The Buffalo Bills are less than one month away from the start of training camp at St. John Fisher College. The team looks almost entirely different than it did at the conclusion of the 2018 season, and with all of the new faces on the roster, there will be intense competition for multiple starting jobs and key roles on both sides of the ball. There are certainly front runners at just about every spot, but let’s take a look at five under-the-radar sleepers that have a strong chance of pushing for serious playing time with a quality showing throughout training camp and the preseason.
DB Siran Neal
Siran Neal, Buffalo’s fifth-round draft selection in 2018, quickly carved himself a role as a core special teamer as a rookie. He led the team with eight tackles on special teams and forced a fumble, as well. The Jacksonville State alumnus saw time on defense, as well, notching 11 tackles, two tackles for loss, one sack, and one forced fumble. The 6-foot, 205-pounder is athletic and has great versatility — something that Sean McDermott values highly. Neal was drafted as a safety but also had experience at cornerback and linebacker in college. During OTAs and minicamp, Neal has been seeing time at nickel and made a strong impact on those in attendance.
"Neal is beating almost everybody who tries to block him when he’s blitzing and he landed a few times at practice Tuesday and continues to apply significant pressure with his speed and impressive bend."@MattParrino's 5 observations https://t.co/i84gwW0kiF pic.twitter.com/lJ15mbYXjR— Cover 1 (@Cover1) June 12, 2019
Rafael Bush held down the “big nickel” job in 2018, playing 452 defensive snaps as the third safety, but Neal appears to be slowly earning the trust of the coaching staff and could find himself seeing extensive time on defense in addition to his job on special teams during the 2019 NFL season.
TE Jason Croom
Croom quietly led the Bills’ tight ends in receiving last year with 22 catches for 259 yards and one touchdown. The 2017 undrafted free agent out of Tennessee is a converted wide receiver that worked his way into a legitimate role within Buffalo’s offense. He’s 6-foot-5, 246-pounds, and is a quality athlete that proved he can pick up chunk plays in the passing game and contribute as a willing blocker in the run game.
Josh Allen connecting with Jason Croom pic.twitter.com/ZYr41DjaQ1— Cover 1 (@Cover1) February 23, 2019
While the Bills drafted two tight ends, Dawson Knox in the third round of the 2019 NFL Draft and Tommy Sweeney in the seventh, Croom has experience in the offense and has shown some chemistry with Josh Allen. Croom suffered a hamstring injury that pushed Knox into a starting role during spring practices, but he’s expected to be cleared to compete with the rookie for training camp.
DT Harrison Phillips
The Bills have a highly-priced nose tackle in Star Lotulelei and just selected Ed Oliver with the No. 9 overall draft pick, but Harrison Phillips, the team’s third-round draft pick from last season, should have a large role as a rotational defensive tackle in 2019. The former Stanford standout played 38.4-percent of Buffalo’s defensive snaps as a rookie, recording 35 tackles, four tackles for loss, two QB hits, and six hurries.
He’ll be competing with Jordan Phillips for the third defensive tackle job, but Phillips has proven to be a stout run defender who can provide some juice as a pass rusher, as well.
RB Devin Singletary
LeSean McCoy isn’t going down without a fight, and the Bills brought in Frank Gore and T.J. Yeldon via free agency, but rookie third-round draft pick Devin Singletary has a great chance to secure himself a big role within Buffalo’s offense. The 5-foot-7, 203-pound ball-carrier posted ridiculous numbers at Florida Atlantic — 4,287 rushing yards and 66 touchdowns in three seasons for the Owls.
He’s not the most physically gifted running back, but he has great vision and a feel for the position that makes him incredibly productive. He’ll be low on the totem pole entering training camp, but don’t be shocked to see Devin Singletary creep into McCoy’s touches this season.
CB Kevin Johnson
Cornerback Kevin Johnson has a fresh start in Buffalo after injuries stunted the 2015 first-round draft pick’s career with the Houston Texans. Johnson is a long, athletic corner that stands 6-foot-1, 185-pounds, and has the skill set Sean McDermott and Leslie Frazier covet for the Bills’ zone-heavy defensive scheme. The 26-year-old tallied 52 tackles, three tackles for loss, nine pass breakups, and one interception as a rookie in 2015, but he hasn’t been able to stay healthy since. He’s played just 13 games, making five starts in the previous two seasons, and surrendered 39 receptions on 50 targets for 448 yards and five touchdowns in that span.
Johnson will compete for the starting cornerback position opposite Tre’Davious White with Levi Wallace, who thrived in 2018 as an undrafted rookie once thrust into the starting lineup. Johnson’s style of play already caught the eye of coach McDermott, which bodes well for the Wake Forest product with training camp around the corner.
“What I’ve seen to this point is a young man that’s extremely focused, works extremely hard, is smart, plays the game the way we want it to be played. And like I mentioned earlier, he’s got his hands on some footballs this spring to this point, which is important to us. Taking the ball away and playing good defense. I mean, we’ll see more when the pads come on. It’s still early, but to this point, I’ve loved his mindset.”