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Thursday, September 16, 2021

Preseason is over: Here’s what we’ve learned

Written by Greg Boucher

The Buffalo Bills remained unblemished, finishing victorious in all three contests, officially putting the 2021 pre-season in the books. While we witnessed some very encouraging performances from several key players, pre-season success is hardly an indicator of what is to come when teams field their starters, rather than evaluating their rosters. While the pre-season was unofficial, there was plenty to be learned from the last few weeks, and what to expect from the 2021 Buffalo Bills.

QUARTERBACKS: Though we only saw a snippet of him in the final pre-season game it was more than enough to know that Josh Allen is primed to have an absolute magical season. In his short outing Saturday vs. the Green Bay Packers, he was surgical. He carved up the Packer’s secondary, completing 77% of his passes for 195 yards and 2 TD’s in just under a half of play. The highlight that set Twitter on fire and put every NFL defense on notice was a 35-yard laser beam that hit second year WR Gabe Davis in stride for a score to cap off the first drive.

While Allen torched a Packer’s secondary that consisted of mostly second and third stringers, it was not about who but how. Fans wanted to know that Allen and this offense were ready for the regular season, he proved that beyond a shadow of a doubt and will be a front runner for the MVP. Behind Allen, we learned that Mitch Trubisky is one of, if not the most capable backups in all of football. The former 1st rounder and Chicago Bears starter played well this pre-season, showing command of the offense and a comfortability like we have not witnessed often with him prior. If Josh Allen misses any time, be it a snap or a few games Bills fans should know this team is in good hands.

While Allen torched a Packer’s secondary that consisted of mostly second and third stringers, it was not about who but how. Fans wanted to know that Allen and this offense were ready for the regular season, he proved that beyond a shadow of a doubt and will be a front runner for the MVP. Behind Allen, we learned that Mitch Trubisky is one of, if not the most capable backups in all of football. The former 1st rounder and Chicago Bears starter played well this pre-season, showing command of the offense and a comfortability like we have not witnessed often with him prior. If Josh Allen misses any time, be it a snap or a few games Bills fans should know this team is in good hands.

Wide Receivers:
It is no secret this group has a tremendous amount of talent; putting General Manager Brandon Beane in an envious position as he has may have more pieces than he can keep come cut down. The top tier of the Bills wide receiver room is extremely deep and diverse in talents. Stephon Diggs, Emanuel Sanders, Cole Beasley and Gabe Davis have been inked in as the starters since April. What the preseason has shown us is that Gabe Davis has clearly taken the next step in his progression and could quite possibly be the NFL’s most productive fourth wide receiver. Behind the front four are some capable players, Jake Kumerow, a big bodied athlete with remarkable hands has certainly made his case for a roster spot. He has impressed all camp and has made some tough catches when given the opportunity in the pre-season as well as being a solid special teams contributor. Isiah McKenzie picked up where he left off last season playing in the X-factor role, being utilized on quick hitters, screens and gadget plays. He looked good in this offense and prior to a shoulder injury suffered in practice he appeared to be a lock to not only make this roster but be a key contributor. We also learned that 6th round pick Marquez Stevenson’s game breaking speed is for real as he emerged as a viable deep threat option and the team’s leading returner, taking a punt 79-yards to the house vs the Bears. The ability for even the NFL’s best defenses to match up effectively against these guys is a near impossible task. They have elite route runners, they have size, they have some physicality and they have home run hitters. Not to mention one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks getting them the ball.

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Offensive Line: Up front the entire starting offensive line from 2020 returns intact, GM Brandon Beane made a big move by re-signing RT Darryl Williams to a 3 year $25M deal as well as bringing back smashmouth G Jon Feliciano and spot starter G Ike Boettiger. One of the biggest question marks this off-season has been the left guard position, fans had begun to lose faith in 2019 2nd round pick Cody Ford. His subpar play and his inability to stay healthy through two seasons has made it difficult for many to trust he could become a formidable starter. The singing of Forest Lamp had many hoping a position battle would bring his A-game but Lamp was lost for the season with an injury and subsequently released leaving Ford mostly unopposed. To Ford’s credit he has had a solid camp and has put together a very strong pre-season over the span of three games in which he saw significant playing time in all. Granted he rarely squared off against a starting level player but his pass protection and run blocking showed no glaring deficiencies. In fact, Ford seemed to play with a nasty streak, driving guys off the ball, mixing it up in the pile and looking to put a helmet on defenders in the second level. It is possible Cody Ford finally plays to his talents in 2021, making this offensive line the most complete it has been in years. We also learned that 3rd Round pick Tackle Spencer Brown is capable of being the team’s swing tackle and spot starter in a pinch. A raw prospect with a ton of natural ability was expected to be a year away from contributing but to his credit he has adjusted to the NFL, putting his readiness on full display in his matchup with premiere pass rusher Khalil Mack.

Running Backs:
We learned that Devin Singletary is the clear cut, lead back and has been running as such. His new look physique was not just a click bait, he has actually transformed himself on field as well. Singletary has appeared sharper in his cuts, more explosive through the hole and stronger at the point of contact than he has in years past. While Singletary should take the lion’s share of touches in a pass heavy offense, he is not taking on the workload alone. Second year back, Zack Moss has also returned with a chip on his shoulder, running harder and with a punishing style we longed for from him last season. In his limited touches this preseason Moss appeared to be far more aggressive against contact and grinding the tough yards. While his durability will always be in question he is as solid a tandem back who can block and be effective in the passing game. Matt Bredia, one of the few off-season signings this spring has also been a pleasant surprise thus far. Offensive Coordinator Brian Daboll has already created a niche for him in this offense, getting him the ball in a variety of ways, as a running back and as a pass catcher. It will be tough for him to make this roster given the depth at other positions but I believe his speed and versatility are enough to keep him around. Another player we have been able to see in action is Reggie Gilliam, the fullback converted to tight end, converted back to fullback has been impressive in his new role. He has been a hammer as a lead blocker, opening lanes and driving tacklers back and providing pocket protection. He has also been a successful short yardage option making first downs and finding the endzone a handful of times.

AP Photo/Brett Carlsen

Tight End:
We have learned that the concentration issues that plagued Dawson Knox have again followed him into 2021 and it’s a bit disheartening. Knox was stricken with the dropsies early this camp and has shown the same tendencies to drop the routine grabs though the preseason. Knox has acknowledged his concentration issues and has done everything he can to improve on it, seeing an eye specialist and participating in Tight End U this summer but it has not shown up on the field. The Bills brass tried to bolster the position with a trusted veteran presence by obtaining Zack Ertz but that deal never materialized. Knox appears to still have the support of the coaches and will likely proceed as the number one tight end in an offense that will often feature many two tight end sets. Jacob Hollister has been sound thus far, making the most of his opportunities and getting what yards he could manage after the catch. He has been more reliable option than Knox in the early going but the bottom line seems that yet again Josh Allen will not have a formidable tight end in the mix.

AP

Defensive Line:
We have learned that this unit is bigger, faster and more athletic than any defensive line Buffalo has fielded in a generation. AJ Epenesa has taken a major leap forward in his progress, appearing more explosive off the ball and with more flexibility bending the edge. All indicators point to him having a breakout 2021. First round pick Gregory Rousseau has been impressive early, making the most out of his reps, getting to the quarterback and being disruptive from the edge. He was once viewed as a possible late season contributor but through a great camp and preseason has put himself in a position to earn significant playing time early. Fellow draftmate Carlos Basham Jr has been solid, showing craftiness reaching the quarterback as well as making some tough stops versus the run. We finally had the opportunity to see Efe Obada in action and one thing is clear, from the edge he has a tremendous get off. His size and speed combination and his versatility to play inside and out are what should keep him on this roster. On the interior Star Lotulelei returns and in his limited reps he was encouraging. He was able to control the line of scrimmage and drive bodies back versus the packers. Harrison Phillips has been great but a knee injury against the Bears has his future in question once again. Ed Oliver has been more of the same, interrupting mediocrity with flashes of greatness. While the expectations are that Oliver will have his breakout this year, with the return of Star and the added pass rushers outside him but through three preseason games it has yet to be seen. Justin Zimmer has gain, impressed with his ability in the trenches. His physical style and ability to free up and be disruptive should lock him in in this roster.

Linebackers:
We did not see much of the starters, Matt Milano and Tremaine Edmunds throughout the three games. They did play limited snaps vs the Packers but there was little impact to take from their short showings. There is no doubt they will be the starting linebackers going forward and after paying Milano and picking up Edmunds’ 5th year option the expectations for production are extremely high from the fan’s standpoint. The hopes are with a stouter cast in front of them, the linebacking duo should be allowed to move between the tackles more freely. What we have learned is that the depth behind them is strong. Veteran AJ Klein is still a strong run stuffer and blitzer and 3rd year man Andre Smith Jr has some serious ability and will make a solid back up and special team player. He has routinely showed up on film, stopping the run, rushing the passer and playing coverage. Both Edmunds and Milano have struggled with durability in the past, and the more capable options behind them, the better.

AP

Secondary:
We know the frontline cast of Micah Hyde, Jordan Poyer and Tre White are a more than capable unit, together the trio forms one of the NFL’s better secondaries. What we hoped to have answered by now is which of the young guys could step up and provide the needed depth behind them. CB Dane Jackson had all the hype surrounding him this off-season. He was widely considered a player who could push for a starting job over Levi Wallace but he has been underwhelming through camp and in the preseason games. An injury kept him from getting the much-needed reps but by all accounts, he has not impressed. On the other hand, despite an injury himself Wallace has been solid in his outings and has done enough to ward off any challenges for his job. One newcomer that has impressed and should earn a spot on this team is 6th round pick safety Damar Hamlin. He’s played solid defense, showing up in run support and being active on the back end in coverage. His open field tackling is still a work in progress but he has the tools to stick here. The cast of Siran Neal, Richad Wildgoose, Nick McCloud, Cam Lewis and Olijiah Griffen have all been a disappointment. None of these guys has been able to step up and separate themselves from the pack and showcase the needed skills to become capable cover guys on this roster. While I think McCloud could benefit from a practice squad role, much like Dane Jackson last year, Brandon Beane should still be active after final cuts, shopping for a quality depth option at cornerback.

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