While it was the third day of Organized Team Activities for the Buffalo Bills on Thursday, it was the first time the media was able to witness the practice in full and to learn all about this year's iteration of the roster.
It's still quite early into the process, and there are numerous examples of there being fool's gold during OTAs, but it's also a time for players to put themselves in a good light with the coaching staff if they can string solid practices together over the three-week stretch. That, combined with finding out where the coaching staff initially projected certain players with positions, are the most significant things to glean from practices such as these.
Keeping all of that in mind, what stood out as the Bills took to the field during their first week of OTAs?
Seven observations from Thursday's practice:
1) Josh Allen shows progress throwing left
- When we last saw Josh Allen on the field, it was notable that offensive coordinator Brian Daboll corrected the first-round quarterback every time he opened up his hip and shoulders when throwing towards the left sideline. It's something that I spotted from his games at Wyoming, and that appears to be a point the Bills have made to fix before Allen sees the light of day in a regular season game. Daboll's teaching seems to be getting through to Allen because there were several examples of Allen throwing left when he did not open up his hip as much during the practice. By opening up that hip, his left foot often comes all the way back to an even plane with his planting foot, and that leads to a decrease in both velocity and accuracy. This development is indeed a positive sign heading forward for the Bills and Allen. And while it doesn't yet show that he'll do this same thing when a fire-breathing defender is trying to tear him down in an actual game, the time to correct those habits are inside of practice -- and at least Allen is showing signs of life in that capacity. The first-round quarterback took only third-team reps on Thursday, with both A.J. McCarron and Nathan Peterman splitting reps with the first-team over the course of the first week of OTAs, but the rookie showed quite well in the second half of practice. I think the Bills are taking a logical approach with Allen, setting him up for success in the early stage of his rookie season, and then slowly building him up. Eventually, I'd like to see him mix in with the first or second-team offense, and I think a time to look for that may end up being during the three-day mandatory minicamp in mid-June.
2) Tremaine Edmunds locked in at MLB
- While the Bills are taking the slow approach with Josh Allen, that approach couldn't be further from the truth with how they're handling fellow first-round pick, Tremaine Edmunds. At rookie minicamp, we had the question answered as to where Edmunds would line up in the defense -- especially seeing head coach Sean McDermott working one-on-one with Edmunds at middle linebacker. As the entire team joined the rookies this week, Edmunds is locked in at middle linebacker and didn't leave the field once from the first-team defense. You never want to read too much into things during OTAs, but this is an exception -- because there is a considerable disparity between Edmunds and his backup, Tanner Vallejo. Edmunds and second-year linebacker Matt Milano were the two linebackers that never left the field on Thursday, with Lorenzo Alexander filtering in and joining them when the Bills went to the base 4-3 defense. As long as he stays healthy, Edmunds has a strong chance to be in the running for the NFL's defensive rookie of the year, merely for the stats he's likely to put up with so much time on the field.
3) A shuffle of the interior offensive line
- The sudden retirements of both Richie Incognito and Eric Wood have turned the interior of the Bills' offensive line into a brand new unit in 2018. On Thursday, all three positions saw a different first-team player than what we saw to end the 2017 season. Vladimir Ducasse swapped from right guard to left guard, newly signed Russell Bodine took the reps at center, and former third-round pick John Miller received all the top reps at right guard. Now, the Bills are rotating their interior line, with Ryan Groy likely to get a shot at center along with Bodine. It remains a question if Groy will, in fact, get some time at one of the two guard spots in this ever-evolving competition. Rookie and fifth-round pick Wyatt Teller is also trying to show some versatility, as he lined up at right guard during today's practice although playing much of his college career at left guard. I would expect a firm rotation of those four-to-five players to continue into training camp until someone starts to take hold of one of the jobs through the preseason games.
4) Taron Johnson gets his fill of reps at nickel
- The rookie impact in the first week of OTAs on the first-team defense was already evident with Tremaine Edmunds, but he had a little company from the draft class. Fourth-round pick and cornerback Taron Johnson lined up as the nickel cornerback with the first-team defense, which is a fantastic first-step for the small school player as 2018 is concerned. Now, it comes with a bit of an asterisk, only because the Bills did not have Vontae Davis on Thursday. Davis is likely to be the team's starting right cornerback on the outside, and without him, the Bills used Phillip Gaines at that spot. When Davis is back, and Gaines is not on the outside, he'll likely serve as legitimate competition for the rookie Johnson during training camp. After all, as the Bills were going through their defensive rotations, they only had two players practicing as a nickel cornerback, with Johnson taking the first and second-team reps, and Ryan Carter getting the third-team reps. Either way, Johnson has a big chance to show the coaching staff that he's worthy of the top billing with Gaines preoccupied at a different spot on the defense.
5) Yarbrough makes high profile switch
- During the offseason, the Bills made one major, and one minor move at the defensive end position. The big step they made was in signing free agent Trent Murphy to a lucrative, long-term contract -- and he's going to slot in as the starter at left defensive end for the Bills. As for the minor move, the Bills moved on from Ryan Davis -- the primary backup at right defensive end behind Jerry Hughes. During the 2017 season, both Shaq Lawson and Eddie Yarbrough lined up at the left defensive end which meant one of those two would need to make the switch over to the money position at the right defensive end. That's usually the spot where you put some of your best options to get after the passer because they'll often be up against a more athletic player at left tackle. I had some thought that it would be Lawson, the former first-round pick, making a move to that side of the defensive line because that's the side he has played for most of his career leading up to his time in Buffalo. It was Yarbrough -- the upstart training camp darling from 2017 -- that lined up as the primary backup to Hughes, which goes to show the current pecking order at the defensive end position. On the left side, Lawson has Owa Odighizuwa right behind him on the depth chart -- and is entering a crucial spring and summer to find a stable place on the roster. While I don't think they would cut him, I believe a trade would indeed be on the table if Odighizuwa outperforms him in training camp and the preseason.
6) Zay Jones shelved, while Benjamin takes a step forward
- Before the Bills even took the field on Thursday, head coach Sean McDermott delivered the news that second-year wide receiver Zay Jones -- a penciled in starter for the 2018 season -- would miss the remainder of the spring practices. McDermott unveiled that Jones had surgery late last week, and "at this point" doesn't believe that Jones is in jeopardy of missing the 2018 season. This offseason program is a crucial time for Jones, the former second-round pick that struggled for much of his rookie season in 2017. It could have helped him entirely get back into the swing of things and build up some confidence heading into training camp. Especially with a razor-thin depth chart at his position, Jones could have firmly cemented himself as the starter heading into 2018 -- which is a year where the Bills need to see growth from their former high draft selection. Instead, those reps will now go to the likes of Malachi Dupre, Rod Streater, and Andre Holmes, giving someone else a chance to stand out and steal a high profile starting spot on an offense in dire need of someone to step up at the position. Conversely, the Bills have great news on Kelvin Benjamin, who has been practicing in full for the team after he had knee surgery in the offseason. Without Jones, Benjamin is now the unquestioned top receiver on the roster and will be depended upon heavily by the team to be their top playmaker at the position.
7) Two unheralded WRs stand out
- You always have to be careful this time of year at OTAs. There are plenty of instances where players look fantastic going through drills in the spring and then fall flat once the pads go on at training camp and into the preseason. However, for every Dez Lewis that echoes that trend, there's a Stevie Johnson that showed a team he could play for the very first time. I'll never forget seeing Johnson in the first week of OTAs. Then an unknown seventh-round pick, he was getting consistent separation and then turned into the Stevie Johnson that was the team's top receiver for a time. Keeping both of those names in mind, a pair of receivers that stood out to me on Thursday was Malachi Dupre and Quan Bray. Dupre might be the name you recognize more, seeing as how he was on the Bills practice squad for most of 2017, and then called up near the end of the season. Dupre rotated in with the first-team offense quite a bit, and his speed and route running is natural to see on the field. I'm quite interested to see how he does with such a clear opportunity. Bray was a bit of a surprise for me. Admittedly, I did not know much about him heading into the OTAs, but he took advantage of his opportunities as the second-team offense slot receiver, consistently gaining separation and finding the weak areas over the middle of the field. There's still a long time to go between now and the time when the 53-man rosters are due, but of all the unknowns today on the field, he caught my eye the most of anyone.