With just one game left before the August 29 cut-down deadline, the Buffalo Bills still have a lot up in the air. They’ll have a chance to see some of those lingering questions resolve themselves when the Bills take on the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field on Saturday in the pre-season finale.
The Bills have a few big roles still up for grabs, including backup quarterback, middle linebacker, and cornerback, among others. Saturday is also an opportunity for the bottom few spots in the 53-man squad to start boosting themselves.
With so much on the line, here’s what I’ll be watching as the Bills wrap up their preseason schedule.
Coach Sean McDermott announced two days before the game that quarterback Josh Allen and the rest of the players would play against the Bears on Saturday. Despite the unusual approach given how the Bills handled the pre-season finale earlier, McDermott felt the time was right to give them a little more work. With due respect to Allen, the possible motive or two he gets is not the point of focus. That belongs to backup quarterback Kyle Allen, who may get the rest of the game to get a backup job in 2023. Due to Matt Barkley’s elbow injury.
Kyle Allen followed up an uneven training camp and midgame game against the Indianapolis Colts with a stellar display against the third-team defense of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Still, the Bills would like to see Allen take on the Bears, as that would surely ease any lingering concerns about their backup status. But Allen’s threat to the backup job doesn’t end with Barkley, who didn’t practice at all this week after a triple interception performance.
The Bills 2022 backup, Case Keenum, is in a somewhat unique position with the Houston Texans. Keenum was signed to a two-year, fully guaranteed contract in 2023, though he remains third on the depth chart behind both CJ Stroud and Davis Mills. The Texans might want a veteran sound for a couple of their young quarterbacks, but if they become available, it will likely take a little bit to get them, and Keenum could make rapid progress using the rules of play he’s perfected in the past year. Keenum’s cap will only be $2.5 million this year, which the Bills will have the cap room to add. So it’s all up to Allen, who will likely control his fate on Saturday.
Can CB47 get close to CB2?
It’s near decision time in many of the prelims that stretched out over the summer. Rookie guard O’Cyrus Torrence took a huge step forward last week in Pittsburgh to win the right guard job and looks like the clear favorite. The centre-back job remains up in the air, likely until Tyrell Bernard can return from a hamstring injury and have a say in the outcome. And the second mission may be nearing the end. Of the three vying for the position — Dane Jackson, Kaier Elam, and Christian Benford — Benford produced the strongest showing of the game against the Steelers. The second-year player and 2022 sixth-round pick also capitalized on an impressive week of practice before the Bears game. He’s shown well in team practices against Gabe Davis and Stephon Diggs, which could lead to more snaps for the senior unit no matter how long the rookies play on Saturday. When asked about Benford’s summer performance, McDermott kept things tight on Thursday.
“He’s done some good things. He’s very calm and doesn’t say much off the field,” McDermott said. “He comes in and does his job. … He’s ready, and he’s done a good job up to this point.
McDermott may not have wanted to over-praise Benford for doing so well lately with the job still up in the air, but some of the Bills’ recent actions speak louder than those words. First, it’s worth noting that the Bills underrepresented Dane Jackson in games despite him being a regular starter and continued to give Benford and Elam plenty of court time. With cost-controlled contract states for both of them through 2025, it stands to reason that Bills would want one of them to win the job right away. Although it was very ominous last weekend that Elam played more in the game than Benford, with some third-line defenders, and struggled on top of that. The use of Elam on Saturday for Benford will be one of the more interesting things to watch. The competition is still open for the time being, and Jackson is still in the picture, but some of Benford’s recent moves seem noteworthy.
How does Van Demark play right tackle?
The retirement of Brandon Shell, injury to Tommy Doyle at the end of the season and the uneven play of veteran David Quesenberry created a clear opportunity for Ryan van Demark. He excelled against the Steelers, catching all of his shots at left tackle as he has played more than once since his college years at UConn. But for the Bills to feel comfortable with him as the primary backup tackle, he needs to appear as a blocker at right tackle against the Bears. There were promising signs during practices this week.
Meet Ryan Van Demark – former child model turned potential tackle for the Biles
Van Demark put together a superb pass-blocking rep in the team’s training session against Greg Russo, as the defensive end tried to go wide and beat Van Demark to the penalty spot, only for the offensive tackle to knock him out of play. In a separate team exercise, Van Demark punched a defender to clear a huge running lane for a big gain, prompting some members of the coaching staff to enthusiastically shout out their approval. At this point, given the bar Van Demark has set against the Steelers, the likelihood of him being asked on waivers has increased exponentially. The NFL has a dearth of offensive tackles, and anyone who shows they can play is snapped up quickly. While Van Demark still needs to prove a few things, it is trending positively for him to make the team.
The third pre-season match is always the time for a few players to play in the 53-man roster. And every year, it boils down to a handful of guys trying to make the team. Van Demark fits into this group, but here’s a quick rundown of who you should watch on Saturday.
WR Andy Isabella (No. 87) — By this point, everyone knows about Isabella and how the coaching staff contributed to his brilliance. But even with all the hype, Isabella didn’t land a hit against the Steelers with Josh Allen. That could change with some picks on Saturday if Khalil Shaker does not play due to a rib injury. Isabella has to force the Bills to hold the seventh receiver in 2023, so his bid could be vital to his chances.
Could Andy Isabella be more than a preseason sweetheart for the Bills?
OT David Quesenberry (No. 77) Best backup tackle last year Quessenberry and Van Demark are competing for those titles this season. The Bills value Quessenberry’s experience, and that, combined with a better performance against the Bears, could secure his spot in the No. 53 spot. His prospects have improved significantly after Shell retired last week.
LB AJ Klein (No. 52) — As strange as this may sound, given that Clyne took over first-team reps last week in the middle-back position, there could be a direct link between Clyne’s roster place and Bernard’s availability for the start of the regular season. Klein doesn’t have much presence on special teams at this point in his career, which is important for any backup linebacker. The team should be able to return Klein to the training squad after final cuts, which increases the decision. So, if Bernard returns or the team feels satisfied with Tyrell Dodson as an interim starter, Klein could be an outsider looking in. But the Bills may have to keep Cline if he plays the lights and better than Dodson on Saturday.
LB Pilon Spector (No. 54) — It’s been a huge downfall from the start of camp thus far, but Spector’s roster spot could be in jeopardy if the Bills feel they must keep Klein on the 53-man roster. They probably don’t want to keep more than six players, so with Matt Milano, Bernard Dodson, rookie Dorian Williams and special teams Tyler Matakiewicz (full guaranteed contract with one year void in 2024) already strong bets to make the team, that leaves just one spot. The excellent news for Spector is that he will likely have plenty of time on the field on Saturday to win a place, with Williams potentially sidelined with a calf injury. The private teams would also be huge.
OL Ike Bottger (No. 65) – Although he has a long history with the squad, his place in the 53-man squad is no guarantee. A midweek injury to starting left guard Connor McGovern will have a ripple effect and could lead to more picks for Potger against the Bears. But the frustrating sign for Bottger is that he has been with the team’s third offensive line in every pre-season game. With so much in the air with the offensive line, Boettger will likely need a good run to hold it.
First Alec Anderson (No. 70) – If you’re looking for another hidden name to crack the 53-man roster, Anderson deserves attention. He is a college offensive player who has played guard and center all summer. Like Van Demark, Anderson spent the entire 2022 season on the Bills’ practice squad and had some great moments. He lined up on the second team’s offensive line ahead of Bottger. He may be out looking at the 53-man squad at the moment, so Anderson will likely need to play in the squad on Saturday.
Dee Cameron Cline (No. 96) — Assistant head coach and defensive line coach Eric Washington said Tuesday that Klein drew his attention to the way he played in the preseason, but Washington may not be the only one. Special teams coordinator Matthew Smiley Cline has been used to 21 special teams snaps over the last two games, providing other roster jobs. Klein could potentially swim upstream in a stacked defensive end combo, though if the Bills tackled one before cut-off day, Klein could be a sneaky name.
DT Cortez Proton (No. 94) Broughton has consistently played well in the opportunities available to him, but it all comes down to needing a place on the list. The team is already likely to hold five defensive tackles, so Bruton will likely need the injury to open up a spot. His lack of special teams jobs also hurt his prospects. However, it is worth at least mentioning.
CB Kieron Brown (No. 32) – In addition to the mid-camp, Brown has shown solid performance in limited opportunities. He almost caught a pass against the Steelers last week. He edged out rookie and seventh round pick Alex Austin. Like Bruton, Brown would likely need an injury or substitution to make the move, but there is the possibility of coaching the team.
(Photo by Kyle Allen: Charles LeClair/USA Today)