After a long wait, the Buffalo Bills finally got their 2017 campaign started. And while the result of their 17-10 loss was the least important aspect of the game, we saw several performances from individual players that could shape how they stack up moving forward.
Who stood out, for both good and bad reasons? Seven observations from the Bills outing against the Vikings:
1) Bills involving Watkins early
- It’s been a long time coming for Sammy Watkins, as the Bills and their entire fan base waited to see how the top receiver would look in his first game. The answer? Pretty good… and more importantly… he was heavily included in the first team offense’s play calling. Watkins participated fully in all three offensive series with the first-team offense and was targeted five separate times by quarterback Tyrod Taylor with the receiver reeling in four of them. This is a good first step for Watkins and the Bills, who are both trying to finally put the foot injury in the rearview mirror. If he can become the dynamics playmaker they believed he could be when he was selected fourth overall, this provides an entirely different element of the offense. Next, I’d like to see him be targeted further down the field, to see if he’s still got ‘it.’ If he can prove that over the next two weeks in the preseason, the Bills will have to feel optimistic about him heading into the regular season.
2) #FreeEddieYarbrough takes another step forward
- The Cinderella story of training camp is now turning into the underdog story of the preseason. Eddie Yarbrough, who went from Denver Broncos 2016 training camp castoff, to 2017 Buffalo Bills afterthought, is now pushing to become the fan favorite to make the roster. Yarbrough, starting in place of the injured Shaq Lawson, made his presence felt in the early going against the Minnesota Vikings starting lineup. Yarbrough broke through on a third down passing play to bring down Sam Bradford and made it so that fans could see what we’ve seen all along in training camp — that he can play. He kept the positive play going, flying off the line of scrimmage, and then again against the second-team offense he continued to get into the backfield. Yarbrough is the feel good story of training camp, he’s caught the attention of his coaches and general manager, and now, he appears on the verge of not just making the Bills roster — but perhaps even earning a rotational role if he continues the positive play. What a difference two weeks makes.
3) Reggie Ragland behind Gerald Hodges once again
- Besides all the Anquan Boldin ramifications with the wide receivers on Tuesday, the biggest development of the practice was Reggie Ragland not practicing with the second-team defense for the first time since training camp had started. For a player that many believed would challenge Preston Brown for the starting middle linebacker job, the fact that the Bills were even looking elsewhere for their backup role is something to note. Then against the Vikings, the trend continued. When the Bills second-team defense trotted out onto the field, it was Gerald Hodges, not Ragland, playing middle linebacker with the second unit. Hodges was the same player that was ahead of Ragland on Tuesday, which begs the question, what are the Bills plans with the former second-round pick? Now, in the second half, Ragland did make some nice plays but he clearly lost the role — for one game at least — that he had for the majority of camp. Where the Bills go from here with Ragland — and where he lines up — will be telling as to how they view him, and if he has a future in Buffalo. I found it particularly interesting that when pressed after speaking fondly of Hodges’ versatility, McDermott said they felt it’s in their best interest to keep Ragland at middle linebacker at this time. These next few practices will surely be interesting for Ragland and the Bills.
4) The struggle was real for Seantrel Henderson
- The Bills went into the game knowing they wouldn’t have usual starting left tackle Cordy Glenn available to them, which gave a tremendous opportunity to Seantrel Henderson on Thursday. Henderson started the game at left tackle and basically played the entirety of the first half as well, and especially with a solid training camp to this point, could have helped put him in a positive light to the coaching staff and front office. Despite a good camp, Henderson really struggled all game long against the Minnesota Vikings. Defensive end Everson Griffen did everything in his power to make sure Henderson had the worst day possible, using a bevy of different moves to get into the backfield. Then even against the second-team defense, Henderson’s struggles continued. Henderson is still facing a suspension to start the season, so it’s essentially a risk-free look for the first part of 2017 for the Bills, but they’ll need to see Henderson perform a lot better than he did in the upcoming preseason games against the Eagles, Ravens, and Lions.
5) Jonathan Williams brings it in his first 2017 outing
- A huge question entering the Bills’ first preseason game involved the backup running back position, and whether or not Jonathan Williams would be able to take the reigns of the backup job. The Bills have been publicly backing them for a while now, and it’s been up to him to prove it in the game…. and Williams most certainly did that. The second-year running back looked like a dynamic runner, using a great blend of size, speed, power, and vision in his five attempts in the first half. This was a big outing for him, considering the fact that there were times at training camp where he would stretch runs to wide as opposed to getting up the field and finding the hole. So far, so good for Williams in his effort to be the team’s main backup to LeSean McCoy. He did suffer a hamstring injury according to the Bills, so that will something to monitor in the coming days, but it was hard not to like what Williams did on Thursday.
6) A Yates problem?
- We’ve seen this developing over the past two weeks, but the Bills seem to have a considerable problem on their hands if Tyrod Taylor goes down with an injury in the regular season and they need to depend on T.J. Yates to play in meaningful games. Yates, to put it lightly, left much to be desired for the Bills in all the time he got on the field with the second-team offense. He struggled with his accuracy, with getting the ball out at times, and the Bills just never really got into a flow when he was the man leading the way. Yates needs to play much better, considering the way that Nathan Peterman came out and played early on in his first preseason game, to help hold the rookie off in a potential competition for the backup job. Furthermore, if Yates doesn’t improve in the coming weeks, I wouldn’t necessarily rule out the Bills looking outside of the roster to see if a veteran could come in and perform better than Yates did and to not force Peterman into a backup role if he’s not ready. It’s early yet and Yates will get more chances, but keep an eye on this one. They need a lot better from their backup spot.
7) Rookie report
- We’ll go with the things I liked from the rookies, the things I didn’t like from the rookies, and the in between with the six-person draft class. Among the things I liked, the performance by two players in particular: Nathan Peterman and Dion Dawkins. Peterman, although going up against the third-team offense, showed some ability in his first ever NFL game — especially on his touchdown throw to Dez Lewis. The red zone area seems to be a strength of his. I really liked the night of Dawkins as well, who got just about as much time on the field as he could handle. He worked well into the second half as a right tackle and even got some first-team time as well. He stood up well to the task on Thursday. On the negative side, I thought fifth-round linebacker Matt Milano really struggled to get through traffic and was a bit slow to react in coverage. To this point of the summer, he’s been behind sixth-round pick Tanner Vallejo in his development. One other negative, I didn’t like that we didn’t see a lot of Zay Jones on the field. He was with the first-team offense briefly in the first quarter but didn’t get any opportunities to make a play. The in between? Cornerback Tre’Davious White didn’t do anything to stand out in one way or the other, while linebacker Tanner Vallejo injured his shoulder just as his first NFL appearance began. All in all, it was a solid day for the rookie class.
Bills MVP: DE Eddie Yarbrough
- The guy is having a charmed training camp and preseason, and now he might just be on the verge of securing a spot on the 53-man roster.
Bills LVP: RG Vladimir Ducasse
- The struggles from training camp have transferred over into the preseason for Ducasse, a player that the Bills hoped would not only make the team but to even challenge for the starting right guard job. He had trouble right off the snap, allowed a sack, along with countless pressures along the way. He’s in jeopardy of not making the team, even though he was a free agent signing this offseason.
Up Next: The Bills resume practice on Friday, August 11 in Orchard Park. The practice is closed to the public.