With the Buffalo Bills’ rookies already in the building and vets soon to be joining them, training camp is right around the corner. 91 players will enter camp and play in the three preseason games, but only 53 will make the final roster, with an additional 16 on the practice squad.
In years past, this exercise had a very different feeling to it. A weak roster with heavy turnover meant more opportunities for players near the bottom, and there would be numerous starter and key backup positions waiting to be decided by camp battles. Fans will “fondly” remember the heated competition between Brandon Reilly, Rod Streater, and Malachi Dupree for a spot in the WR room, or Russell Bodine and Ryan Groy’s heated battle for the starting center role. In short, the question was “do we have 53 NFL caliber players?”
This year, as well as last year, the question is “which NFL caliber players will get cut?” Over the past four offseasons, general manager Brandon Beane has overhauled the roster through the draft, free agency, and trades, lifting the Bills out of the purgatory of NFL mediocrity and into the upper echelon of teams. Over the past two seasons, only Kansas City, Baltimore, New Orleans, and Green Bay have won more regular-season games than the Bills, who are 23-9 in that span. While Josh Allen’s growth this past season was the biggest key to the team’s success, surrounding him with a high-caliber supporting cast maximized his abilities and set him up for success.
The Bills retained a vast majority of their starters and their contributors this offseason, with the re-signings of Matt Milano and Daryl Williams as the biggest key moves. Outside of a few like-for-like swaps like Emmanuel Sanders for John Brown (which may end up being an upgrade) and some drafted reinforcements at DE, OL, and DB, the 2021 Bills will look a lot like the 2020 Bills.
With that in mind, the intrigue of this training camp will come at the very bottom of the roster. Incoming rookies will attempt to displace established vets, and free agent additions will compete with incumbent backups for special teams roles and roster spots. The other question is position group numbers, how many do they keep at each spot? WR, DE, and LB are three spots where this question will in particular be raised.
Now, let’s take a look at my projected 53 man roster and 16 man practice squad.
Next, I’ll go position group by position group explaining my decisions.
This is an easy one, the only debate is if Fromm makes the 53 or is designated for the practice squad. With a reliable backup in Trubisky and roster spots at a premium, I think Fromm ends up on the practice squad with future coach Davis Webb. The practice squad rules allow Fromm to be called up as the emergency third QB anyway, so even in the case of injury it shouldn’t have any real drawbacks, unless Fromm gets claimed off waivers, which wouldn’t break my heart either.
Another relatively straightforward group, Singletary and Moss are roster locks. Breida is not a lock, but I am a fan of the change of pace he’ll bring to the room, and he could end up as the kick returner as well (though he’s not the only option left on the 53.) Taiwan Jones is technically an RB but makes the roster because of his special teams prowess. Antonio Williams made a lot of fans with his week 17 performance against Miami, but if he does sneak onto the 53, it’ll be because he proves to also be a special teams asset, which isn’t out of the question given he was North Carolina’s special teams player of the year his final season. For now, I’ve got Williams on the practice squad, but he’s a name to watch in camp and preseason.
This is arguably the best and deepest position group on the roster, which is why I kept seven players instead of the traditional six. The top four are pretty much locked in, and might be the best top four WR group in the league, led by reigning receptions and yards leader Stefon Diggs. After the top four, Isaiah Hodgins has started to separate himself from the pack, but we still need to see him actually do it on the field in preseason. The other Isaiah, McKenzie, is the remaining incumbent, and most see him as a direct competitor with rookie Marquez Stevenson, mostly because they both are returners. However, I think offensively they are very different players, and both give Allen and offensive coordinator Brian Daboll plenty of options. Jake Kumerow is the odd man out, but he’ll stick on the practice squad with former Allen teammate Tanner Gentry.
Another group I broke down previously, the TEs were a disappointment for the most part in 2020. Dawson Knox is the assumed starter, and while his talent with the ball in his hands is sky-high, he needs to show he can reliably hold on to the ball when it comes his way. Behind him is newcomer Jacob Hollister, another former college teammate of Allen’s who spent the past few years in Seattle. Tommy Sweeney vs Reggie Gilliam for TE3 is either a crucial battle or purely academic, depending on if the Bills keep 3 or 4 TEs on the active roster. In this exercise I took 3, and went with Sweeney because he offers something a bit different from Knox and Hollister as a true traditional inline TE, whereas Gilliam is more of a fullback/H-back hybrid, a role Knox and Hollister are both familiar with. If that’s all the Bills want out of TEs, then Gillam is the guy, but I suspect Daboll will want some versatility in the offense.
This is one of the groups to watch during training camp, especially on the interior. Tackle is pretty much sorted, with Dion Dawkins and Daryl Williams at the starting spots and rookies Spencer Brown and Tommy Doyle backing them up. Ryan Bates can also backup the tackles if McDermott wants more experience in the position. On the interior, Mitch Morse, Jon Feliciano, and Cody Ford are locks for the roster, but there will be competition for the starting guard spots. Newcomer Forrest Lamp and vet Ike Boettger both have starting experience and will push Ford and Feliciano respectively. As it stands, I don’t think Lamp will stick on the roster, but he definitely has the upside to do so. Similarly, I don’t think Jack Anderson will beat out the vets for a roster spot, but after a year on the practice squad, he could be an asset moving forward.
After sitting out 2020, Star Lotulelei returns to anchor the one-tech spot on the interior of the line. Next to him, Ed Oliver will hope to take a year-three step forward after a solid but somewhat disappointing year two. While many fans expected him to get cut, Vernon Butler was retained on a reduced contract and will hope to have a better year two at Orchard Park. Another player looking for a bounceback season is Harrison Phillips, who returned from an ACL tear and struggled to recapture his previous form during the 2020 campaign. The fourth-year player and fan favorite is in a make-or-break season, but I believe with a full offseason to continue the healing progress, Phillips will break out. Speaking of fan favorites, Justin Zimmer became a cult hero in Buffalo after his forced fumble on Cam Newton to secure the Week 8 victory over the Patriots. He’s a solid player with a great motor, but I don’t think the team can afford to keep five DTs, so he’ll be offered a practice squad role.
Beane made it abundantly clear that the pass rush in 2020 was not up to scratch after drafting DEs with the team’s first two picks in the 2021 NFL Draft. Greg Rousseau and Boogie Basham will reinforce the existing group of Jerry Hughes, Mario Addison, and AJ Epenesa, another youngster who started to come on strong at the end of the season. While their sack production was down in 2020, Hughes and Addison are still assets that will help the youngsters learn the ropes while also leading by example. The wildcard in this group is Efe Obada, who was signed from Carolina after making his way through the International Pathways program via England. While keeping six DEs is relatively rare, Obada is most valuable when rushing the passer from an interior position, something the Bills love doing with their DEs. While he may have been signed as a hedge in case the team couldn’t acquire additional pass rush in the draft, I think he’ll make himself uncuttable in camp.
While Buffalo technically runs a 4-3 defense, they played less than 25% of their snaps with three linebackers, primarily staying in the nickel formation. As a result, I decided the team could scrimp a bit at the position and only keep five instead of the more traditional six. The top two are obvious – Matt Milano just signed a big-money extension, and Tremaine Edmunds, while slightly disappointing in 2020, is still only 23 and had a stronger end of the year as he slowly recovered from a shoulder injury that he played through. Tyler Matakevich, a special teams ace who is technically a linebacker, is also a virtual roster lock after restructuring his deal. While I think AJ Klein makes the team, he’s not as much of a lock as others may think, as his contract isn’t cheap to cut, but it would provide a bit of relief. One reason to cut Klein would be if Tyrel Dodson blows the coaches away in training camp. Dodson, an undrafted rookie who spent much of his first season on the Commissioner’s exempt list due to a domestic violence charge that was eventually dropped, was impressive in a limited role in his second year, displaying both good athleticism and instincts before getting hurt. Dodson will be competing against a pair of newcomers in Tyrell Adams and Marquel Lee. While competition will be fierce, I think Dodson’s experience in the system will win out, combined with his athleticism. I have Lee on the practice squad, and while I’d like to retain Adams, I think another team will offer him a roster spot due to his experience and past production.
A lot of fans expected heavy investment at this position during the offseason, but the Bills instead showed their faith in the duo of Levi Wallace and Dane Jackson. Wallace has been a solid starter for the past few seasons despite his athletic limitations, while Jackson impressed in limited snaps his rookie year, and has been mentioned by Beane and others as a player to watch. Taron Johnson had a strong finish to 2020 after a rough start, and in his contract year I think he will continue to build on that strong finish. Siran Neal is primarily a special teams ace, but he’s shifted positionally from safety to nickel corner over his three seasons, and sees some snaps covering TEs. Rachad Wildgoose, a 6th rounder from this year’s draft, has physical upside, but needs some time to develop his technique, so he could end up as a common gameday inactive at the start of the season.
Not much to see here, the starters are pretty locked in, as are the backups. Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer are one of the best safety duos in the league, forming the backbone of the defense. Jaquan Johnson enters year 3 with few defensive snaps, but he’s been a special teams contributor during that time and should continue to do so. Newcomer Damar Hamlin looks to have a bit more upside, as well as familiarity with former college teammate Dane Jackson. There won’t be a ton of opportunities for him, but if Hamlin impresses, he could steal some snaps from Taron Johnson in the nickel formation.
Again, not much to say here. All three spots are locked up. Returners are far from set in stone, but I’ve already addressed that in the WR section.