The Buffalo Bills open training camp on July 27 at St. John Fisher College in Pittsford, New York. Here’s a 53-man roster projection:
The not-so-surprise headline here is that 2016 fourth-round pick Cardale Jones is not among the group projected to make the 53-man roster. The writing has been on the wall for Jones since the spring, when his reps were limited during organized team activities and minicamp. Yates has the experience and knowledge of offensive coordinator Rick Dennison's system to step in at quarterback in a pinch, while Peterman is a developmental piece at No. 3.
I'm listing Tolbert as a running back because from each practice this spring that I watched, Tolbert was more often than not playing that spot. I watched Tolbert take a healthy dose of handoffs, run routes out of the backfield and be used in blitz pickup in passing situations. That does not necessarily mean Tolbert would take over as the No. 1 running back if McCoy were injured -- I think Williams would become that player -- but I believe if McCoy is healthy, Tolbert will see more snaps than Williams because of his versatility, especially in short yardage situations. It is possible another player will stick at this spot, but I will need to see more from Cedric O'Neal or Joe Banyard in training camp for that to play out. The waiver wire is another possibility to add depth here at final cuts.
FULLBACK (1): Patrick DiMarco
As long as DiMarco stays healthy, I see him taking the vast majority of reps at this position, not Tolbert.
By the end of minicamp in June, the top three seemed to come into focus as Watkins, Jones and Holmes all were consistently practicing with Taylor and the first-team offense. Tate and Brown received first-team reps alongside Holmes when Watkins and Jones were injured earlier in the spring, so they get the nod as reserve options. Tate is virtually a roster lock because of his kick- and punt-return abilities, while Brown -- though his spring was unspectacular -- beats out Rod Streater, Jeremy Butler and others for potentially the last spot. Contributions on special-teams coverage units will likely weigh into that decision. Possible No. 6 option Walter Powell is suspended for the first four games of the season.
Clay and O'Leary seemed to be locked into the top two spots. After that -- and assuming the Bills keep three tight ends -- it is anyone's spot. Thomas practiced mostly with the second-team offense in the spring, so he gets the nod, but he did little to stand out in practices I watched. Maybe undrafted rookies Jason Croom or Keith Towbridge will emerge in August, or the Bills could look to the waiver wire at final cuts.
I'm going one player heavy here and keeping Ola on the roster as a fourth offensive tackle until Glenn, who missed all of spring practices, returns to full health. Coach Sean McDermott said he expects Glenn to be back for the start of training camp, but the extra offensive lineman does not hurt, particularly when I struggle to find better options at other positions. Potential No. 4 tackle Seantrel Henderson must serve the remaining five games of the 10-game suspension handed down last season.
This might be the biggest glaring area of need for depth on the Bills' roster. Davis was a budget free-agent addition who played sparingly for the Cowboys last season, while Valles spent the past two seasons on the Bills' practice squad. In either case, Buffalo would have a pass-rush concern if either player were needed to start in the event of injury to Hughes or Lawson. Expect the Bills to keep an eye on the waiver wire at this position all August.
I believe it is good practice for NFL teams, particularly those in semi-rebuilding modes such as the Bills, to give undrafted rookies a chance on the 53-man roster. In that sense, I am keeping Lewis as a fifth option at this position. While he played defensive end at South Carolina, Lewis lined up at tackle in every practice I watched this spring. With Williams entering the final season of his contract, there is a need to stock up for the future here.
The most likely scenario is that the Bills keep only six linebackers, which is the norm for most teams running a 4-3 defense. But with few obvious choices to fill roster spots at other positions, I will give the nod to Hodges here as a seventh linebacker. Hodges appeared mostly on the third-team defense in practices reporters were allowed to watch this spring. The key for any linebacker attempting to stick around past the top four will be special-teams contributions.
The top five at this position seem to be relatively clear, while the final spot is a toss-up. I did not seen enough out of former "Hard Knocks" star Charles James this spring to warrant the last spot, so I will give it to Sylve, a former Alabama prospect who missed all of last season with a torn Achilles. He saw considerable time with the second-team defense this spring.
Much like cornerback, the last spot -- assuming the Bills keep only four safeties -- is up for grabs among a group of younger players. Sanders, an undrafted rookie from Nicholls State, caught my eye playing with the second-team defense at points this spring. In any case, the Bills will likely look toward the waiver wire at this spot. Anderson is mostly a special-teams contributor whom offenses will target if he is forced to start in case of injury to Hyde or Poyer.
The big question here is whether undrafted rookie Austin Rehkow will stick. Rehkow kicked the vast majority of field goals in practices reporters watched this spring, which might raise questions about Hauschka, who signed a three-year deal with $4 million guaranteed in March. Rehkow, who played at Idaho, also took some snaps at punter this spring, and special-teams coordinator Danny Crossman made it clear Schmidt is part of a competition at that spot. It will take three weeks of training camp to sort out whether Rehkow has a chance to earn a spot on the 53-man roster, but the intrigue is there.