The Buffalo Bills host the Carolina Panthers Thursday at 7 p.m. ET in their first game of the 2018 NFL preseason. Buffalo has competition brewing throughout their roster and the preseason gives these players an opportunity to stand out to the coaching staff and make their case for either a roster spot or an increased role with the team. In Week 1 of the preseason, the starters typically play just one or two drives, as coaches want to get a good look at the younger players that will provide depth and round out the bottom of the roster.
With that said, here are five Buffalo Bills players that need to step up in a big way against the Carolina Panthers in order to help improve their place on the current depth chart.
QB Josh Allen
Buffalo traded up to select Josh Allen in the first round of the 2018 NFL draft but while the team’s quarterback depth chart is less than ideal, the rookie hasn’t been able to climb up the depth chart. AJ McCarron and Nathan Peterman have been splitting reps with the first-team almost exclusively while Allen has been working with the third string unit despite mostly positive reviews for the Wyoming product.
Sean McDermott has been tight-lipped regarding the Bills’ quarterback situation and has yet to name a starter; (Peterman and McCarron are co-starters on the team’s depth chart). The second-year head coach and General Manager Brandon Beane have each been emphatic that the starting job is still up for grabs. The team obviously views Allen as the long-term option at the position but as impressive as some of his highlights from practices have been, it’s important to keep perspective and remember that he has yet to play an NFL game.
Allen was undoubtedly the most scrutinized prospect of the 2018 NFL draft class and regardless of how physically impressive he is, there are a lot of areas within his game that need work. He’ll likely play the most snaps of all three Buffalo quarterbacks in the second half with the third-string offense against the Panthers’ reserve defense. This plan allows him to get his first taste of NFL action, but in a situation more managable than if he were to be thrown into the fire against a first-string Carolina defense that boasts several high-caliber players.
Allen needs to show that he’s not just a physical specimen and can not only make impressive throws, but also command the offense by getting the play calls, checks, etc. to his teammates efficiently. If he can prove capable of leading the offense downfield while protecting the football, Josh Allen can really help himself rise up the depth chart as training camp and the preseason progress.
DE Shaq Lawson
Shaq Lawson was one of the most dominant pass rushers in the country during his three seasons with the Clemson Tigers, racking up 123 tackles, 45.5 tackles for loss and 20 sacks before the Buffalo Bills selected him with the No. 19 overall pick in the 2016 NFL draft. However, that success hasn’t translated to the NFL, as injuries and scheme changes have prevented the 24-year old from living up to expectations. In 21 career games, Lawson has recorded just six sacks. Buffalo signed veteran Trent Murphy as a free agent and the former Washington edge rusher is the starter opposite Jerry Hughes.
Lawson acknowledged that he needs to put things together this season and he is firmly on the Bills’ roster bubble, competing with fellow defensive ends Eddie Yarbrough – who won the starting job over Lawson last year – as well as Terrance Fede, Ryan Russell, Mike Love and Mat Boesen.
It is truly a make-or-break situation for the 6-foot-3, 267-pound defensive end and with a quality showing Thursday against the Panthers, he can begin to get his career on track.
WR Robert Foster
Robert Foster was signed by the Buffalo Bills as an undrafted free agent out of Alabama. Despite spending five seasons with the Crimson Tide, the 24-year old tallied just 29 receptions for 345 yards and three touchdowns in his career. Despite his lack of production, the signing of Foster, who is listed at 6-foot, 196-pounds, was met with wide approval. He has familiarity with Bills’ offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, who held the same position last year at Alabama. Foster was the nation’s No. 1 wide receiver prospect coming out of high school in 2013 and those who have been around him have raved about his athleticism and explosiveness (4.41 40-yard dash.)
Foster’s name was popping up seemingly every day throughout OTA’s and minicamp through the first handful of training camp practices. However, he seems to have taken a step back as WGR-550 AM’s Sal Capaccio noted prior to the team making a deal for Corey Coleman, a fomer first-round draft pick of the Cleveland Browns.
I think Robert Foster has fallen behind in the wide receiver battle after a really strong spring and start to camp. Benjamin, Kerley, Holmes, Reilly, Streater, Dupre all took reps ahead of him even with Phillips and Kaelin Clay out. But it’s becoming a pattern.— Sal Capaccio 🏈 (@SalSports) August 5, 2018
Buffalo’s wide receiver depth chart is far from solidified with Kelvin Benjamin the only pass-catcher with real job security. Robert Foster has a chance to get back into the mix if he can have a positive impact on the Bills’ offense against the Panthers.
The Buffalo Bills selected Siran Neal, a versatile defender that played cornerback, linebacker and safety at Jacksonville State in the fifth-round of the 2018 NFL draft. Viewed as an ideal fit for the hybrid safety/linebacker role in Sean McDermott’s “Big Nickel” package due to his size and physicality, Neal had high expectations entering training camp.
However, the rookie is competing for snaps with veterans Rafeal Bush and Dean Marlowe. Marlowe signed with the Carolina Panthers in 2015 as an undrafted free agent out of James Madison where he spent two seasons under Sean McDermott, who was the Panthers’ defensive coordinator at the time.
Marlowe has seen his reps increase as training camp progresses and the athletic, versatile safety has made plays from a variety of alignments. Neal absolutely must find a way to contribute on special teams if he has any shot at cracking the final 53-man roster, but if he can showcase the position flexibility and playmaking skills that made him so valuable in college, he may be able to carve out a niche role within Leslie Frazier’s defense.