ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (WIVB) — The Bills entered a new phase of the offseason program this week with the start of organized team practice activities. Here are four takeaways from Tuesday’s voluntary session that was open to media.
More than 95% of the 90-man roster was in attendance, and all but a few were full participants in the two-hour practice on the outdoor field at ADPRO Sports Training Center.
Pro Bowl wide receiver Stefon Diggs was the most notable absentee — if not the most surprising. The mercurial star had not been present through the first five weeks of the Bills’ organized team activities, which have included strength and conditioning workouts, individual drills and walk-throughs.
All-Pro linebacker Matt Milano, recently-signed running back Latavius Murray, and offensive lineman Greg Mancz also were absent Tuesday, while edge rusher Von Miller, defensive tackle Jordan Phillips, and safeties Jordan Poyer and Damar Hamlin were on the field but did not take part in team drills.
Diggs’ absence draws more scrutiny, however, following his sideline disposition during the closing minutes of Buffalo’s postseason loss, and cryptic tweets that raised questions about his happiness with the Bills.
Last offseason, Diggs attended the first week of voluntary OTAs. He then skipped the second and third weeks before attending mandatory minicamp, which the Bills this year will hold June 13-15.
Miller, at 34 the oldest player on the Bills roster, sought to soothe fan anxiety about Diggs not being present for OTAs.
“Like he’s not here right now, but I don’t think it should ever be a question is football No. 1 on his mind,” said Miller, who was an eager and nimble practice spectator nearly six months into his recovery from ACL surgery. “The way he comes out here each and every practice, the way he commits to his game, commits to his teammates.”
“Sometimes you just need a little bit of time,” Miller continued. “OTAs, we’ve all seen you don’t need OTAs to be successful. Like 2020, nobody had OTAs. Everybody was still good. And he’s a proven veteran, a superstar on and off the football field. I don’t think it’s a big deal about him not being in OTAs.
“He’s going to be here mandatory minicamp. He’s going to show that he’s a better version of Stefon Diggs, on and off the football field. And that’s for me and my point of view as a teammate, if I’m a GM, if I’m a head coach, those are really the things that matter to me. Is he going to come out here and is he going to be better than last year. Like, is he going compete? Does he still love the game? And all of those boxes are checked.”
Digging deeper in receiving corps
Quarterback Josh Allen has found Diggs’ absence beneficial in building chemistry and confidence in free agent acquisition Trent Sherfield, alongside returning starter Gabe Davis.
“I’ve loved what I’ve seen from Trent so far,” Allen said. “The dude works extremely hard. He’s one of the hardest working guys on the team. Doesn’t complain about anything. He’s rolling right now. And I don’t know if he would have gotten those reps without Stef.”
Allen acknowledged that this phase of offseason workouts is voluntary, and “OTAs aren’t for everybody,” when asked about Diggs.
“We’d love to have him here,” Allen said. “But you know, some of the guys are getting a lot of good work, and maybe we wouldn’t have gotten that if he is here right now. So, I know those guys aren’t taking that for granted.”
Rookie receiver Justin Shorter took advantage of his practice reps well enough to catch the eye of Miller. The aspiring general manager mentioned Shorter and second-year safety Ja’Marcus Ingram, an undrafted free agent pickup from University at Buffalo, as his standouts on Tuesday.
Who’s the MIKE?
With Milano missing Tuesday’s practice, there were more reps to go around at linebacker, where the Bills need to replace starter Tremaine Edmunds in the middle.
Rookie linebacker Dorian Williams, the third-round pick who played mostly outside at Tulane is learning the MLB position during OTAs, coach Sean McDermott said Tuesday.
“We’ll see where that goes. He played a little bit of both in college,” McDermott said. “Our biggest ask of him is to come in and learn the defense, and certainly he’ll contribute on special teams as well we hope.”
Second-year linebackers Terrel Bernard and Baylon Spector, along with veteran Tyrell Dodson, who was Edmunds’ primary backup last season, are also in the middle of the position battle.
A few familiar faces walked the sidelines while McDermott and his coaching staff worked with players on the field.
Tuesday’s practice visitors included UB coach Maurice Linguist and the Bulls’ coordinators, as well as Toronto Raptors broadcaster Jack Armstrong, the former Niagara basketball coach.
Armstrong spent much of the practice chatting with Bills general manager Brandon Beane, and later got an audience with Allen.
Linguist was able to catch up with two of his former players: Ingram and safety Dean Marlowe, who was a freshman at James Madison in 2011 when Linguist was his position coach.
McDermott greeted the visiting coaches after practice. He also mentioned having the opportunity to chalk talk Monday with St. John Fisher football coach Paul Vosburgh, a Lockport native.
“Who I have a great deal of respect for,” McDermott said. “He’s been at this 30-plus years. This is year seven for me.”