Football is back! Okay, not real football, but on Saturday we’ll get our first look at the 2022 Buffalo Bills as they take on the Indianapolis Colts to kick off the preseason. Expectations in Buffalo are sky-high as the team enters a Super Bowl-or-Bust year and while the team boasts one of the NFL’s deepest and most talented rosters, several jobs are up for grabs. On Saturday, these are the four biggest position battles we’ll be eyeing that will have a significant impact on how the regular season shakes out.
The timetable for Buffalo’s star cornerback Tre’Davious White’s return to action is still unclear. Rookie first-round draft pick Kaiir Elam has been getting the nod in place of White through training camp and will almost certainly be a starter come Week 1. But things get murky beyond the Florida product, who is actually listed with the second string on the team’s first official depth chart behind white and third-year cornerback Dane Jackson.
Jackson filled in admirably in place of White last season, as the 2020 seventh-round pick allowed just 19 completions on 34 targets (55.9-percent) and zero touchdowns while breaking up six passes. Jackson is a tough, tenacious defender that has both experience and the trust of his coaches. Christian Benford, Buffalo’s rookie sixth-round draft pick has also been getting some run with the first-team defense through training camp and drew high praise from defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier before Wednesday’s practice.
“He’s really been active around the ball and has had the chance to get his hands on a lot of balls,” Frazier said. “When he’s had opportunities, he’s made some plays. Still early in the process, we haven’t played a preseason game yet, but when we drafted him, we saw a guy who, we didn’t think the game was too big for. That it wouldn’t be the case when he came to the NFL. We liked his transition. We liked his toughness. We liked how poised he played and a lot of those things that we saw when we were evaluating him, we’re seeing them now in training camp and it’s a process so you just got to continue to go through the process and watch how he develops.”
Expect Jackson and Elam to start on Saturday, but don’t be surprised to see Buffalo give meaningful early-game snaps to see what they have in Benford against the Colts’ top offensive weapons.
Stefon Diggs and Gabe Davis are locked into Buffalo’s top two wide receiver roles, but just like last season, there is fierce competition to round out the position group. Isaiah McKenzie has been dominating training camp as the starting slot receiver, but free agent addition Jamison Crowder is a savvy veteran looking to prove himself after missing a good chunk of time. McKenzie obviously has a rapport with quarterback Josh Allen, while possessing the speed that Crowder lacks. But it’s a different game when the pads are on with full contact, so it will be interesting to see if Crowder can close the ground on the self-proclaimed face of the franchise.
Isaiah Hodgins is also having a quietly strong camp for the third year in a row. He’s in direct competition with Jake Kumerow for what will likely be the final receiver job. The No. 6 receiver isn’t going to see the field much, if at all, on offense, giving Kumerow the upper hand due to his special teams prowess. But Hodgins possesses a blend of size and route running ability that the team lacks in the slot, which will certainly be tough for the Bills to walk away from. Don’t be shocked if Buffalo features Hodgins early in the preseason to dangle the former sixth-round draft choice as trade bait for a needy team.
O.J. Howard was signed as a free agent, leading to a great deal of excitement by fans with high hopes for the uber-athletic Alabama product. But through two weeks of training camp, Howard has been rather underwhelming. Ken Dorsey and the Bills hope to run more two-tight end sets this year, with Howard playing a significant role on offense. To date, the Hercules-looking weapon hasn’t been able to live up to his potential, and tight end Tommy Sweeney has reportedly had a strong camp.
Howard is the favorite to back up Dawson Knox, but if reports from St. John Fisher College are true, the gap between him and Sweeney may not be as large as we were led to believe.
Brandon Beane reloaded the Bills’ defensive line again during the offseason, most notably inking superstar pass rusher Von Miller to a massive $100-plus million deal. Miller and Greg Rousseau, the team’s 2021 first-round draft pick are the clear starters, these training camp practices, and preseason contests will go a long way to determine which reserve defensive ends can earn rather significant roles on defense.
Buffalo relies on a heavy rotation, so backups will play nearly as many snaps as the starters. A.J. Epenesa is out to prove that he can hang with the big boys after the second-rounder has failed to make a consistent impression in each of his first two seasons. Boogie Basham, last year’s second-round choice played both inside and out as a rookie and will be fighting for snaps in a more crowded defensive line group. Shaq Lawson was brought back as a free agent, as well, and the veteran is a stout run defender that figures to earn impactful reps on early downs.
How and when these three players are used through the preseason will be telling, as both Lawson and Epenesa could find themselves on the roster bubble if they fail to stand out during the next few weeks.