At long last, the Buffalo Bills will finally draw the curtains and let fans of the team see just what they’re all about. The first preseason game of the year is here, and though the team they play against isn’t all that important, the performances on the field from some of the Bills players will be of utmost importance. And all of that will happen right on 7ABC, with kickoff at 7:00 pm, and our pregame show that begins at 6:30 pm -- which includes a live interview with GM Brandon Beane.
What are some of the things to track as opening kickoff extends into the night for the Bills against the Minnesota Vikings? Five things I’ll be keeping my eye on:
1) Sammy Watch
- Following the quick, ten minute scare with his ankle tweak a few days back, Sammy Watkins has returned back to be a full participant at practice without much, if any, restrictions during practices. The Bills and Watkins are both trying to put the foot surgery behind them and by doing so the Bills confirmed that Sammy Watkins will, in fact, be playing the full amount with the first-team offense — around one quarter of the game, to be exact. This will be the first time we really get to see the top wide receiver ramp it up since the most recent foot surgery, and there is no doubting his ability whatsoever. It’s just the longevity through a season that has to be proved, and it all starts on Thursday night. If we see shades of the Sammy Watkins from 2015, I have a feeling fans will be pretty excited about what he could do this coming season.
2) Who will Reggie Ragland line up with?
- A sudden development during the team’s last practice before Thursday’s preseason game, there is now a lingering question as to who 2016 second-round pick and linebacker Reggie Ragland will line up with. Through the first 10 days of training camp Ragland was exclusively the second-team middle linebacker, never veering off that course with either the first or third-team defense. On Tuesday, however, it was the veteran — and more versatile linebacker — Gerald Hodges taking the second-team reps at middle linebacker, while Ragland was sent to take third-team reps. To make matters worse, he split those third-team reps with Carl Bradford, who doesn’t hold much of a chance to make the roster as it stands today. I’ve been quick to say that we shouldn’t go jumping to conclusions based on one day of practice, but that’s why it makes their plan for Ragland against the Vikings as intriguing as it is. If he once again is either splitting second-team reps, or sent down to the third-team defense, the buzz about the Bills potentially trying to deal Ragland ahead of the season will only get louder.
3) Jonathan Williams’ time to shine
- Finally, we get to see all of these running backs in an actual game setting, as opposed to practice where 98-percent of the time during team drills, they don’t actually have the fear of getting tackled. Thursday will be one of the four true opportunities to evaluate the playing ability of the young running backs on the roster, and to see if there might be something more there than what was originally thought. The one player that demands all the attention at this position, though, is second-year runner Jonathan Williams. The Bills have, on more than one occasion, given a big vote of confidence to the former fifth-round pick while speaking with the media. That just means it’s time for him to prove that their faith will be rewarded by showing up against the Vikings and showing off some of that potential of his. To me, the most frustrating part of his game during training camp practice was a slight tendency to stretch the play out wide too much, rather than planting his foot in the ground and cutting it up the field. Once he does that, Williams is a solid back with a blend of speed and power that can do some damage, but we just need to see it more often. If he can get off on the right foot on Thursday, it will go a long way in proving that he can be a dependable option in the event that LeSean McCoy goes down with an injury.
4) Can Eddie Yarbrough help #FreeEddieYarbrough?
- The darling of this year’s training camp, defensive end Eddie Yarbrough has gone from a third-team defensive end — and an afterthought at that — to working his way up the depth chart, and now with all the potential to be the Cinderella story of the Bills’ summer. The former undrafted free agent out of Wyoming spent the summer of 2016 with the Denver Broncos before being released, but this summer, he has shocked a lot of people all throughout camp with big play after big play. Now, the big test for him will be to prove that he can do it against another team when the lights go on. Unless the Bills feel confident in the groin of Shaq Lawson after a day of rest, Yarbrough will get the start with the Bills against the Vikings — and I wouldn’t be shocked if they leave him in there with the second-team defense, just so that they can see everything they need to see with him in his first big opportunity. If Yarbrough makes some plays like he’s done almost every single day at camp, it could go a long way in helping this former long shot to #free himself (yes, I just used a hashtag in a sentence), and make this 53-man roster.
5) Andre Holmes on special teams
- When the Bills signed veteran wide receiver Anquan Boldin earlier in the week, it put some of the other receivers on the roster on alert that there is likely one spot less to potentially be kept. That means the likes of Andre Holmes, Rod Streater, Philly Brown, Dez Lewis, and others will have to earn that spot on the team. I didn’t include Brandon Tate, because unless someone unseats him for the punt and kick returner jobs, he’s likely the safest one past the three obvious ones (Watkins, Boldin, and Zay Jones). Considering all the chatter about the road to a third-round compensatory selection, that puts some pressure on Holmes to perform well on offense, of course, but also on special teams, too. Whoever it is that this fifth receiver that’s going to be kept will be, they need to be able to contribute on special teams — just like Tate. In the spring, the Bills said they were impressed by Holmes on the special teams side of things — but that’s a hard thing to gauge when things aren’t live in the spring or summer practices. Now with the first preseason game here, we can see where he’s lined up, how many of the four units he’s a member of, and how he performs. So when the kick return, punt return, or punt unit comes on the field, make sure you scan the field for number-18, and watch what he does on the play.