ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — As has become a tradition in the middle of their training camp, the Bills conducted their annual Blue and Red practice in front of a lively crowd of 35,000 at Highmark Stadium. It was a one-practice hiatus before the Bills return to St. John Fisher University for their final four practices of camp this week.
And within Friday’s practice, it was the first time Damar Hamlin played at Highmark Stadium since suffering cardiac arrest last January. Hamlin ran out onto the field to an ovation that mirrored the one for quarterback Josh Allen. It was also the first time Hamlin had been in the stadium since getting the clearance to attend a Bills postseason game last year.
“Right up there,” Hamlin said, as he pointed to the box above the tunnel he sat in for the Bills’ playoff loss to the Bengals. “That was the last time I was here. It was an emotional day. I felt the love then. But, to be back out here. To then, not know the future and not know what it was going to be for me, but to be able to be back out here so soon, right away, just in the process like everybody else. I can’t describe that to you.”
Hamlin could get the chance to play in his first game in about one week when the Bills host the Colts on Aug. 12, which marks the Bills’ return to Orchard Park for the rest of the season.
Outside of Hamlin’s on-field return to Highmark Stadium, what stood out during the team’s practice Friday night? Here are several observations from Day 8 of Bills training camp.
- Keep up with all things from 2023 Bills training camp here.
A slow, slow day for the offense at large
In past years, the blue and red day of camp was more of a scrimmage than a practice, but coach Sean McDermott scaled things back a bit this year to mimic more of the practices they’d been running in Rochester. But they did mix in some full drives for the offense and defense that more closely depicted a game. Each quarterback received two drive starts, with the offense getting six drives in total, and to put it kindly, things did not go well.
On all six drives, including penalties, the offense collectively had a net yardage of 69 yards on 25 plays — an average of 2.8 yards per play. For some context, the first three drives did begin on the offense’s two-yard line, so it was intentionally made difficult on them. But on those three drives, the Bills were actually more productive on offense than when they had a more conducive situation. The first, second and third-team offense all gained one first down on those drives. But on the last three drives, with drive starts at their own 20, 30 and 40-yard line, the offense managed no first downs and only 16 yards on ten plays. And on all six drives, the Bills never crossed the 50-yard line to the defense’s territory. On his two drives, Josh Allen merely went 1-of-5 for 5 yards, though a drop from Gabe Davis contributed to one drive halting.
Business didn’t pick up for the offense until the situational sessions put them in a goal-to-go scenario late into the evening. Allen was able to connect on three touchdown passes that were one, two and eight yards away from the end zone. It slightly salvaged an otherwise sub-standard day for offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey and his side of the ball. The Bills have a day off on Saturday, so they’ll hope the offense comes back in a big way on Sunday.
Harris and Murray battling in some short-yardage situations
After those drives wrapped up, the Bills worked on some late-down, short-yardage situations, which was a good look at some of their personnel usage with basically a brand new running back room. It shouldn’t be a surprise given their skillsets, but Damien Harris and Latavius Murray each got two opportunities to plunge forward on those short-yardage chances. Harris got stuffed on his first and crossed the line to gain for his second opportunity. Murray went two-for-two, and then later on, in a goal line attempt, somehow roped in a fumbled snap and found his way in for a touchdown. It was a small sample size, but Murray was the more productive rusher between the two. Murray remains the more accomplished and better receiver of the two backups to James Cook, but Harris has consistently been the second back to get snaps after Cook throughout camp. With Murray being the more productive pass catcher, and showing some short-yardage ability, it will be interesting to see where this competition goes from here.
Have Elam and Jackson gone ahead of Benford?
Over the last several practices, we have seen some definite momentum for 2022 first-round pick Kaiir Elam in the starting competition. He has consistently gotten first-team time, and those actions are in turn, clearly giving him some confidence on the field in practices. But with Elam’s rise could be at the expense of another young player that started off with those reps, Christian Benford. For the fourth time over the last five practices, Benford did not receive any first-team reps with the defense, which is not a positive indicator for his place in the starting competition. Elam and veteran Dane Jackson split time with the top unit, as they had done on Days 4, 5 and 7 of training camp.
It’s now around the point in training camp where teams start to make moves within the competitions. As we’ve seen at middle linebacker, the Bills have already likely narrowed their competition to two with Tyrel Dodson and Terrel Bernard, with Baylon Spector no longer getting first-team time since Day 3. If this notable trend for Benford continues for the next two or three days of camp, it could be down to just Elam and Jackson in the race to be in the starting duo with top cornerback Tre’Davious White.
Dodson looks great against the run
Speaking of the middle linebacker competition, Dodson received another day as the team’s first-team middle linebacker, though Friday night came with a slightly different context. The Bills were without starting outside linebacker Matt Milano, who sat out the session with general soreness. That allowed Bernard to get some first-team time at outside linebacker next to Dodson. However, whenever Dodson has been in the lineup, the one thing that consistently stands out is how well he plays with instincts against the run and shoots the rushing lanes with speed for a stop at or behind the line of scrimmage. He has definitely looked the part from that perspective and has a leg up on Bernard in that category. Though some of his struggles during previous years in the starting lineup came when teams used that against him with play-action passing. That will be Dodson’s biggest test to prove he can be their top linebacker this season. It would be fair to expect both players to get some work in the team’s first preseason game next weekend.
Mix and match at nickel corner
Just as Milano sat out of Friday’s practice, so did starting nickel cornerback Taron Johnson with a similar distinction of “general soreness.” As training camp has progressed, the Bills have tinkered with several players getting time at nickel past the first unit. So with Johnson getting the night off, it allowed many of those options to get some time with the first unit. It mostly centered around Siran Neal and Taylor Rapp, with a little Cam Lewis mixed in as well. Neal, who is mostly a special teams contributor, is best suited to the nickel spot despite some bad reps at the position in games over the years. Rapp is a safety, and Lewis has played both nickel and safety throughout his Bills career. The most natural at the position of the three is Lewis, though if the Bills ever had to play without Johnson during a game, it would be a clear opportunity to get Rapp involved in the defense in a near-every-snap role. But it all underscores a bigger point to their defense, that Johnson may be one of the most important starting players on the entire roster given his skill set, impact and depth chart behind him.
Before Day 8 of camp, center Mitch Morse had gotten nearly any snaps with reserve quarterback Kyle Allen during team drills, and it showed. Spread out throughout the practice, Allen and Morse had a botched exchange on two different occasions with Allen directly under center. Then, later on, a slightly higher shotgun snap from Morse went through Allen’s hands for another fumble. The three combined fumbles had Morse visibly frustrated as the two attempt to get on the same page in the event of any Josh Allen missed time. Kyle Allen appears the favorite to be the Bills’ backup quarterback over Matt Barkley in 2023, meaning he and Morse need to get back on the same page quickly before the season arrives.
Shorter has the makings of a potential special teams standout
For the upcoming season, the Bills have five wide receivers who will likely make up their primary rotation for game days, which includes Stefon Diggs, Gabe Davis, Khalil Shakir, Trent Sherfield and Deonte Harty in whichever way they want to slice up the snaps. That leaves out fifth-round rookie Justin Shorter, though even in a practice setting, you can see the potential in the area they likely loved most about him — special teams.
It might not be as a core-four contributor in 2023, but his size, strength, speed and blocking combination is going to be a handful for opposing special teams units when they can get him fully integrated. He has the makings of an excellent gunner on the punt and kickoff teams, and could make a great pairing with special teams ace Siran Neal. Shorter has had a bit of an up-and-down camp as a receiver which will likely keep him out of contention for snaps as a rookie barring injury, but he can certainly earn a jersey on game days if he keeps showing well on special teams.
Day 8 non-participants: LB Matt Milano (general soreness), NCB Taron Johnson (general soreness), WR Isaiah Coulter (knee), WR Bryan Thompson (concussion), DE Von Miller (knee, PUP), DT Jordan Phillips (shoulder, PUP), LB Tyler Matakevich (calf, PUP)
(Top photo of Josh Allen: Ben Green / Buffalo Bills)