Drilling in: Bills unit by unit analysis
QUARTERBACKS: Starter -- AJ McCarron. Backups -- Nathan Peterman, Josh Allen.
It would be a surprise if Allen wins the starting job in camp. Of the top four quarterbacks who were selected in the draft, he was considered the least ready to make the jump to the NFL, and while he made progress in OTAs and minicamp, he's a work in progress. McCarron gets his first real chance to be a starter, while Peterman, Buffalo's fifth-round pick in 2017 who started two games as a rookie, has shown improvement in his mechanics following extensive offseason work. The job appears to be McCarron's to lose.
RUNNING BACKS: Starters -- LeSean McCoy, FB Patrick DiMarco. Backups -- Chris Ivory, Taiwan Jones, Travaris Cadet, Marcus Murphy, Keith Ford, FB Zach Olstad.
McCoy's potential legal problems -- nothing has been decided yet -- will hang over the Bills until the matter is resolved and he is either exonerated, or deemed to have been involved and ultimately suspended by the league. If that happens, the Bills have veteran options to take his place in Ivory, Jones and Cadet, but it would be a huge step in the wrong direction. Ivory is the best bet, while Cadet and Jones are more third-down types. The Bills might have to look at the waiver wire late in the summer. Murphy showed some flash during the offseason program and could find a way into the roster, though it's unlikely he'd be ready to assume a key role beyond special teams.
TIGHT ENDS: Starter -- Charles Clay. Backups -- Nick O'Leary, Logan Thomas, Keith Towbridge, Khari Lee, Jason Croom.
Clay will be an interesting player to watch. He has been a bit of an underachieving player in his first three seasons with the Bills, so the hope is that he can find a more prominent niche in new coordinator Brian Daboll's offense. The two were together in Miami when Clay was a rookie in 2011. O'Leary is a solid enough backup and will make the team, but the No. 3 spot should be a good battle. Towbridge is a 262-pounder who can block in the run game, while Thomas is a superb athlete who, at 6-foot-5, the Bills hope can develop into a legitimate receiving threat.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Kelvin Benjamin, Zay Jones. Backups -- Jeremy Kerley, Andre Holmes, Rod Streater, Brandon Reilly, Kaelin Clay, Robert Foster, Quan Bray, Malachi Dupre, Ray-Ray McCloud III, Cam Phillips, Austin Proehl.
Benjamin is a solid player who will be the primary target, but he's not really a No. 1 type receiver. He's not that fast, and he does his best work over the middle on possession routes, using his huge catch radius to make plays. The Bills don't have a burner and that limits their big-play capability. Jones is coming off a disappointing rookie season, then missed all of the offseason as he rehabbed from knee and shoulder surgery, making him a big unknown. Kerley figures to get the most time as the slot receiver, but the reality is that the Bills have a wide-open competition on their hands at every spot except Benjamin's, and the competitors aren't all that impressive.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LT Dion Dawkins, LG Vlad Ducasse, C Russell Bodine, RG John Miller, RT Jordan Mills. Backups -- G-C Ryan Groy, T Marshall Newhouse, C Adam Redmond, G Wyatt Teller, T Conor McDermott, T Gerhard DeBeer, T Ike Boettger, T Josh James, T Mo Porter, T De'Ondre Wesley.
Line coach Juan Castillo is dealing with an on-the-fly overhaul of his unit after the departures of LT Cordy Glenn, LG Richie Incognito, and C Eric Wood. That's a lot of talent gone, and the Bills likely aren't going to find better players at any of those spots. Dawkins stepped in for the injured Glenn last year and played well, but he may not be at Glenn's level just yet. Bodine was signed as a free agent, but he was average at best during four years with the Bengals, and he'll get pushed by holdover Groy. Miller emerged at right guard in the spring after losing his starting job last season to Ducasse, who the Bills have flipped over from right guard to left guard to replace Incognito. Mills remains at right tackle, but he's a mediocrity. This is a big area of concern for Buffalo.
DEFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- DT Star Lotulelei, DT Kyle Williams, DE Jerry Hughes, DE Trent Murphy. Backups -- DE Shaq Lawson, DT Adolphus Washington, DT Harrison Phillips, DT Rickey Hatley, DE Marquavius Lewis, DE Eddie Yarbrough, DE Mat Boesen, DE Terrence Fede, DE Mike Love, DE Owa Odighizuwa, DT Tenny Palepoi.
This is the Bills' deepest unit. Lotulelei and Murphy were signed as big-ticket free agents to join Williams and Hughes, giving the Bills a solid front four. Phillips was a third-round pick who seems like a perfect fit in the defense as a rotational player to spell the 35-year-old Williams. Lawson and Washington are both on the clock and need to have good camps. They are young players, both drafted in 2016, who have not overwhelmed anyone to date. Yarbrough was a surprise find last season, and the player who could be the surprise this season is Odighizuwa who was impressive in the spring workouts and could find a way onto the team.
LINEBACKERS: Starters -- WLB Matt Milano, MLB Tremaine Edmunds, SLB Lorenzo Alexander. Backups -- Ramon Humber, Tanner Vallejo, Deon Lacey, Julian Stanford, Corey Thompson, Xavier Woodson-Luster.
Edmunds was drafted No. 16 overall to be the quarterback in the middle of the defense, and all signs in the spring pointed to a player who will make an immediate impact because of his size, speed and instincts. Still, he's a rookie, so there will be ups and downs. Milano came out of nowhere last year as a rookie fifth-round pick and did well enough to work his way into the starting lineup. He has good pass coverage skills and can man up against the run. Alexander will be used primarily as a pass-rushing specialist because he simply isn't an every-down player. The Bills won't rely too much on their linebackers because they will play a lot of nickel and dime, and that's good because the depth is scarily thin.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- CB Vontae Davis, CB Tre'Davious White, SS Micah Hyde, FS Jordan Poyer. Backups -- CB Breon Borders, CB Taron Johnson, CB Ryan Carter, CB Phillip Gaines, CB Lafayette Pitts, CB Levi Wallace, FS Rafael Bush, FS Dean Marlowe, FS Kelcie McCray, SS L.J. McCray, SS Siran Neal.
White was one of the NFL's top rookies in 2017 and looks like a star in the making, and now he's joined by a crafty veteran in Davis which should strengthen the Bills in man-to-man. The safety tandem of Hyde and Poyer joined forces last season and performed superbly, combining for 10 interceptions. The questions are in depth as the Bills hope either Gaines or fourth-round rookie Johnson can hold down the nickel corner job, and that fifth-round choice Neal can also earn playing time. Gaines, McCray and Bush have NFL experience, but the bulk of the rest of the backups are unproven.
SPECIAL TEAMS: K Stephen Hauschka P Colton Schmidt, LS Reid Ferguson, KR Kaelin Clay, PR Quan Bray.
Hauschka's first season with the Bills after leaving Seattle as a free agent was outstanding as he made 29 of 33 field goals and all 29 of his extra points. He also produced good touchback numbers despite playing so many games in cold weather. Schmidt is a middle-of-the-road punter who may get a push in camp from Cory Carter. Ferguson has been flawless as a snapper. The returners have yet to be determined, but Clay and Bray both have experience in that area.