8 Bills on the roster bubble who need to step up vs. Bears

08/20/2021
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The Buffalo Bills made their first round of cuts Sunday, trimming five players off the roster after their 16-15 win against the Detroit Lions. Buffalo will play the Chicago Bears on Saturday in their second of three preseason games, which will allow many players a chance to showcase their abilities in hopes of earning a spot on the team.

General manager Brandon Beane will be tasked with narrowing the roster down to 80 players on Tuesday, Aug. 24. From there, the team will need to be down to the final 53 by August 31.

Here’s a look at eight players who need a strong performance against the Bears to help their cause for making a roster spot and avoiding the axe come Tuesday.

RB Antonio Williams

Antonio Williams generated a lot of buzz among Buffalo’s fanbase during the offseason after an outstanding Week 17 performance against the Miami Dolphins in which he ran for 63 yards and two touchdowns on 12 carries, in addition to a 20-yard reception.

But in a crowded running back room, Williams must provide more than the seven carry, 15-yard performance he had against the Lions.

Williams is a long shot to make the Bills’ final roster, as Matt Breida and special teams ace Taiwan Jones are the favorites to round out the position group. Breida brings unique speed to the offense, but if Williams can string together a pair of quality games to close out the preseason, there’s an outside chance that he can gain an edge over Jones, as the Bills have a talented roster loaded with quality special teams contributors.

WR Marquez Stevenson

Stevenson entered training camp as a favorite to potentially beat out Isaiah McKenzie as the team’s primary return man. But McKenzie has seemingly taken his game to another level this year, leaving the sixth-round rookie draft pick firmly on the roster bubble. Stevenson showed off his dynamic speed against Detroit, reeling in three passes for 50 yards, including a 42-yard reception late in the fourth quarter to set up a game-winning field goal.

Stevenson’s speed and collegiate resume will likely make it difficult to sneak him past waivers in hopes of stashing him on the practice squad. But in a loaded receiver corps with the top five spots all but set in stone, the Bills will be tasked with deciding whether to keep a player like Stevenson – who brings deep speed as an outside threat with a future as a returner – or Jake Kumerow – a 29-year old traditional receiver who’s been the star of training camp and also brings value on special teams.

Look for Stevenson to see increased opportunities Saturday as cutdown day approaches.

DE Darryl Johnson

Darryl Johnson is going to be on a 53-man roster in 2021, but whether or not it’s with the Bills is a question that needs to be answered. Johnson has been a force on special teams throughout his first two seasons with the team and he’s proven that he can be impactful in spurts on defense.

Leslie Frazier and Sean McDermott expressed fondness not only for the mentality Johnson brings to practice every day, but for the way he’s developed since joining the team as a seventh-round draft pick out of a small school.

Johnson stepped up against the Lions, recording two tackles and one sack, and he’ll need to bring it all once again against Chicago in order to prove that he deserves to be one of the nine or 10 defensive linemen that stick on Buffalo’s 53-man roster.

DT Harrison Phillips

It’s difficult to call Harrison Phillips a bubble player, yet here we are. Phillips was listed as a third-team defensive tackle on the team’s first unofficial depth chart last week, behind Justin Zimmer, but he surprisingly started the game alongside Ed Oliver and had a handful of absolutely dominant plays in his limited action.

Like Johnson, Phillips is guaranteed a spot on a 53-man roster, but with Oliver and Star Lotulelei locked in, with Vernon Butler’s contract making it difficult to move him, the fourth-year defensive tackle could potentially be playing elsewhere in 2021.

Zimmer was productive in 2020 and his coaches and teammates have called him one of the hardest-working players on the roster, with Leslie Frazier pointing him out as a player that will be extremely difficult to cut. Phillips has flashed in spurts but it took him a while to recover from a torn ACL suffered in 2019 and he hasn’t really been able to put it all together yet.

Phillips needs another game like the one he just had against Detroit to elevate himself from “bubble player” to roster lock.

LB Tyrel Dodson, LB Andre Smith

Linebacker Tyrel Dodson played well in 2020, tallying 22 tackles, two tackles for loss, one sack, and two pass breakups in 10 games, with two starts. But the Bills’ linebacker group, like the defensive line, is loaded with talent and there’s fierce competition for the final one or two spots behind Tremaine Edmunds, Matt Milano, A.J. Klein and Tyler Matakevich.

Dodson is listed with the second team on Buffalo’s unofficial depth chart, but he’s in direct competition with Andre Smith for one of the remaining linebacker spots and both had solid games to kick off the preseason.

Dodson was impressive, finishing with three tackles, showcasing his speed, instincts, range and physicality against both the run and pass.

However, it was Smith that stole the show, finishing the game with eight tackles, one for a loss, and an impressive interception that was unfortunately called back due to penalty.

Neither Smith nor Dodson have really done enough in practice to gain an edge over the other, so how they play during the remainder of the preseason will go a long way in deciding which of the two makes the final 53-man roster, should the Bills decide to only keep five linebackers on the roster.

Nonetheless, there is a lot of pressure on these two players to have big performances this weekend against the Justin Fields-led Bears offense.

S Damar Hamlin, S Josh Thomas

Jaquan Johnson seems to be settled in as Buffalo’s third safety behind Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde, likely leaving one spot up for grabs. Both Josh Thomas and rookie Damar Hamlin played well against the Lions. Hamlin played the most snaps of any Bills player, with 49 on defense and 14 on special teams.

The rookie finished with three tackles, including one for a loss. He played well in coverage, showing off decent range and physicality, allowing just one reception for eight yards when targeted in pass coverage (Pro Football Focus). Hamlin did have a costly missed tackle at the second level on a long run, but outside of that mishap, it was an encouraging performance from the former Pitt standout.

Thomas was also impressive in Buffalo’s preseason debut. He made three tackles, with one for loss, and didn’t allow a reception.

With Poyer and Hyde unlikely to play much, if at all, during the preseason, it will be interesting to see if Hamlin or Thomas can separate themselves and secure the final safety spot on the 53-man roster to avoid being a practice squad player.

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