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Bills OTAs: Linebacker competition, new-look pass catchers and more to watch

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Free agency is done, the NFL Draft is behind us and the Bills already conducted their rookie minicamp. This week, it’s time for the entire roster to come together for the first time since Buffalo’s playoff elimination in January.

The Bills open their doors for the start of organized team activities, a set of voluntary workouts for the 85-man squad. Buffalo’s OTAs consist of nine on-field practices over the next three weeks, leading up to its three-day mandatory minicamp from June 13 through June 15.

And with a new season comes plenty of questions. Here are seven things we’ll be monitoring as the Bills return to Orchard Park for the first time this season.

The new-look pass-catching group

The Bills knew by the end of their playoff run that their pass catchers held back the offense, leading them to add four new ones through free agency and the draft. Stefon DiggsGabe Davis and Dawson Knox needed additional reinforcements, and the Bills promptly added Dalton KincaidDeonte HartyTrent Sherfield and Justin Shorter. Second-year holdover Khalil Shakir remains in the fold. But here’s the big question: Where do all the pieces fit into offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey’s offense?

Diggs will be the locked-in starting Z receiver who can also move inside to slot receiver on some snaps. Davis is the starting X receiver. Past that, it’s all up to the team’s interpretation. Shakir can play inside or at Z; the same goes for Harty. Sherfield might be able to play all three spots, while Shorter is likely an X receiver through and through. And then there’s the Kincaid factor, who could become the new slot receiver if Dorsey can commit his offense to something it hasn’t been before and stick with it when times are difficult.

What the Bills do at slot receiver will be the most intriguing piece to all of this. Kincaid, Shakir and Harty have a legitimate chance to lead this trio in snaps in 2023, and it could wind up being a case of mixing and matching all year. But OTAs will give each a chance to get a leg up on the competition heading into training camp.

Bills offseason workouts
Rookie minicamp
May 12-13
Week 1 OTAs
May 22-23; May 25
Week 2 OTAs
May 30-June 1
Week 3 OTAs
June 5-6; June 8
Mandatory minicamp
June 13-15

Any early Allen-Kincaid chemistry

The Bills like Shakir and Harty, but a fifth-round pick and a lower-tier free-agent contract is a drop in the bucket compared to the resource the team used to acquire Kincaid. The Bills aren’t in the business of allowing their first-round picks to be long-term depth pieces. Each first-round pick they’ve made has become a core starter, and 2022 first-rounder Kaiir Elam appears on his way to doing that in his second season.

That’s why tracking quarterback Josh Allen and how regularly he utilizes Kincaid in these early stages could provide a clue about what Kincaid’s role could be at some point in 2023. Allen showed strong chemistry in early spring practices with Knox when the tight end was a rookie, and even as a third-round pick in 2019, Knox ended up playing nearly 68 percent of the snaps during his games. The slot receiver competition is movable enough for Kincaid to do the same if he and Allen show an instant quarterback-to-receiver connection.

First look at the massive guard competition

In the Bills’ minds, what they had at left and right guard in 2022 wasn’t good enough. Left guard Rodger Saffold was a free-agent flop; he struggled significantly as a pass blocker. Right guard Ryan Bates had a rough early start to 2022 but improved as the year went on, though there was enough wiggle room that made the Bills feel like they could improve that spot. So, the Bills made two significant additions at guard: free-agent signing Connor McGovern and second-round pick O’Cyrus Torrence. Then they added David Edwards, who has heavy starting experience and multiple years working with Bills offensive line coach Aaron Kromer, to a one-year prove-it deal.

General manager Brandon Beane said they had yet to promise anyone a starting job at guard, regardless of the level of commitment through draft pick or compensation. However, all logic points to McGovern being one of the starters in 2023, with Torrence being the favorite to win the other starting job. But it appears both players will need to earn it, as Bates looks to avoid returning to his previous role as a bench option, and the 26-year-old Edwards hopes to return to starting prominence while setting himself up for a nice payday on the open market in 2024. You could even throw longtime Bills player Ike Boettger into the fray. The Bills likely will mix and match all of these pieces on the left and right side to see what sticks in 2023 because of how much that guard group let down the Bills and Allen last season.

Brown with a fully healthy offseason

All offseason, the Bills made their feelings on right tackle Spencer Brown known. They stuck up for some of his early-season challenges, trumpeted how well they thought he played late in the year and remained bullish on what he could become. Their actions matched those words, as they didn’t add a new piece to their offensive tackle room. Instead, they only re-signed David Quessenberry to a one-year deal, but that’s a depth signing above all else. Brown has a clear starting path in 2023. One thing about Brown the Bills repeatedly mention is the right tackle having offseason back surgery last year, curtailing some of his early-year progress.

Now for Brown, all excuses are eliminated. He’s in his third season. The Bills have backed up his potential repeatedly, and now he needs to deliver consistency paired with the good flashes from his first two seasons. Outside of Quessenberry, a lineman to keep an eye on should Brown struggle is Edwards. The former Rams blocker was a right tackle in college at Wisconsin but made the full-time switch to guard in the NFL and, according to Pro Football Focus, had only 30 collective snaps at offensive tackle through his first four years. That’s the extent of Brown’s competition in 2023. The deck is stacked in his favor, and this spring will be a good chance to see some of his progress from last year.

The battle for RDE begins

Although the Bills have not given a definitive timeline on Von Miller, you could look at their recent history for a hint. Past players returning from a long-term injury have usually yielded a conservative approach from the team. With Miller’s ACL tear occurring last November, the Bills likely aren’t looking to push Miller to be ready for the start of the year. They’ll leave themselves open to the idea based on his progress, but given their Super Bowl goals, a fully healthy Miller for the late season and playoffs should be the priority over getting him back as soon as possible.

That potentially opens Miller’s spot early in the season and would be a massive opportunity for two early picks to change their trajectory and career outlook. The team’s 2020 second-round pick, A.J. Epenesa, and 2021 second-round pick Boogie Basham have settled into more of a rotational role since entering the league. But it had to be somewhat disappointing that neither young player stepped up in Miller’s absence post-injury. Instead, the Bills had to depend on Shaq Lawson as their primary starter. Once upon a time, Lawson was an early pick, but at that stage of his career, he was a journeyman veteran playing on a one-year prove-it deal. The Bills brought back Lawson on another one-year deal in case one of the younger pass rushers doesn’t discern themselves. The early season in 2023, which begins this week, might be the last chance Epenesa and Basham have to prove they are more than just backups in the NFL.

Five linebackers, one starting job

The Bills will be without Tremaine Edmunds at middle linebacker for the first time since the 2017 season, so naturally, who they find to replace him will be one of the most closely tracked stories of the spring and summer. The Bills will have five players vying for the job, including 2022 third-round pick Terrel Bernard, 2023 third-round pick Dorian Williams, special teams standout Tyrel Dodson, 2022 seventh-round pick Baylon Spector and veteran A.J. Klein, who has several years of experience playing for coach Sean McDermott. OTAs will be a good time to see how these five players will work in alongside starter Matt Milano, but non-padded practices don’t yield much opportunity to analyze player performance relative to the competition. Physicality is crucial to the position, and there’s no way of simulating their game day performance in non-padded sessions. How much they put on Williams’ plate will be the most intriguing piece, as he’s the closest of the five to Edmunds’ size and skill set.

Elam’s Year 2 debut

As the rest of the offseason angling took place, cornerback rarely came up from a local perspective. It was a focal point in 2022 to which the Bills invested their top draft pick, Elam, even trading up to do so. After a topsy-turvy rookie year that even saw him be a healthy scratch at one point, Elam returned to have his best stretch of games into the postseason. But there are a couple of things we have yet to see. First, the Bills have yet to verbalize Elam being the locked-in starter opposite Tre’Davious White in 2023. That’s likely the way they’re leaning given Elam’s late-season performance and the draft capital used to acquire him, but it’s not definite yet.

And second, since Elam took a step forward late in the year, we have yet to see the Bills use him as an every-snap starter. That might be their plan for 2023, but they also retained Dane Jackson, who split snaps with Elam in the season’s final stages. OTAs will be the first chance to see the Bills’ vision for Elam in 2023 and whether it might be more of a competition than presumed. Elam’s hold on the top job could also help the Bills decide on second-year defensive back Christian Benford and whether to move him to safety this season.

“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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