Sixty more minutes of preseason game action means one thing: the regular season for the Buffalo Bills is just around the corner. However, as Rex Ryan told reporters in the week leading up to their final exhibition contest against Detroit, someone on the field will make the team based on how they play Thursday night.
Most the starters will be given the night off to preserve them for the start of the regular season — at least it’s expected, based on how the Bills treated last week’s game in Washington as most teams do with the fourth preseason game.
So, who has the best chance to make the roster with a big performance? Five different things to track as players are fighting for their roster lives:
1) Dez Lewis vs. Walt Powell vs. Jarrett Boykin
- After a summer full of debate about the wide receiver position, it all boils down to these three players. Marquise Goodwin and Greg Salas have each safely put themselves on the roster with consistent play, but a fifth wide receiver — at least — needs to be kept and it’s now down to Lewis, Powell, and Boykin. All three contribute on special teams, which is why they were kept over Greg Little through the first round of cuts. At this point, Powell seems to have the edge on the competition for the fifth position, considering how well he’s performed on offense and the value he adds as a returner on special teams. He is not firmly the fifth wide receiver, so therein lies opportunity for both Lewis and Boykin to pluck that spot away from them. Even if they are unable, the Bills still have about three flex spots on their roster to potentially keep a sixth receiver. The chances that it happens aren’t great, considering Marcus Easley is due to return at some point in the middle of the season if all goes well, but there is at least a little hope for a sixth player to be added. Offensive performances will be heavily valued, as will what they’re able to do on special teams.
2) Lavar Edwards has a chance
- At the end of training camp Rex Ryan identified a few players as ones that impressed him the most during the summer, and defensive lineman Lavar Edwards was one of them. He was given a new lease on a potential spot on the roster after Marcell Dareus was suspended by the National Football League. Edwards, with a solid performance on Thursday night against the Lions, can absolutely steal one of those three flex spots on the active roster. Heck, it isn’t likely, but Leger Douzable isn’t necessarily a set in stone lock for the roster just yet, so there is even a remote possibility that Edwards could find his way on as the fifth defensive lineman. Keep an eye on No. 93.
3) Glenn Gronkowski gunning for the roster
- The roster dream is still alive for the Western New York native Glenn Gronkowski, and he’s made some great strides over the last two weeks for the Bills. The fullback may not have a chance at unseating Jerome Felton for the main job, but he has at least a slight chance to make the 53-man roster as a hybrid fullback/tight end that can contribute on special teams. He gave the key block on Jonathan Williams’ 37-yard touchdown run against Washington last week, and combined with some of his work on special teams, is putting him in the direct conversation to be kept on. If he were to be kept on the 53-man roster, it isn’t likely that he would be active on game day. However, Gronkowski has positioned himself to be a pretty safe bet to be on the Bills practice squad, and with more blocks like the one he gave on that touchdown run, could even convince Doug Whaley and Rex Ryan to keep him with one of those three flex spots that are up for grabs.
4) Nick O’Leary’s attempt at atonement
- The Bills were likely set to move on from their former sixth-round pick from 2015, tight end Nick O’Leary if all went well from a health perspective at the position. All did not go well for the Bills in Washington, when Chris Gragg suffered a torn ACL and will now miss the entire 2016 regular season. Just as it didn’t go well for the Bills in Washington, O’Leary made a critical error that in most cases would seal his fate with the roster — he lost a fumble after securing a reception. However, opportunity came to the tight end in the form of injury, and now he has a legitimate chance at securing a spot on the 53-man roster. Rex Ryan went to bat for him to a certain degree, almost minimizing the fumble lost and speaking to his abilities as both a pass catcher, and his developing skills as a run blocker. He will need to prove the Bills right in this final preseason game, because Blake Annen does have an intriguing skill set to work with — even if he isn’t a great blocking tight end at this point. O’Leary is the favorite to be the third tight end, but he needs to prove them right. If he doesn’t, it opens the door for Annen, or for the Bills to cut both and look outside the organization for a third tight end after final cuts come down.
5) Room for two interior OL?
- With the return of Seantrel Henderson to the active roster, things got a bit tighter on the roster for both Ryan Groy and Fernando Velasco. Both players have been the main backup options along the interior offensive line, and before Henderson was cleared to practice, seemed like pretty good bets to make the roster based on how they were used at training camp. Now, with Henderson, there remains a distinct possibility that one of Groy or Velasco will be released — meaning only eight offensive linemen are kept heading into the season. At this point, Groy seems to be ahead of Velasco but things can always change with how the game goes on Thursday. If that stays the same, though, Velasco still has an opportunity to stay on as a ninth offensive linemen, and with one of those three flex roster spots I’ve referred to a few times. Both players will need to play well though, because there is a looming threat of the team looking outside the building for a solid swing interior offensive lineman — and John Sullivan (recently released by Minnesota) springs to mind.
[UPDATE: Bills claimed center Patrick Miller off waivers]
Without any standouts at center after Eric Wood, Miller stands a chance to unseat either Velasco or Groy if the Bills were to keep a total of four reserve offensive linemen. A stronger guard of the two, Groy would likely stick if Miller were to steal a spot on the roster, leaving Velasco on the cut list.
- 10 spots available to 20 players. At least one wide receiver, tight end, interior offensive lineman, defensive lineman, outside linebacker, and safety will need to be kept from this list. In addition, they’ll need to keep either another safety, or one inside linebacker. That leaves three remaining flex spots on the roster to choose from with the rest of the list.
FB Glenn Gronkowski (No. 48)
WR Walt Powell (No. 19)
WR Jarrett Boykin (No. 17)
WR Dez Lewis (No. 13)
TE Nick O’Leary (No. 84)
TE Blake Annen (No. 86)
G/C Ryan Groy (No. 72)
G/C Fernando Velasco (No. 61)
C Patrick Miller
DL Leger Douzable (No. 74)
DL Lavar Edwards (No. 93)
OLB Lerentee McCray
OLB Kroy Biermann (No. 43)
OLB Bryson Albright (No. 49)
ILB Randell Johnson (No. 58)
ILB Jamari Lattimore (No. 96)
ILB Ramon Humber
S Robert Blanton (No. 26)
S Colt Anderson (No. 33)
S Jonathan Meeks (No. 36)
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