Bills camp observations: Rodger Saffold’s go back; Is Kaiir Elam slipping?
PITTSFORD, N.Y. — As the Bills returned to St. John Fisher University for one final week of training camp, there was some movement on the lists of those who did and did not practice. The Bills added four notable players to the non-participation list on Sunday, including starting center Mitch Morse, nickel corner Taron Johnson, slot receiver Isaiah McKenzie and rookie wide receiver Khalil Shakir.
They joined safety Jordan Poyer (elbow) and receiver Marquez Stevenson (foot) as non-participants. Morse was given a vet rest day; Johnson, McKenzie and Shakir were all dealing with soreness — those three all were on the sidelines with their jerseys on, watching practice with the team.
The session also was a relatively light one for the Bills. They did not go in full pads on Sunday, although they did go full speed for much of the practice. It was closer to one of the first few sessions the team had at camp.
But, in perhaps the most important news of day, the Bills welcomed back a giant piece along the offensive line. Here are five observations following the lighter Day 11 of work.
Saffold activated, with ample time to spare
The Bills have had to get by throughout camp without their full starting offensive line. Of the primary five — left tackle Dion Dawkins, left guard Rodger Saffold, center Mitch Morse, right guard Ryan Bates and right tackle Spencer Brown — the most the Bills have had for team drills, at any day of practice, has been three. It’s been beneficial for them to get a detailed look at their depth. But with only one month before the regular season begins, getting the top group reps together will be a focal point.
And on Sunday, a massive puzzle piece returned for work in a limited capacity. Saffold, who had been on the Non-Football Injury list since the beginning of camp, was activated and practiced for the first time this summer. He had been out with a ribs injury stemming from a car accident ahead of camp.
— Buffalo Bills (@BuffaloBills) August 7, 2022
Although Saffold didn’t participate in any team drills on his first day, he did positional drills in a limited capacity. And when the Bills took reps without the threat of contact, Saffold took his projected position next to Dawkins. It likely will be a slow ramp-up process for Saffold, but he should be back working into team drills before long. The Bills don’t have anyone at the guard position who provides the level of experience and ability that Saffold does, which also could give the Bills’ defensive line an entirely new challenge when Saffold gets back to full participation.
Regardless of when the team drills happen for him, Saffold returning now is a great sign for the beginning of the regular season.
His return coincided with Morse getting a veteran rest day. In Morse’s place, usual guard Ryan Bates was the primary center for quarterback Josh Allen. This is notable for two different reasons: 1.) Because Bates got back to team drills in a full capacity, after missing time with soreness earlier in camp. And 2.) Bates got a crack at playing center the first time Morse wasn’t available to practice — that could indicate which way the Bills will lean if Morse has to miss any time in the season.
Veteran offensive lineman Bobby Hart filled in at right guard for Bates, with David Quessenberry at left guard for the still-recovering Saffold.
The Bills also welcomed back reserve interior lineman Greg Mancz to practice. Mancz had missed the last several days with an apparent left arm injury, as the arm sported both a wrap and a heavy brace while Mancz worked in a limited capacity. Mancz has done an excellent job this summer as a fill-in, both at center and guard, and he will be a legitimate contender for a spot on the 53-man roster.
Brown has progressed to the next level
The team has taken the patient route with second-year right tackle Spencer Brown. Following offseason back surgery, Brown didn’t participate in any of the Bills’ spring practices and has merely been an onlooker during team drills through the first 10 days of camp. That trend ended on Sunday. For the first time this summer, Brown took live reps in one-on-ones against defensive linemen, then worked in team drills at right tackle. It’s the most noteworthy sign from Brown that he is ready to put more on his plate — and potentially work back toward becoming the starting right tackle against the Rams on September 8.
Brown’s rust was evident early on, especially in those one-on-ones. On one rep, pass rusher Von Miller raced to the backfield with an easy victory that left Brown lunging to open space. But Brown had to start somewhere after a long layoff, regardless of the outcomes.
It remains to be seen how quickly he’ll get the full complement of team-drill snaps. Given Brown’s relative youth and inexperience compared to others, though, having him back close to a full month ahead of the season is a great sign. It is quite possible that by the end of the week, the Bills could have their starting five of Dawkins, Saffold, Morse, Bates and Brown take team-drill reps together as a unit, for the first time this summer.
One step forward, one step back in the CB competition?
It’s been notable at camp so far how often the Bills’ passing offense has gotten the better of the defense’s young cornerbacks. Rookie first-round pick Kaiir Elam has been a consistent target throughout camp for Allen and Co., and there have been a lot more bad beats in the open field than there have been flashes. It was especially evident on Friday at Highmark Stadium.
Elam’s play, along with the rise of rookie sixth-round pick Christian Benford this summer, has seemingly opened the starting job up into a competition between Elam, Benford and third-year player Dane Jackson.
However, for one day at least, Jackson may have pulled ahead. As Sunday’s practice continued, Jackson only worked against the Allen-led offense, while Elam and Benford took turns against Allen but also faced the Case Keenum-led group, as well. This development could indicate that the Bills’ coaches have liked what they’ve seen so far from Jackson, relative to Elam and Benford.
So, we’ll have to see if Jackson continues to have that kind of workload in future practices. If so, the competition could be between Elam and Benford, to see who will start with Jackson. It’s still a bit premature for all of that before a single preseason game, but it’s hard to ignore how all three players are trending for the time being.
Basham flashes; Ford trending down?
As second-round picks go, this camp is a pretty significant one for both defensive end Boogie Basham and offensive lineman Cody Ford. Basham, a 2021 selection, had one of his best days of camp as a pass rusher — he looked fast around the edge and explosive during both one-on-ones and team drills.
Unfortunately for Ford, the 2019 second-round pick, it occasionally came at his expense. Basham worked out wide against Ford for wins a handful of times. Basham’s move to his left and outside had Ford struggling to deal with the space, as Basham turned the corner for a sack. Ford also struggled against defensive end Shaq Lawson in one-on-ones.
Ford has not had a good camp, even with the opportunities to block for Allen. Other veteran players like Quessenberry, Mancz and Hart have all looked better in the guard spot, which makes you wonder what it means for Ford moving forward. Ford is now in the final year of his contract and seemingly a guard only. This Bills staff has stressed how much they value versatility, and Ford hasn’t given them much there.
With other players looking more versatile and having stronger camps than Ford, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Ford is a trade or cut candidate this summer. The preseason games will mean a great deal for him, even if his 2022 future isn’t in Buffalo.
Crowder gets a chance with McKenzie unavailable
Although it shouldn’t be a shock, given that it’s a competition, veteran slot receiver Jamison Crowder had his heaviest team-drills workload in a single practice with Josh Allen on Sunday. McKenzie sat out the session with soreness — an extended absence from him could allow Crowder to close the gap.
Crowder roped in a pair of receptions over the middle, as he found open space between defenders. He likely will need to look as dynamic after the catch as McKenzie has throughout training camp for the team to justify keeping McKenzie off the field, come the regular season. However, the door has opened a bit more for Crowder, after he missed so many practices early in camp.
Sensing his own opportunity to start this season, McKenzie will likely push to get back on the field as soon as possible.
Up Next: The Bills return to work on Monday, August 8 at 9:45 am, their third-to-last practice at St. John Fisher University.