ORCHARD PARK, NY (WKBW) — With OTAs now a thing of the past, the Buffalo Bills shifted into their final week of spring work on Tuesday. The team reconvened for the annual mandatory minicamp -- which as you probably guessed by the 'mandatory' part of the title, means that every player had to be there.
It's the first and only of its kind in the spring, and while teams still can't put on full pads until Day Three of training camp in late July, it's a reasonable way to gauge where some of the players stand in regards to the depth chart. Plenty of injuries on offense also paved the way for players to get some time with the top unit.
What did we learn today? Seven observations from Day One of mandatory minicamp:
1) Josh Allen's "fourth quarter" performance
- To finish the practice, the Buffalo Bills ran a simulated fourth quarter experience, in which the offense had the ball with only five minutes to go, with 60 yards between them and the end zone. The game situation was a field goal to tie and a touchdown to "win." While Matt Barkley's reps with the second-team offense petered out after only four plays that led to a punt, Josh Allen and the first-team offense made the defense work for it. After the running backs were stuffed on 2nd-and-3 and 3rd-and-3 respectively, Allen somehow zipped a pass between the outstretched hands of the defensive linemen and into the hands of the quick slanting John Brown, which picked up the first down and extended the drive. On the next set of downs, Allen found Dawson Knox to cut the distance in half on second down, but rookie running back Devin Singletary fell down as the intended receiver to force another fourth down. On this rep, Allen again stayed poised and found a settled in Tommy Sweeney on 4th-and-5, which allowed the rookie tight end to get the yardage necessary for another first down. From there, Allen started to hit his stride, completing his next four passes to get the team down to a first-and-goal situation. The most impressive of the bunch was an audible at the line of scrimmage, which he shouted a call to wide receiver Victor Bolden, Jr., and delivered a comeback throw with anticipation and right into the hands of the turning Bolden. It was also an excellent job by Bolden of staying on the same page with his quarterback and running the route the way he knows Allen likes. However, once the Bills got to the goal line, the offense ground to a halt. The defense thwarted a short throw to Singletary at the line of scrimmage, and then Allen overthrew both Sweeney on an out route on second down and then again to rookie tight end Dawson Knox on a third-down fade route, forcing the offense to settle for a field goal. So there was some good and some bad here from Allen, but there were no signs of panicking in the pocket as we saw last week during OTAs. While it wasn't quite like his performance during the second week of OTAs, I think this was a solid base to work from for the final two days of minicamp.
2) Mitch Morse returns, while injuries still ravage the OL
- The Bills had to wait through all of OTAs, but at long last, their prize of free agency returned to the field in full. Center Mitch Morse, the man that will be the leader of the offensive line, was able to work into team drills for the first time as a member of the team -- and did they ever need him today. On top of the four injuries the Bills had already been dealing with in center Russell Bodine, tackle Ty Nsekhe, guard Quinton Spain, and center Jeremiah Sirles, two more were added at the end of OTAs. Guard/center Jon Feliciano, guard/center Ike Boettger, and guard Garrett McGhin all could not participate in practice due to injury. And if you're keeping track, that means the Bills were without four players that could be lining up at center for them in practice. They were also without a whopping seven of their 16 rostered offensive linemen -- a tally so large that I don't know if I've seen a Bills team deal with this many injuries in the spring since I started covering them full-time in 2010. However, getting Morse back was a significant development because it gave them a true-to-form center to lead the first-team offense. For the second unit, the Bills had to put Spencer Long at center -- even though Long had been lined up as a first-team guard in each of the open practices of the last three weeks. So, with only nine offensive linemen, here's how it looked from left to right:
1: Dion Dawkins, Vladimir Ducasse, Mitch Morse, Wyatt Teller, Cody Ford
2: LaAdrian Waddle, De'Ondre Wesley, Spencer Long, Wyatt Teller, Conor McDermott
As you can see, the interior depth of the offensive line has been tested, which is both a blessing and a curse this time of year. A blessing, because the Bills can see who can fit in where if they go through a bunch of injuries during the season. A curse, because the players they think have a chance to start aren't getting the time to jell together. The Bills will have to hope that all of their depth will be able to make it back in time for the start of training camp.
3) How the Bills WRs lined up without three of their top four
- Adding another injury to the long list, the Bills were without second-year wide receiver Robert Foster on Tuesday due to a foot injury. Ahead of practice, head coach Sean McDermott said that Foster injured it during last week's OTAs and that it doesn't seem like it's going to be a long-term injury. McDermott did add, however, that it was still early into the evaluations. In the interim, Foster worked along the side with the athletic training staff with fellow top-four receivers Zay Jones and Cole Beasley. So, with only John Brown representing that top four unit it provided some opportunities for younger players to get more time on the field. During team drills, here was the rotation as I tracked it:
1: John Brown, Andre Roberts, Isaiah McKenzie (slot), Victor Bolden, Jr. (first-sub), Duke Williams (first-sub), Ray-Ray McCloud (slot, first-sub)
2: Victor Bolden, Jr., Duke Williams, Ray-Ray McCloud (slot), Da'Mari Scott (first-sub), Cam Phillips (first-sub), Isaiah McKenzie (slot, first-sub), David Sills V (subbed in when no third-team reps given), Nick Easley (slot, subbed in when no third-team reps given)
3: David Sills V, Cam Phillips, Nick Easley (slot), Isaiah McKenzie (subbed in as boundary receiver)
Wide receivers are one of the toughest ones to judge this time of year due to the lack of physicality from the cornerbacks, as well as the presence of pads in restricting their movement ability. Still, this is the time of year to make a good impression with the coaches to see increased reps at the start of camp, and it seems as though Bolden, Williams, McCloud, and McKenzie are all doing a good enough job with that for the time being.
4) Ed Oliver looking the part
- During last week's open practice, first-round pick and defensive tackle Ed Oliver wore a non-contact jersey to signal that he's a limited participant, and restricting him from team drills. Oliver returned as a full participant in this practice and showed off that rare movement ability that he has for the defensive tackle position. It started with positional drills, when Oliver was on his knees and hitting the sled for the drill. He extended his arms and snapped the sled up in the air, all the while with his body having the flexibility and quickness to bring his chest down to the ground and then back up with effortless fluidity for the next rep. In team drills, his speed to get through the gaps of the patchwork interior line stood out just as it did in the first week of OTAs. He even made the entire offense run a penalty lap -- coaches included -- because he quickly took advantage of Wyatt Teller's flinch to bring on a false start penalty. That drew the ire of Brian Daboll mid-lap, and it was clear the offensive coordinator wasn't happy. However, if these spring workouts are any indication, it will be a treat to watch him during one-on-ones this summer at training camp. And as he continues to impress, it feels like only a matter of time until he moves ahead of Jordan Phillips on the depth chart.
5) Dawson Knox continues to make plays
- Of the four open practices to the media this spring, there is a strong argument to be made that rookie tight end Dawson Knox has done the most to help himself. Of course, these are spring practices, and that disclaimer always has to be noted for skill players especially. With that in mind, though, Knox has taken advantage of the opportunity of first-team time to build an excellent little rapport with Josh Allen -- which could open himself up for even more possibilities when the pads go on at training camp. In that "fourth quarter" simulation, Allen looked for Knox on four of his 13 attempts and completed three of them. His speed and athleticism allows his depth of target to be much higher than say a Lee Smith or a Tommy Sweeney, and he's taken advantage of most of his chances. He does have some drops to his name, and even fumbled a ball today, but it's hard to ignore the potential upside there. With how he's played in the spring so far, Knox can enter camp as one of the ones to keep tabs on the most. If he continues to prove himself when the physicality comes along in camp then the Bills might have something on their hands. If he doesn't, it will be yet another example of not going to overboard with the results of spring. The one thing that you can't ignore, even for spring, is how often it seems Allen is looking for him.
6) Some support for why the Bills would keep four tight ends -- at least
- In their first year with offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, the Bills didn't utilize multiple tight end sets all that often, and sometimes dressed only two at the position on game day. It was an inconvenience to Daboll because the Bills didn't have good enough players for his usual tight end-friendly scheme. I believe this year will be a big difference based on what we've seen during the spring so far, and how the Bills reconstructed the group over the offseason. The Bills signed two tight ends, drafted two others, and have used multiple tight end sets routinely in spring. They took it up another notch on Tuesday, as they unveiled a three tight end set on a passing play that had Lee Smith, Dawson Knox and Tommy Sweeney in the cluster. Even if that doesn't become a staple of their offense, the need to keep four tight ends on the 53-man roster seems a necessity with how often they use two on one play. If they continue to use those three-tight end sets, it could even pave the way to keep five players at the position. That seems a bit rich at this point, but if Jason Croom comes back in camp with another strong showing and Sweeney continues to make strides, it isn't something you can rule out completely.
7) Tyree Jackson not getting much time in team drills
- As the spring practices have continued, a trend that continues for undrafted rookie quarterback and former University at Buffalo standout Tyree Jackson is a lack of opportunities in practice. As the third-string quarterback, Jackson has only received two brief sets of team drills and did not get a chance in the "fourth quarter" scenario on Tuesday. The way the Bills primarily operate in the usual team drills is to give both Josh Allen and Matt Barkley two opportunities. After Barkley and the second-team unit comes in for their second go 'round, the third-team offense comes in, and Barkley remains as the quarterback. Whether it's a reflection of not wanting to overload the undrafted rookie this early into the spring, or if it's an indication that they haven't been happy with his play, Jackson has to try and make do with only a handful of team reps. We'll see if that trend continues over the final two days and into training camp, but if it does, Jackson is going to have to have an incredibly strong preseason to crack the 53-man roster. At this point, though, it isn't looking promising, but there is a long way to go.