Here are five things to watch when the Buffalo Bills visit the Chicago Bears in the exhibition finale Thursday night.
1. Injuries. The final exhibition of the NFL preseason arguably is the most meaningless event on the American sports calendar. The Bills can’t afford any key injuries with 10 days to go before the season-opener in Baltimore. This is why most of the starters for both teams will sit out the game.
Chicago coach Matt Nagy sat out 34 players in the third exhibition last week. One reason there are no roster cuts until Saturday is so more key players can sit out the last exhibition. Expect to see a lot of snaps for the bottom 40 guys on each team’s roster.
2. Who plays less at quarterback and center? It’s hard to believe anything that happens in Chicago (not counting an injury) will have an impact on who starts against the Ravens.
One has to believe Sean McDermott already has made up his mind on the quarterback decision between Nathan Peterman and Josh Allen for Week 1. Ditto for Ryan Groy vs. Russell Bodine at center. Even though the Bills’ offense could use a feel-good, bounce-back showing after the loss to Cincinnati, it’s not going to mean anything against the Bears’ scrubs playing vanilla schemes. Coaches generally want to protect their preferred starter from injury exposure. So if Allen or Peterman sit out while the other plays a ton, that will be telling. Ditto at center, where it appears Groy has the edge (since he started preseason Weeks 1 and 3).
However, it’s possible the Bills opt to hold out both Peterman and Allen and let AJ McCarron play all or most of the game. That would keep the Ravens guessing. Likewise, it’s possible undrafted rookie Adam Redmond sees most or all of the snaps at center for the Bills. Why expose Groy, in particular, to any injury risk, since he’s also the top backup at both guard positions?
The more you think about it, the more it makes sense to keep a baseball cap on both Allen and Peterman. (Notice how we keep switching who goes first?)
3. Receiver and tight end snaps. The top four receivers appear set in Kelvin Benjamin, Zay Jones, Jeremy Kerley and Andre Holmes. Probably two spots are up for grabs among Corey Coleman, Ray-Ray McCloud, Rod Streater, Brandon Reilly and Kaelin Clay. It’s close, so a big play could help any of their causes. You’d think Coleman and McCloud (the Bills’ sixth-round pick) would have the inside track, since Coleman is a recent No. 1 pick and McCloud is the highest Bills pick. Yet, Streater has had a good summer. At tight end, it looks like the top three are Charles Clay, Jason Croom and Khari Lee. The Bills could keep four, which would mean it’s down to Logan Thomas or Nick O’Leary.
4. The bottom five roster spots. Besides the receiver and tight end battles, the No. 3 tackle spot is important. You can bet starting left tackle Dion Dawkins will sit out. Veteran Marshall Newhouse struggled in his place against the Bengals. Can De’Ondre Wesley or Conor McDermott push Newhouse? The No. 2 linebacker spot is between Julian Stanford and Tanner Vallejo. Stanford has been on the No. 1 kickoff teams. But he now is week-to-week after getting hit in the nose Sunday. Can Vallejo stick, even temporarily, while Stanford heals? In the defensive secondary, cornerback Lafayette Pitts has been with the first special teams units. His top competition for a spot looks like rookie Levi Wallace. Will Wallace get reps early in the game on special teams? It’s a similar situation at safety, where Dean Marlowe (who looks like a lock) has run consistently ahead of draftee Siran Neal on special teams.
5. Is there punter drama? Here’s another case where the Bills know exactly what they have. Colton Schmidt has been the punter the past three years. He’s reliable. But the Bills decided to pick up 12-year veteran Jon Ryan from Seattle two weeks ago. You don’t do that unless you’re open to a change. On Sunday, Schmidt punted seven times in the first half, and Ryan only got one punt in the second half. Maybe Ryan gets most of the punts in Chicago. How much has Ryan impressed the coaches in practice? And do they really need to see more of him after watching him punt 92 times for the Seahawks last season?