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15 observations from Bills' spring practices

The Buffalo Bills got an early start on their summer Thursday.

Head coach Sean McDermott canceled the team’s final practice of mandatory minicamp and instead hosted a field day inside the ADPRO Sports Training Center.

“I’ve been encouraged with the participation, with the attitude, with the work ethic,” McDermott said Monday. “The guys are coming together.”

That’s not to say there haven’t been challenges this spring. Injuries have robbed the offense of much-needed time to incorporate several new pieces, but overall, McDermott said, “I feel like we’re in a good spot with a lot of work to do yet.”

That work will continue when the Bills report to training camp at St. John Fisher College in Pittsford in late July. In the meantime, here are 15 takeaways from the five spring practices the media was able to watch:

1. It’s Josh Allen’s show. The Bills’ second-year quarterback finds himself in a much different position than a year ago. As a rookie, Allen spent the spring working as the third quarterback behind A.J. McCarron and Nathan Peterman. He’s the unquestioned starter now, though, and got the workload to go along with it. It goes without saying that Allen’s development will play the single biggest role in the Bills’ fortunes in 2019.

2. If Allen doesn’t markedly improve his completion percentage, it won’t be because of scheme. The Bills had him throwing a lot of quick passes all spring to get the ball out of his hands. His accuracy on short throws was generally good. But spring football doesn’t prove anything. A lot of a quarterback’s accuracy depends on his ability to recognize and read the defense. If a quarterback is unsure of where to go with the ball, he’s often throwing a beat late, and that’s when you get incompletions.

3. Next to Allen, backup quarterback Matt Barkley might be the safest player on the roster. That’s because the only other quarterback on the team – rookie undrafted free agent Tyree Jackson – looks like, well, a rookie undrafted free agent. The Bills started last season with just two quarterbacks on the 53-man roster, meaning Jackson has a ton of work to do in training camp to convince them carrying three this year is necessary.

4. The offense is going to be a worry for this team until it proves otherwise. The projected starting offensive line didn’t get to work together. That’s not a huge deal, since offensive line practice in T-shirts and shorts isn’t real football, and you can’t truly practice the run game at full speed in the spring. But the jelling of the O-line has a long way to go. It was good that center Mitch Morse was able to return to practice fully this week. He’s going to be a Week 1 starter. None of the positions around him, however, seem to have been settled. The possible exception is incumbent left tackle Dion Dawkins holding onto his spot, although that is not guaranteed.

5. In what proved to be the final minicamp practice Wednesday, the Bills had six offensive linemen either not participating or practicing on a limited basis. They were guards Quinton Spain, Jon Feliciano and Ike Boettger, center Russell Bodine, tackle Ty Nsekhe and Jeremiah Sirles, who has played all over the line. Spain, Feliciano and Nsekhe are in the running to be starters, illustrating the challenge of getting them all on the same page quickly.

6. The wide corps similarly has a long way to go, since only John Brown of the top four wideouts practiced all spring with Allen. Cole Beasley, Robert Foster and Zay Jones have been nursing injuries, although all of them are expected to be ready for the start of training camp.

7. Andre Roberts has the inside track on the fifth wide receiver spot, and it might not be solely as a return specialist. Roberts put in an impressive practice Wednesday at wide receiver, a position he had some success playing earlier in his career for the Arizona Cardinals.

8. The race for the sixth wide receiver spot, if there is one, is way too early to call, but one player at least put himself on the radar in the spring. Victor Bolden Jr., who came to the Bills late last season off the 49ers’ practice squad, consistently made plays during the practices open to the media. Bolden could be a backup of sorts to Roberts given his return ability.

9. Devin Singletary has pretty good hands. He caught only six passes in 2018 for Florida Atlantic. But he caught a lot of balls this spring and didn’t drop many. (He had one drop on a swing pass Tuesday).

10. The most concerning injury of the spring is the one suffered by tight end Tyler Kroft. The fact that he suffered the same injury as last year – a broken foot – is troubling. The reported timeline for Kroft’s return is close to the start of the regular season, but with no spring practices and likely no work in training camp or preseason, how much he’ll be able to contribute early in the season is in question.

11. Partly because of Kroft’s injury, the prospects for the tight end position becoming a dynamic part of the offense aren’t great, but Dawson Knox might not be as much of a developmental project as expected. The third-round pick caught a mere 15 balls for Ole Miss last season, but he showed sure hands all spring, and he was a favored target of Josh Allen.

12. The Bills’ defense generally gave Allen and the offense fits with pressure.

“In practice it’s a little harder for (Allen) because we just sometimes freelance,” safety Micah Hyde said of himself and Jordan Poyer. “OTAs and minicamp, this is the time to just do it. This is the time to do stuff and hope that it works. Me and ‘Po’ have been giving Josh some muddy looks. He doesn’t know which way the blitz is coming from. He doesn’t know who’s getting back to the half. It’s kind of hard. Half the time I don’t think we plan it. … We’re trying to mix it up for him because there’s a lot of teams in the league that do the same thing.”

Hyde and Poyer look like they’re all over everything. Poyer read Allen’s eyes and closed fast to make a sideline interception on a bootleg play on Wednesday.

13. There should be no reason for the defense to get off to the slow start it did last season. The unit returns 10 of 11 starters, with only the retired Kyle Williams needing to be replaced. So far, that role has been shared by Jordan Phillips and Ed Oliver, although it’s only a matter of time for the team’s first-round pick to become the full-time starter at three-technique defensive tackle.

Unlike the offense, the defense is largely healthy. Cornerback Taron Johnson and safety Rafael Bush have been in red, non-contact jerseys, but that’s about it for injuries.

“It’s huge for communication purposes,” Hyde said of having continuity. “Once you can pinpoint where everybody’s going to be and you know your job and you know what you can’t mess up on, the sky’s the limit.”

14. Siran Neal looked better as a second-year cornerback working at slot cornerback. He’s got blitzing ability, too. He closed with a strong practice Wednesday. He had a breakup on a third-down, underneath hitch pass from Allen, blanketed a fade-route incompletion from Barkley and made a sack on a blitz up the middle.

15. Levi Wallace has so far withstood the challenges of E.J. Gaines and Kevin Johnson to hang onto the starting cornerback job opposite Tre’Davious White. One of the questions for Wallace is whether he can be physical enough, but he won’t get an opportunity to show that until the pads come on in training camp.

News sports reporter Mark Gaughan contributed to this story.

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