After two years of pandemic-altered training camps, Buffalo Bills’ training camp returns to the suburbs of Rochester.
The Bills come in as Super Bowl favorites for the first time since moving camp to St.John Fisher over 20 years ago. Despite Buffalo’s deep roster, there are roster spots, roles, and snaps to be earned. What are the biggest battles you should keep an eye on throughout camp?
The Running Back Room
The Bills come into the 2022 NFL season with an incredibly crowded running back room filled with diverse experience and skills.
To start, you have Devin Singletary. Never the most flashy, never the fastest, yet he’s been impossible to unseat as the Bills’ lead running back throughout the past few seasons. In 2021, Singletary finished a respectable 13th amongst running backs in yards per carry. Zack Moss showed promise as a rookie, but after an injury in the playoffs of that year, he failed to deliver the same power-rushing prowess in his sophomore campaign. Duke Johnson, a veteran, hasn’t produced much over the last two seasons but has proven in the past to be a quality receiving back, putting up at 400 receiving yards over his first five seasons. Finally, James Cook is the shiny new toy in the room. The second-round pick ran a 4.42 40-yard-dash at the NFL combine and brings speed the room has lacked the last couple of seasons.
The Bills usually keep three offensive running backs (Taiwan Jones is a running back in name only, as he is a special teams ace), so this room is not only four backs going after three spots, but a battle for touch distribution. Can Singletary hold on to the top spot? Can the rookie’s speed impress the offensive staff?
Cole Beasley was one of football’s best slot wide receivers for three years in Buffalo. He and Josh Allen had a chemistry that is hard to recreate.
Alas, that is what the Bills must do this summer. Veteran pass catcher Jamison Crowder was added to the room, and his resume (outlined here by Cover 1’s Rob Quinn) likely makes him the one to dethrone, but in no way is the spot locked down. Fan favorite Isaiah McKenzie has little production to show for himself over his career but did put on a clinic when asked to step in for Beasley in Week 16 of last season, catching 11 passes for 125 yards and one score.
Fifth-round pick Khalil Shakir also enters with an impressive resume, going for 1,117 yards in his senior year at Bosie State, with 77% of his snaps coming out of the slot. Like the running back room, this is not a zero-sum competition. All three could receive touches and playing time during the season. They will spend camp fighting to earn the most the slot snaps.
The kick and punt return game, to put it lightly, was rough last year. It started with Isaiah McKenzie, who, despite a promising start of the year, showed some of the same ball security issues that caused him to lose his job in years past. Marquez Stevenson (you didn’t think you would get an article from me without talking about him, did you?) was given a run at the spot, but he was also benched after a disastrous Week 17 game against Atlanta.
Khalil Shakir returned 12 kicks and 9 punts his senior year at Bosie State. Of his 9 punt returns, he had three of 20 yards or more, including a long of 40 yards. He could be a dark horse to win the job out of camp.
Tavon Austin, a walking college highlight reel who signed with the Bills shortly before minicamp, may get a look, too, but he’s only returned seven punts and seven kicks over the past two seasons. Despite the fanfare surrounding his arrival, he’s a long shot to make the roster.
“Second Line Edge Rushers”
Stealing a hockey term here, so stick with me here. The top-two edge rushers for this season, barring anything drastic, will be Von Miller and Greg Rousseau. Who will be the next one or two guys off the bench to play the 25%-35% snaps the top two don’t?
The second round picks in 2020 and 2021, AJ Epenesa and Carlos “Boogie” Basham, in a perfect world, would be ready to take the jump, but neither have impressed throughout their careers so far. (As I touched on in players with most to prove piece.) After them is veteran, and one of the two prodigal sons returning on the Bills defensive line, Shaq Lawson. He had his best professional season under McDermott in 2019 but has failed to return to that level since leaving. The Bills are one injury away from relying on one of these three as a primary pass rusher; thus, camp will be essential for this trio.
Your first thought upon seeing “punter” here is, “is Ryan crazy? They just drafted Punt God.” Recently I went into the numbers on why Matt Ariaza may have fallen to the third punter taken in the draft, despite his booming punts.
To summarize, Ariaza struggled with hang time as compared to some of his peers. In the NFL, a good returner will make you pay for such mistakes. On top of that, he has never had to hold a kick, a skill absolutely essential to master but is in no way easy (see: Corey Bojorquez.) Matt Haack’s leg may drive you bonkers, but he had a near perfect holder in 2021. Assuming McDermott isn’t going to waste a roster spot on two punters, Araiza must become, at a minimum, proficient in these areas, if he wishes to unseat Haack.