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Bills training camp observations: Isaiah McKenzie, Von Miller show what they can do


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As most NFL teams get their first practices going, the Bills have already gotten to their first day off, thanks to an early start to training camp. The team conducted its fourth practice of the day Wednesday in front of a full crowd at St. John Fisher University.

They’ll take their first scheduled day off, but when they return, the intensity will reach its highest point of the summer. They’ll have one more day to ramp up Friday, but Saturday will mark the first fully padded practice of camp and give the Bills a great chance to see how their players react to the physicality of live hitting.

“It’s already physical,” Dion Dawkins said with a laugh after practice Wednesday.

Dawkins, quarterback Josh Allen and the offense put together their best day of camp yet, likely setting up for a challenge from the defense when things get a lot more physical Saturday. Allen was on fire in team drills, connecting on 15 of 19 passes and a whopping five touchdowns as the Bills practiced primarily on the defense’s side of the field. Dawson Knox had a pair of touchdown catches, Gabriel Davis added two, and Isaiah McKenzie accounted for the other scoring play.

Star receiver Stefon Diggs led the way with five catches despite going without a touchdown, Davis had four, Knox brought in three, McKenzie had two, and rookie running back James Cook had the only other catch. It was a significant response after a bit of a down practice Day 3, the same as the Bills did Monday after some Sunday struggles.

As Allen and the offense head into the off day on a high note, here are seven observations from Day 4 of Bills camp.

McKenzie seems to have taken a step forward

Timing can be everything in the NFL, and Isaiah McKenzie has an unbelievable opportunity in front of him. The Bills moved on from Cole Beasley in the offseason, and with the team not drafting an early-round wide receiver, McKenzie only has to contend with veteran Jamison Crowder for the primary slot receiver job. McKenzie battled back from an in-season benching for a breakout game against New England last year, and since then, he has only improved. That has continued four days into training camp in a significant way.

The Bills have been without Crowder for the last three practices because of “general soreness,” and that has given McKenzie a full path to maximum time with quarterback Josh Allen. Even before Crowder started missing practices, McKenzie was fully integrated into the Allen-led passing attack during practice, signaling just how much faith they have in the seemingly up-and-coming receiver. McKenzie’s route running this summer has taken a definitive step up, as has his savvy to find soft spots in the defense.

On one play Wednesday, McKenzie had nickel corner Taron Johnson lined up to his outside shoulder. McKenzie faked Johnson into doing a 360-degree turn and then burst up the field to the end zone. Allen spotted the win and lofted the ball to McKenzie for an easy touchdown. That type of deceptiveness is a significant addition to his game, considering that he has primarily won on speed in the past. And to do so against Johnson, who is one of the better nickel cornerbacks in the NFL, is another great sign.

Of course, McKenzie needs to prove this is sustainable when the pads go on Saturday, but he has been a standout almost every day since camp began. He is playing at the top of his game right now, full of confidence and knowing a big opportunity awaits if he stacks good days. If he continues to play like this and Crowder keeps missing time, McKenzie could end this battle quickly. If he continues it through the first few padded practices, the Bills will have a hard time justifying keeping McKenzie off the field.

Miller rushing from the left side looks effortless

Since the Bills signed free-agent pass rusher Von Miller, the coaching staff has been putting together a plan of how to best use him off the edge. Miller has experience rushing off both the left and right sides, which is how the Rams used him after trading for him last season. He has shown a proficiency in getting to the quarterback from both sides, although on film, there’s an extra gear and move that Miller has rushing against the right tackle. We haven’t seen too much of it from Miller so far, but on Day 4, he participated in one-on-ones for the first time. He needed only one rep rushing from the left side to show the zero-gravity bend that has been his calling card for years.

Working against Tommy Doyle, Miller exploded off the line of scrimmage, swiped down Doyle’s outside arm and in one fluid motion dipped under, turned the corner and easily made it to the backfield without any delay. The Bills haven’t had anything like that level of pass rushing in a long time. Miller is still good on the right side and gave Dawkins some problems, too. But it’s just a bit different rushing from the left. He looks at home there, and you have to wonder what the plan will be as we get closer to the season.

The defensive left side is where the Bills played Greg Rousseau all of last season, and as the other presumed starting defensive end this year, someone has to play the right side. If you have a chance to get that truly elite style of pass rush from the left side with Miller, you’d have to employ it. It will be one of the more nuanced yet fascinating things to track as the summer continues.

More OL shuffling with 3 players out of team drills

Through the first four practices, the Bills have yet to have their full projected starting offensive line for 11-on-11 work. Rodger Saffold remains on the non-football injury list because of injured ribs, and Spencer Brown has slowly been working back this summer from an injury but has yet to take a snap in team drills. And Wednesday, the Bills were without projected starting right guard Ryan Bates, making it three spots to fill. It led to a brand new combination and a chance for one veteran offensive lineman.

David Quessenberry worked in front of Allen once again Wednesday, this time at right guard for Bates. Tommy Doyle stepped in at right tackle for Brown, and for the first time this summer, Greg Mancz worked at left guard between Dawkins and Mitch Morse. I was impressed by Mancz during one-on-ones, as he stood up the super-talented Ed Oliver on both his opportunities. Mancz is an interesting end-of-roster player, considering his experience and ability to play guard and center. Although Cody Ford has gotten some chances this summer, it’s notable they continue to work others in to block for Allen. The job for that top reserve interior offensive lineman looks to be wide open.

The Epenesa sack streak continues

When you consider how A.J. Epenesa’s first two NFL seasons went, his start to this training camp is a bit unexpected. But for the fourth straight practice, Epenesa beat his one-on-one assignment and broke into the backfield for a sack in team drills. Once again, it featured his speed move to the outside that left the offensive tackle in the dust. To this point in camp without pads, edge rushers can only do so much before the pads go on in the next big challenge.

But Epenesa has ticked every box to be an impactful pass rusher at this point of training camp. Even though Boogie Basham has had a nice start to the summer as well, Epenesa has easily been the better player. Epenesa has quickly become the player I’m most eager to track beginning Saturday. We need to see whether he’s actually turned a corner and can be a dependable rotational pass rusher or whether he’s winning solely because offensive linemen can’t get too physical with him without full pads. He has easily been the biggest camp winner on defense so far.

CB depth is slightly troubling so far

The Bills are without top cornerback Tre’Davious White as he continues to rehab his torn ACL from November, but even if he were there, the immediate depth at cornerback has been a bit lackluster in camp. Rookie Kaiir Elam has certainly had some struggles, and Dane Jackson has always been a bit of a hit-or-miss player. Beyond them, though, is where things become a bit more worrisome.

Siran Neal is best used on special teams only, and if he needs to play meaningful snaps at boundary cornerback, it could spell trouble for the Bills. They have a pair of young players in Nick McCloud and Christian Benford who have potential, but they are nowhere near experienced enough to be used as a starter in the event of an injury. That cornerback group still could use another piece, specifically an experienced veteran free agent to help a very young and inexperienced group get by, with or without White. As of now, it looks to be the most glaring weakness on the roster.

Stevenson helps his cause

Since his promotion to the active roster from injured reserve last year, wide receiver Marquez Stevenson has struggled with ball security. It popped up again Tuesday with a muffed punt opportunity, but to Stevenson’s credit, he was strong on the ball with some kickoff return chances. Stevenson mixed in on those reps with McKenzie, Khalil Shakir and James Cook and looked confident on the ball. Then in team drills, with some wide receivers missing the practice, Stevenson roped in a couple of tough catch opportunities.

His best reception was on a low throw over the middle from Matt Barkley as Stevenson dropped to the ground and cradled the ball to complete the catch. Stevenson is very much on the roster bubble, likely needing to win the return jobs outright to ensure his safety, but any value he can add to the offense will certainly help his chances.

One veteran free-agent O-lineman struggling

Though Quessenberry and Mancz have impressed and worked their way to blocking for Allen this summer, it’s been a bit of a rough go for veteran backup Greg Van Roten. Primarily an interior offensive lineman, Van Roten has had his hands full so far trying to block defensive tackles Oliver, Jordan Phillips and Tim Settle. On Tuesday, Settle worked through Van Roten for an easy win, and then Wednesday, Van Roten took one step forward with his head down against defensive tackle Brandin Bryant. Bryant saw the false step, chopped Van Roten’s hand away and got into the backfield for an instant victory. Of the reserve offensive linemen with a legitimate chance to make the roster, Van Roten has some ground to make up when the pads go on beginning Saturday.

Did not practice: WR Jamison Crowder (soreness), WR Jake Kumerow (soreness), RG Ryan Bates (unknown), LG Rodger Saffold (ribs, NFI), G Ike Boettger (Achilles, PUP), DT DaQuan Jones (vet rest), DT Eli Ankou (calf, PUP), CB Tre’Davious White (knee, PUP)

Up next: The Bills are off Thursday. They’ll resume practice at 9:45 a.m. Friday.

“There he goes. One of God's own prototypes.

A high-powered mutant of some kind, never even considered for mass production.

Too weird to live, and too rare to die.”

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