ROCHESTER, N.Y. — As practice came and went on Thursday morning, training camp is officially over for the Buffalo Bills. Day 12 of the camp was more of a low-key session as the team didn’t wear full pads, likely in preparation for its home preseason game on Saturday against the Colts.
Now the Bills pick up their entire operation and move back home, conducting all their practices and meetings in Orchard Park in their usual team facilities. And with training camp ending, we also began to see some trends and specific players who have helped themselves ahead of their three preseason games.
What stood out from the last two-and-a-half-weeks? Here is a full Bills training camp debrief before the preseason begins.
Players in a better position than when camp started
RB James Cook
Even before camp started, the Bills were not shy about their opinion of Cook’s potential in their offense. And on one of the first few days, offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey even used the term “three-down back” when speaking about Cook’s potential should he realize it. In practices, Cook continued to provide the team with plenty of reasons to be optimistic about both his outlook and role in their 2023 season. Cook went coast-to-coast as their unquestioned top running back at camp, displaying excellent pass-catching skills and a good knack for finding running lanes between the tackles. Of course, there was no tackling so it’s not a true gauge of his running effectiveness, but it checked the training camp box as well as it could. Cook has big play potential regardless of the play call, which excites the Bills. Cook also separated himself from backups Damien Harris and Latavius Murray, with Murray giving Harris a run for the primary backup duties due to his performance. On top of it all, Nyheim Hines was lost for the season due to injury, and he was a borderline favorite to be their top backup this year. With a cleared runway, Cook appears to be locked into a significant role barring injury.
TE Dalton Kincaid
In just his first training camp, Kincaid provided everything the Bills could have hoped to see out of their 2023 first-round pick. An excellent ability to separate in man coverage, find weak points in zone defense and win at the catch point? Check. Establishing a good and still-improving chemistry with franchise quarterback Josh Allen? Check. Giving them all the comfort they could want in mid-August in running a lot of 12 personnel this season? Check. And as a bonus, assimilating well into the locker room? Checks across the board. Publicly, the Bills likely won’t announce their hopes for Kincaid in his rookie season, but privately, they must feel pretty excited he can be a legitimate contributor to their offense in his first year. Coach Sean McDermott said rookies have to earn the trust and the “keys to the kingdom” to get ample playing time in their first year, and Kincaid has done everything right so far to earn at least a key to the kingdom’s garage.
G/C Ryan Bates
In the competition at starting right guard, Bates has improved his standing just by being the more consistent player ahead of second-round rookie O’Cyrus Torrence. It’s been an up-and-down ride for Torrence as a pass blocker, allowing pressure at a higher rate in practices than you would like to see as he’s getting used to the strength and speed of NFL defensive linemen. Torrence struggled against not only the first-team defense, but also some of the reserve defensive tackles who aren’t as strong of bets to make the roster. Bates hasn’t been perfect in camp, but he gives them a baseline. Plus, he is the runaway option to be their backup center this year, which adds even more value to his spot on the roster.
DE Greg Rousseau
Although it wasn’t an overwhelming camp performance where he took over players, Rousseau made a habit of finding his way into the backfield for pressure almost every day, teasing a potential third-year breakout in his age-23 season. The defensive end looks even bigger than he did last year, while still using his length and ankle flexibility to occupy a large area on his side. He remains an excellent run defender, while showing even more as a pass rusher this camp. He also improved his abilities working from the defensive right side, which can increase the Bills’ versatility as Rousseau, Von Miller and Leonard Floyd are all at their best rushing from the defensive left side. There’s a bit of a “what-could-have-been” had Rousseau not suffered a high ankle sprain last late November, and that was an eight-sack season. His first double-digit sack season could be on the way in 2023.
DB Cam Lewis
Even with a late-camp injury, Lewis had one of the strongest camps relative to the players who needed to show it the most. He flashed with some good plays as both a backup safety and nickel and occupies both of those positions on the team’s unofficial depth chart. But even more, he solidified his position as one of their top special teams options and could fulfill the massive void left by multi-year special teams ace Taiwan Jones after the team moved on from him this offseason. Lewis gives the Bills more versatility than anyone else on the roster. In my opinion, he’s nearing lock status for the 53-man roster.
Where some competitions stand
The Bills remain undecided but are at least down to two players in Tyrel Dodson and Terrel Bernard. Both players have received a fair share of first-team time next to starting outside linebacker Matt Milano, though the team has always insinuated that in-game performance will be one of their most significant pieces of the puzzle. That begins on Saturday, and it could mean Dodson gets a leg up on Bernard should Bernard have to miss the game due to injury. Bernard left Thursday’s practice with an athletic trainer ahead of its conclusion, though the team hasn’t officially disclosed the injury yet. The Bills are usually cautious with preseason injuries, meaning Dodson might get the full spotlight against the Colts.
The Bills wanted to see one of Dane Jackson, Christian Benford or Kaiir Elam take a step forward in the battle to be the starter along with Tre’Davious White, but no one has taken the job and run with it at this point. Now 12 practices into their 2023 season preparations, the team has continued to rotate all three players into first-team reps, signaling the competition remains wide open. Benford and Elam have made more splashy plays at camp and have the benefit of a cost-controlled deal through 2025 on their side, so a tied competition with Jackson would likely result in the young player winning the job. Because no one has grabbed the job in camp, preseason games will become the ultimate proving ground as to who will start the year at CB2. But the longer this goes on without someone emerging, the closer the Bills are to handling it in a split-series way as they did in 2022.
Players who could use a good preseason showing
QB Kyle Allen
He finished training camp on a strong note on Day 12, but it’s been a camp of mostly struggles for Allen as he acclimated himself to a new offense. He threw a handful of bad interceptions, and his accuracy was inconsistent over the last two weeks. The Bills have believed in a worthwhile investment at backup quarterback the last two years due to Josh Allen’s physical playing style, so if Kyle Allen doesn’t improve in preseason, things could get interesting at backup quarterback.
— Buffalo Bills (@BuffaloBills) August 10, 2023
WR Khalil Shakir
It wasn’t necessarily a bad camp for Shakir, who had some nice moments and a couple of highlight-reel receptions. He just faded into the background far too often despite getting a good amount of time with the first-team offense, along with a few concentration drops mixing in over the last 12 practices. Shakir allowed Trent Sherfield and Deonte Harty to catch him in whatever advantage Shakir had from his 2022 rookie season. He could still emerge as their top third receiver option when they’re in 11 personnel, but Sherfield has given them more juice at that position in practices. A strong preseason showing would help Shakir’s initial play time.
OT Tommy Doyle
It’s a tough situation for Doyle, who spent all offseason rehabbing from a late-September torn ACL and missed out on valuable reps in the spring. His first real time getting back into pass-blocking reps was at the start of training camp, and he predictably struggled. It’s now a matter if the Bills will feel like they need to keep more players at other positions due to injuries and situations, making Doyle, their 2021 fifth-round pick, as a bit of a luxury on the 53-man roster. Doyle did look better near the end of camp as he’s gotten more comfortable, and a strong preseason could force their hand to keep him as the 10th offensive lineman.
DE Shaq Lawson
It’s not about Lawson looking bad at camp, which he hasn’t. But there are several players ahead of him for playing time in Greg Rousseau, Leonard Floyd, A.J. Epenesa and Boogie Basham, and that’s not even factoring in Von Miller should he be able to return ahead of the 2023 regular season. It’s more of a numbers crunch than anything, and something has to give at defensive end with Miller’s eventual return. Trading Basham could be an option to recoup a draft pick on someone who is trending toward an unlikely re-sign after his rookie deal expires in 2024, but if they don’t, Lawson makes the most sense to move on from and immediately try to get him back on the practice squad.
LB A.J. Klein
Well before training camp, the Bills haphazardly mentioned A.J. Klein as a potential competitor for the starting middle linebacker job, but it never came to fruition at training camp. Klein mostly worked with the third-team defense, occasionally mixing in with the second unit. The majority of the top four linebacker reps have gone to Matt Milano, Tyrel Dodson, Terrel Bernard and Baylon Spector, with rookie Dorian Williams mixing in as well. With the Bills likely to keep all five of those players, and shoeing in Tyler Matakevich for a locked-in special teams role, Klein is, at best, seventh on their depth chart. He’s likely on the outside looking in on the roster as it stands and needs a good preseason showing to change his fortunes. The practice squad could be in his future.
Positions the Bills could still address before the season
The Kyle Allen section should explain it all, and Matt Barkley has also struggled this summer. If the Bills don’t see one of these two players step up in the preseason and grab hold of the job, general manager Brandon Beane could quickly get aggressive on the trade market before final cuts and bring in an upgrade behind Josh Allen.
The depth behind starters Dion Dawkins and Spencer Brown remains a bit uninspiring, with David Quessenberry emerging as their top option once again in 2023. His in-game struggles in 2022 could lead to the Bills searching for an upgrade at third offensive tackle, and an insurance policy for Brown if he doesn’t take a step forward in his third season.
Bills observations: Injury scares pop up on Day 10 of training camp
This has nothing to do with James Cook. They like what they see there, and he’ll remain the starter barring an injury. Beane has been aggressive in adding to his backfield in the past, and he might want to add some more competition for Damien Harris and Latavius Murray as Cook’s primary backup.
Next Up: The Bills take on the Colts at Highmark Stadium on Saturday, August 12 at 1:00 pm.
(Photo of James Cook: Gregory Fisher / USA Today)