The Buffalo Bills return to action Friday as they face the Detroit Lions in their 2021 NFL Preseason opener. While most of the team’s starters are set in stone, there will be fierce competition for multiple backup jobs while a rather significant number of players will be fighting to prove that they belong on the final 53-man roster. Head coach Sean McDermott said that quarterback Josh Allen won’t play, meaning that Mitchell Trubisky will lead the starting offense against a Dan Campbell-led Lions squad that’s aiming to prove that they’ll be competitive this season.
With that said, here’s a look at the biggest storylines Buffalo Bills fans should be tracking throughout the game.
Defensive line competition
Buffalo’s defensive line has been discussed ad nauseam this offseason, and for good reason. The Bills are loaded at both defensive end and tackle, and unfortunately, there will be quality players that don’t make the team simply due to numbers. At defensive end, Efe Obada and Darryl Johnson are likely fighting for the final spot on the depth chart.
By all accounts, Obada has had a stellar training camp. The former Carolina Panthers defender totaled 5.5 sacks a year ago and his versatility has impressed Buffalo’s coaching staff. He’s a big, physical end that can kick inside and provide some juice as an interior rusher. Johnson, a former seventh-round draft pick of the team, has been a mainstay on special teams where he plays on all four units. Heath Farwell had high praise for Johnson, citing his athleticism and speed to get downfield on coverage units, despite his uncanny size.
The Bills place a lot of value on special teams, but Johnson will likely need to prove that he can be a real contributor on defense as well, should he hope to squeeze his way onto the final roster.
At defensive tackle, fan-favorite Harrison Phillips seems to be on the outside looking in. Listed with the third-team defense behind Justin Zimmer on the unofficial depth chart that was released Wednesday, Phillips has had a quiet training camp. Entering his fourth year with the team, the former third-round draft pick needs to make the most out of his opportunities throughout the preseason if he hopes to stick on the team come cut down day. Zimmer has clearly made an impression on the coaching staff, with defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier pointing him out as a player that will be difficult to cut. He’s consistently made plays in practice and is one of the hardest-working players on the team.
In addition to these two key battles, fans will get their first glimpses of rookies Greg Rousseau and Boogie Basham. From top to bottom, the Bills’ defensive line will be fun to watch throughout the entire game.
Perhaps no player on Buffalo’s roster has made more noise this summer than 29-year old journeyman Jake Kumerow. The wide receiver entered training camp as a familiar name – not because of his lone 22-yard touchdown reception against the Denver Broncos last season – but because of Aaron Rodgers’ disdain with the Packers after the team released him in training camp last year.
Several weeks into training camp, Kumerow has been one of the most impressive players on the team. He’s gotten significant reps with the first and second-team offenses and has routinely made headlines, thanks to impressive catches against all of the Bills’ top cornerbacks – including a handful against Tre’Davious White.
It will be interesting to see how Buffalo uses Kumerow on Friday, though. Will they showcase him, with hopes of drawing interest from another team willing to send the Bills a draft pick for one of their many talented receivers? Or will they opt to allow him to continue to gel with the offense so he can play a role on the team in 2021? Regardless of the Bills’ long-term plans, there likely isn’t an offensive player on the team with a more anticipated preseason debut than Jake Kumerow.
While the unit isn’t as talented as its defensive counterpart, Buffalo has some big questions that need answering along their offensive line. The Bills gave a vote of confidence to Cody Ford, who has had a rough start to his career since the team traded up to select him in the second round of the 2019 NFL draft. Listed as the starting right guard, Ford needs to show a vast improvement if he hopes to fend off Ike Boettger, who performed admirably when he went down with a season-ending meniscus injury.
Jon Feliciano needs to show that he’s capable of performing at a high level, also. After dropping 20 pounds during the offseason, he likely knows that he needs to step up – particularly in the passing game – if he hopes to hold onto his job as well.
Rookie Spencer Brown is a player fans are excited to see in action, as well. Drafted in the third round, the team planned on developing the Northern Iowa product as a swing tackle. However, Dion Dawkins’ bout with COVID thrust the high-ceiling rookie into the fire with the first-team offense. While he has no chance of securing a starting job, Brown is gaining valuable experience that should only aid in his development.
Can Marquez Stevenson make up ground in returner battle?
Entering training camp, many fans believed rookie sixth-round draft pick Marquez Stevenson would be a real threat to Isaiah McKenzie at both wide receiver and kick/punt returner. However, that has been far from the case. McKenzie has been one of the standouts in training camp thus far, drawing praise from Heath Farwell for his dynamic abilities as a returner, while consistently making plays on offense.
Stevenson has had a quiet summer so far, with his most notable moment coming from a muffed punt during the team’s Red and Blue scrimmage in front of fans. Stevenson should have plenty of opportunities to bounce back on Friday, though, as he’ll likely see extensive playing time both on offense and special teams.