And away we go.
For the first time in the 2018 season, even if it is just preseason, the Buffalo Bills will play in a competitive game. They'll take on the Carolina Panthers in a matchup that's less about the opponents and more about the individual performances on the Bills roster.
Thursday night is also the first time, on a grand scale, that Bills fans will be able to see their first-round quarterback in uniform. In fact, the excitement for that debut likely supersedes all other facets of the game.
However, this is the first of four games that means everything to the players fighting for the last five or so roster spots.
It all begins tonight. What should you be keeping an eye on Thursday? Five things to watch for when the Bills take on the Panthers:
1) The debut of Josh Allen
- The time has come for the Bills to unveil their top pick of the 2018 NFL Draft and now many will see, for the first time, why they made him the highest drafted quarterback in franchise history. Almost every single practice, Allen has thrown a pass or two that shows you all the talent he has -- an ability that the Bills are hoping to help him harness by taking a slow approach with him. The last time that Allen took first-team reps during practice was a week ago before the Bills came to New Era Field for their Friday night practice under the lights, which likely means the odds are against the rookie getting any time early on in the game. I wouldn't rule it out completely, though, just because the Bills might want to see him there to find out how far he's come. The likeliest scenario is that Allen gets a ton of time in the second half and with the third-team offense to not put too much on his plate too quickly into his career. The Bills seem fairly dedicated to taking the slow and steady approach, at least unless Allen forces their hand -- and he can do that with an exceptional showing in his first game. Should he play well enough, there is at least a chance that he can work in with the first-team offense a bit more. However, it would need to be a truly great showing to undo Sean McDermott's telling words, when he said, "we're not going to rush this." What can you expect from Allen? He'll take chances down the field and try to give his receivers chances to make a play. Through camp, his most impressive throws are when he's got a clean pocket and fires a rocket over the intermediate middle area in between defenders, and also his back shoulder throws along the sidelines. For the most part, he's limited his mistakes in training camp and has been taking relatively manageable risks. However, will that continue when defenders are trying to take him down? He hasn't made a reckless decision in camp, and the only interception of his that stands out for getting a bit too ahead of himself was after he delivered a couple of incredible throws and then stared down his target in the end zone and delivered it late. Even though it's only the first preseason game, a lot is on the line for Allen in his development as the potential quarterback of the future. If he's good enough, he could get the Bills to change their minds and quicken the pace. Though, much of that will also be determined by what the other two do in the game, as well.
2) The two-person starting competition?
- Long before Josh Allen gets a substantial amount of reps, first it will be A.J. McCarron and Nathan Peterman trying to do their best to get a leg up on the quarterback competition. While Allen has gotten first-team reps here or there, it's mostly been McCarron and Peterman splitting that time with the top unit by day. Both of these players have a lot to prove from what we've seen at training camp so far. With McCarron, who has been the more consistent of the two, the name of the game will be how long he holds on to the ball in the pocket. McCarron has taken far too many sacks in a practice setting and on a low number of dropbacks through the first week-and-a-half. When McCarron has his first read in a conducive situation and with some space, he has no problem trying to push the ball down the field. His timing on those throws, and on swing patterns and shorter routes are right on time and delivered well. The trouble, at least from field view, is that when the first read isn't there, his decision making isn't nearly quick enough. The result has been a lot of sacks, and he doesn't have the mobility to escape the pressure. With players trying to tackle him, we need to see if that's only a practice tendency or an actual one. With Peterman, the consistency has been what's lacking. He's either the better of the two or he struggles in a big way, and has been struggling to find a middle ground. The throw that troubles him, more than any, is when he has to push the ball toward the boundary on an out route. He can't get the proper velocity on the ball, and it creates an opportunity for the defender to make a play on the ball should they recognize the route. However, where he impresses is when he's willing to take a chance down the field in tight coverage -- something McCarron doesn't do much the majority of the time. One of these two, if they want to take hold of the starting job early on, will need to show that their weaknesses in practice can be overlooked in a game setting. Should one be able to impress, and with how much the Bills are putting on game performances this preseason, it could go a long way to deciding who will start Week One of the regular season.
3) Tremaine Edmunds versus the run
- In the training camp setting, you can learn quite a bit about a lot of players on the field. However, one of the positions that you need to wait on in your evaluation of them is at linebacker. With that group, you can see them read plays the right way and be in pass coverage where they're supposed to. However, when the defenders don't have an educated guess as to what type of play is coming and need to complete the play with a tackle, that's the most significant part of the evaluation that you get from those players in these games. With that written, rookie linebacker Tremaine Edmunds has undoubtedly passed all the tests that training camp can give. He's shown athleticism, the knowledge of where to be in pass coverage, the instincts to make a play on the ball, and even where he should be on run plays (on plays that he knows will be a run). Edmunds has come away with a pair of interceptions throughout camp and has been a nuisance to the quarterbacks over the middle. The talent in the pass coverage at middle linebacker is leagues better than it was in 2017 with Preston Brown. However, on Thursday we get to see Edmunds and how he finishes plays against the run. His progress in that area will be a great glimpse into what he'll be in his first season as a pro.
4) The muddled bubble at WR
- Late Sunday night, the Bills decided -- and rightfully so -- that their wide receiver group wasn't good enough. With the acquisition of Corey Coleman, it likely took away a roster spot from one of the others that had been trying to impress the coaching staff all camp long. As long as the Bills feel that Coleman is a shoe-in for their 53-man roster, that makes a group of five players (Coleman, Kelvin Benjamin, Jeremy Kerley, Zay Jones, and Andre Holmes) that seem locked in to make the team based on their role through camp. That leaves one, or at most two spots to make the team outright for the remainder of players that have tried to make their impact on the roster. The following players all seem to have a relative chance to make the team after those top five: Brandon Reilly, Malachi Dupre, Rod Streater, Ray-Ray McCloud, Robert Foster, and Cam Phillips. Phillips was injured this past week at practice so that hurts him, especially if he can't play on Thursday. However, the other five names have a lot of playing time ahead of them against the Panthers. Of that group, the two that probably have the best chance at the moment is Reilly and McCloud. Reilly is a versatile piece that has had some time with the first-team offense due to injury, while McCloud has shown some ability to do the same and also has the factor of being a draft pick working in his favor. McCloud has been fighting the ball a bit, so the draft factor is the thing that keeps him relevant in the discussion. As for the other three, Streater is a veteran that is dependable on offense but needs to prove he can help on special teams. Dupre started camp working with the first-team offense, but has drifted down the depth chart and needs to make a splash in the preseason games. As for Foster, he needs to recapture his positive spring workouts and show confidence in catching the ball. All three still have a chance, which is what makes this Panthers game and the remaining games so compelling at that position. We could learn a lot by the time the game is over with on Thursday.
5) Who will stand out at center?
- The only other starting job up for grabs outside of quarterback and wide receiver is happening right in the middle of the offensive line. The Bills have been steadfast in giving both Russell Bodine and Ryan Groy an equal opportunity with the first-team offense while knowing that it's going to be their performance in a game setting that will ultimately decide who is their starting player. Center is one of the more complex battles because of how much goes into the position. The blocking is the most critical of the two, and both players need to prove that they're better than the other one, but the player that helps get everyone along the line on the same page is also of high importance. While the latter is something that is less recognizable on the field, the former is the one that we can see for ourselves. It's been a close competition in practice, with Bodine perhaps looking a bit better during one-on-one blocking drills, but that's not enough to say one player is superior to the other at this point. The Bills are putting a lot of importance in these showings during games, which is why one of these two could separate themselves in the final week of training camp next week.