Following their second preseason game of 2018, the Buffalo Bills returned to Orchard Park for the next phase of their build-up to the regular season. Training camp is no more, which also means the same access media received during camp exits along with those summer practices.
Practicing full-time in Orchard Park, the Bills now open up their practices only for the first 20-to-25 minutes and then go through their usual team drills without anyone external from the organization watching. Now, all we have to go by is the word of the head coach -- who will speak almost every day until the end of the regular season.
What did Sean McDermott say that stood out this time around? Five takeaways from the man in charge of the Bills:
1) Bills won't rule out McCarron just yet
- While the initial reports about AJ McCarron's injured right shoulder were less than ideal, the Bills were careful not to rule out McCarron as they continue to look for the path they want to take with the quarterback. The reports on McCarron signaled that he had suffered a hairline fracture of his collarbone, though the Bills have not yet confirmed that. Sean McDermott said on Sunday that the initial test results were a bit inconclusive with McCarron. He also said they'd be looking for a second opinion on the injury. However, late in the press conference, McDermott was asked if McCarron would need a procedure on the shoulder. While McDermott didn't say yes to the question, he didn't say no, either. It's very much a wait-and-see scenario for the Bills, but with such a quick track to the start of the regular season, you have to wonder what this means to the results of the quarterback competition. Nathan Peterman and rookie Josh Allen were both superior to McCarron in their performance against Cleveland, but the Bills were giving McCarron equal opportunity to try and win the job over Peterman. And to this point, Peterman has played better than McCarron. However, this all bleeds into a more significant point about the rookie. Now without another quarterback to dig into his reps, Allen has as clear a path as all summer to try and wrangle the starting job away from Peterman. If he outperforms Peterman on Sunday against Cincinnati -- and even gets some time with the first-team offense in the process -- Allen could be off to the races in the starting lineup to start 2018. However, the Bills are playing it carefully before they deliver the final ruling on McCarron -- because I'm sure they know what that means if they do. It just means there is that much more attention on Allen, and even on the nationally maligned Peterman as well.
2) McDermott keeps pumping up Peterman
- A lot of fans out there, at least on Twitter anyway, have been steadfast in their desire for Josh Allen to take over the starting job. That especially spiked following Allen's performance against Cleveland on Friday night and the support for the rookie has been as loud as ever. And while McDermott said he understands the excitement about it all, he also didn't want to go overboard with it. He believes it's right to "manage expectations," of the rookie player especially with how young he is. McDermott's quote is a rather pleasant way of saying, 'Hey, everyone, pump the brakes a bit here.' The Bills and McDermott both know that they only get one chance to put Allen into the starting lineup, so they want to be overwhelmed by how good and ready the quarterback of the future is, no matter how many 'wow' plays he has in the actual preseason game. I certainly can't disagree with that logic, but it also has to coordinate with one other fact: if Allen is the top player going for the job and there isn't any doubt about that, I don't know how you can deny him that starting role. However, keep in mind, Nathan Peterman has had a rock solid preseason and the Bills -- most notably Sean McDermott -- loves the second-year quarterback. The head coach continued to sing the praises of Peterman and the job that he's done, citing the quarterback's mental toughness, his drive, his competition level, and how steady he is. McDermott has long been a fan of Peterman, and you can hear it with the way he answers questions about him -- especially when he works Peterman in as the primary answer to a question about another player, which was the case on Friday night after the game when a reporter asked the head coach about the play of tight end Nick O'Leary that evening. At practice on Sunday, Peterman took the first quarterback rep which usually indicates which player will be with the first-team offense on that given day, so read into that what you will. With McCarron injured and his status unknown, unless Allen completely takes off over the next two weeks and makes the Bills start him, I think fans should at least get comfortable with the notion that Peterman may well be the starter to open up 2018. It's not ideal, but the Bills have been steadfast in not wanting to rush their prized rookie quarterback along.
3) Some optimism with Kyle Williams
- There still isn't a distinct outlook on the injury of starting defensive tackle Kyle Williams, but perhaps it's not as murky as it once was. After the game, Williams sported a full cast on his right leg -- likely to stabilize things until the team knew more. Now that the Bills do know more, it didn't sound like the team was worrying about losing the defensive tackle for the entire season. We know that the Bills didn't necessarily rule out a procedure for McCarron, and that's notable because they did that for the most part with Williams. McDermott did insulate it with the "at this point" tag on the answer, but that's as definitive an answer as you'll get out of the head coach. However, the more ominous sounding information in regards to Williams is within their initial designation. The Bills have labeled the defensive tackle as week-to-week. It's a phrase that McDermott didn't use too much in 2017, but he did in the case of Charles Clay. Clay missed multiple weeks of practice and games with a knee injury. Generally with McDermott, 'week-to-week' means an injury that will take some time to heal, but won't end the season of the player. However, the 'week-to-week' tag very much puts in question the readiness of Williams for the first game of the regular season in three weeks. For what it's worth, coming off the practice field, I spotted Williams in the weight room working out with some strength and conditioning staff around him. He was not on the field in any capacity during practice, though.
4) Phillips' jump up the depth chart confirmed
- Without Williams, the Bills have to test the depth of a defensive tackle position that severely lacked in 2017. After Williams, the Bills didn't get much from their rotation of defensive tackles, and it led to big results on the ground for plenty of teams. The team did address it in the offseason by signing Star Lotulelei and with drafting Harrison Phillips so there is a contingency plan in place at least. The Bills are incredibly fortunate that Phillips has played as well as he had during the summer and showed them that he could play at Williams' three-technique defensive tackle position that has the responsibility of getting into the backfield and creating some pressure. The ability Phillips showed during both training camp in the two preseason games puts the Bills at ease by putting him in Williams' starting role at three-technique defensive tackle. However, it puts a lot of pressure on their less-than-stellar depth. Adolphus Washington will be the primary rotational player now, and after an up-and-down summer so far, it's tough to depend on consistency from the third-year player. Then it turns into a contest between Rickey Hatley, Tyrunn Walker, and Albert Havili for that extra rotational person in the absence of Williams, though none of that trio has stood out. I would expect defensive tackle to be a position the Bills try to attack with the waiver wire when final cuts come down.
5) Another rookie getting closer to landing a pivotal role?
- For those that have tracked the depth chart closely this summer for the Bills, it was a bit of a surprise to see rookie Taron Johnson -- and not veteran Phillip Gaines -- running out on to the field first to work with the first-team defense at nickel cornerback. Johnson had been splitting reps with Gaines over the week of practice leading up to the game, but it was always Gaines getting the first crack at it. With his opportunity, Johnson shined. He tackled well, he played soundly in coverage, and most of all, he showed his coachability. McDermott, specifically when speaking about Johnson, said he liked that the fourth-round pick made the adjustments from mistakes he made in the first preseason game to put him in position to make those plays in the second game. For a player, the Bills see some potential in, that coachability might land him the nickel cornerback role to begin the season if he plays well on Sunday at New Era Field.