Despite finishing the 2020 NFL season with a 13-3 record, the Buffalo Bills have several major question marks that they hope to answer during training camp. Here at Cover 1, we’ll be taking a look at the top storylines to follow throughout the summer at Bills’ training camp as the team looks to dethrone the Kansas City Chiefs and earn a Super Bowl nod in 2021.
In this series, we’ll dive into the biggest position battles, under-the-radar players, and narratives surrounding key players, while taking a look at the numbers game that general manager Brandon Beane will need to play as he trims the roster down to a final 53-man depth chart.
After examining the team’s running back competition and wide receiver depth chart, we’ll now look at the team’s 2020 NFL draft class to see which player may have the biggest role in 2021.
DE A.J. Epenesa
Without a first-round draft choice in 2020 after trading for Stefon Diggs, the Bills selected Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa with the No. 54 overall pick in the second round. While fans expected the rookie edge rusher to come in and contribute in a big way from day one, Buffalo’s coaching staff had different plans. Listed at 6-foot-5, 275-pounds at the NFL Scouting Combine, the Bills had Epenesa lose a significant amount of weight and as a result, he struggled to adjust as his weight dipped as low as 245-pounds.
Beane admitted that the team had concerns about how Epenesa played at his new weight early in the season but acknowledged that he started to get his bearings and play well later in the year.
“I think he came in and started a little slow, and we were a little worried how he was going to hold up against the run early on,” Beane said.
Epenesa certainly got off to a slow start, admitting that he lost a lot of his power – which was his bread and butter during his time with the Hawkeyes – as a result of his rapid weight loss. But as he grew more comfortable playing at a lower weight, his role increased. Epenesa played just 118 defensive snaps in his first eight games but was on the field for 181 snaps in his final six. He appeared in 14 games, making one start and finished the season with 14 tackles, three tackles for loss, one sack, and one pass breakup. According to Pro Football Focus, he tallied 20 total quarterback pressures, while 12 of his tackles were defined as “stops.”
During OTAs, defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier had high praise for Epenesa, citing the work that he’s put in to get stronger and get used to his new playing weight of 252-pounds.
“Now he’s more stabilized, he’s gotten stronger. He’s more explosive,” Frazier said during the team’s OTA practices. “He’s really benefited from staying here which was something he couldn’t do last offseason, because of all the things that were going on. I’m anxious to see once we get to training camp if some of the things that we’re seeing now transfer to what we’re going to do when we put pads on. But, man, he looks really, really good at this point.”
Buffalo used their first and second-round draft picks in 2021 on defensive ends Greg Rousseau and Carlos Basham Jr., adding more competition to a position group that already features Jerry Hughes and Mario Addison, among others. The Bills expect Rousseau and Basham to be versatile pieces that can kick inside on passing downs, while Epenesa’s lighter frame likely makes him a full-time edge player. There’s definitely room for all to thrive, as Buffalo heavily rotates their defensive linemen to capitalize on matchups while keeping them fresh.
Epenesa looked noticeably faster and more explosive towards the end of the season and with several months of training with his new body type, it’s reasonable to expect him to take on a bigger role and make more of an impact than he did a year ago. The Bills have typically eased their rookies into the lineup, opting to coach them up and not put too much on their plate before throwing them into the fire, so Epenesa should have every opportunity to solidify a significant role on defense early in training camp as Buffalo develops their rookies.
RB Zack Moss
Selected in the third round of the 2020 NFL draft, running back Zack Moss flashed as a rookie, with 481 rushing yards and four scores on the ground. Brought in to complement the elusive running style of Devin Singletary, Moss’ physical brand of football earned the trust of the Bills’ coaching staff as the season progressed. Despite a slow start in which he missed three games with a turf toe injury, the former Utah star saw his role grow down the stretch of the regular season.
Moss excelled as a pass protector and is trusted with goal-line duties, making him an early favorite to take over as Buffalo’s lead tailback in 2021. The Bills had trouble running the ball consistently for long stretches last year and it’s something that Brandon Beane addressed multiple times during the offseason. While Beane didn’t blame Moss or Singletary for the team’s struggles on the ground, he did voice a desire to get more efficient.
“Maybe a little more balance on the run game,” Beane said during his end-of-season press conference. “The ability to run it when you have to. Things like that which will help your offense because you’re not always going to be able to track meet everybody up and down the field.”
Moss suffered an ankle injury in the team’s Wild Card win over the Indianapolis Colts that required offseason surgery, but coach Sean McDermott expects him to be a full go at the start of training camp.
Buffalo isn’t going to take their foot off the gas pedal in the passing game, but there’s no question that they need to be able to effectively run the ball this year. While Moss isn’t the “home run hitter” that Beane says the offense lacks, he’s a powerful, decisive and downhill runner that should be relied upon to keep the offense on schedule by picking up necessary yards and not taking many losses. Moss looks healthy and the competition with Singletary, who underwent an impressive offseason transformation of his own, should be one of the more fierce battles in Bills training camp this summer.
WR Gabriel Davis
Behind Stefon Diggs and Cole Beasley, Gabriel Davis emerged as the Bills’ third option in the passing game, catching 35 passes for 599 yards and seven touchdowns during his rookie season. His 17.1 yards-per-catch average ranked fourth among wide receivers with 60-plus targets. The fourth-round draft pick out of Central Florida learned the offense quickly and got in the field right away, seeing the field on 872 snaps, with 305 snaps coming in the slot (32.4-percent).
Davis certainly benefitted from the presence of Diggs and Beasley, as he was virtually wide open on a good number of his big plays. However, you can’t discredit the skillset Davis possesses. He’s big, standing 6-foot-2, 216-pounds, and plays much faster than his 4.5 40-yard dash that he posted at the 2020 NFL Scouting Combine. Buffalo utilized Davis as their big-play target, as his 17.1 aDOT ranked third at his position, behind only Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Henry Ruggs. He saw 20 targets of 20-plus yards, catching 10 for 338 yards and five touchdowns. But he was effective in the short-to-intermediate game as well, catching 10-of-20 targets from 10-19 yards downfield for 135 yards and a score, reeling in 13-of-19 targets from 0-9 yards for 118 yards and a touchdown.
While his rookie season was impressive, Buffalo clearly doesn’t believe he’s ready to handle a full-time workload just yet. The team signed veteran Emmanuel Sanders after releasing John Brown, indicating that Davis will once again serve as the deep threat while he continues to develop and master the offense. Sanders is one of the best route runners in the NFL and has the ability to play wide and in the slot. He’s 34-years old but hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down yet. With Sanders expected to be a big part of Buffalo’s offense, Davis still could see a decent chunk of targets, given the fact that Buffalo’s offense utilized four wide receivers on 115 snaps last year, second to only the Arizona Cardinals.
The Bills were smart to bring in a veteran that can step in and handle a large role as Davis still has quite a bit of room to improve, particularly with his route running, coming down with contested catches (four catches in 15 contested-catch situations), and drops (four). Davis not only has the physical traits desired in a prototypical No. 2 receiver but he’s already proven that he can make big plays on offense. Having him as a fourth option in Buffalo’s high-flying passing offense is a great problem to have and while the increase in targets may not be there this year, Davis will definitely have his opportunities to make big plays in big moments once again.
K Tyler Bass
Tyler Bass was drafted in the sixth round of the 2020 NFL draft to replace Stephen Hauschka and after some initial growing pains, the Georgia Southern product was dependable from just about anywhere on the field. Bass connected on 28-of-34 field goal attempts (82.4-percent) and 57-of-59 extra points. Bass was automatic during the second half of the season after missing four field goals and one extra point in his first seven games. In the playoffs, Bass was clutch, nailing seven-of-nine attempts. He’s got an absolutely huge leg, as shown by his long of 58 yards. He was four-of-six on field goals over 50-yards and 12-of-15 on 40-plus yard attempts.
Bass definitely struggled early in the season, but as the year progressed, he proved to be reliable and that no moment was too big. With a full season of experience under his belt, Bass looks like the real deal. He should be a reliable option for the Bills in 2021 and will be trusted in big moments to help put points on the board.
WR Isaiah Hodgins
Isaiah Hodgins was another one of the Bills’ sixth-round draft picks from 2020 that has a chance to make an impact in his second year. After spending his rookie season on Injured Reserve with a shoulder injury, Hodgins is a player that generated buzz during the team’s OTAs and mandatory minicamp. This buzz was compounded by comments made by coach Sean McDermott and quarterback Josh Allen. Both had high praise for the former Oregon State receiver, commending both his work ethic to get back on the field and his physical talent.
“He’s a longer-bodied guy, he’s surprisingly quick, you know, I’m not talking long speed – he’s got that too,” Allen said about Hodgins during the team’s mandatory minicamp last month. “Just short-area quickness, getting off a jam and getting a good release. He can do a lot of different things. They’ve been moving him between the X and the Z, so he’s got the ability to play multiple positions. You see him high-point a nice thrown ball today, go up and get it, and not everyone has that ability to do that. His body control has been fantastic. Beyond that, he’s a guy that likes to have fun, he has good energy, he’s a fun guy to be around. Never a bad moment for him. He’s enjoying the process. I know he wasn’t super happy with what happened last year with the shoulder, but he’s been here grinding and getting better with our training staff and it will pay dividends when he’s out here on the field.”
Hodgins brings unique size to Buffalo’s wide receiver room, standing 6-foot-4, 210-pounds and projects well to a role in the slot, where he can use his size, quickness and spacial awareness to eat against zone coverage. He thrived in a similar role with the Beavers, catching 176 passes for 2,322 yards and 20 touchdowns in three collegiate seasons.
The only thing standing in the way of Hodgins making an impact in 2021 is numbers. Buffalo’s top four receivers, Stefon Diggs, Cole Beasley, Emmanuel Sanders and Gabriel Davis are locked in and have defined roles on offense. However, the Bills’ front office and coaching staff are high on Hodgins, evidenced by their decision to keep him on the final 53-man roster last season before placing him on Injured Reserve, preventing another team from claiming him before final cutdowns. If he can show that his strong play in minicamp wasn’t a fluke when Bills training camp begins, Hodgins has a great chance to secure a spot on the team’s final 53-man roster.
CB Dane Jackson
One of the biggest training camp battles in Orchard Park this summer will be for the starting No. 2 cornerback job opposite Tre’Davious White. Levi Wallace has fended off the competition there in recent years but Dane Jackson will give the incumbent a run for his money. Jackson, a seventh-round draft pick out of Pitt, played four games last year, including two starts. He recorded 15 tackles, one interception and broke up five passes while being targeted 17 times, per Pro Football Focus.
Jackson, who stands 6-feet, 187-pounds, has caught the eye of both teammates and coaches and fans after his offseason workouts with Rams superstar Aaron Donald. Both Jordan Poyer and Leslie Frazier see a new, more confident player in Jackson this offseason, and Brandon Beane expects him to compete for a starting job.
‘I was teasing him yesterday, it just seems like he’s more confident,” Frazier told reporters during OTAs about Jackson’s new persona. “It’s still early, we’re only in our fifth OTA practice today, but I can see how he’s handling himself in the meetings, the way he carries himself in practice. He’s not that shy rookie that I saw when we had camp a year ago, that guy who didn’t say two words, and you had to pull him upfront to just get to know him a little bit. Now he’s out there high-fiving, talking with his teammates, laughing and joking.
In an interview with Cover 1, Poyer pointed out Jackson as a player to watch during training camp.
“That dude can play,” Poyer told reporters in a video conference during OTAs. “He’s only going to gain his confidence the more he plays. I think the sky is the limit for that dude.”
The Bills have attempted to unseat Wallace from his starting job in each offseason since he joined the team in 2018, but nobody has been able to to this point. Jackson could be his toughest foe yet. He’s a tough, feisty corner that’s got a natural feel for playing zone coverage. He fights receivers at the catch point and has great ball skills, evidenced by his four interceptions and 39 pass breakups during his collegiate career.
Pro Football Focus graded Jackson as a top-50 cornerback last year despite his limited playing time (193 snaps) and while Wallace’s play has been steady throughout his career thus far, Buffalo needs more from the position. The job is up for grabs and Jackson will have every opportunity to snatch it from Wallace when the pads come on in late July at Bills training camp.