Every year Buffalo's coaching staff has to make tough decisions when it comes to reducing their roster from 75 players to 53. Eliminating 30 percent of the roster though necessary is never easy. And with the talent the Bills have at their disposal at a couple of positions it may prove even more difficult.
Cornerback and receiver appear to have a surplus of talent on Buffalo's roster this year. In a majority of cases NFL clubs keep five cornerbacks and five wide receivers. The argument could be made however, that the Bills have six worthy candidates for the final roster at cornerback and six at receiver.
The cornerback position was fortified in free agency with veteran Will James, who will likely play a role in the slot. Whether he will earn the starting job over younger players like Reggie Corner, Leodis McKelvin or Ashton Youboty remains to be seen. All four have seen time at that position.
Regardless of who lands that job however, those four players along with starting cornerbacks Terrence McGee and Jabari Greer all seem to be legitimate candidates for the 53-man roster.
Youboty was the only holdover from the previous season aside from the two starters, but has had a solid preseason and the coaching staff has noticed.
"Ashton has played pretty solidly throughout the preseason," said head coach Dick Jauron. "In this last game he got some hands on some balls and made some plays."
McKelvin and Corner look to be solid investments and Corner would likely be snatched up by another club if placed on the team's practice squad. James is a valued veteran.
The situation is much similar at receiver. Lee Evans, Josh Reed and Roscoe Parrish are locks for the final roster. Second-round pick James Hardy is the biggest change to the offense and will make the squad as well. Fighting for the fifth receiver spot are Justin Jenkins and Steve Johnson.
Jenkins has performed well this preseason and offers solid special teams play. Perhaps more important is his ability to fill Josh Reed's role inside, and with Reed coming off offseason back surgery Jenkins could be a nice security blanket.
Johnson is a seventh-round pick, but hasn't played like it. He's made plays in the practice setting on a fairly consistent basis and finished strong with an eight-catch performance Thursday night. Already blessed with an NFL body Johnson is only going to get stronger. Putting Johnson on the practice squad is a risk. And with size lacking in Buffalo's receiving corps aside from Hardy, Johnson's 6'2" frame would be a welcome addition.
"When Stevie got his hands on (the ball), he caught it," said Jauron in reference to Johnson's Thursday night performance. "Some of them were what we would call routine catches, but some of them, I though he plucked the ball off to the side and close to the ground. He showed sure hands, and he showed run after the catch too."
The problem is when you keep what is deemed to be extra players at one position, you need to take spots away from another. Jauron however, doesn't get caught up in the numbers a specific position typically warrants. He focuses on talent first and foremost.
"I don't think you ever let a player go that's good enough to play in the league when you have guys at other positions that you don't think are good enough to play and win just to keep numbers," said Jauron. "I think you keep players because you can always do things with players and they will be recognized if you're correct on them. You can deal them down the road if you're stacked. But you don't ever want to release a guy that can play. Almost every position is that way. The hardest time is when you have players at almost all positions that are worthy of playing."
Complicating matters further for Buffalo is the injury situation at tight end. With Derek Schouman and Derek Fine both out indefinitely, but likely to take up roster spots the Bills will still need to carry at least two healthy tight ends for the first couple of games of the season. That means numbers may have to be sacrificed at another position to create room for an extra healthy player at the tight end position.
It's a real puzzle that has to be sorted out and arranged and re-arranged to best fit the needs of the team while also holding onto the best talent on the roster. Numbers at certain positions are important, but when Jauron was asked whether talent or numbers carry more weight he answered quickly.
"Talent," said Jauron. "Now that's obviously within reason, but I don't think you every carry a certain number at a position over talent. I think you just adjust and move on."