There’s nothing better than the semi-annual Buffalo Bills-Detroit Lions preseason game.
The contest has a bit more significance this year, as it serves as the kickoff of the 2021 preseason for both teams.
For Buffalo, this preseason opener is different than it’s been in years past. There’s no quarterback battle to be watched. There really aren’t any major position battles, in general, to speak of.
The team looks basically the same as it did one season ago, and that’s a good thing. After all, they were just one win away from the Super Bowl.
That being said, there are a few position battles taking place at the bottom of the roster, battles that feature players that Buffalo fans should keep an eye on when the Bills take to the field Friday evening. Here are five players to watch in Buffalo’s preseason opener.
1. Marquez Stevenson, WR
Marquez Stevenson received a bit of fanfare after being selected by Buffalo in the sixth round of the 2021 NFL Draft, an unsurprising development given that he was the only skill-position player selected by the team. That fanfare, however, has largely faded in recent weeks, instead shifting back to the fan-favorite veteran whom Stevenson was due to push for a roster spot.
Stevenson, given his versatility, 4.4 speed, and special teams ability, was initially seen as a potential replacement for Isaiah McKenzie, a beloved, but (once thought to be) expendable receiver who inked a short-term extension with the Bills in the offseason.
It was a logical thought, as the two are similar players with similar potential roles in the offense. Given Stevenson’s age and contract (four remaining years compared to one), keeping him over McKenzie, at times, did not seem like a possibility – but a probability.
Then training camp started.
McKenzie has been one of the standout players at Buffalo’s training camp thus far, impressing on special teams while also showcasing a refined route-running ability on offense. His emergence has largely kept Stevenson off the field, as McKenzie has held onto the top-returner job while further solidifying himself as the team’s backup slot receiver.
Stevenson, on the other hand, has been relatively quiet, this perhaps due to a lack of opportunities. He’ll have plenty of opportunities Friday night, as McKenzie’s reps, if at all existent, will likely be limited. Expect the former Houston Cougar to finish the contest with a fair number of reps on special teams and from the slot, and don’t be overly surprised if he flashes. He showed promise as a kick returner in college, finishing his four-year stint at Houston with 34 returns for an average of 26.1 yards. He even took three kicks to the house.
Though McKenzie, as of now, appears to have an overwhelming lead in the competition, Stevenson can shake it up if he’s able to re-kindle some of his collegiate magic.
2. Dane Jackson, CB
Stop me if you’ve heard this premise before: Dane Jackson currently finds himself in a once highly-anticipated position battle that now has an ever-widening gap.
Jackson, whose current predicament is eerily similar to that of Stevenson, was expected to come into training camp and push three-year starter Levi Wallace for the starting cornerback job opposite Tre’Davious White. The now-second-year defender showed promise, albeit in a limited role, in his rookie season, tallying five pass deflections and one interception in five games. He showed enough to halt Brandon Beane from significantly adding to the cornerback position in the offseason, with the general manager stating that he was “very content” with Wallace and Jackson after deciding against signing a cornerback in free agency.
Given what they saw out of Jackson last season, fans were expecting the second-year defensive back to give Wallace a run for his money in training camp. This hasn’t been the case thus far, as he’s been unable to consistently string together strong days. In recent practices, Wallace has taken the vast majority, if not all, of the reps with the first team, leaving Wallace with the twos.
Jackson can re-enter the position battle with a strong performance against the Lions. Head coach Sean McDermott announced Wednesday that some starters won’t play in the first week of the preseason, so even if Wallace does suit up, expect Jackson to see a fair bit of playing time. Going up against a Detroit receiving corps headlined by the likes of Quintez Cephus, Breshad Perriman, and Tyrell Williams, Jackson should be able to turn in a strong outing. If not, the gap between he and Wallace may widen even further.
3. Spencer Brown, OT
With Dion Dawkins still stuck on the Reserve/COVID list, it’ll likely be Spencer Brown taking the first-team reps at left tackle in Friday’s contest.
This is a wide shift from the narrative that surrounded Brown when the Bills selected him in the third round of the 2021 draft. Though fans were intrigued by his athletic profile – his relative athletic score of 10 is the highest score ever given to an offensive lineman – he was largely described as a raw prospect who shouldn’t see the field anytime soon.
He’s now set to start in his first career game.
His temporary ascent up the depth chart is obviously due to extenuating circumstances, as Dawkins has yet to participate in training camp, and presumed backup Bobby Hart looked noticeably poor when working with the first-team offensive line. Brown, fingers crossed, won’t enter Week 1 as the starting left tackle, but he could start the season as Dawkins’ primary backup with a strong preseason.
Brown now has the opportunity to play himself into a more significant role in his rookie season. Prior to camp, it was largely presumed that the 2021 season would be a “redshirt” year for Brown, a season in which he kept on the active roster, but off the field. If he’s able to look competent in the preseason, he could permanently supplant Hart on the depth chart, something that could keep him active on game days.
4. Matt Breida
When asked what Matt Breida brings to Buffalo’s offense, offensive coordinator Brian Daboll answered with one simple word:
His response, while direct, may be an understatement. Breida, who ran a 4.38 40-yard-dash at his college pro day and has the game speed to match, brings game-altering quickness to a Bills’ running back room that was previously built around power. He also brings some pass-catching ability to the group, as he’s caught 76 passes for 657 yards and four touchdowns throughout his career.
While Breida certainly brings different and beneficial elements to Buffalo’s backfield, he’s not necessarily a lock to crack the team’s 53-man roster. This comes down to a numbers game: Zack Moss and Devin Singletary aren’t going anywhere, and Taiwan Jones, a running-back-in-name-only, is also a roster lock due to his special teams prowess.
Four running backs on the 53-man roster, given just how talented and deep Buffalo’s roster is, may be one too many. Though the team has carried four running backs on the active roster in the past, it’s rarely, if ever, made more than two actual running backs active on game days. Buffalo may ultimately decide that Breida’s potential roster spot could be better served elsewhere.
Breida will need to show promise in the preseason in order to prove that he’s not only worthy of a roster spot, but of a role in the offense. With Moss likely set to miss Friday’s game with a hamstring injury, Breida will likely get his fair share of touches. Speed is what Buffalo’s brass will be looking for out of the 26-year-old, but they likely wouldn’t complain if he’s able to flash as a pass-catcher, as well.
5. Darryl Johnson, DE
The eyes of the Buffalo faithful will likely be glued to the defensive line, and more specifically, the team’s pass-rush, on Friday night.
Greg Rousseau and Boogie Basham are set to make their NFL debuts. Efe Obada will make his Bills’ debut. Buffalo fans will see a new-look A.J. Epenesa for the first time.
Largely lost in the shuffle is Darryl Johnson, a now-third-year defensive end who needs an incredibly strong preseason in order to stay on the roster.
Johnson has shown flashes throughout his two professional seasons, brief glimpses in which it looked as though the 6-foot-6 defender with solid athleticism was starting to put it all together. He’s tallied five tackles for loss and two sacks in 31 career games, this in addition to playing on over 50% of the team’s special teams snaps in both 2019 and 2020.
The issue is that these ‘glimpses’ aren’t frequent enough. On 450 career snaps, he has only 29 tackles. He also slightly regressed as a pass-rusher in his sophomore season, recording just four quarterback hurries in 2020 compared to his 13 hurries as a rookie (per Sports Info Solutions, subscription required).
Buffalo’s defensive line vastly improved in the offseason, as there are currently six defensive ends who likely have a better shot at cracking the 53-man roster than Johnson. He still has a fighting chance thanks to his special teams abilities, but he’ll need to show that he’s grown as a pass-rusher in order to sneak onto the squad. He’ll have ample opportunity to do so Friday night, as bottom-of-the-roster defensive linemen are typically far more athletic than third-and-fourth string offensive linemen.