After watching one full week of padded practices and with only three weeks remaining until the regular season opener at home against the New York Jets, here are some observations I've made on several Buffalo Bills players and key position battles:
- The battle for wide receiver spots has been as competitive as many thought and hoped it would be. Whether it’s Duke Williams, Isaiah McKenzie, or rookies Isaiah Hodgins or Gabe Davis, each guy has made plays at different times, and are generally making the most of their opportunities.
- Unfortunately for Robert Foster, he’s been in the concussion protocol all week, so he’s missing out on valuable reps to compete.
- Andre Roberts also gets opportunities, but he’s obviously the prime return-man, so I don’t consider him to be fighting for a spot with this group.
- McKenzie just ate up footballs on Tuesday. Every time he was on the field, he seemed to get open, targeted, and make a catch.
- Hodgins had a great start to the week and really flashed, especially using his length to make catches, then it was Davis who stood out later in the week, especially on Thursday during a practice at Bills Stadium, with a long catch-and-run that went for a touchdown.
- Williams makes a highlight reel catch a practice. I don’t know if he’ll make the team, but if he doesn’t, it certainly won’t be for a lack of effort. He’s always going hard, never taking anything for granted.
Rookie running back Zack Moss has gotten more headlines this week (from me, as well), but let me get a plug in for Devin Singletary. I’ve been really impressed with Singletary’s route running. We’ve all seen what Singletary can do with the ball in his hands, but he looks just as elusive and shifty while not carrying it and going out for passes. I think he was a decent route-runner last season, but it looks like it’s an area he really concentrated on this offseason.
Rookie quarterback Jake Fromm looked to get much more comfortable as the week went on. Initially, I felt he looked tentative and maybe even a bit overwhelmed, but by the end of the week he seemed much more confident and decisive, making a few really nice throws in 7-on-7 and 11-on-11.
The more time Patrick DiMarco loses due to a neck injury, the more reps undrafted rookie fullback Reggie Gilliam is going to get, and so far Gilliam has shown to handle whatever is thrown at him. Early in the week, he got down the field and caught a deep ball, beating linebacker A.J. Klein for what would have been a touchdown, then made a huge block in the hole on one red zone play a few days later. DiMarco is going into the last year of his contract and is scheduled to count for $1.9 million against the team’s salary cap. If the Bills were to go with Gilliam, they’d save roughly $1.14 million against the cap.
On Thursday, I made it a point to focus on defensive tackle Harrison Phillips for a little while. He’s coming off a torn ACL and surgery last year, and put on the pads for the first time in 330 days. He not only looked good, but he specifically looked strong at the point of attack. He wasn’t getting moved or buckling, which could be a concern coming off a major knee injury. If Phillips can stay healthy and be that type of player, it could be a huge difference for this defense on the field.
Thursday’s kicking has been widely written and talked about, but just to recap:
- Stephen Hauschka was short on multiple 52-yard kicks, but did make one later in the practice and went 5-for-8 overall. Rookie Tyler Bass was wide on a 44-yarder, but that was only miss in eight attempts (7-for-8). He also drilled multiple kicks from 50-plus yards, including one from 56 yards, which cleared the crossbar pretty well.
- Several fans have asked if the team can keep two kickers, with the thought that Hauschka would kick the shorter field goals and Bass would handle the longer field goals and kickoff duties. Let me just stop anyone from asking anymore. It would be shocking if that happened. I can’t see any way it would, and there’s no reason for it. Yes, teams have kept two kickers before. The Bills did it with Jordan Gay off-and-on from 2014 to 2016. That was also the last time any team employed a player who did nothing else but kickoffs on their active roster. It’s extremely rare in the NFL.
- Roster spots are too valuable, and here’s a huge difference between that situation and what the Bills have now: Bass isn’t a kickoff specialist, he’s a kicker. Gay was just a specialist. In fact, Gay never even attempted a field goal in a regular-season NFL game. Bass kicks field goals and extra points. He was 114-for-116 on extra points at Georgia Southern. He was 54-for-68 (79.4%) on field goals. Over the last two years, Hauschka was the exact same 22-for-28 each year, for a combined 44-for-56 overall, which is 78.6% each season and total. I understand fans being nervous about trusting a rookie kicker with pressure kicks in big situations, but if the Bills choose Bass, that’s what they’ll have to live with. This is a competition for one roster spot. One player will earn it and the other will be released.
Rookie defensive end A.J. Epenesa’s length and power is noticeable. Just as his scouting report indicated, his hand placement is very good, and he uses them well, while also not letting offensive linemen get too close to control him. He has a terrific bull rush and really gets going once he's on a downhill path.
Speaking of defensive ends, there's been quite the debate over Trent Murphy's roster status this offseason from fans and media given his $9.7 million salary cap hit, and the fact the team signed Mario Addison to a three-year, $30 million contract and then used their first draft pick on Epenesa. It's entirely possible the team feels they're spending too much at one position (just shy of $30 million in cap hits for Murphy, Addison, and Jerry Hughes combined), but Murphy looks like he has fresh legs and letting him go could really hurt a defensive end group that needs to get to the quarterback at a better rate than they did a year ago.
Cornerback and University at Buffalo product Cam Lewis is putting his best foot forward once again, trying to make the final roster. As an undrafted free agent last year, Lewis was having a nice preseason before suffering a concussion. He was waived at the end of camp, but signed to the practice squad, where he spent the entire season. A full season practicing with the club, then a complete offseason knowing the system and coaches is evident.
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