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Bills camp observations: Isaiah McKenzie seizes his chance, Jordan Poyer’s injury and more


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Bills camp observations: Isaiah McKenzie seizes his chance, Jordan Poyer’s injury and more

Buffalo Bills safety Jordan Poyer (21) puts on his gloves as he walks on the field during practice at the NFL football team's training camp in Pittsford, N.Y., Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2022. (AP Photo/Joshua Bessex)
By Joe Buscaglia
37m ago
 

PITTSFORD, N.Y. — When the Bills concluded Tuesday’s practice, it officially put them past the halfway point of training camp at St. John Fisher University. There’s no question one of the standouts of camp has been sixth-year receiver Isaiah McKenzie.

McKenzie has been with the franchise since the 2018 season and has slowly worked himself into more significant roles over the years. Once the team moved on from slot receiver Cole Beasley in the offseason, McKenzie knew a starting position could be his for the taking.

“Job’s up for grabs,” McKenzie said of the slot receiver role Tuesday. “Jamison Crowder came in, and he’s had a great career. He came in to compete with me, and I came back to compete with him. I know it wasn’t going to be easy, and I know it’s not easy now.”

Crowder, a longtime slot receiver with stints in Washington and with the Jets, is the only thing standing in McKenzie’s way of becoming one of quarterback Josh Allen’s top targets in 2022 and potentially beyond. And to this point, with Crowder missing five of the first eight practices, McKenzie has done everything he can to get ahead in the competition.

“I feel like I’ve been running for the past five years,” McKenzie said. “I’ve just been running, just been running, just waiting on my opportunity to get this opportunity. I feel like it’s come now. I feel like I’ve just got to stack days. I’ve got to be consistent, continue to do what I’ve been doing and just be prepared at every moment. Any given time, get open, catch the ball, score points when I can and just help the team win.”

And as McKenzie’s main competition started to get back into the practice flow Tuesday, what did the battle yield on Day 8 of camp? Here are seven observations from the Bills’ most recent practice.

17 + 14 = 6@JoshAllenQB | @StefonDiggs pic.twitter.com/Nt5pb965zW

— Buffalo Bills (@BuffaloBills) August 2, 2022

 

Crowder back in team drills, but not with Allen

After a five-practice absence for Crowder, the Bills made sure to take things slow. They gave him a natural chance to progress through positional drills on Monday, and if all went well, he’d get more work the next day.

Everything went smoothly Monday, which allowed Crowder to work into 11-on-11 drills for the first time since Day 1 of training camp — a big step for him. But rather than working with Allen during team drills, Crowder had most of his reps with the Case Keenum-led offense. That allowed McKenzie to continue to build the on-field chemistry between him and Allen for at least another day. Perhaps it’s a sign of where the competition stands or that they’re letting Crowder crawl before he walks in coming back from an injury. But it’s also a continuation of what we’ve seen previously when both players were healthy, which shows how great of a chance McKenzie has to win the job.

However, it’s not as though this competition is already decided. Crowder had high-level reps in one-on-ones against cornerbacks and easily won those snaps. He had reserve cornerback Cam Lewis on a string as he gave a double move for a ton of separation and an easy reception. Crowder’s routes aren’t flashy, but his quickness out of his breaks can lull a defender to hesitate. He remains an excellent target on underneath routes, which is great to have on game days and, at worst, as dependable depth.

The difference between Crowder and McKenzie is that McKenzie gives the Bills potential for explosive plays and more yards after the catch. Extending plays past the catch has been a major talking point for coach Sean McDermott, offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey and the entire roster. If McKenzie continues his week-and-a-half-long tear through the rest of August, the Bills will have no other option but to make McKenzie the starting slot receiver this season. The consistency plus the potential would be too hard to ignore. It all depends on McKenzie’s consistency, though. If he falls off at all, the window will open wider for Crowder.

Poyer’s injury complicates his contract situation

Starting safeties Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde have been the picture of health for five seasons. The Bills haven’t gone through many practices, let alone games, without the duo patrolling the secondary. It’s almost unheard of for the team not to have either in practice. However, the Bills had to deal with that near the end of Tuesday’s session.

Late in practice, Poyer injured his elbow and was in obvious discomfort as he left the field. He remained in the tunnel checking out the elbow/forearm area until being brought back to the locker room before practice ended. The Bills said shortly after practice that Poyer would continue to be evaluated.

Unfortunately for Poyer, this is a complicating issue. He has made it clear that he wants a contract extension, but the two sides have yet to come to an agreement. Poyer is playing on an expiring contract, and any kind of extended absence due to injury could change the conversation. ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that the injury is a hyperextended elbow and that Poyer is likely to miss “a few weeks.” According to the report, Poyer is expected to be ready for the start of the season, but this is a blow to him and the Bills.

Poyer, 31, ran the risk of an injury by practicing while seeking a new deal and got burned. Now if you’re the Bills and general manager Brandon Beane, what do you do? Do they take a wait-and-see approach with how Poyer bounces back from the injury or did they intend to extend Poyer past 2022 to begin with? It made an already layered conversation a bit more complex.

Meanwhile, Hyde was out there for practice for a second straight day, but just like on Monday, he did not participate in team drills as he returns from a hip/glute issue. In his place, fourth-year player Jaquan Johnson was took the free safety role. Johnson’s best attributes include his instincts and range, which falls in line with what the Bills also like about Hyde. The team’s other backup safety, Damar Hamlin, worked in once Poyer left the session.

Hyde is likely to return to team drills soon, which will make it interesting with Poyer missing some time. Will the Bills again go with Johnson and fit him into Poyer’s usual strong safety role, or would that yield an opportunity for Hamlin, who seems to be a better fit for Poyer’s spot? We’ll get an answer to relatively soon.

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Bills linebacker Von Miller is making his prescence felt in training camp. (Mark Konezny / USA Today)

Miller and Oliver are double trouble

After Monday’s practice, defensive tackle Ed Oliver was asked by reporters about the idea of playing next to pass rusher Von Miller and how much that would stress an offense. Oliver liked the idea but said putting them on opposite sides of the line could make it even more difficult for an offensive line. The idea is that they wouldn’t be able to send all their blocking attention to one side to take out both, almost daring an offense to pick their poison. With Miller and Oliver both getting double-teamed quite often in the NFL, something has to give.

On one rep Tuesday, we saw Oliver’s vision crystalize. Miller rushed the pocket against David Quessenberry and Bobby Hart, who were in at right tackle and right guard, respectively, for the rehabbing Spencer Brown and the injured Ryan Bates. Miller went wide, got a step and began to close the pocket around Allen. It forced the quarterback to step into the open space to his left, where Oliver was working one-on-one against guard Cody Ford, who was in the lineup for the injured Rodger Saffold. Oliver timed himself coming off his block with Allen stepping up and capitalized for a would-be sack. It was the perfect example of a team sack and how Miller and Oliver can make each other better and rack up some impressive sack numbers.

Benford continues an upward trajectory

Seemingly out of nowhere, rookie cornerback Christian Benford, a sixth-round pick, has worked himself into an interesting conversation midway through camp. At one point in the offseason, Benford was a bubble player and potential practice squad player, but since then he has played well enough to earn more opportunities.

Once again on Tuesday, Benford was working in during team drills against Allen and receivers Stefon Diggs and Gabriel Davis. Benford, first-round pick Kaiir Elam and Dane Jackson all took their turns working against the talented passing offense. Benford rewarded the Bills for those chances by staying in Diggs’ hip pocket on one route toward the back of the end zone and put himself in perfect position to break up a potential touchdown pass. Diggs got the better of Benford on some one-on-one drills, but Benford has definitely shown some natural ability.

There’s much to like about Benford in the Bills’ defensive scheme. At 6-foot-1, 205 pounds he has the size and length they usually look for, along with some plus athleticism and strength. He also plays with excellent poise, analyzing the route as it’s coming at him and reading the receiver’s body language quite well. Especially considering some of Elam’s struggles, Benford’s ability is not going unnoticed.

It’s best not to go overboard about what Benford could be, considering it’s only been a couple of days with an enhanced opportunity. But he has passed a good early test. Now the Bills have to see how he’ll do in a game setting against another team to determine if he can be a dependable depth player this season. If he shows that ability, they could be on to something. If not, this may just be a temporary upswing for a young player before the usual lulls of a rookie season come into play. Either way, keep an eye on No. 47 during camp. He has, at least so far, exceeded expectations.

Bernard flashes in coverage again

It’s always tough to gauge how a linebacker is performing as a run defender on the fly without live tackling or the benefit of replay, but rookie third-round pick Terrel Bernard has stood out in pass coverage this summer. He came away with another pass breakup on Tuesday, reading tight end Tommy Sweeney’s route and then exploding toward the ball to break up the pass from Keenum.

Bernard has made many plays like this as he starts to settle in. The Bills have also sporadically worked in the duo of Bernard and veteran Tyrel Dodson against the Allen-led offense in place of starters Matt Milano and Tremaine Edmunds. Bernard has offered some flashes working in that Milano role. Bernard is passing some early tests in his first camp.

Stevenson injured; what it means for the WR room

About midway through the practice, wide receiver Marquez Stevenson lined up against Elam in one-on-ones and easily won the route to the back middle of the end zone. As Stevenson caught the pass along the back line, he failed to get both feet in and, worse for him, immediately began to walk gingerly toward the sideline. The team’s athletic training staff began to work with Stevenson, only for him to leave the rest of practice.

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Missing time with an injury won’t help Marquez Stevenson’s bid to make the Bills roster. (Joshua Bessex / Associated Press)

It’s another setback for Stevenson, who missed the first part of the 2021 season with an injury before returning and getting benched down the stretch. Stevenson was a bubble player as it is, and if he has to miss any time, it could dramatically alter his chances of making the team. Five receivers appear to be locks for the 53-man roster: Diggs, Davis, McKenzie, Crowder and rookie Khalil Shakir. Special teams contributor Jake Kumerow (who returned to practice Tuesday) looks like a strong bet to make the team as well. The Bills said Stevenson suffered a foot injury and that he’s still being evaluated, but any time missed is a negative for his bid to make the roster.

Shakir ticks another box for the Bills

After six good practices from Shakir, he had a temporary lapse with multiple drops on Monday. The Bills have been impressed by Shakir in camp, which made his response to a bad day in the following practice an important one. Shakir came through and showed his usual smooth route running and footwork, played well in one-on-ones, then made one of the best hands catches of the day during team drills. He worked back to Keenum on a quick-hitting throw, but the ball was delivered well away from his frame for a potential interception. Shakir extended his arms fully while his momentum was taking him in the opposite direction and snared the ball out of the air just as contact was coming. He then quickly tucked the ball into his body to secure the reception.

Shakir bounced back nicely from his worst day yet, which helps inform the Bills even more about how they’ll want to develop their wide receiver rotation in 2022. It’s early, but the team seems bullish on Shakir’s potential despite his status as a rookie fifth-round pick.

(Top photo of Jordan Poyer: Joshua Bessex / Associated Press)

 

 

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