BBD Staff Writer: Eric Samulski
A lot has changed for the Buffalo Bills as they head into their final preseason showdown versus the Detroit Lions on Thursday night.
In the course of one week, the Bills have seen the return of arguably their best defender (free safety Jairus Byrd), lost their best cornerback (Stephon Gilmore) to injury, released a once-heralded potential sleeper (wide receiver Da’Rick Rogers) and with quarterbacks EJ Manuel and Kevin Kolb both injured, could become the first team to start an undrafted rookie quarterback in their season opener in the common draft era.
Amidst all of those changes, the team still has some tough decisions to make in regards to who will make their regular-season roster. With starting jobs still on the line, valuable reserve spots up for grabs and injuries suddenly opening new opportunities, the final preseason game is truly important for many players on the roster.
Chris Hogan, Brad Smith and Marcus Easley
With the release of Da’Rick Rogers, it’s becoming increasingly likely that two of these players will make the Bills as the team’s fifth and sixth wide receivers. If I had my druthers, the team would carry Chris Hogan and Marcus Easley, both of whom have been impressive on the field this offseason.
Easley was a sleeper pick after being drafted in the fourth round out of Connecticut in 2010. He has an impressive size and speed combination, but has been unable to stay healthy and has yet to catch a pass in an NFL regular-season game. That said, he has frequently beaten second-team defenses this preseason, and has even succeeded when placed against starters. He still has high upside, and the aforementioned combination of size and speed that no other receiver still on the Bills’ roster possesses following Rogers’ release.
Meanwhile, Hogan has been a real surprise this preseason. He was given the nickname “7-Eleven” when he was with the Dolphins because he was “open for business 24 hours a day, 7 days a week,” as then-Dolphins running back Reggie Bush told the Palm Beach Post. This preseason, Hogan has shown precise route-running and underrated speed after the catch. He has sure hands and isn’t afraid to go over the middle, which is a valuable asset for a fifth or sixth receiver.
If the competition for the final two spots is between these three receivers, Brad Smith could be left as the odd man out. He brings a veteran presence to the team and has solid coverage skills on special teams.
He has the second-largest salary of the wide receivers on the Bills’ roster, however, and has yet to perform since being brought in by then-Bills head coach Chan Gailey and general manager Buddy Nix in 2011. In two seasons with the Bills, Smith has caught only 37 passes for 392 yards and three touchdowns.
Given his value as an emergency quarterback option, Smith could garner more consideration with the team’s recent quarterback injuries, but if he wants to earn the final spot, he really needs to prove that he can also be valuable as a receiver.
Stephon Gilmore’s fractured wrist, which will keep him out 6-8 weeks according to the team’s official Twitter account, may have opened up a spot on the roster for another cornerback. Leodis McKelvin, Ron Brooks, Nickell Robey and Crezdon Butler are seemingly locked into roster spots, with Justin Rogers being the presumed favorite for the next cornerback spot, but Gilmore’s injury may also open up a spot for T.J. Heath.
Heath was already pushing Rogers before Gilmore’s injury due to his size advantage and Rogers’ poor play last season and in his first preseason game Saturday. If Heath can take his likely extensive playing time on Thursday and prove that he has enough coverage ability to complement his size, he may bypass Rogers or at least prove worthy enough to be kept on the roster while Gilmore heals.
The Bills’ No. 1 tight end, Scott Chandler has yet to see the field this preseason while recovering from a torn ACL. If Chandler does not play Thursday and therefore hasn’t proven on the field that he is capable of playing a full game, the Bills might be forced to carry more than three tight ends to account for potentially not having him as a full go for Week 1.
If Chandler proves to be healthy, it is likely that the final roster will only include him, Lee Smith, and rookie Chris Gragg at tight end. If he’s unable to satisfy the Bills concerns, however, then the team may look to keep a guy like Dorin Dickerson until Chandler is back to 100 percent.
The FCS record holder for career tackles for loss, Keith Pough came into training camp with high expectations as an undrafted free agent out of Howard. As the preseason has worn on, however, his name has come up less frequently than guys like Jamie Blatnick, Marcus Dowtin and even Jamaal Westerman, who the Bills signed earlier this month due to his familiarity with Mike Pettine’s defense.
Since the corps of Bills linebackers led by Nigel Bradham and Kiko Alonso will be so young, the Bills figure to fill the remaining spots out with guys who know the ropes. Jerry Hughes and Manny Lawson are assured spots, while Dowtin and Bryan Scott have shown enough this preseason to be likely members of the final roster. That means Pough may have to really turn heads on Thursday to avoid being a practice squad member come September.
Matt Leinart and Thaddeus Lewis
The two newest additions to the Bills, Matt Leinart and Thaddeus Lewis, both have a chance to claim the job as the Week 1 backup to Jeff Tuel because of injuries to Kevin Kolb and EJ Manuel. Manuel will likely be back from his minor knee procedure early in the season, however, so the competition is really to see who will be the third quarterback on the roster.
Both veterans will have had less than a week to learn the offense before they throw live passes against the Lions. However, the importance of quick success cannot be understated. When Manuel is healthy again, one of these guys will be let go.
With Chris Hairston out for the season and the subpar performance of second-year offensive lineman Zebrie Sanders, Thomas Welch has started to see reps with the second-team Bills offense. The third-year man out of Vanderbilt has been on four different teams already in his NFL career, but he has a real shot of earning a spot on the Bills’ 53-man roster coming out of camp. He has a chance to take Hairston’s spot on the roster and battle Sam Young for the backup swing tackle job.