PITTSFORD, N.Y. — Here are my five takeaways from the Buffalo Bills training camp at St. John Fisher University:
1. The largest cause for early concern is a severe lack of continuity on the offensive line. The Bills have yet to have all of the unit’s projected starters practice together.
That did take a slightly positive turn Monday when left tackle Dion Dawkins returned to action after missing two days for undisclosed personal reasons. However, for Saturday’s workout, the first for which the players wore pads and had more elevated contact than the previous sessions since camp opened, the only projected starting offensive lineman on the field was center, Mitch Morse.
Generally speaking, linemen tend to benefit the most from padded sessions because they’re involved with contact on every snap. The Bills aren’t able to see exactly what they’re striving to build with their revamped line, especially given that the major offseason free-agent addition to the group – veteran guard Rodger Saffold – has been on the non-football injury list since camp began due to rib injuries suffered in a car accident. The team is hopeful to have Saffold return by the start of the regular season.
Second-year right tackle Spencer Brown continues to be eased into action from an offseason procedure on his back that kept him out of organized team activity and minicamp drills. The Bills have also worked without right guard Ryan Bates, who has had soreness and muscle tightness.
“You always have injuries,” coach Sean McDermott said. “I think, in particular, the first two weeks of camp is when you kind of get a spike and that’s what we’re experiencing right now. Obviously, we’d love to have those guys out there and build that togetherness, that continuity. But it is an opportunity for some other players to step in and show us what they’ve got as well.”
Still, the patchwork O-line has been no match for the Bills’ beefed-up defensive front, which consistently has generated pressure on Josh Allen and forced plenty of misfires and other mistakes. It isn’t an overstatement to say the Bills must figure out a way to pull their offensive line together the best they can for their Sept. 8 season-opener against the Los Angeles Rams and their dominant defensive line.
2. Ed Oliver has shown that he’s poised for a monster season … or, to put it another way, the kind of season the Bills envisioned when they made him the ninth overall pick of the 2019 draft.
Since his rookie year, Oliver has shown more than a few flashes of ability to make difference-making plays. He has exceptional quickness off the ball and is able to find openings in the backfield. But there have been times when his performance hasn’t stood out as anticipated, raising questions about his focus and consistency.
Since camp began here, however, Oliver has been a force. Some of it is the direct result of the addition of Von Miller, who draws extra blocking attention off the edge. The noticeable improvement of end Greg Rousseau from his rookie season last year also has been a factor in Oliver and Jordan Phillips thriving in the middle of the defensive line. Phillips’ return to the team after two years in Arizona is yet another plus for Oliver.
The aforementioned issues with the Bills’ offensive line have undoubtedly contributed to helping Oliver and the rest of the D-line look good. But give Oliver plenty of credit for signs of growth and development.
“He continues to get better every year,” McDermott said of Oliver. “His attention to detail, his approach year-round, I’ve seen that grow, which is natural for a player in their developing years – years two, three, four, in particular. I’ve seen him come into camp in shape, with a hungry attitude and approach on a daily basis.
“I think he’s off to a really good start this camp.”
3. Isaiah McKenzie has done a solid job of making his case to win the No. 1 slot receiver job.
It has helped that Jamison Crowder, signed as a free agent with more experience and arguably skill to fill the role, has been injured and unable to practice for the majority of camp.
Nevertheless, McKenzie has stood out with attention-grabbing catches and runs after a catch. His dynamic speed and elusiveness have given the offense a dimension that no one else on the roster provides, but it also has fed a narrative that McKenzie is more of a gadget player than a regular component of the offense and that his greater value is as a kick returner.
Now, he’s showing he can potentially give the Bills an upgrade over their previous slot receiver, Cole Beasley, with his considerable run-after-catch ability. But even while taking advantage of Crowder’s absence, McKenzie will need to do more than a little adjusting to sufficiently fill the role.
“I think the biggest adjustment is going to be the potential of stepping into a full-time role where teams game plan for you, you have more film out there,” McDermott said. “And there’s a toughness piece that comes with that. There’s more of a chance for good plays, yes, but there’s more of a chance for some plays you want back as well, for bad plays. And you have to know, then, through the course of a game, adjusting to that is a little bit different as a full-time player, game to game or even within the game, then a part-time player.”
4. The signs continue to look encouraging for the Bills’ running game.
Perhaps the biggest is the way Zack Moss has performed. He’s showing the strongest signs yet of his full recovery from the broken ankle he suffered in the playoffs at the end of his rookie season in 2021. Moss made a jump cut in practice that caught the attention of coaches and player-personnel evaluators, removing doubt they might have had about how much he trusts the ankle to hold up.
Devin Singletary’s practices have indicated that he is more than capable of handling the No. 1 spot in the backfield, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Bills take the “hot hand” approach of featuring a different back from the game to game based on who warrants the most carries. That goes for rookie James Cook, too, though for the time being the Bills are trying to get him as acclimated as possible with being a pass-catcher by lining him up as a receiver as well as having him running patterns from the backfield.
5. The Bills are clearly making a strong effort to have rookie Kaiir Elam ready to start when the regular season begins.
McDermott has been vague on the timetable for the return of Tre’Davious White from the major knee injury he suffered on Thanksgiving night. That has forced the Bills to go with Elam and Dane Jackson as their starting cornerbacks since the beginning of camp. Jackson has already received exposure to a No. 1 corner spot while replacing White through the second half of last season.
For Elam, this is a case of being thrown into the deep end of the pool while still learning how to swim.
“I think he’s learning every day,” McDermott of Elam. “He’s out here to work and I think his attitude is tremendous. He’s going against Stef (Diggs) and Gabe (Davis), who are two tough receivers to defend every day, and I think he wins some of those. And then he goes back to the drawing board on some of those as well. He continues to grow every day.”