Buffalo Bills vs Carolina Panthers: Game preview, top players to watch

Buffalo Bills tight end OJ Howard
Buffalo Bills’ O.J. Howard celebrates after scoring a touchdown during the first half of a preseason NFL football game against the Denver Broncos, Saturday, Aug. 20, 2022, in Orchard Park, N.Y. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)

Last week, the Buffalo Bills extended their preseason winning streak to ten games. They also trotted their starters onto the field for two possessions, both of which ended in touchdowns for the Buffalo Bills’ offense.

Now the Bills will move into game three of the preseason with their starters firmly planted on the bench for the entire game as they take on the new-look Carolina Panthers, led by Baker Mayfield. 

How to Watch:

  • Date: Friday, Aug. 26
  • Time: 7:00 p.m. ET
  • Location: Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, NC
  • TV: Streaming

Even with the starters not playing this week, there are tons of players and storylines to watch for on the Bills roster. We just saw Cody Ford get traded this week after the Bills decided he was not going to make the final 53-man roster, and it’s likely that a few other players could be showcased on Friday for potential trades since this Buffalo Bills roster is so deep. Below is our guide to the five keys to watch for on Saturday if you’re looking to sort the news from the noise. 


What Does Bobby Hart Do With His Opportunity?

We’ll start with the major consequence of the Cody Ford trade. Bobby Hart is now locked into a roster spot after some projections coming into training camp had him not making the final 53-man roster. Instead, Hart looked like a new man at camp

A couple of things changed. First, Hart switched from primarily playing tackle to primarily playing guard. The position switch seems to fit Hart’s physicality but it also means that he now has experience at four positions on the offensive line, which is what the team loves from its back-ups. Hart also spent a lot of the offseason training technique, not just working on his body. 

The results have been clear, but more eyes will be on him on Friday against the Panthers. Buffalo Bills fans will want to see him respond and give them confidence that he can be a solid backup and protect their franchise quarterback if he’s thrust into action.


Will O.J. Howard Make the Roster or be Traded? 

A lot has been made about how deep into the early preseason games O.J. Howard played and that it was Quintin Morris, not Howard, who drew the start at tight end last week with Dawson Knox back at home with his family. The truth is that Howard has not distanced himself enough from Morris and Tommy Sweeney, and his status on the roster is very much in question. 

The Buffalo Bills have nearly $2 million invested in Howard so cutting him outright is highly unlikely. However, there is a chance that the Bills use Friday’s game to showcase Howard for a potential salary-saving trade. If the team doesn’t feel that Howard, who has had trouble separating from defenders in camp, is that much of an upgrade over Morris and Sweeney, a trade makes the most sense. Either way, Howard will need to pay well on Friday in order to secure a spot on the Buffalo Bill or entice another team to trade for him. 

If Howard doesn’t play at all, which would surprise me, it would signal that the Bills are going to ignore his tough training camp and that he has a really good chance to simply stick on the roster. 



Will Kaiir Elam or Christian Benford Start if Tre White Misses Time?

The Buffalo Bills have yet to make a statement on the status of Tre White. They have another week to decide if they will put him on the PUP list, which would keep him out for the first four weeks of the season. If that were the case, one of the two rookie corners would need to step in and start opposite Dane Jackson. While the assumption would be that Elam, as the first-round pick, would be the clear choice, the battle has actually been much closer. 

Both players defend with a physicality that the Buffalo Bills love, but it has also drawn a few flags this preseason. The coaching staff will really want to see who can consistently hang with receivers without the costly mental mistakes that can extend drives. 

The team could also choose to split snaps between the two until Tre White is back, but Friday’s game is a real opportunity for one of these young players to separate himself. 


How is Khalil Shakir Used with Jamison Crowder?

We know that Stefon Diggs, Gabriel Davis, and Isaiah McKenzie are not going to play on Friday. We also know that Khalil Shakir and Jamison Crowder are both pretty close to locks to make the roster. What Buffalo Bills fans will be watching for is simply how the two are lined up. 

Crowder spent almost all of his time in the slot last week, which actually allowed the Bills to play Isaiah McKenzie on the outside at times. So far in training camp, Shakir has played both in the slot and on the outside. With him and Crowder likely on the field together a lot, Shakir will likely be playing primarily on the outside. It will be important to see how he looks there because the more comfortable he seems at all different receiver spots, the more likely it is that the rookie will see meaningful snaps during the regular season. 

This will also be a chance for Crowder to make up some of the ground he lost to Isaiah McKenzie early in training camp. The Buffalo Bills’ willingness to play McKenzie outside of the slot means that Crowder could still be an important part of this receiving corps if he shows the route running and sure hands that the team signed him for. 


Baylon Spector, Cam Lewis, Isaiah Hodgins and More Battle for Final Roster Spots

These final few preseason games are primarily for the bench players. With the starters out, and the primary reserves like Boogie Basham or Siran Neal locked into roster spots, there might really only be two or three places on the final 53-man roster up for grabs. A good performance on Friday could re-shape the way the coaching staff plans to build out the roster. 

On defense, that means Friday against the Panthers is a huge opportunity for Baylon Spector, Cam Lewis, Brandin Bryant, and Eli Ankou. Spector, the Buffalo Bills’ 7th-round pick, has led the team in tackles each of the first two games and seems likely to have secured himself a spot on the roster with Andre Smith suspended to open the season. However, a good game on Friday could make that a certainty. 

Eli Ankou, who had a sack last week, and Brandin Bryant, who has had a great training camp, might be victims of the team’s offseason focus on revamping their defensive line. It’s a deep and talented bunch that might not leave room for either of these two interior defenders. However, given how the Bills have struggled against the run in recent years, a strong showing on Friday could cause the Bills to keep one of these players if they fear that they may lose them on waivers. 

Cam Lewis is also likely on the outside looking in; however, the team did play him at safety last week, which could suggest that they are trying to groom him to be a hybrid defender. It’s a shift that would drastically help his chances of making the roster. If he can add that positionally versatility to his special teams play, he could force the Buffalo Bills to keep him. 

On the offensive side, we’ve covered Isiah Hodgins’ battle with Jake Kumerow for the final wide receiver spot, so those two will be challenging one another on Friday. But rookie offensive tackle Luke Tenuta also needs a strong showing against the Panthers. In my first 53-man roster projections, I left Tenuta off of the team (and on the practice squad). If he doesn’t improve his pass blocking on Friday, that could become even more of a reality, even after the trade of Cody Ford. 

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The Buffalo Bills gang tackle the Denver Broncos
Buffalo Bills defenders swarm Denver Broncos’ JaQuan Hardy, center, during the first half of a preseason NFL football game, Saturday, Aug. 20, 2022, in Orchard Park, N.Y. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)