7 position battles worth following during Bills OTAs

Free agent addition Jon Feliciano handled the first team center duties during Tuesday's OTA practice.
Free agent addition Jon Feliciano handled the first team center duties during Tuesday's OTA practice.

The Bills have lots of roster battles to watch and a lot of time to figure them out. And the Buffalo roster questions come in many forms: Who’s starting? Who’s getting the snaps? Who’s making the 53-man roster?

They’ve got two more weeks of OTAs, one week of mandatory minicamp, and then, of course, a month of training camp to sort through the candidates.

What follows is one man’s view of Buffalo’s major roster battles and how they might shake out:

1. OFFENSIVE LINE

What’s at stake: Everything

Candidates to watch right now: Almost everybody

Analysis: Where do you start? How about starting with the injuries to the top two contenders at center – free agent signee Mitch Morse and returner Russell Bodine. Morse is bouncing back from his groin-area injury and should step in as the starting center when he’s healthy.

For now, free agent acquisition Spencer Long is working with the first unit at left guard and that may stick. Dion Dawkins, the starter at left tackle the last two years, is with the ones there again so far. Another free agent, Ty Nsekhe, has been lining up with the starters at right tackle. He’s backed up at that spot by second round draft pick Cody Ford.

It’s the most volatile position group on the roster and it’s likely to change when the injured players return, and when the coaching staff gets into deep evaluation of who belongs where. Stay tuned.

2. WIDE RECEIVER

What’s at stake: Reserve receiver spots

Candidates to watch right now: Andre Roberts, Isaiah McKenzie, Duke Williams

Analysis: There are no locks. In fact, Sean McDermott emphasized that point earlier this week when he was asked about the wide receiver spot.

“There is no depth chart this time of year,” McDermott said. “Guys are out there; you’ll see a guy with the ones and the next day he’s with the twos. You’ll see a guy with the twos and the next day he’s with the ones. We’re trying to find the right pieces as we evolve and grow and come to the final 53. “

But for argument’s sake, let’s assume top four wide receivers are Zay Jones, John Brown, Cole Beasley, and Robert Foster.

Veteran Andre Roberts return work is likely to give him a leg up on a fifth wide receiver spot on the roster. CFL import Duke Williams size (6-3, 225) makes him an attractive option as the Bills look line up with a mix of options at the position. Isaiah McKenzie’s speed is an asset. He played in the final seven games of Buffalo’s 2018 season with one start.

This position battle should be fun to follow.

3. TIGHT END

What’s at stake: Everything

Candidates to watch right now: Jason Croom, Dawson Knox, Tommy Sweeney, Lee Smith

Analysis: The broken foot suffered by Tyler Kroft in the first OTA session throws this position group into flux. There’s no timetable on when Kroft may be ready to return. Jason Croom played in 14 games last year with three starts, and he’s earned the attention of the Bills brain trust for his hard work during the offseason conditioning.

The two draft picks have something to offer, especially third rounder Dawson Knox.  He’s made a good impression on quarterback Josh Allen already.

“He is going to bring obviously athleticism,” Allen said about Knox after a couple of OTAs. “He’s a younger guy but he knows his stuff. He’s a very, very smart kid and you can tell just by talking to him a little bit. He’s in the huddle knowing where he is lining up and knowing what route he has to run and he’s not really asking any questions in the huddle and that’s a good thing because he doesn’t have to. He knows what he’s doing, he runs really good routes and he’s got very good athleticism for the tight end position.”

Check out photos of the Buffalo Bills working out during the team’s offseason program. Bills weight room photos are presented by Crunch Fitness.

4. RUNNING BACK

What’s at stake: Managing the workload

Candidates to watch right now: LeSean McCoy, Frank Gore, Devin Singletary

Analysis: The Bills appear ready to put two potential Hall of Famers on the running back depth chart along with a rookie. It will be fascinating to watch how they parcel out snaps and carries for McCoy, Gore, and Singletary, each of whom brings a different skill set to the position. Fullback Pat DiMarco’s role may also be further defined in the months ahead.

5. QUARTERBACK

What’s at stake: Will the team keep a third quarterback on the final 53-man roster

Candidate to watch right now: Tyree Jackson

Analysis: Jackson caught a big break when Derek Anderson announced his retirement last week. Now, he’s got the next few months to make his case. He’s got to show that he’s worth keeping around as a development project; that he’s more than an imposing physical specimen with a rocket launcher on his right shoulder. He’s got a chance.

6. CORNERBACK

What’s at stake: The No. 2 cornerback position

Candidates to watch right now: Levi Wallace, Kevin Johnson, E.J. Gaines

Analysis: Wallace is the incumbent and wound up starting the final seven games at the position in 2018 after his promotion from the practice squad. But the Bills got busy adding competition in the offseason, including former Texans first round draft pick Kevin Johnson, who’s got 18 NFL starts over four years on his resume.

They also brought E.J. Gaines back to Buffalo where he started 11 games two years ago. Gaines spent last year with Cleveland, but Sean McDermott says he’s happy to be back in Buffalo.

“Knowing that they enjoy one of the better years of their career here and then they go somewhere else and say, ‘Hey, maybe the pasture isn’t always greener,’” McDermott said this week. “I think guys like being around this place, they like playing for this fan base and they like what we’re doing. I would also say that guys in the locker room, they’re a pretty tight-knit group.”

Click through to see the best photos from the first week of Buffalo Bills 2019 OTAs.

7. DEFENSIVE LINE

What’s at stake: Rotation roles

Candidates to watch right now: Ed Oliver, Harrison Phillips, Jordan Philips, Eddie Yarbrough, Mike Love

Analysis: Last year, the Bills regularly rotated eight different defensive linemen during each game. Eight different linemen played 25 percent or more of Buffalo’s defensive snaps.

They’ll look for that again this year and the addition of first round draft pick Ed Oliver should make the competition more intense. Jordan Phillips will battle for snaps and last year’s third round pick, Harrison Phillips, will also fight for more playing time. At defensive end, Eddie Yarbrough and Mike Love will have to take advantage of the snaps they get behind the likes of Lawson, Murphy, and Jerry Hughes.

As the Bills continue 2019 OTAs, check out photos of each of the 91 players on the team.

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