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Wednesday, October 27, 2021

5 Returning Bills Whose Roster Spots Could Be in Jeopardy

Written by John Sparaco

Maintaining one of the NFL’s deepest rosters is a luxury few teams can say they share, but Buffalo remains in great position once again in 2021. Competition breeds excellence, and there will be no shortage of that in each position group during training camp.As for the players, the competitors in them love the challenge, but the uncertainty of their futures can equally put them on edge. There are several notable players on this Bills roster who were key contributors on last year’s team that are now faced with this predicament. Despite their efforts in the past, a rough camp or the emergence of a newcomer this summer could push some of these familiar faces off the roster.

Isaiah McKenzie

Creator: Bob Levey | Credit: Getty Images

*gasp* Before rushing to conclusions, hear this out before grabbing the pitchforks and torches. By no means is this advocating for the Bills to move on from McKenzie. The 5’8” speedster has endeared himself into the hearts of Bills fans for plenty of good reasons, some of which include his fun-loving personality and knack for getting into the end zone. Given the departure of Andre Roberts this offseason, it is only natural to pin McKenzie as the favorite to take over lead returner duties moving forward.

However, it is important to remember that the NFL is a cold-hearted business, and organizations move on from fan favorites all the time as long as they feel it is in the team’s best interest. Buffalo Bills GM Brandon Beane would likely be the first one to admit that McKenzie is the frontrunner to win that job as of now, but he also refuses to simply hand it over to him. 

All offseason long, the Bills have made it a point to bring in plenty of competition with experience at both punt and kick returner, including names such as Brandon Powell and Lance Lenoir. Arguably the biggest threat to McKenzie’s spot was brought in during the draft, as the Bills selected another lightning quick wideout, Marquez Stevenson, in the fifth round.

In all likelihood, McKenzie should win this competition decisively as long as he manages to perform to the level he has been for the past three seasons, but crazier things have happened before. Ultimately, the decision could come down to the progression of younger receivers, such as Stevenson and Isaiah Hodgins. Not only will McKenzie have to outplay those two at receiver, but also the others on special teams. One thing is certain: making this roster will not be a cakewalk.

Darryl Johnson Jr.

Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Perhaps the position group with the most depth added this offseason, the defensive end rotation will be a tough one to crack in Buffalo. The presumed starters remain the same as last season, with veteran pass rushers Jerry Hughes and Mario Addison still under contract through 2021. Behind those two are the Bills’ first and second-round draft choices, Greg Rousseau and Boogie Basham, who are both expected to split time with the vets in the beginning as they adjust to the pros. 

But wait, there’s more…

In addition to Hughes, Addison, Rousseau, and Basham, there is also last year’s second-round draft choice, A.J. Epenesa. Despite having a quiet rookie year in terms of production, the Bills still have a lot of faith in Epenesa to contribute in the future. He appears to have settled into his playing weight, standing out multiple times during OTA’s. At one point, Epenesa even intercepted QB Josh Allen, returning it to the house before engaging in a scuffle with fiery offensive guard, Jon Feliciano. Epenesa is not hiding the fact that he has an extra chip on his shoulder in 2021, so fans should expect to see him utilized in a variety of roles, both on the inside and outside.

That leaves third-year defensive end Darryl Johnson Jr., a valued member of the special teams unit, to duke it out with former Carolina Panther Efe Obada as well as Mike Love for that final defensive end spot. Of course, that is if the Bills are even interested in carrying six defensive ends on their 53-man roster to begin with. HC Sean McDermott takes great pride in being strong on special teams, but keeping Johnson around for that role will be difficult considering the way the roster is currently constructed. In recent years, Buffalo has typically carried just five defensive ends at most, but that could change given the versatility of Epenesa and Rousseau to play inside. 

Justin Zimmer

Creator: Timothy T Ludwig | Credit: Getty Images

The unlikely hero of last season’s Week 8 victory over the Patriots for his game-sealing forced fumble on Cam Newton, Justin Zimmer managed to establish himself as a key rotational piece for the Bills despite spending most of his career as a journeyman up until that point. 

Recognized for being a freak athlete, the 300 pound defensive tackle has tested off the charts for his size. In fact, Zimmer was clocked running at an astonishing 18.45 MPH during Taron Johnson’s 101-yard pick six against the Baltimore Ravens in the Divisional Round, which is unheard of for most defensive tackles. Simply said, the big guy has wheels.

Not only can Zimmer move well, but he possesses overwhelming strength that allows him to play with leverage despite his smaller stature.

Given everything mentioned so far, one would imagine that it would be a no-brainer to keep Zimmer on the roster. Yet, with the depth in Buffalo at the moment, keeping Zimmer on board is not so simple.

Knowing that essentially five defensive ends are unofficial “locks” to make the roster unless a trade occurs, that gives little leeway for the Bills to keep any more than four defensive tackles on the 53. Former ninth overall pick, Ed Oliver, is expected to start once again in his third season with the team. Alongside Oliver is the highly anticipated return of Star Lotulelei, whose contract is essentially immovable at this point. Being that those two are basically penciled in, that only leaves two more spots up for grabs.

Ahead of Zimmer are Harrison Phillips and Vernon Butler, who the Bills have invested a ton of time and money into. Unless one of those two underperforms drastically during camp, Zimmer will have an uphill climb to make this roster.

Ike Boettger

Bills Wire

A seven-game starter last season, the Bills offensive line played considerably better when Ike Boettger took over for Brian Winters at guard. Regardless of the Bills success offensively last season, Boettger is not viewed as a permanent solution at starting guard. 

Right now, that nod goes to Cody Ford, who is working his way back from a torn meniscus injury that officially ended his injury-riddled season last year. After wavering back-and-forth between right tackle and right guard, Ford appears to have finally settled on a position–left guard. 

Ford has struggled to start his career, but now the Bills can finally evaluate what they have in their former second-round pick before making a firm decision on his future with the team. If Ford continues to disappoint, Boettger could find himself back in the starting lineup once again in 2021.

However, Boettger will have to compete with two new additions this summer, including once highly touted Chargers draft pick, Forrest Lamp, as well as Bills’ seventh-round selection, Jack Anderson out of Texas Tech. If Lamp can tap into the potential many thought he had coming into the league in 2017, the final backup spot could very well be decided by how NFL ready Jack Anderson proves to be. If Anderson impresses, Buffalo might be more inclined to stick with their draft pick instead of keeping Boettger.

Siran Neal

Photo by Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Aside from Isaiah McKenzie, this name may cause the most controversy on this list. Siran Neal has worn multiple different hats with the Bills, excelling in a variety of roles with the team. These include backup safety, outside corner, slot, nickel, and even some blitz packages here and there.

For a player so versatile, coaches always want to hold on to people like them on their team. Heading into his fourth season with the team, chances are that Neal will be able to fend off enough competitors to stick around this season; but that does not place him in the clear just yet.

While the Bills cornerback group is not nearly as top-heavy as their receiving corps, there is still a fair amount of depth that can create challenges for a chess piece such as Neal. 

Currently, the favorites to start on the outside are All-Pro Tre’Davious White along with Levi Wallace and Dane Jackson on the opposite side. Taron Johnson will more than likely hold onto his job in the slot as long as he stays healthy, which has been an issue for him in the past. That being said, there are only 1-2 spots up for grabs assuming nothing changes within the top four.

Buffalo selected Wisconsin CB Rachad Wildgoose in the sixth round of this year’s draft, and he may end up being the X-factor in this competition. Wildgoose is a physical corner with equal experience both on the outside and in the slot, similar to Neal. As long as his game translates to the next level, Buffalo could theoretically utilize him in a similar fashion to Neal. 

While there is a strong possibility Buffalo chooses to keep both corners on the roster, the emergence of another young corner such as Cam Lewis or Olaijah Griffin may force the Bills to choose one or the other. If such an opportunity presents itself, Neal has the potential to become a trade candidate given that he is in the last year of his deal while Wildgoose is cost controllable for the next four years.

Competition will be elevated more than ever this summer, as several tough decisions loom before the final numbers crunch. There is a good chance that all of these players find themselves on the 53-man roster after all, but they will certainly have their work cut out for them. Tough decisions are the sign of a great roster, and if everything plays out as planned, this will only make the team better in the long run.

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