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Bills Mailbag: How does T.J. Yeldon fit into the Bills' backfield?

Jay Skurski

The Buffalo Bills couldn't have asked for two better days to start training camp.

The team practiced under perfect conditions at St. John Fisher College at 9:45 a.m. Thursday and Friday, and will do so again both days this weekend.

The return of football brings with it my regular duty handling the Bills Mailbag. Let's get to your questions ...

Brendan Sweet asks: Where does T.J. Yeldon fit into the Bills’ plans this year? Seemed like a great signing, but man, that backfield is getting crowded.

Jay: Through the first two days of training camp, Yeldon has been firmly the No. 4 running back behind LeSean McCoy, Frank Gore and Devin Singletary. If that continues, he’s in roster-bubble territory.

Yeldon’s status, though, figures to be directly impacted by what happens to those in front of him. The Bills continue to stick by McCoy, with General Manager Brandon Beane saying there is no “inside noise,” about the running back’s role with the team, even if there is chatter outside about his future.

“A lot of it comes from nobody playing football. People got jobs to do, a lot of you guys. That’s one of the topics,” Beane said. “When LeSean and Brian Daboll roll the ball out, LeSean is going to be the first running back to touch the ball. That’s the way we see it. Like I said, we’ve added depth, we’ve added competition at running back and a lot of other spots, but we anticipate that he’s handled the challenge all through the spring. I think he sees the competition and he hasn’t shown that he is afraid of it or he’s got a problem with it. That’s where it sits.”

Unless something changes with McCoy, Yeldon could find himself on the outside looking in.

Rick McGuire asks: Tight end is a big problem this year. Tyler Kroft is a concern with the same broken foot as last year. Jason Croom is average at best, Lee Smith is a blocker and Dawson Knox and Tommy Sweeney are rookies. Do you think there might be a chance Brandon Beane looks for a trade? Perhaps Cameron Brate from the Buccaneers or Delanie Walker from the Titans?

Jay: A lot of that depends on the time frame for Kroft’s recovery. If the Bills think he’ll be ready to go at least early in the season, if not for Week 1, it figures to impact their desire to add another tight end. Of course, with any potential trade, the asking price plays a big part, too. It’s important to remember that the Bills don’t have a lot of draft capital to work with — just six picks in 2020 — so a player-for-player swap might be more likely.

Here’s what McDermott said Thursday about Kroft’s recovery from a broken foot: “He’s basically just out right now. He’s making good progress and he’s done a great job this offseason getting himself to where he is right now.”

Croom went down with a hamstring injury and missed Friday’s practice. That has to be frustrating to the coaching staff after he also sat out a portion of spring practices with the same ailment. As the only returning player at the position from last year’s offense, he’s missing a golden opportunity to earn more playing time with Kroft out, because the coaching staff is going to have a hard time trusting a player who is consistently banged up.

IDon’tTrustTheProcess asks: If Beane is able to swing a big deal, who do you think it would most likely be for: Jadeveon Clowney or Melvin Gordon?

Jay: Clowney, for several reasons. The biggest of those is positional need. The Bills could use a premier pass rusher (it’s fair to wonder if Clowney deserves that classification) way more than they could another running back, even one as good as Gordon.

The Bills also figure to have the best scouting report possible on Clowney now that they’ve brought back former Texans GM Brian Gaine to their front office.

Kevin Thompson asks: In your opinion, what is the likelihood that the same players who started camp with the ‘ones’ will be the same players who start the regular season? Who might be the surprise upstarts?

Jay: That depends on the starters in question. Let’s start on the defense. I would consider Micah Hyde, Jordan Poyer, Tre’Davious White, Matt Milano, Tremaine Edmunds, Jerry Hughes, Lorenzo Alexander and Star Lotulelei as locks for the starting lineup. That leaves just three spots up for grabs. Those are: defensive end, which will come down to Trent Murphy or Shaq Lawson; defensive tackle, which will come down to Jordan Phillips or first-round draft pick Ed Oliver; and cornerback, where incumbent Levi Wallace will try to hold off free-agent additions Kevin Johnson and E.J. Gaines. Although Phillips is currently starting ahead of Oliver, I’d expect that to change before the season opener.

On offense, it’s much more wide open. The only positions I feel comfortable calling at the moment are quarterback and center, with Josh Allen and Mitch Morse. That leaves competition everywhere else. While there are several players who appear to have the inside track on starting jobs — McCoy, wide receivers John Brown and Cole Beasley, and left Dion Dawkins, to name a few — it would not shock me if the depth chart at any of those positions changed between now and September.

crauten asks: How’s Julian Stanford look?

Jay: When the team is in shorts, great. At 6-foot-1 and 230 pounds and with a 40-yard dash time in the range of 4.5 seconds, he might have the most impressive strength-and-speed combination of any player on the team. Stanford looks like he could transition to WWE tomorrow if he so desired.

That hasn’t equaled a ton of production, though. Stanford has made just five NFL starts over the past five seasons, including one last year when Edmunds went down with a concussion. Stanford played fairly well in Edmunds’ place, and has the inside track at once again being the second-string middle linebacker. That leads us into our next question …

William Mark asks: Is the depth at linebacker a concern?

Jay: Yes, it would be fair to say that. The Bills have one of the better starting trios in the league in Edmunds, Milano and Alexander. If something were to happen to either Edmunds or Milano, it would be a huge problem for the defense. Those two are on the field for every play.

Alexander doesn’t play as much, since the Bills only spend about 20 percent of the time in their base, 4-3 defense. Still, he’s proven to be a quality player, so losing him would hurt, too.

The last two seasons, the Bills have kept six linebackers on the 53-man roster. If Edmunds and Stanford man the middle, that leaves two spots behind Milano and Alexander. Fifth-round pick Vosean Joseph is likely good for one of them based on his draft status.

Deon Lacey, who also can run the 40 in the 4.5-second range, has led the Bills in snaps on special teams for the past two seasons, including 68 percent in 2018. He figures to compete with Corey Thompson, an undrafted rookie free agent who got promoted to the 53-man roster from the practice squad late last season.

The team also signed Maurice Alexander as a free agent with an eye toward special teams. He might have to beat out Lacey or Thompson for a spot, or convince the Bills to keep seven linebackers.

No matter what happens, the Bills won’t be able to turn to an experienced veteran if any of their starting three linebackers were to get hurt.

Danny Devito asks: Which smurf is each wide receiver?

Jay: First of all, Danny, I love “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.” You are just a tour de force in that show, so it’s an honor to have you as a regular Mailbag reader. To answer your question, there are way too few Bills receivers and way too many smurfs to make accurate comparisons. Wikipedia, which is never wrong, tells me there are at least 99 smurfs – which sounds like a ridiculous number considering the only two that came to mind are Papa Smurf and Smurfette.

My comparisons for the two most popular smurfs, then, would be John Brown and Cole Beasley. The Bills’ marquee additions at receiver, both Brown and Beasley fit the smurf stereotype of being small (Brown is listed at 5-foot-11, which feels like it might be generous, while Beasley is 5-8).

BillsMafiaGermanyTJ asks: Shoulder pads today?

Jay: Your guess is as good as mine. McDermott was asked if the Bills would put the pads on for the first time at Saturday’s practice, and responded “we’ll take it one day at a time.” As a friend on Twitter suggested, he must not want to give his AFC East rivals a competitive advantage. Thanks for all the questions this week!

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