Buffalo Bills 2020 53-Man Roster Projection
My fellow Bills fans, while it has been a long off-season, we are finally at the most wonderful time of the year: football season. Now, every year, we see media members address that all-important question of “who stays and who goes”. I have actually been doing a basic projection for the past few years, but this year, I decided that I would do some actual research and publish it. So, as we inch closer to the start of the 2020 season, let’s hop on this roster carousel and see where it takes us.
Quarterback (3): Josh Allen, Matt Barkley, Jake Fromm
Allen & Barkley: Josh Allen is the starter (and looks great in shorts). Matt Barkley is the backup quarterback.
Fromm: Jake Fromm had a strong collegiate career at Georgia, leading the Bulldogs to the double-digit wins each of his three seasons (including a national championship appearance in his freshman year). He may not have the raw throw power that Josh Allen has, but that is rare among quarterbacks. I believe that his selection in the 5th round was a steal because he knows how to dissect defenses and does not make many mistakes (throwing only 18 interceptions in 982 pass attempts), making him an asset to Allen’s long-term development. I believe that he has the potential to become a high-tier backup. (Think Barkley, Fitzpatrick, or maybe even Frank Reich.) Therefore, he is too valuable to risk losing from the practice squad. (Especially since Bill Belichick preys on cast offs from division foes.) He could redshirt his rookie year and replace Barkley once his contract expires after the season.
Webb: There really isn’t much to say about Davis Webb. He was brought in last offseason as preseason depth and eventually landed on the Bills practice squad. Due to the positional depth and continuity, I believe that the same fate awaits him this year.
Running Back (3): Devin Singletary, Zach Moss, Taiwan Jones
Singletary & Moss: The two young bucks will likely split carries this season. They both seem to share similar attributes, though Moss is bigger and will take over the power back role vacated by the legendary Frank Gore.
Jones: Taiwan Jones is a solid special team gunner and has experience as a receiving back, including an 11-yard reception against the Bucs in 2017 during his 1st stint with the Bills (which I saw in person) and his 34-yard reception in the 2019 Wild Card game with the Texans; both of which set up game-winning field goals.
Wade: Christian Wade became a fan favorite last preseason due to big plays against the Colts (a 65-yard rushing TD) and Panthers (a 48-yard reception). Also, given his background in rugby, he could become a special teams contributor. However, the lack of preseason games this year means that the unproven Wade will have a hard time surpassing experienced backs like Yeldon and Jones. The Bills took advantage of his roster exemption last season, and I fully expect them to do so again.
Yeldon: The former Jaguars 2nd-round pick signed a two-year deal last offseason and many, including me, expected him to play a significant role in the offense because of his starting experience. However, Coach McDermott thought differently, as he only appeared in 4 regular-season games and contributed 30 total touches for 187 yards. He also does not contribute on special teams. I believe that McDermott puts him on the expanded practice squad in case Singletary or Moss is unavailable.
Williams: The undrafted back out of North Carolina will not make the roster or practice squad.
Fullback (1): Reggie Gilliam
Gilliam: He has received high praise for his special team abilities from Coach Heath Farwell and has shown what he is capable of on the offensive side (i.e. beating A.J. Klein for a long reception) during practice. Furthermore, Gilliam’s versatility, having played both fullback and tight end at Toledo, and affordable price tag ($617,000 cap hit vs. DiMarco’s $1.9 million) make it hard not to keep him over DiMarco. (Shameless Plug #1: For an in-depth profile of Reggie Gilliam, check out BF contributor Jack Caccamise’s article “Undrafted to Potential Starter: FB Reggie Gilliam’s Fight”.)
DiMarco: When discussing Pat DiMarco, one thing comes to mind: botched receptions, namely (a) the bobbled pass from Nate Peterman against the Chargers, which resulted in an interception, and (b) the incomplete pass in double coverage during the Wildcard game. While the latter instance can be chalked up to poor decision-making on Josh Allen’s part, the former is solely his fault, it was a catch-able ball that he failed to bring in. Fullbacks nowadays have to be able to both block and catch (like Kyle Juszczyk) and DiMarco has proven that he can’t. I do not think his status as a team captain saves him from the chopping block.
*Update: Reggie Gilliam has been designated as a tight end. Since he can play both positions, this switch does not impact my projection.
Wide Receiver (7): Stefon Diggs, John Brown, Cole Beasley, Isaiah McKenzie, Gabriel Davis, Isaiah Hodgins, Andre Roberts
Diggs, Brown, Beasley, & Roberts: The top three receivers (Stefon Diggs, John Brown, & Cole Beasley) are locks to make the team. Andre Roberts is also safe as a Pro Bowl-caliber return man.
McKenzie: Isaiah McKenzie has become a favorite among fans over the past couple seasons. His raw speed and athleticism have made him an invaluable asset in both the rushing and short-yardage passing game over the past two seasons (averaging 6.4 yards/carry and 9.6 yards/catch, respectively). I believe that he could keep a roster spot, not just as a designated receiver, but as a hybrid back/receiver. (Think Cordarrelle Patterson with the Patriots).
Davis & Hodgins: While Davis is a lock as a 4th round pick, Hodgins is not. That being said, the rookie receivers have earned high praise from John Brown for their knowledge of the playbook. Furthermore, Davis (6-2, 210) and Hodgins (6-3, 201) are physically bigger than the top three receivers, but are also athletic as they have each had their share of positive plays in recent practices. They both make the roster.
Foster: We all know the story of Robert Foster, but to recap: he went undrafted out of Alabama in 2018, signed with the Bills and made the initial 53-man roster, was sent to the practice squad early in the season, and then was brought back to face the Jets week 10. He proceeded to tear it up, tallying 541 yards and 3 touchdowns over the last 7 games and found his way into many a fan’s hearts. Expectations were high for him entering his sophomore season; however, the arrival of veteran receivers Cole Beasley and John Brown as well as CFL standout Duke Williams all but fazed him out of the game plan, resulting in only 3 catches on 18 targets in 2019. Furthermore, the acquisition of Stefon Diggs served as the final blow to Foster’s career in Buffalo. While I still believe he can develop into a solid receiver, I do not think that will happen here. (Hopefully anywhere outside the AFC East! Maybe the Packers or Raiders?)
Williams: Duke Williams became a fan favorite last season because of his contributions against the Titans (Week 5: 4 catches, 29 yards, and game-winning TD), Jets (Week 17: 6 catches, 108 yards), and Texans (Wild Card: 4 catches for 49 yards). However, as with Robert Foster last season, the infusion of new talent and depth at the receiver position (Diggs, Davis, and Hodgins) has pushed Williams off the 53-man roster. That being said, I believe he ends up on the practice squad.
Tight Ends (3): Dawson Knox, Tyler Kroft, Lee Smith
Knox: Whether Dawson Knox is Buffalo’s Gronk is yet to be seen, but working out with George Kittle and a jugs machine to address last season’s butterfingers is a good start. I believe he showed enough flashes last season to warrant the starting job week 1 (i.e. trucking and stiff-arming Bengal defenders; a contortionist-caliber catch vs. the Patriots; and several catches in traffic throughout the season).
Kroft & Smith: Tyler Kroft will make the roster for three reasons: (1) he took a pay cut this offseason, (2) he is a better receiving tight end than Lee Smith, and (3) he has a lot to prove. Add in the fact he was partly responsible for sending the Bills to the playoffs both times in the McBeane era (Week 17, 2017 w/CIN: 6 catches, 53 yards, and 2 TDs; Week 15, 2019 w/BUF: the game-winning 14 yard TD), and I believe that he earns the #2 TE job to start this season. Meanwhile, Lee Smith will make the roster because he is a great blocking tight end.
Croom: Like Robert Foster, Jason Croom emerged during the non-playoff year of the McBeane era as a potential breakout candidate, but missed last season with an injury. Despite his current relationship with the Pegulas’ daughter, I do not see Croom making the final roster due to the quality of depth and talent at the tight end position. He likely makes the practice squad.
Sweeney: I also do not see Sweeney making the opening week roster. He is currently injured, and McDermott has more pressing depth needs to fill. Sweeney likely ends up on the practice squad.
Becker: Nate Becker definitely won’t make the roster and will have a hard time making the practice squad with Croom and Sweeney in the mix.
Offensive Line (9): Dion Dawkins, Quinton Spain, Mitch Morse, Brian Winters, Ty Nsekhe, Cody Ford, Ryan Bates, Evan Boehm, Jon Feliciano (Injured)
Dawkins, Spain, Morse, Feliciano, Nsekhe, & Ford: The starting six linemen from last season are safe. (Yes, I included Ford as a starter because he platooned and started at right tackle.)
Winters: Since Jon Feliciano is currently injured, Brian Winters will make the roster despite his run in with A.J. Epenesa (pun intended). I believe that Ford will not move to guard and will continue to platoon at right tackle with Nsekhe. If Winters performs well, Feliciano can both back him up at right guard and Morse at center, like last season. If not, McDermott can either keep him as depth or cut him outright.
Bates, Boehm, & Williams: The depth linemen battle will be decided based on versatility. Ryan Bates will make the roster as a swing tackle, providing depth behind Dawkins, Ford, and Nsekhe (same as last season). Evan Boehm will beat out Daryl Williams for the last spot because he can play both center and guard. Daryl Williams will be placed on the expanded practice squad as experienced depth.
Harrell & Adams: I do not know much about Marquel Harrell, but if he is as good as Jack Caccamise says in his article “Marquel Harrell: Profiling a Former Auburn Standout” (Shameless Plug #2), I believe that he will make the practice squad. Former Washington Husky Trey Adams had a solid college career and could develop into a solid backup option at offensive tackle, warranting a spot on the practice squad.
Boettger, Salako, & Walton: I think there is too much depth along the offensive line to warrant roster or practice squad spots for these three players.
Defensive Line (9): Jerry Hughes, Mario Addison, Ed Oliver, Harrison Phillips, A.J. Epenesa, Darryl Johnson, Vernon Butler, Vincent Taylor, Quinton Jefferson
Addison, Hughes, Oliver, Phillips, & Epenesa: Addison, Hughes, Oliver, and Phillips are safe as they project to be starters. Epenesa was already safe due to his selection in the 2nd round this past April, but bulldozing Winters in practice further ingratiated him with McDermott and Coach Frazier.
Murphy: He will be released. While he had some highlight plays the past two seasons, his stats (9 sacks and 60 total tackles) are not worth his exorbitant price tag ($9.775 million). (Shameless Plug #3: For an in-depth discussion of Trent Murphy’s time in Buffalo, I recommend checking out BF contributor Ben Blakely’s article, “Is Trent Murphy’s Time in Buffalo Over”.)
Darryl Johnson: The 2019 7th-rounder will make the roster as cheap depth for the defensive end rotation.
Butler, Taylor, & Jefferson: Vernon Butler, a former Panther, has experience in McDermott’s defense and could potentially fill the void left by the departure of Jordan Phillips and Star Lotulelei (who opted out of the season due to COVID concerns) and provide insurance if Harrison Phillips struggles or goes down again. Vincent Taylor was elevated from the practice squad last season when the Bills were experiencing depth issues at the position, tallying 2 total tackles. However, in 2018 with Miami, he had 26 total tackles and 2 sacks, proving his potential as a rotation contributor. Furthermore, keeping 9 d-linemen would allow McDermott to utilize Jefferson’s versatility for additional depth at both defensive end and tackle.
Cox, Love, Smart, & Zimmer: They will likely be cut because of the depth along the defensive line. Any of them could make the expanded practice squad, but I think that will come down to one defensive end and one defensive tackle.
Linebacker (6): Tremaine Edmunds, Matt Milano, A.J. Klein, Vosean Joseph, Tyler Matakevich, Andre Smith
Klein & Joseph: Vosean Joseph is competing with former Panther A.J. Klein for the starting spot left vacant by the retirement of fan-favorite Lorenzo Alexander. I believe that Klein will either win the job outright or work in a platoon because of his prior experience in McDermott’s defense. Meanwhile, Joseph’s athleticism and 5th-round salary makes him an affordable backup and potential special teams contributor. Barring any extenuating circumstances (i.e. suspension or injury), I believe Joseph is safe.
Matakevich: The Temple product was signed for his special teams prowess. He played in 63 of 64 regular-season games for the Steelers over the past 4 years, tallying 65 total tackles and a blocked kick. Furthermore, he led the league in special team tackles last season. He will make the roster.
Smith & Thompson: Andre Smith played 314 special team snaps last season; that is more than Corey Thompson had over the past 2 seasons combined (292 snaps). Meanwhile, Thompson has had more total tackles than Smith (21 to 8) as well as more defensive experience, having filled in for Milano in 2018. That being said, Brandon Beane spent a conditional future draft pick to secure his services, so he must see something in him. As a result, I believe that he will get the final linebacker spot. Thompson will either be placed on the practice squad or cut outright.
Dodson & Phillips: I believe that Dodson and Phillips will not make the roster. At least one of these two will likely make the practice squad.
Cornerback (6): Tre White, Levi Wallace, Taron Johnson, Dane Jackson, Cam Lewis, Josh Norman (Injured)
White, Wallace, Norman, Taron Johnson, & Cam Lewis: The top 4 corners are locks. If Norman is out for a prolonged period of time, Levi Wallace will start opposite Tre White. Norman’s hamstring injury also leaves the door open for Cam Lewis to make the opening day roster.
Jackson: The 2020 7th-round pick had a solid collegiate career at PITT, tallying 104 solo tackles and 35 passes defended in his last three seasons. If his college production is an indicator, he should be a special teams contributor who could eventually fit into a nickel/dime corner role. Additionally, his chances of making the final roster skyrocketed when E.J. Gaines opted out of this season, Ike Brown retired, and the team released Akeem King. Given how McDermott used Siran Neal in big nickel packages last season, there is a possibility that Jackson ends up on the practice squad. However, recent depth issues at the position (i.e. Taron Johnson and Levi Wallace late last season; Josh Norman this preseason) justify the need to keep five active corners on any given Sunday.
Allen: I believe that Brian Allen was brought in to provide additional preseason depth. With Cam Lewis and Dane Jackson ahead of him on the depth chart, he is unlikely to make the initial roster. However, he could be a candidate for the expanded practice squad.
Safety (5): Micah Hyde, Jordan Poyer, Siran Neal, Jaquan Johnson, Dean Marlowe
Hyde & Poyer: They are the undisputed starters and should continue to be one of the best safety duos in the league.
Neal, Jaquan Johnson, & Marlowe: Some may argue that Siran Neal and Jaquan Johnson are on the bubble, but McBeane didn’t add any notable players to this group in the offseason, signaling that they are comfortable with the group as is. Furthermore, since McDermott uses Siran Neal in big nickel packages, it would be sensible to retain a fifth safety (i.e. Dean Marlowe) as a designated backup.
Thomas: Josh Thomas was brought in as preseason depth and, therefore, will not make the roster; though he could make the practice squad.
Kicker (1): Tyler Bass
This position battle is reminiscent of 2014 when the Bills drafted a strong-legged kicker in the 6th round (Dustin Hopkins) to compete with an established veteran (Dan Carpenter). In that case, Dan Carpenter won by default as Hopkins suffered an injury and was cut at the end of the preseason. However, Carpenter’s production faltered over the next three seasons, resulting in his release and the signing of Stephen Hauschka. Three years later, the team faces the same conundrum. While Hausch-money has put up decent numbers, he is on the decline (2017: 87.9% on field goals and 100% on extra points; 2018: 78.6% on field goals and 96.2% on extra points; 2019: 78.6% on field goals and 93.8% on extra points).
Additionally, his once-booming leg has also declined over the last three seasons (56, 54, and 51 yards respectively). While Bass’ field goal numbers were inconsistent over his last three seasons at Georgia Southern (78.9% made in 2017; 90.5% made in 2018; 71.4% made in 2019), he missed only 1 extra point and has a booming leg (as evident by multiple made 50-plus yard kicks and comparisons to a driver club), just like Dustin Hopkins when he was drafted. While it may be hard to fathom cutting both special team captains from last season, the current environment may justify it as Hauschka is set to have a $3.05 million cap hit this season, while Bass will make just over $656,000 in the first year of his rookie deal. The team would incur an $875,000 dead cap this season and $625,000 dead cap next year if they do release the 13-year veteran, but the team would save $2.175 million on the 2020 cap, which could be used towards the Tre White or Matt Milano extensions. History tends to repeat circumstances and, this time, the Bills should go with the young whippersnapper.
*Update: Stephen Hauschka was released on August 27th; Tyler Bass has won the kicker battle.
Punter (1): Lac Edwards
Bojorquez: The 3rd-year punter out of New Mexico booted the ball 79 times last season (tied 4th-most in the league) and had 34 punts inside the 20-yard line (tied 3rd-most in the league). So why does he not invoke a strong sense of confidence among fans and, more importantly, Coach McDermott? You never know if he will boom it for 60 or shank it for 30 when he goes out there. (It’s a crapshoot!) That’s why they brought in competition this preseason.
Edwards: Speaking of the competition, Lac Edwards was fairly consistent during his Jets tenure in regards to average yards per punt (43.1 yards/punt in 2016, 46.6 yards/punt in 2017, 45.9 yards/punt in 2018, and 45.9 yards/punt in 2019). While those averages don’t inspire much confidence, I will note that Bills legend Brian Moorman had a career average of 43.7 yards/punt in his 13 years here (the highest being 48.2 in 2011). If I had to choose between the two, I would go with Edwards because you want a punter who can consistently flip field position to help out the defense. (Though maybe Brian Moorman could make a comeback; he’s only 44.)
*Update: Lac Edwards was released on August 27th; Corey Bojorquez won the punter battle.
Long Snapper (1): Reid Ferguson
While I personally do not get why a team needs a designated long-snapper when they have at least 1 or 2 centers on the roster, Ferguson is a lock to make the team.
* I am not Sean McDermott or Brandon Beane, so I will most likely miss on some of these. (Conservatively, I figure 10-20, though I already got the punter battle wrong!!)
* All player stats were provided by Pro Football Reference, CFB Sports Reference, and ESPN.
* All cap figures were provided by Spotrac.
Do you agree or disagree with my picks? Let me know on Twitter (@zvaughn2712).