BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – It’s back to Orchard Park for the Bills as their time at St. John Fisher University is done this year at training camp. The team’s last practice in Rochester was on Thursday as they get ready for their first preseason game against the Colts on Saturday. Josh Allen won’t play and it’s still to be determined how much if at all the other starters will as well. But there are many storylines to follow come Saturday’s game at Highmark Stadium. Here are some things I’m keeping an eye on:
How will the rookies perform?
This is an obvious, first storyline to watch as the Bills’ 2022 draft class will get its first taste of an NFL, game like situation. First-round pick Kaiir Elam is going to be relied on heavily right from the get-go as Tre’Davious White continues to recover from a torn ACL. While his timetable to return is still up in the air, it seems like it’ll be Dane Jackson and Elam starting at cornerback. And what better way to see what you’re made of than by going up against one of the best wide receivers in the league, and he just so happens to be on your team. The 1-on-1 battles with Stefon Diggs have only helped Elam, even if he’s gotten frustrated at times. Diggs along with Gabe Davis beat Elam many times during those 1-on-1 drills and team work throughout practice. Elam also has to work on not holding so this live action against someone other than the Bills passing attack will be critical.
Sixth-round pick Christian Benford has also gotten some time with the starters at practice towards the back half of camp. It’ll also be interesting to see if we’ll get an idea how they want to utilize James Cook. He really had a strong camp as his speed and ability to contribute in the passing game were on full display. The Bills have been looking for a consistent, reliable option as a pass catching running back and may have found that in Cook if he lives up to the hype. One practice I was out there, Cook was even rotating in with the wide receivers during passing drills, clearly putting an emphasis on this aspect of the offense. Fifth-round pick Khalil Shakir was a hot name towards the end of camp as well, he had the play of the stadium practice with a contested catch for a touchdown on a pass from Matt Barkley.
Can the backup defensive backs step up?
I mentioned Christian Benford above, but I’m curious to see how any and all of the back up DBs can step up. It seems like Benford has put himself in the conversation with Elam and Dane Jackson when it comes to competition at cornerback. These guys will have the opportunity to go against an established quarterback in this game, at least for a portion of it as head coach Frank Reich said Matt Ryan will play. For how long remains to be seen.
Then at safety Jaquan Johnson and Damar Hamlin have been splitting time with the starters in practice as Jordan Poyer continues to recover from an elbow injury. They also got reps with the 1’s when Micah Hyde was dealing with a glute/hip injury earlier in camp. It seems like Johnson has the edge for that number three safety job but it’s important for both guys to take advantage of this time especially if there is a setback with Poyer’s recovery although right now he is expected to be ready for the season opener.
How about the trio of young pass rushers?
The coaching staff hasn’t hide the fact that they’re looking for more when it comes to their three young pass rushers of Greg Rousseau, Boogie Basham and A.J. Epenesa. During OTAs Sean McDermott even said he’s looking for them to contribute in a primary role and really make “a mark” on this defense. This defensive line should be absolutely dominant this season and, at least to start given injuries in the secondary, has to lead the way. During spring workouts, Rousseau said he put on five to seven pounds of muscle in the offseason, something that was his choice and not suggested by the coaches. He said it was something he wanted to do just to get stronger and improve his game.
While Rousseau added muscle, Basham said he played too heavy as a rookie and dropped weight ahead of OTAs and mandatory minicamp. Epenesa can relate to fluctuating weight as he had to lose weight coming into his rookie season but ended up losing too much. But it seems like finally heading into his third season, he’s at his ideal weight and used to playing at it. He’s made a strong case to to grab that third defensive end spot. When Von Miller had a veteran rest day during the blue and red scrimmage, Epenesa took his place. He’s had some disruptive plays this camp for a strong summer as he looks for a more consistent season, something he hasn’t had in either of his first two years in the NFL.