ROCHESTER, N.Y. — After two full weeks, Buffalo Bills training camp at St. John Fisher is slowly winding down, with the team conducting its penultimate practice away from Orchard Park on Thursday. It also doubles as the second-last session before the team’s preseason opener against the Indianapolis Colts on Saturday afternoon at Highmark Stadium.
The Bills were greeted with good news for two of their most important offensive starters Wednesday. Quarterback Josh Allen practiced in full, just as he did after a brief exit to the locker room during Monday’s practice. Offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey said Allen simply got stretched out during his time away. Left tackle Dion Dawkins also made a full return after injuring his hand Monday and sitting out the second half of practice.
The only new injury that forced a player to sit out from practice was a sore right knee for reserve running back Damien Harris. Reserve wide receiver Isaiah Coulter returned from a knee injury.
What stood out from Wednesday’s practice? Here are observations from Day 11 of Bills training camp.
Don’t sleep on Trent Sherfield in three-WR sets
As the battle for snaps with the first-team offense has continued, the playmaking and playing time opportunity has been a consistent feature for Trent Sherfield. Sherfield has made highlight-worthy plays and has a habit of being in the right place when working with Allen. It’s not as though Sherfield has been the only receiver working into 11 personnel as the third receiver alongside Stefon Diggs and Gabe Davis, but Wednesday provided him a few more opportunities than usual, and he even got snaps at slot receiver. Second-year Khalil Shakir, who had been working in with the first team consistently as a slot receiver, was mostly with the second-team offense throughout the Day 11 practice. Deonte Harty also mixed in at slot receiver.
Among the three, Sherfield has had the strongest training camp, with some flashes from Shakir and Harty mixed in. Although Shakir’s potential is there, there has been a tendency to fade into the background during team drills without earning a ton of targets. And despite having mostly consistent hands and the proclivity to make a highlight-reel grab every so often, he also has a frustrating drop now and again, much like he did as a rookie in 2022 and college at Boise State. That’s not to say Sherfield is running away with the job, but it’s clear they are trying to work him in during 11 personnel based on what he’s shown this summer and how well he played in the spring, too. This also doesn’t include rookie tight end Dalton Kincaid, who by far has been the strongest competitor to get snaps with the usual crew of Diggs, Davis, tight end Dawson Knox and running back James Cook. But when the Bills are in a traditional 11 personnel, Sherfield is doing his best to start the year with those reps.
Bills RB Damien Harris is not practicing due to a sore knee he appeared to suffer on Monday.
S Jordan Poyer is getting a vet rest day
DT Ed Oliver (back soreness), DB Cam Lewis (groin), Reggie Gilliam (groin), DE Von Miller (knee, PUP), LB Tyler Matakevich (calf, PUP) also out https://t.co/mADkuTvqdC
— Joe Buscaglia (@JoeBuscaglia) August 9, 2023
Latavius Murray shows well without Harris available
As Damien Harris watched from the sidelines with a sleeve on his right leg due to some knee soreness, it allowed the 33-year-old Latavius Murray to take all the backup reps behind Josh Allen and work into 11-on-11 with the first-team a bit more. Above all else, Murray showed with more opportunity how much more he gives the Bills in the passing game than whenever Harris is on the field. Harris is the between-the-tackles pounder the Bills haven’t had for years, but on multiple occasions this summer, he hasn’t looked as natural as a pass catcher and only contributed minimal yardage from check downs from the offense.
With Murray, he has the patience, route timing, hands and adequate explosiveness to exploit a weakness in the defense out of the backfield. Murray did so on two different occasions Wednesday. On a third-and-5 opportunity, Murray took a swing pass from Kyle Allen perfectly in stride and outran defenders for a 31-yard gain. On another third-down chance with Josh Allen at quarterback, Murray took advantage of a defense that fell asleep in coverage and caught the ball in the flat and ran it over 40 yards for a legitimate would-be touchdown.
It’s clear that the Bills want Cook to be their top running back this year, but the big question for reps after Cook will be how much the Bills want to divert from their normal operating procedure on offense. With Harris offering little compared to Murray as a pass-catcher and Murray still having some good short-yardage abilities, we’ll have to see how committed the Bills are to their desired “threat-to-run” principles during the season in how often they use Harris versus Murray.
The Bills might have a backup QB problem
On their second-to-last camp practice, the Bills operated a bit differently with their backup quarterbacks. Most days, both Kyle Allen and Matt Barkley received reps in team drills. Though on Wednesday, Barkley notably was left without any reps. This doesn’t necessarily have to be a declaration that Allen has moved ahead of Barkley. It could be that the Bills wanted to get Josh Allen more practice time with an eye on resting him for the preseason game Saturday. They also could give Barkley all the backup reps on Thursday during the team’s final practice at St. John Fisher University. But it at least will be worth monitoring when the Bills take the field for Day 12.
However, the bigger concern might be that the Bills could be forced into making a move at backup quarterback this summer. Although Kyle Allen has more natural zip on his passes, he has consistently turned the ball over either through bad throws or not being on the same page with his wide receivers. Kyle Allen had probably his worst interception of training camp Wednesday, where he wobbled a throw at least seven yards short of his intended target and right into the arms of Siran Neal, who only had to jump to make the catch. Barkley hasn’t been much better and might not be anything other than a practice squad quarterback at this stage of his career. The Bills must see how Kyle Allen and Barkley do in preseason games or even just the first one on Saturday. Still, if these practices are any indication, there could be some alarm bells ringing in general manager Brandon Beane’s brain to get someone new in the picture with ample time to learn the offense before their season begins on September 11.
A new approach at middle linebacker?
Over the first two weeks of training camp, the Bills usually operated with only one middle linebacker getting the first-team reps alongside Matt Milano. The competition has now been boiled down to just Tyrel Dodson and Terrel Bernard, but instead of continuing with their one-day-on, one-day-off rotation, the Bills began to give both Dodson and Bernard time with the top unit on Wednesday. It’s a curious advancement of the competition, as making a direct comparison on the same day could signal them getting closer to a decision in one way or another. Whether Dodson, Bernard or both will play Saturday against the Colts remains to be seen. Linebackers coach Bobby Babich deferred to head coach Sean McDermott when asked about that decision for Saturday, and McDermott will next talk with reporters on Thursday morning. With in-game performance being a critical part of the competition, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see both play against the Colts.
Confounding cornerback competition continues
The Bills have kept their battle for the second starting cornerback job wide open all camp, and just as they did earlier in the summer, they mixed in all three of the Dane Jackson, Christian Benford and Kaiir Elam trio with the first-team defense opposite locked-in starter Tre’Davious White. Of the three, Jackson and Benford received the most time partnered with White, while Elam only got a late-practice series. The Bills seem to be waiting for one of these players to rise above the rest, but it has yet to surface and they haven’t even been able to narrow the job down to two players like they did at middle linebacker. Considering their draft investment in Benford and Elam, you’d have to believe that one of that duo is the favorite to come out of the competition on top. However, Jackson’s continued reps show his experience, tackling and knowledge of the scheme go a long way in their evaluation. With a short depth chart behind that trio, it wouldn’t be surprising to see all three get time on the field during the preseason game on Saturday.
How Poona Ford fits the Bills’ plans at DT for 2023 and beyond
Settle, Ford working in with the first team
The Bills were without starting three-technique defensive tackle Ed Oliver for a second day in a row, as they kept him out of practice due to back soreness. And although Jordan Phillips continued to work his way back off the physically unable to perform list, he remained limited in practice and did not participate in either team drills or one-on-ones. As Phillips’ natural position in their defense is the same as Oliver, that left a vacancy at three-technique with first-team reps. Both of their reserve one-technique defensive tackles, Poona Ford and Tim Settle, received first-team time next to starting one-technique DaQuan Jones. It showed both of Ford and Settle’s versatility. Even though he’s a stout run defender, Ford’s long arms and hand usage allow him to work into the backfield on pass rush opportunities. It possibly even looked a bit more natural for Settle than the one-technique role he was forced into playing a lot last year. Settle could be the roving fifth defensive tackle who can chip in at either spot, depending on need, without a true home. Either way, Wednesday was one of those practices to log for future circumstances of what the Bills would do if their top two pass-rushing defensive tackles go down with an injury.
A reserve DT shines with more time
Along with Ford and Settle leveling up during the practice, the Oliver and Phillips absences from team drills allowed for some of their intriguing depth to get more chances. The player who took advantage of it the most on Wednesday was reserve three-technique Cortez Broughton. Working with the second-team defense, Broughton put together his best day of camp and forced his way into the backfield both during 11-on-11 work and during 2-on-2s against the offensive line. Broughton is part of a sneaky competition to be the Bills’ top practice squad defensive tackle. He arrived in Buffalo in early December as a part of their practice squad, temporarily released him ahead of the Dolphins playoff game and brought him back three days later. He’ll be battling both Kendal Vickers and Eli Ankou for the top practice squad spot. Despite having more experience with the Bills, Ankou could have more obstacles than Broughton or Vickers. Ankou would take up one of the team’s six veteran spots that they may want to use elsewhere, and he’s also best suited at one-technique, where the Bills already have a lot of between Jones, Ford and Settle. As for Broughton, keep an eye on No. 94 Saturday against the Colts. He can be an impact pass rusher from the interior in that setting.
Day 11 non-participants: S Jordan Poyer (vet rest), DT Ed Oliver (back soreness), RB Damien Harris (sore knee), DB Cam Lewis (groin), FB Reggie Gilliam (groin), DE Von Miller (knee, PUP), LB Tyler Matakevich (calf, PUP)
(Photo: Gregory Fisher / USA Today)