For Buffalo Bills, Preseason is Over but Internal Competition Never Ends

Coach Sean McDermott on Thursday pointed to two positions in which the starters haven't emerged.
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Nobody inside the Buffalo Bills' ADPRO Training Center would argue that training camp and the preseason wasn't extremely productive this summer. The team accomplished so much in such a short time and finished the preseason off with some necessary work for its top starters in a 19-0 victory over Green Bay last Saturday.

But certain spots, such as right and left guard and the outside cornerback opposite Tre'Davious White, remain up for grabs, coach Sean McDermott reminded everyone Thursday.

What's more, no matter who starts against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the season opener on Sept. 12, those spots as well as many others on the depth chart will remain subject to change throughout the season.

Though that dynamic exists for every NFL team, it could be particularly intriguing for a roster as loaded as this one.

The defensive line is a perfect example. The Bills went heavy there, keeping five defensive tackles and six defensive ends at the expense of other spots like tight end and cornerback.

"It's great that we have those options," McDermott said. "Now they've got to play. It's time to buckle down and produce, and that's what I'm looking for. That's what we have to have from that unit. We've got to have it from the overall team for sure, but they're going to be a big factor in that.

"And so enough has been written about them. No more writing about the D-line. Now it's time for them to produce. And that's why they're here."

Interestingly, it's a line in transition that features veterans Star Lotulelei, Jerry Hughes and Mario Addison surrounded by a bunch of youngsters who are poised to step in or already have. That group includes Ed Oliver, Vernon Butler, Harrison Phillips and Justin Zimmer on the inside and perimeter pass rushers A.J. Epenesa, Greg Rousseau, Carlos Basham and Efe Obada.

The "time for them to produce" remark by McDermott likely was aimed more at Butler, Phillips and Oliver. Their production slipped last season for various reasons, starting perhaps with the absence of Lotulelei, who by opting out because of COVID-19 concerns left a literal giant hole in the middle.

Phillips also was coming off ACL surgery from the year before and was never 100 percent, like he's believed to be now.

Butler's production slipped from career highs of 32 tackles, 6,0 sacks and three forced fumbles in 2020 with Carolina to 18, zero and one last year. But he and Oliver were dealing with double teams they almost certainly wouldn't have seen as much had opponents needed to pay attention to Lotulelei.

Levi Wallace appears to have once again held onto his tenous role as starting outside cornerback, but Dane Jackson is a looming threat to take it at any time.

To Wallace's credit, he embraces every part of his NFL experience.

"I think in this league, [competition for your spot] just comes with the job," he said. " I mean, football is competing. So if you don't want to compete, you shouldn't be in the league.

"... I want to be better than T-White, to be honest. And like I said before, he's one of the best corners I've ever seen play. He pushes me each and every day."

Said McDermott: "That's true for all positions. We've got extremely competitive guys out here that want to compete. That's the environment that we foster and facilitate every day out here, yet it's putting the team first and taking care of one another. You'll see Levi out there and you'll also see Dane at times."

Same for the guard spots, with three (Jon Feliciano, Cody Ford and Ike Boettger) battling for two.

From running back to wide receiver to defensive line to tight end, the top options could change from week to week and sometimes even series to series.

Should be fascinating to see how it all plays out for a team built to win now.

Nick Fierro is the publisher of Bills Central. Check out the latest Bills news at www.si.com/nfl/bills and follow Fierro on Twitter at @NickFierro. Email to Nicky300@aol.com.