and from top to bottom, this position is now intriguing. Corbin Bryant and Stefan Charles are fighting for roster spots behind Dareus and Kyle Williams, as well. Keep a particularly keen eye on Cohen, who was taking a few first-team reps during practice this week.
The safety situation
When the Bills hit the practice field on Tuesday, safety Da'Norris Searcy wasn't out there long before hurriedly leaving Pittsford to attend to a family emergency. Bills head coach Doug Marrone told reporters on Wednesday afternoon that Searcy wanted to be back in time for tonight's game, but that may not be a given.
If Searcy isn't back, or if the team wants to ease him back into the fold after missing more than two practices, it'll open the door up for second-year pro Duke Williams to take some snaps with the first-team defense. He was a standout performer in the Giants game, making several clean tackles, a big hit, and generally looking much faster than the competition with the second and third units. If that opportunity arrives and Williams plays well, it could throw that starting safety job into overdrive. Searcy has taken all of the first-team reps to this point in camp.
What are you interested in watching tonight, Bills fans?