untung99.biz: Five things we learned about the Bills in Saturdays preseason win over Colts

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ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — The Buffalo Bills’ 2023 campaign officially began Saturday with the team’s 23-19 preseason win over the Indianapolis Colts at Highmark Stadium. The Bills have made exhibition victories a habit since 2019, with this being the 10th in their last 11 preseason games under coach Sean McDermott.

But more importantly, it was the first opportunity to see this year’s roster in a live game setting, and also a look into how the team views those players and their current places on the depth chart. The actions of reps — when they happen, how many they get, and who it comes with — can give a really strong idea as to where the team is leaning with only 17 days before final cuts.

What from the Bills’ utilizations stood out in their win over the Colts? Here are several takeaways from what unfolded Saturday.

Dalton Kincaid, and a brief tease of what’s on the horizon?

Even though the Bills rested quarterback Josh Allen and top receiver Stefon Diggs, how the team opened the game — and specifically with which players, could be a sign of what’s to come in 2023. The Bills opened with running back James Cook, Gabe Davis and Trent Sherfield at receiver — with Sherfield in at Z-receiver for Diggs — and tight ends Dawson Knox and Dalton Kincaid along with them on their first two plays. The 12 personnel formation, or 11 1/2, as general manager Brandon Beane termed it after the draft, is something Kincaid’s excellent camp performances have turned into a real possibility to be one of their most-used groupings in 2023. It’s a notable shift, considering the Bills ran 12 personnel at the league’s lowest rate in 2022. And although Kincaid went without a catch or a target, it was how little they used him that was most notable.

Kincaid played locked-in starter’s reps as if they didn’t need to see much more from the impressive rookie. Or that they didn’t want other teams to see their plans for him. Kincaid exited the game after two series, just four snaps in total. The offensive players who followed that same strategy for playing time include Cook, Davis, Sherfield, Knox, Dion Dawkins, Connor McGovern, Mitch Morse and Spencer Brown. Outside of Sherfield, who was in for Diggs, everyone else is an unquestioned starter for their position. So even though Kincaid didn’t make any big waves in his debut, those could be coming in the regular season with a lot of playing time if Saturday’s usage was any indication.

The top 6 WRs are easy to see, but the order showed a shift from early camp

When the Bills make their final cuts on Aug. 29, the most likely path has them keeping six receivers on their 53-man roster. And in the first preseason game, the top six were as clear as day. Davis, Sherfield, Deonte Harty, Khalil Shakir and rookie Justin Shorter took all their reps in the first half and were shut down from offensive action from that point forward. Veteran Andy Isabella mixed in for three snaps on the team’s final offensive possession in the first half to get a new slot receiver on the field, but then played well into the second half. None of the other six active receivers played a snap in the first half.


Bills 53-man roster projection: Who makes the cut as preseason begins?

But more interesting than just who the six were, which is pretty easy to see based on investments and potential, is the order in which they were used. Sherfield played for Diggs, so it remains to be seen how the Bills use him when Diggs plays, but it’s noteworthy that they shut Sherfield down after just two series. Sherfield even went into the huddle for the third series and was called back to the sidelines because his day was over. That could be a telling sign for how they view him in the receiver pecking order, with Sherfield showing the ability to play Z-receiver and inside as the slot receiver.

They’ve talked him up all spring and summer, his opportunities with the first team continue to rise, and as of right now, Sherfield looks like the clear third receiver with two preseason games to go. The Kincaid factor may not make the third receiver a humongous role early on, but Sherfield has taken a step ahead. Perhaps more surprising, when the Bills went to 11 personnel for the first time in the game, it was Harty, not Shakir, getting those snaps. The Bills also ended Harty’s afternoon one drive before Shakir. Once Sherfield’s day was done, Shakir subbed in as the Z-receiver. Perhaps Shakir shifts back to slot receiver once Diggs is available. But until we see that in a game, Harty looks to be ahead of Shakir at this point.

Dane Jackson played as much as a locked-in starter. But is he one?

The battle for a starting cornerback job involves the trio of Dane Jackson, Kaiir Elam and Christian Benford, and they’ve continued a convoluted three-man rotation for the duration of training camp. Jackson started the game as Tre’Davious White’s running mate at boundary cornerback and even followed suit with the plan for the defensive starters. The Bills had an early exit planned for many of their defined starters, even pulling White and the safety duo of Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer in the middle of a series once they hit 10 total snaps. As for Jackson, his only action came on the first defensive series — five plays in total — with him picking off a gift of a pass from rookie quarterback Anthony Richardson.

The fact he was pulled so early signals a locked-in role in most cases, but this is where the nuance of the situation can explain their actions. If there’s one cornerback they know everything about in a game setting, it’s Jackson. He has 22 career regular-season starts, including 14 last season. It benefits them more to see how their two second-year competitors have grown in a game setting, which is why Elam (41 snaps) and Benford (36) played the rest of the way in the first half. Elam subbed in for Jackson at the start of the second series, and then Benford came in for White five plays into that drive. With both young players signed through at least the 2025 season, the team’s ideal situation is for one to win the job outright. All this playing time could be an effort to get either Elam or Benford to compel them enough to name one a starter. Some up-and-down play from both likely pushes this competition at least another week out from making a decision.

‘Open’ backup QB competition shifts slightly toward Barkley, but questions remain

After the game, coach Sean McDermott confirmed that the backup quarterback competition remained open between Kyle Allen and Matt Barkley. Allen was a bit all over the place, despite describing his outing as “smooth.” There were a couple of throws he fired in to his target impressively, though there were even more examples of Allen’s accuracy forcing his receiver into a tough reception or an incompletion. Despite a throw going through the hands of undrafted rookie wideout Tyrell Shavers, Allen’s interception almost had more to do with his double-pump faking at an oncoming defender and trying to force the ball in to Shavers anyway. The rough outing typified what we saw during training camp.

On the flip side, Barkley entered the lineup in the second half with super accurate results. He won the battle of the stat sheet, though all his time came against Colts third-string defenders, and Barkley’s lack of zip on his throws likely would have gotten him into trouble against better defenders. Barkley took a step forward, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he gets the second-team reps against the Steelers. But the backup quarterback performances, on the whole this summer, have left a lot to be desired. A good Barkley performance against better competition next week could help ease their minds, but work needs to be done past just this one good second half.

Things can still change, but I can’t shake the feeling that the Bills’ 2023 backup quarterback is not currently on the team. Some will argue that the backup doesn’t matter because if Josh Allen is out, the season likely will unravel anyway. However, that isn’t how Beane has operated recently with the position. He knows they’re in a Super Bowl window, and if Allen has to miss some games, having a solid replacement who can keep things afloat is worth a lot. As to who is out there worth signing or trading for, it’s worth monitoring the 49ers quarterback situation. Brock Purdy appears to be the starter, which could make Sam Darnold or Trey Lance available via trade. The best-case scenario for the Bills would be if they could trade for Darnold, who is tight with Josh Allen and is someone the Bills have long been fans of since the 2018 draft process. Regardless of who it is, if Beane isn’t satisfied with the backup situation, he could make a move to quickly improve it.

Klein jumps Spector in MLB pecking order

The day at training camp when second-year linebacker Baylon Spector trotted out as the first-team middle linebacker seems like a distant memory. That happened all the way back on July 28, and Spector hasn’t sniffed first-team reps since — not even getting a padded practice with the top unit. And even with Terrel Bernard sidelined due to a hamstring injury, Spector’s place on the depth chart worsened Saturday. Veteran A.J. Klein played ahead of Spector at middle linebacker, with Klein taking all his defensive reps in the first half next to rookie Dorian Williams. Spector didn’t get a single snap on defense until the second half, exclusively with the third-team defense as he played the rest of the game. Perhaps the Bills wanted to get an extended evaluation of Spector, but it’s a discouraging sign he didn’t get any time next to Williams.

Quick hits

RG O’Cyrus Torrence — The Bills gave their second-round rookie the start ahead of Ryan Bates, which was a guilt-free way to get their investment some time without risking their franchise quarterback. Torrence played the entire first half at right guard, even with the second-team offense. Given how they’ve handled training camp, it would not be a surprise to see Bates with the first-team at right guard against the Steelers.

LB Terrel Bernard — The Bills lost Tyrel Dodson’s main competition for the middle linebacker spot in Thursday’s practice due to a hamstring, and Bernard did not play in the game. While McDermott doesn’t specifically have a timetable for Bernard’s return, he added after the game that hamstrings usually take a little bit of time to heal. With only 30 days until their regular-season opener, Dodson should be viewed as the favorite to start unless Bernard gets back in short order.

Check out more quick hits from Saturday’s preseason action here.

Up next: The Bills get back to practice this week and will travel to take on the Steelers on Saturday, Aug. 19.

Note: Game MVP and LVP will return for the regular season.

(Photo of Dane Jackson: Mark Konezny / USA Today)