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Evaluating the Bills' depth chart following NFL draft

Jay Skurski

It’s not going to be easy to make the Buffalo Bills’ roster in 2020.

That’s one of the main conclusions that can be drawn following the NFL draft. General Manager Brandon Beane simplified his takeaway to a single word.

“I think competition is the word that I would walk away with today if I were you guys,” he said Saturday after the draft.

It’s easy to see why. A playoff roster that Beane fortified through free agency had very few holes heading into the draft. It’s possible the Bills don’t end up with a single starter in 2020, but that’s not a bad thing. That shows the depth that is in place.

The process of filling out that roster continues. Beane confirmed Monday the addition of eight undrafted free agents, which takes the roster to 86 by our count. That leaves five open spots.

One important note: While the active roster will be set at 53 players at the end of the summer, a change in the new collective bargaining agreement increases practice squads around the league from 10 to 12 players. That’s important, because two players per week can be elevated from the practice squad to the active roster, which increases the active roster to 55 players. A player can join the active roster and then be sent back to the practice squad without having to clear waivers.

On game days, teams can have 48 active players instead of 46, although one of the extra players has to be an offensive lineman.

Here’s a look at how the Bills’ roster has been constructed to this point:

Quarterbacks

Josh Allen, Matt Barkley, Jake Fromm, Davis Webb

Analysis: No, Fromm’s selection doesn’t mean anything for Josh Allen. Entering year three, Allen’s starting job is secure. It probably doesn’t even mean anything for Barkley, who is entering the final year of his contract and has been a help to Allen as the No. 2 quarterback. It does mean that the Bills will go with a different roster setup than they did last season, though, when they carried just two quarterbacks on the active roster. There is no doubt Fromm is making the team – the Bills aren’t going to risk trying to sneak him on the practice squad, which would require releasing him and exposing him to waivers – so the only question is whether he can beat out Barkley for the No. 2 job. Given that there will be a shortened offseason, that seems unlikely, at least at the start of the season.

Running backs

Devin Singletary, Zack Moss, T.J. Yeldon, Taiwan Jones, Christian Wade, Antonio Williams

Analysis: Singletary and Moss are roster locks. They have the potential to give the Bills a dynamic backfield. Jones figures to be safe as a contributor on special teams. The only question becomes whether Yeldon can earn a spot, or whether last year’s training camp darling, Wade, can beat him out. Wade has one more year of practice squad eligibility, so that remains the most likely spot for him. That puts Yeldon firmly on the roster bubble. From a talent perspective, he’s one of the 53 best players on the roster. The problem, which is a good one, is that the Bills have good players at other positions that they may deem as more necessary to keep.

Fullbacks

Patrick DiMarco, Reggie Gilliam

Analysis: DiMarco is valued for his leadership in the locker room. He’s entering the final year of his contract and reduced his base salary in a move to give him a better chance of making the final roster. Gilliam shouldn’t be totally ruled out, though. He’s a beast on special teams.

Wide receivers

Stefon Diggs, John Brown, Cole Beasley, Isaiah McKenzie, Duke Williams, Andre Roberts, Robert Foster, Gabriel Davis, Isaiah Hodgins, Ray-Ray McCloud, Nick Easley

Analysis: The trade for Diggs turned this into one of the better-looking groups in the NFL. The top three of Diggs, Brown and Beasley are set. The competition for what figures to be three jobs behind them should be great. Davis is basically guaranteed a spot as a fourth-round draft pick. After that, it’s wide open. Can Roberts do enough to earn a spot primarily as a return specialist? Can McKenzie again carve out a role as a jet-sweep specialist? Does Hodgins beat out Williams as the big target? The Bills have nine receivers who have either made meaningful contributions to an active NFL roster or were drafted by the team this year. That makes for quite the logjam. Similar to last year along the offensive line when the Bills traded Wyatt Teller and Russell Bodine before final roster cuts, the team could have players at receiver other teams are interested in via trade.

Tight ends

Dawson Knox, Tyler Kroft, Lee Smith, Tommy Sweeney, Jason Croom, Nate Becker

Analysis: Knox has had a good offseason based on what the Bills haven’t done, which is add to the position through either free agency or the draft. If Knox can clean up his problem with drops, he could be in line for a breakout season. The Bills restructured Kroft’s contract, but kept him on the roster after it was speculated he could be a potential cap casualty. That’s understandable. Kroft is a reliable veteran No. 2 tight end who is capable of stepping in as the starter. Smith’s playing time went down as last season progressed and he took way too many penalties given how much he was on the field. Like DiMarco, his greatest value to the team comes in the locker room. That’s especially important given the departure of Lorenzo Alexander. Is that enough to keep him around? That’s a question the team will have to answer in training camp. Sweeney will have to hold off Croom and Becker for the fourth tight end job, assuming the team keeps that many on the active roster.

Offensive line

Dion Dawkins, Quinton Spain, Mitch Morse, Jon Feliciano, Cody Ford, Ty Nsekhe, Spencer Long, Daryl Williams, Ryan Bates, Evan Boehm, Ike Boettger, Garrett McGhin, Victor Salako, Trey Adams, Marquel Harrell, Brandon Halton

Analysis: The same starting five – or six – return from last year, counting the rotation among Ford and Nsekhe at right tackle. The biggest takeaway so far this offseason along the line is that the coaching staff is apparently comfortable with Ford at tackle. It’s understandable that the team wants to give him another shot there. If he ends up being a good, or even above average, right tackle, that’s ultimately more valuable than being a good guard. It’s been written (by me, about a thousand times) that the line in 2019 was improved, but had nowhere to go but up from 2018. Can it take a step forward in 2019? It will need to if the offense in general is going to improve. It would have been nice to see Beane add some more competition up front in the draft. Both Spain, who re-signed to a three-year contract, and Feliciano, who is entering the last year of his deal, are penciled in as starters. Can anyone behind them push for a starting job? Williams was an All-Pro for Carolina at right tackle as recently as 2017, but he didn’t look like the same player last year after a knee injury wiped out nearly his entire 2018 season. There will be good competition for not just the final one or two spots on the active roster, but also for the practice squad, given that it would make sense to use one of the two weekly call-ups to the active roster on a lineman.

Defensive line

Jerry Hughes, Ed Oliver, Star Lotulelei, Trent Murphy, A.J. Epenesa, Harrison Phillips, Mario Addison, Quinton Jefferson, Vernon Butler, Darryl Johnson Jr., Mike Love, Jonathan Woodard, Vincent Taylor

Analysis: What the Bills lack in star power, they make up for in depth up front. As my colleague Mark Gaughan wrote, 1 through 10, there is probably not a deeper defensive line in the NFL. That’s important given that coach Sean McDermott rotates so much up front. The Bills actually started last season with just eight defensive linemen on the active roster, but carried nine for the final nine weeks of the season. Given the depth they’ve assembled, it would be a big surprise if they started with less than nine up front this year. Beane poured cold water on the idea of Murphy being traded, but that won’t stop fans from speculating about the possibility. I wouldn’t be in a rush to do that. Murphy might be a bit overpaid, but he’s entering the final year of his contract and the team isn’t hurting for cap space. There’s nothing wrong with having quality depth. As Gaughan pointed out, all it takes is one injury for the logjam to be resolved. The expectation here is the Bills start 2020 with the first nine players listed above and then try to sneak Johnson and/or Love onto the expanded practice squad. If they feel like that’s not possible, shopping one of them might bring more of a return than Murphy, who is older and has a much higher salary.

Linebackers

Tremaine Edmunds, Matt Milano, A.J. Klein, Tyler Matakevich, Vosean Joseph, Corey Thompson, Tyrel Dodson, Del’Shawn Phillips, Mike Bell

Analysis: Edmunds, Milano and Klein will be the starters and have plenty of playing time the past two years. Behind them, however, is a big lack of experience. Matakevich will have one reserve role based on his expected contributions on special teams. Joseph, who spent his rookie season on injured reserve, will be one of the players to watch closely in training camp. It would be a positive development if he can become a trusted reserve. Thompson and Dodson are familiar with the defensive scheme and will add to a competition that Beane said will be “interesting to see.”

Secondary

Tre’Davious White, Josh Norman, Levi Wallace, E.J. Gaines, Taron Johnson, Dane Jackson, Cam Lewis, Siran Neal, Micah Hyde, Jordan Poyer, Dean Marlowe, Jaquan Johnson, Josh Thomas, Ike Brown, Garrett Taylor

Analysis: Three starting jobs are nailed down in the secondary – White at cornerback and the dynamic safety duo of Hyde and Poyer. Norman figures to get the first chance to start opposite White, but don’t forget that Wallace beat out Kevin Johnson last year for that same spot and started the entire year. Wallace will be eager to show he can once again do that. If Gaines can stay healthy, he’s shown an ability to contribute in McDermott’s defense. Jackson looks like a solid addition in the seventh round. He played at a high level for Pitt and has a lot of experience. At worst, he’s a strong candidate for the practice squad. Taron Johnson is locked in as the nickel cornerback, with Siran Neal behind him. Can Neal become the "Buffalo nickel" McDermott is looking for? He’s entering an important third season in his professional career. It could come down to Neal and Jackson for the sixth and final cornerback spot. There’s not much intrigue at safety as the four jobs look set.

Specialists

Reid Ferguson, Stephen Hauschka, Corey Bojorquez, Kaare Vedvik, Tyler Bass

Analysis: Ferguson’s job as the long snapper is safe. After that, there will be a pair of interesting competitions for kicker and punter. Hauschka’s disappearing leg strength last season led to the team using a sixth-round draft pick on Bass, the Georgia Southern kicker who has plenty of leg. Can he be accurate enough? It was clear at the end of last season that the Bills were looking to push Hauschka when they put a waiver claim in on kicker Chase McLaughlin. Bass being here officially puts Hauschka on the hot seat. As Gaughan pointed out, the expanded roster spot also makes it easier to carry a kickoff specialist. That could be either Bass or Vedvik, who has the ability to both kick and punt, although he hasn’t shown he can do either of them particularly well in four previous NFL stops. Can Bojorquez develop more consistency? He punted at a high level at times last year, but had maddening miscues at times.

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