After a four-day break from Pittsford, NY, the Buffalo Bills returned to St. John Fisher College on Sunday for the start of their final week of training camp. It was the first of four straight days of practice on the campus.
Along with it, we saw the most movement up and down the depth chart than we have since training camp begun. Most days, the changes were more subtle, but Sunday showed differences almost at every position.
The Bills, of course, are armed with a full game's worth of notes on their players, and that's what has likely fueled a lot of the changes. Not to mention, the Bills also had a scuffle between Kyle Williams, Jordan Mills, and then a screaming Jerry Hughes at the end of it.
All in all, Sunday provided one of the more intense practices for the Bills. Seven observations from a loaded Day 13:
1) Injuries and rotations aplenty at QB
- The quarterbacks started off the rotation frenzy on Sunday. Before too long, rookie quarterback Josh Allen was working in with the first-team offense on select reps, the second-team offense on some others, all while getting the majority of his work with the third-team offense. Outside of that, Nathan Peterman worked with the first-team offense, and A.J. McCarron worked mostly with the second unit, but all of Allen's activity is noticeable. Josh Allen, by my notes in 12 straight days of work, hadn't worked with the second offense at all. The fact that they are now giving Allen some more responsibility in these practices and getting him acclimated with some other units rather than just the third-team offense, it could lend itself to the theory that Allen is still in consideration for the starting job to open up 2018. If the rotation starts to yield more opportunities for Allen as it did on Sunday, that will only add fuel to the speculative fire. Not to mention, Allen had one of his stronger practices of the summer, completing 9-of-13 passes with one touchdown. On top of that, the Bills also saw both Peterman and McCarron suffer an injury near the end of practice. McCarron was first, in what looked like a play that resulted in having his right foot stepped on. From that point forward, McCarron spoke with the athletic trainers twice and was pointing to the back of his right leg. McCarron continued and took all of his remaining reps, but had a noticeable limp for the remainder of the practice. With Peterman, he went down awkwardly during a team drill rep at the goal line and came out trying to flex his right arm. Peterman then started talking with the athletic training staff and began to toss the ball lightly in the background. He didn't have another scheduled rep, so we don't know if he would have returned or not just yet. Should either of those two have to miss a day of work, the rotation at practice will be fascinating.
2) Surprise cut candidate: Nick O'Leary
- On Friday, I made a note in my Day 12 observations of Nick O'Leary's surprising placement as reps went on. That day, I said we shouldn't rush to judgment -- especially during a lighter practice. Well, that same trend notably continued on Sunday. O'Leary, once thought of as a shoe-in for the 53-man roster, was saddled with the third-team offense for the second straight practice and may well be fighting for his spot on the team. To this point, O'Leary hasn't done a ton to stand out. He's an average blocker and an average athlete that has reliable hands and is serviceable if called into duty. In training camp though, O'Leary has started to fade into the background as other tight ends are just outperforming him. Second-year player Jason Croom has been fantastic all summer and made a difficult catch during Sunday's practice and in the preseason game, and it appears that he is improving his stock to make the team by the day. Khari Lee, once an afterthought, is the best blocking tight end on the team and has shown both above-average athleticism and playmaking abilities with his performances during the game and in camp. Lee seems to be a player that the Bills have liked and trusted more and more as the summer has gone on. Both players got time with the first-team offense while the Bills demoted O'Leary. Logan Thomas even worked with the first unit at times, showing O'Leary's current standing with the roster. With two big-time camp performers at his position, O'Leary now finds himself on the bubble, and near the top of the list of surprise cut candidates when the end of the preseason gets here.
3) Matt Milano's starting job in jeopardy?
- Speaking of surprises, Sunday's development at weakside linebacker was undoubtedly one of them. Second-year linebacker Matt Milano, who had a tremendously strong rookie season when healthy and in the starting lineup, found himself on the sideline during certain portions of reps with the first-team defense. Both his primary backup Ramon Humber and Keenan Robinson -- a slow riser up the depth chart -- worked in with the first-team defense as a rotation with Milano. It even resulted in Milano working with the second-team defense, too. I wonder if this might be something for the Bills to shake up Milano from being complacent as the starter. He hasn't once been challenged for the job since the end of last year, and now Sunday's developments had to fire up the adrenaline and competitive fire for him a bit. Upon getting second-team reps, Milano knocked back backup fullback Zach Olstad to the ground on a swing pass in a non-tackle team drill rep. Then, later on, Milano again popped the pads and was the first to make contact when drills went live along the goal line. This placement of Milano reeks of a coach wanting to shake up his young, budding player a bit to keep that competitive fire and instinct at a maximum heading into a season that they desperately need him to play well. Should this continue along into the week and the game on Friday, then perhaps there is something more to this. However, the Bills love Milano and likely just needed to challenge him a bit to get a response.
4) Undrafted rookie moves up the depth chart
- Another position, another switch -- although this one was a bit more subtle. At cornerback, we've mostly seen undrafted rookie cornerback Levi Wallace working with the third-team defense at right cornerback. Following a strong spring, he hadn't made much headway with the depth chart in the first two weeks. However, the Bills must have liked what Wallace did during the first preseason game against the Panthers on Thursday because he got bumped up ahead of one veteran that had been with the second-team defense all camp long. That man was Lafayette Pitts, who played on the opposite side at left cornerback with the second unit, but then worked with the threes at right cornerback on Sunday. Wallace took his place, likely as a further look to see how well he could do with a more significant opportunity. If this continues and he remains with the second unit on Friday in Cleveland, he could help cement himself as a part of the 53-man roster. As it stands, Wallace and Pitts seem to be battling it out for the final spot on the roster at cornerback.
5) Zay Jones looks smooth and close to a return
- Ahead of the practice on Sunday, Sean McDermott said that second-year receiver Zay Jones was moving in the right direction to shedding the red non-contact jersey for practice but didn't commit to any set plan for doing so. They just wanted to see how he did with a heightened workload, and that's been the case over the last two practices. Less so on Friday during a lighter practice in shorts where it wasn't as intense, but Jones showed up and played exceptionally well during his team drill reps on Sunday. His highlight play was on a deep post over the middle of the field where Nathan Peterman hit him perfectly in stride as Jones split both cornerbacks that ran back deep in zone coverage for a would-be touchdown. Jones looked quick, his hands seemed like how they did in training camp last year, and he looks a bit confident again. The way it's trending, I wouldn't be surprised if Jones is back in a standard offensive jersey by the end of the week, perhaps even as early as Monday.
6) Corey Coleman working in with the top unit
- During his first practice with the Bills, Corey Coleman worked in with the third-team offense. On Friday, his second practice, Coleman worked in with the second-team offense. And while that's where he was more often than not on Sunday, Coleman also rose up to take some reps with the first-team offense during team drills. While the quarterback didn't target him on those reps with the top unit, Coleman was finding space both over the middle of the field and on an out route along the sideline that drew him a target from the quarterback. Coleman, in short order, continues to move up the depth chart in a clear example of how they plan on using him for the remainder of the preseason at least. I would expect him to get more opportunities with the first-team offense as camp winds down, and to get plenty of snaps during the next pair of preseason games.
7) The battle for backup middle linebacker heats up
- The way the roster is set up, I don't see a way for the Bills to keep seven, or even eight linebackers on the 53-man roster when all is said and done. The Bills have to decide if they want to hang on to Keenan Robinson as a seventh or if he pushes Ramon Humber for a spot, but the real battle setting up is at backup middle linebacker. During every practice except for one, second-year linebacker Tanner Vallejo has been working with the second-team defense. The trouble is, he hasn't been with the top coverage units on special teams which is a highly recommended prerequisite to making it on the roster for the regular season. The player that has backed him up, free agent acquisition Julian Stanford, has been with those special teams units. Although Stanford struggled on a pair of plays Thursday against the Panthers, the Bills bumped up his responsibilities on Sunday and split second-team reps at middle linebacker between him and Vallejo. I would categorize both as being on the bubble, with the slight edge going to Stanford for the time being due to him being a more versatile option. That's one of those sneaky roster spots to track during the preseason games in the second half.
Day 13 MVP: TE Logan Thomas
- Thomas corralled a play-action bootleg pass in the end zone from Nathan Peterman on one goal line attempt, and then a few plays later, lined up one-on-one against safety Dean Marlowe and had a fade route thrown to him by Josh Allen. It was a perfect placement, and Thomas high-pointed the ball and tapped both toes in for the score. With other tight ends flashing during camp, this was a big day for Thomas.
Day 13 LVP: OT Jordan Mills
- He is continuously the player in the middle of scuffles during training camp, and he even caused someone as collected as Kyle Williams to uncharacteristically throw punches at him. Even Jerry Hughes screamed at him well after the play was over. Putting that many people at risk is worthy of an LVP, especially when he has been the common denominator for most training camp fights for the past three seasons.
Up Next: Day 14 on Monday, August 13 at 8:45 am.