The Buffalo Bills went through their second preseason game on Friday night with the hopes that they’d get some clarity about the quarterback position. While certain developments could impact how they move forward, at least one of them might not have been the one they wanted.
The Bills collected a 19-17 victory over the Cleveland Browns, but it was the individual performances that are weighed more heavily than the score between the two teams. Also, suddenly, the Bills now find themselves with questions on A.J. McCarron, Kyle Williams, and Trent Murphy moving forward due to injuries.
What was there to take away from the win over the Browns? Seven observations from Friday:
1) Josh Allen should get time with the ones
- As expected, the Bills went to rookie quarterback Josh Allen and a makeshift second-team offense against the Cleveland Browns — a decision that they forecasted after the rookie took all the reps with the second-team through the final three days of training camp. It seemed the promotion was both due to how well Allen performed in spots in the first preseason game along with their plan to elevate him as his skills and maturity dictated it. In that time in the second quarter and the early third, Allen looked poised and comfortable. Perhaps it was because he got his feet wet in one preseason game already and that he knew what to expect this time around, but he looked as though he was playing with much more confidence. What you see from Allen, most every single time you watch him perform, is a distinctive trait that you don’t get with the other two players in the competition. We saw that in action in the first half when Allen led a drive down the field and capped off the 80-yard effort with a clutch play on 3rd-and-goal from the two-yard line. Allen stood tall, avoided the pressure, stepped into the pocket to recollect himself while keeping his eyes up and down the field, and then delivered a fastball to Rod Streater for the touchdown in the back of the end zone. That was a next level play, and it just seems like that type of play is becoming more familiar with him. I don’t think that the Bills should hand the job over to him after tonight’s effort because, after all, you’d like to see him push the ball down the field a bit more than he did Friday. However, this is a great stepping stone type of game for him and one that makes you believe that there is more there to unearth before the season gets started. And to me, that means it is entirely worth the time of the coaching staff and in practice to give Allen some first-team time both there, and in the third preseason game next weekend. If for nothing else, it will at least give them a chance to see if he can do it against the starting defense of their opponents. Allen has continued to make strides this summer, and Friday night in Cleveland was another of them.
2) A tough night overall for McCarron
- AJ McCarron has been waiting for a long time to get an opportunity to win a starting job in the National Football League, and the summer of 2018 was his best shot at it. With that chance came a start against the Cleveland Browns — the very team that tried to trade for him last year but in an unsuccessful fashion. McCarron even looked good with the second-team offense against Carolina and had the opportunity to play with the top unit on Friday night. From every angle you could think of, it was just one blow after another for the hopeful starting quarterback. First, the offensive line had a tremendously difficult time keeping the Cleveland defenders out and the pocket clean. That led to a tougher time throwing the ball, and three lackluster offensive series. It reached a low point when on a 3rd-and-12, McCarron tried throwing a four-yard pass in the hopes for yards after the catch and a first down. Those three uninspiring drives led to many fans clamoring for the rookie to come in. They got their wish, but it came with a price. McCarron suffered an injury to his right shoulder, to which Vic Carucci of The Buffalo News reports is a hairline fracture of his collarbone. The Bills wouldn’t confirm the validity of the report or if there was even a chance that that’s what it could be. However, should McCarron have to miss any time — or even just the next two weeks, that could put a damper on his ability to be a legitimate contender for the starting job in 2018. It was a tough evening, and the next few days while the medical staff determines his future fate will feel like quite some time for him I’m sure.
3) Taron Johnson may have pulled ahead
- For much of training camp, fourth-round selection and rookie Taron Johnson was mostly playing second fiddle to Phillip Gaines in the race to be the primary nickel cornerback on the defense. Gaines was getting most if not all the first-team reps and Johnson had been working with the second-team. That started to shift a bit this past week in practice, with Johnson mixing a bit more into the first-team than he had in the previous weeks. It reached its peak for Johnson on Friday night when he trotted on to the field for the first defensive series as the nickel corner. Not only did he play with the top unit, he looked like he belonged. He was a reliable tackler which is something the Bills liked about him coming out of college, and he stayed within his coverage responsibilities on the field that helped lead to an errant throw or two during the game. He did get shaken up after Browns wide receiver Jarvis Landry delivered a legal, yet vicious, crackback block on Johnson, but the cornerback returned to the game and stayed with his level of play. With a performance like that one, he may well have put himself in line to take over the first-team reps from this point forward. The Bills will still have Gaines on their roster as it looks like he’s going to stick with the 53-man roster, but Johnson’s tackling ability at that position and with that size is too good to pass up.
4) Edmunds shows signs but needs experience
- In the first preseason game, rookie first-round pick and linebacker Tremaine Edmunds had a bit of a learning experience as he struggled to make an actual impact on the game. While that didn’t necessarily happen for him on Friday night, either, there were also clear signs that Edmunds was starting to come around in some areas. The biggest battle for him, as such a young player, is going to be in the development of instincts at the middle linebacker position and trusting those instincts enough for him to read the play and make the play. On a few occasions against the Browns, Edmunds would misread the play, which also helped establish the Bills vulnerability at the second level of the field. With the way the Browns ran over the Bills, I would expect most teams to try and take it to the two young linebackers. However, Edmunds is much better in open space and shows that he knows where to be, but a certain degree of hesitancy must set in because rather than planting his foot in the ground and going to bring down the ball carrier he’ll almost let the ball carrier come to him. That’s a way to rack up a bunch of tackles, but it’s also not the way Sean McDermott wants to win and what he wants from his middle linebacker. I would urge many out there to have patience with the 20-year-old Edmunds. He’s still trying to figure the game out at the NFL level, so I would caution those that want to label him right now that they should give it a fair amount of the season before the rookie starts to be judged by others.
5) Dawkins couldn’t find footing at left tackle
- One of the best players during training camp in 2018 was none other than starting left tackle Dion Dawkins. However, the Bills weren’t putting him up against anyone nearly as gifted as the young Myles Garrett. The defender showed why they drafted him as high as they did, and why he had such high marks coming out of college. And Dawkins was often the path of least resistance for Garrett to get in the backfield. It didn’t matter the move, either. Whether it was a speed move to the outside, or a quick inside pass rush, or even a stutter step to try and get Dawkins to commit to something and then cutting and going the opposite way of Dawkins’ momentum. No matter what he tried, Dawkins just wasn’t up to par against that matchup. That’s likely a disappointment for the Bills because he’s been one of the bright spots of the summer and they were hoping for a moderately sized jump in production. Dawkins needs to let this one go to the back of his mind, and leave to see another day against Cincinnati and at Chicago.
6) O’Leary shows up in a big spot
- Over the last week, the switching around of the tight end depth chart has generated some speculation a to what the Bills had in mind for Nick O’Leary — the man the Bills kept on to be their number-two tight end just a year ago. Recently, O’Leary has seen himself get passed by Khari Lee, Jason Croom, and Logan Thomas as the entire trio looked to cement their status on the depth chart. As for O’Leary, he didn’t take his first rep of the game until the fourth quarter — a real departure from both his standing in 2017 and even at the beginning of the summer. However, to O’Leary’s credit, he made plays with his back against the wall. He made himself available on a big blitz that left him wide open on the field waiting for the Nathan Peterman pass, to which the tight end turned into a broken tackle and a touchdown. O’Leary had his back up against the wall coming into this game, so now we’ll see if his four catches for 70 yards will help move him back up the depth chart ahead if the Cincinnati game.
7) Cadet may have sealed his fate
- Much like Khari Lee has done with the tight end group, I’d lump Marcus Murphy in there along with them as the two pleasant surprises of camp in 2018. Murphy again showed off all his different skills, whether it was just running the ball, going out on a passing route, and even on special teams. And once more, Murphy has made it increasingly more difficult for the players now below him on the depth chart to go after his spot as the number three back. Since the summer of work began, Murphy moved up from being mostly with the third-team offense, to passing by both Taiwan Jones and Travaris Cadet along the way. Murphy at this point looks like he’s nearing lock status for the 53-man roster, which leaves us with Jones and Cadet. Of the two, if I had to pick right now, I’d say Jones has the better chance of sticking as the fourth running back — mainly because of his importance in special teams units. With Cadet, he’s been struggling to stand out and on Friday night, committed the terrible act of getting the ball stripped right from his hands. The Bills recovered the ball on the play, but the damage remained, and Cadet’s fumble probably has him well behind the top three of LeSean McCoy, Chris Ivory, and now Marcus Murphy. Cadet must turn it around and quickly if he wants to make it all the way through final cuts.
Bills MVP: QB Josh Allen
- The stat line might not indicate it, but Allen made a definite step forward as a quarterback — to the point where now if the Bills were to work him in with the first-team offense, no one would question their methods. He looks ready for a chance to work with that unit more consistently than he has in the past.
Bills LVP: LT Dion Dawkins
- In all the defensive series against Myles Garrett, Dawkins could not get a handle of Myles Garrett at any point, and as a result, AJ McCarron had to run for his life in spots.
Up Next: The Bills return to practice on Sunday, August 19 in Orchard Park, NY.