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Key battles to watch for at Buffalo Bills training camp

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Buffalo Bills defensive end Greg Rousseau
Buffalo Bills defensive lineman Greg Rousseau (50) takes part in drills during the NFL football team’s mandatory minicamp in Orchard Park, N.Y., Wednesday, June 15, 2022. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)

Being favorites has historically not been too kind to the Buffalo Bills. Yet, with the team entering the 2022 NFL season as Super Bowl favorites, the organization is going to need to put the heartbreaks of the past behind them. 

 

The Bills got off to an early start as one of the first organizations to have rookies report to training camp just this past Monday. With the rest of the team showing up on Sunday to kick off training camp for real, the pressure of making good on the preseason optimism is about to rachet up. 

When a team is in position for success like the Bills, every single roster spot at training camp is a grueling battle. There’s no luxury to let a rookie develop slowly or take a gamble on a player who’s raw but untested. Every player who makes the Bills out of training camp will need to serve a purpose this year, so with that in mind, we’re going to dive into the most pivotal battles that will take place at St. John Fischer in the coming weeks. 

Slot Wide Receiver: Isaiah McKenzie vs. Jamison Crowder

In the offseason, the Buffalo Bills decided it was time to move on from Cole Beasley. The veteran slot receiver was a crucial signing at the beginning of the Josh Allen era and was essential in Allen’s development into the quarterback he is now. However, Beasley was not the same receiver last season and has seemingly lost some of the short area quickness that made him so electric in the slot. 

In his sted, the Bills will have two players competing to pick up the lost snaps. Isaiah McKenzie was on the roster last year and undoubtedly has more explosive athleticism than his competition. As we saw last year when he exploited the Patriots’ defense, McKenzie is very quick in his cuts and is particularly dangerous against man coverage. The Bills seemed less inclined to play him against zone coverage last year, but if he continues to improve as a route runner, that could change. 

The other side of the competition is veteran Jamison Crowder, who, like Beasley before him, is an incredibly technically sound slot receiver. He lacks McKenzie’s explosion but has proven his ability to find the weak spots of zone defenses, which has led to an impressive career as a target magnet.

My belief is that the Bills will use both players to fill Beasley’s role. Under Brian Daboll, the Bills changed their offensive scheme depending on the defense they were up against. Since new offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey worked under Daboll, it’s likely much of that strategy will remain the same. As a result, McKenzie could be more of a factor when the Bills play a man-to-man defense while Crowder will be used more against zones. 

However, Crowder signed only a one-year deal this offseason while McKenzie signed a two-year deal. If the younger receiver can show growth in his game during training camp, the Bills could easily expand his role.

Isaiah McKenzie of the Buffalo Bills

Cornerback Starter: Kaiir Elam vs. Dane Jackson

Cornerback was one of the biggest issues for the Buffalo Bills last year. After Pro Bowl starter Tre’Davious White tore his ACL in a victory over the New Orleans Saints, the Bills scrambled to replace him. While the defense continued to play well, and the Bills were one game away from the AFC Championship, the lack of depth on the boundary frequently reared its ugly, like in those final 13 seconds against the Chiefs. 

In response, the Bills traded up in the first round to draft Kaiir Elam in this year’s NFL Draft. Elam is tall and has long arms, which is how the Bills like their cornerbacks. He can play zone coverage the team wants and has the raw tools to be a better man-to-man corner than Jackson; however, he will need to show consistency during training camp. 

Jackson was a seventh-round pick for the Bills in the 2020 draft and was forced into playing time last year after White’s injury. A physical press corner, Jackson was impressive given his youth and draft slot. Jackson is a sure tackler who’s missed only four tackles in his two-year career, so while he lacks Elam’s upside, his ability to limit mistakes does provide a stable floor. 

Considering the “loser” of the battle will still see the field as a third cornerback, or perhaps start the first few weeks if Tre White isn’t ready by Week 1, the Bills are in a much better spot this year than they were at the end of last season. 

 

Defensive End Starter: Greg Rousseau vs Boogie Basham vs A.J. Epenesa

The Buffalo Bills made headlines this offseason by signing Von Miller to a six-year deal. While the veteran pass-rusher will be cemented on one side of the line, the Bills enter training camp trying to find Miller’s counterpart from a trio of recent early-round draft picks.

Rousseau has a leg up as the team’s 2021 first-round pick. As a rookie, he proved to be a good run defender and while he did have some inconsistency rushing the passer, he flashed rare qualities for a player his size (6-foot-6, 266 pounds). In fact, Rousseau had more splash plays in his rookie season than Basham and Epenesa combined, and has reportedly been working closely with Miller in the offseason to hone his pass-rushing skill. All of which seems to give him a leg up in the starter competition.

Both Boogie Basham and A.J. Epenesa were second-round picks who have sporadically shown flashes but not put together any consistent performance. Of course, Basham has only played one year in the NFL and Epenesa has played two, so their best football could be in front of them. Both figure to be key rotational players in 2022, but the team needs one of the two to become the go-to third edge rusher if they’re not able to beat out Rosseau for a starting spot. 

Considering the Bills brought back veteran defensive end Shaq Lawson, Epenesa in particular really needs to show well in training camp or it’s possible that Lawson could leapfrog him and make Epenesa a weekly inactive. 

 

Third Runningback: Zack Moss vs Duke Johnson

Lastly, we’ll turn our attention to the running back. The Buffalo Bills used their second-round pick to draft James Cook out of Georgia. The rookie was thought of as one of, if not the, best receiving back in the draft. While he is not likely to be the team’s starter over Devin Singletary, he is certainly in the plans for passing downs and gadget plays.

That leaves Zack Moss as the favorite to be the Bills’ third running back active on game days (Taiwan Jones will be the 4th because of his special teams prowess). However, Moss has failed to impress, consistently making poor reads at the line of scrimmage. Another concern for Moss is that he’s a power back on a team transitioning to using more athletic offensive linemen who can get out ahead of running backs in space. 

Duke Johnson, on the other hand, is a completely different type of running back. Despite failing to live up to the expectations that some in the football community have had for him, Johnson remains an elite pass-catching weapon who also had two 100-yard games for Miami last year. Johnson’s experience could help him stick if Moss continues to disappoint, but he will likely need to show an ability to carry the ball between the tackles in training camp so that he can serve as a versatile back-up to both Singletary and Cook.

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Zack Moss needs a good training camp
www.allproreels.com — Washington Football Team at. Buffalo Bills from Highmark Stadium, Buffalo, NY September 26th, 2021 (All-Pro Reels Photography)

 

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