The Backseat GM: My Very Premature 53-Man Roster Projection
The 2021 NFL Draft is in the books and the dust has settled on free agency (for the most part). To quote the incomparable Larry David, the Buffalo Bills are in a “pretty, pretty, pretty good” situation at this point in the off-season. Somehow Brandon Beane managed to bring back most of the team’s free agents (including all of the major players) on team-friendly extensions, sign veteran depth and role players, and draft an entire class of rookies under a constrained cap situation. (I guess paying players in candy saves a bit of cap space.)
Including the aforementioned free agents and rookie class (including undrafted free agents, UDFAs), the current Bills roster stands at 84 players heading into OTAs. With training camp on the horizon, it is natural for football fans and pundits to discuss the position battles to come and prematurely project the final 53-man roster in the wake of the draft.
So, in that spirit, I shall throw my hat into the ring. I mean, what could be more fitting for a column called “The Backseat GM” than a premature roster projection? (Not much.) However, I want to take things up a notch. In addition to merely projecting cuts and practice squad players using the most up-to-date roster (as of May 10, 2021), I will also project some player trades that serve as de facto cuts (or “compensatory trades” as I refer to them). These moves are aimed at certain players who are expendable but could hold trade value to other teams. (Think Brandon Beane trading Marshall Newhouse, Russell Bodine, Wyatt Teller, and Lee Smith.) But enough of my introductory ramblings, let’s dive in!
Note: The Practice Squad number used for this projection (12) is based on the existing changes set in the most recent CBA (per David Fucillo of DraftKings Nation).
QB (3): Josh Allen, Mitch Trubisky, Jake Fromm
We all know where Josh and Mitch stand (starter and backup). The main question here is what the Bills want to do at QB3. While there is a chance the Bills opt not to carry a third QB, I think they will for the sake of system continuity. This way, they’re not scrambling for an emergency option like Derek Anderson should things go horribly wrong.
The main reason I think Jake Fromm beats out Davis Webb is because of his youth (and fifth-round salary). The third-string good neighbor will be entering his second season and can easily hold a clipboard again in 2021. Plus, as Matt Parrino pointed out, Webb has immense value on the scout team. (If anyone truly wanted him as a backup option, he wouldn’t have lasted this long on the practice squad.)
RB (4): Devin Singletary, Zack Moss, Matt Brieda, Antonio Williams
A decent number of you out there are probably disappointed the Bills didn’t draft an RB at 30. But fear not, as any RB can be productive given solid blocking. Zack Moss was starting to come into his own late last season before suffering that devastating high ankle sprain.
As for Devin Singletary, newsflash… he’s not going anywhere. If they were going to move on from him, they would’ve drafted an RB at 30. The good news is that he’s gearing up for a revenge tour, having trained with a positional guru (think Josh Allen with Jordan Palmer; as reported by Tyler Dunne) to improve his explosiveness and rushing technique. Motor’s gonna rev that engine this year, so get ready.
Matt Brieda, or “The Road Runner” as I call him, is all but a lock to make the final 53, but I think he will because of his speed and burst. (Yes those are two different things for RBs.) He is a cheap, proven commodity who would thrive as the speed back in Buffalo’s (presumed) committee. I cannot wait to shout “meep meep” when he breaks a long one this year.
Now for the first “surprise” of this roster projection. I think Antonio Williams gets the nod over Taiwan Jones for RB4 for one main reason: he provides more gameplay ability/potential. By this, I mean that he would be better RB depth offensively, mitigating what would be a slight drop off in special team ability. (Williams earned the 2019 UNC Special Teams MVP award, so he has some experience there.) Furthermore, there are RB-needy teams that would kill for a talented youngster like Williams in their backfield, so he would not make it to the practice squad. Jones, meanwhile, could be signed to the practice squad as one of the possible two slots allocated for any player (regardless of experience) in the most recent CBA.
I’m sorry Christian Wade fans, but he is the odd man out in this scenario. There is a possibility he contends for special team duty, either replacing Jones as a gunner or (perhaps) seeing work as a return man. However, that’s unlikely. I also do not see the Bills using the (recently extended) practice squad exemption again because he’s 30 years old and has already waited two years for a chance. If he doesn’t make the Bills roster, he should be allowed to seek out his own opportunity elsewhere.
WR (6): Stefon Diggs, Cole Beasley, Emmanuel Sanders, Gabriel Davis, Isaiah McKenzie, Marquez Stevenson
The top four WRs, Diggs, Beasley, Sanders, and Davis, are guaranteed to make the roster. The fun part is figuring out the last two spots.
With that said, I think it comes down to Isaiah McKenzie and Marquez Stevenson. We all love us some Lil Dirty as a gadget, speed, return guy and they likely drafted Stevenson to be McKenzie’s understudy. This means that Brandon Powell is likely cut.
I also think Isaiah Hodgins and Duke Williams do not make the final roster. However, I could see them fighting for a practice squad spot. Meanwhile, as much as I’d love to see Josh reunite with Tanner Gentry and Jacob Hollister as the “Three Amigos of Laramie”, I just can’t see it at this time. Though this doesn’t mean he leaves Buffalo as he could end up on the practice squad.
Tre Walker will make a fine practice squad candidate, but maybe not for this team, as I’ve allocated two WRs already. As for Jake Kumerow, I have plans for him…
Compensatory Trade #1: Jake Kumerow to whichever team acquires Aaron Rodgers for a future fifth-round pick
I can think of no better way for the team that trades for the disgruntled reigning MVP to ingratiate themselves to him than to reunite him and Touchdown Jesus. The relationship alone warrants a higher price tag.
TE (4): Dawson Knox, Jacob Hollister, Tommy Sweeney, Reggie Gilliam
Speaking of Hollister, I think he makes the roster as Dawson Knox’s backup (TE2) barring any further moves at the position. Tommy Sweeney slots in as the odds-on favorite for the TE3 job now that he’s expected to return in 2021.
Now that leaves second-year TE Reggie Gilliam and UDFA Quintin Morris. I think Gilliam wins that battle because of his TE/FB versatility and special team contributions. Morris has potential but will need a bit of refinement as a route runner and blocker. That’s why he’d be perfect for the practice squad.
OT (4): Dion Dawkins, Daryl Williams, Spencer Brown, Tommy Doyle
Dion Dawkins and Daryl Williams are guaranteed to make the roster. Spencer Brown will be the backup Swing Tackle. I think that Tommy Doyle makes the roster as the fourth OT, assuming that McDermott wants Ryan Bates as Guard/Center depth. Syrus Tuitele either makes the practice squad or gets cut outright. Meanwhile, Bobby Hart could serve a purpose as trade bait.
Compensatory Trade #2: Bobby Hart to Denver for a future conditional sixth-round pick
The Broncos lost Ja’Wuan James for the season and need an experienced RT. Veteran lineman Bobby Hart became expendable when the Bill drafted Spencer Brown and was basically shoved out the door when they took Tommy Doyle. Plus, Beane has a knack for turning undesirable veteran Offensive Linemen into future draft picks (see Marshall Newhouse, Russell Bodine, and Lee Smith).
OG (3): Cody Ford, Jon Feliciano, Ike Boettger
I was so hoping to avoid this fate for the Bills. However, given roster restrictions, I had no choice but to carry just three designated Guards. Cody Ford and Mongo are all but locks to make the roster.
Meanwhile, I am 99.9999999999999% sure that Ike Boettger will make the final roster because he is the “Prodigal Process Protégé” (now that Dean Marlowe is gone). 2021 seventh-round pick Captain Jack Anderson doesn’t make the roster because Ryan Bates has true Guard-Center flexibility. He will be a shoo-in for the practice squad though.
Unfortunately, this means Forrest Lamp and Jamil Douglas are the odd men out. Perhaps one (or both) could be flipped for future picks.
Compensatory Trade #3: Forrest Lamp for a future fifth-round pick and/or Jamil Douglas for a conditional future sixth-round pick
There are teams out there who could use experienced depth at Guard. That gives the Bills some leverage come final cutdowns. Lamp would likely hold more trade value than Douglas, but Beane is known for flipping random players for picks so anything is possible.
C (2): Mitch Morse, Ryan Bates
Mitch Morse is the starting Center; that’s certain. As for Ryan Bates, well you already heard the reason. In fact, I think I hear an echo in this word cave: he has Guard-Center flexibility. Actually, he has Tackle-Guard-Center flexibility, though rumor has it he’s better suited for the interior OL. Hence why I emphasize his Guard-Center versatility.
While Jordan Devey served a valuable role as emergency depth at Center last season, he will not be needed this year.
DE (5): Jerry Hughes, Mario Addison, A.J. Epenesa, Greg Rousseau, Carlos Basham Jr.
Jerry Hughes was never going anywhere and the Bills all but guaranteed Mario Addison a roster spot when he restructured his contract earlier this off-season.
A.J. Epenesa is entering a potential breakout second season. Meanwhile, Buffalo’s first two 2021 draft picks, Gregory Rousseau and Carlos Basham Jr., will round out the DE rotation in 2021 and beyond.
Unfortunately, that means some talented individuals will not make the roster. Third-year DE Darryl Johnson, despite his special team prowess, is one of the odd men out; though he very well could make the practice squad. Brian Cox Jr. and Mike Love will also miss the boat. As for Efe Obada, he may have some trade value.
Compensatory Trade #4: Efe Obada to Atlanta or Dallas for a conditional future fifth-round pick
The Bills have a surplus of DE talent. The Falcons and Cowboys need DE help. Simple as that.
DT (4): Ed Oliver, Star Lotulelei, Vernon Butler, Harrison Phillips
Ed Oliver and Star are locks. Harrison Phillips, the former 2018 third-round pick, is entering a prove-it year. Vernon Butler took a pay cut (like Addison) to stick around. Plus, he is the closest thing to a backup 1T the Bills currently have.
But that means (*sobs*) Justin Zimmer is a casualty. And he won’t be on the practice squad this time. Why? Because the Bills signed him to the 53-man roster in the middle of the season last year to avoid losing him to another team. Now that everyone knows Zimmer’s abilities, he’ll have ample suitors for his services.
And Brandin Bryant will be cut too.
LB (6): Tremaine Edmunds, Matt Milano, A.J. Klein, Tyrel Dodson, Tyler Matakevich, Tyrell Adams
Tremaine Edmunds was guaranteed his fifth-year option last week and Matt Milano got his big boy deal back in March, so they will run it back for at least the next two years. A.J. Klein is also (most likely) a lock due to his veteran experience and financial commitment.
My gut tells me they also run it back with Tyrel Dodson and Tyler Matakevich. Dodson showed promise last year in four games replacing the then-injured Edmunds. Matakevich, the ST ace, signed a team-friendly one-year extension a couple of months ago, which fully guaranteed his base salary and basically locked him in for 2021.
So the last spot comes down to Andre Smith, Tyrell Adams, and Marquel Lee. Like Dodson, Smith also showed some potential last year as both a special teamer and in mop-up LB duty, warranting an extension earlier this off-season. (Though his contract is very easy to get out of.) Meanwhile, Adams and Lee are both veterans with starting experience. However, I think Adams wins out because of his inside-outside LB versatility.
CB (5): Tre White, Levi Wallace, Taron Johnson, Dane Jackson, Siran Neal
The Bills will return their top three CBs from last year. Furthermore, Brandon Beane has all but guaranteed that Dane Jackson will compete for the CB2 job entering this preseason. So that leaves Siran Neal, Cam Lewis, Rachad Wildgoose, Olaijah Griffin, and Nick McCloud in a free-for-all for the fifth CB spot. I personally think four of the five have legit arguments to make the roster. (Sorry McCloud, but I have no clue who you are.) However, with all things considered, I gotta go with the more experienced Siran Neal as CB5.
He has been an invaluable special teamer and depth big nickel back for the past three seasons. He also (arguably) has the most inside-outside CB versatility of the bunch. While I love the idea of Rachad Wildgoose wearing #32 on Sundays this fall, I cannot put him on the roster at this point in time. I concur with BF Draft Guru Casey Reed, The Goose may very well be this year’s Dane Jackson; making the practice squad initially with the potential for a call-up if needed. Cam Lewis would also be eligible for the practice squad this year because he made just five appearances for the Bills in 2020.
S (4): Micah Hyde, Jordan Poyer, Jaquan Johnson, Damar Hamlin
Was there ever a question about Poyer and Hyde? None at all. With the departure of former Process Protégé Dean Marlowe, Jaquan Johnson is now the most experienced backup Safety on the roster. This means that Damar Hamlin, Tariq Thompson, and Josh Thomas will duke it out for the fourth Safety spot. Hamlin likely wins out, becoming the new Dean Marlowe (down to his jersey number). As BF Spy Erich Schmidt said recently, “he [Hamlin] is best classified as a jack-of-all-trades defender and does most everything reasonably well”.
While Thomas spent last season on the practice squad, I think Thompson fills that role this year.
K (1): Tyler Bass
The Bassmaster, T-Bass, Super Bass-o-matic ‘20. Whatever you call him, Tyler Bass kicked his way into the franchise record books his rookie year and is under contract for a sixth-round salary for three more years. He’s not going anywhere.
P (1): Matt Haack
You don’t give a Punter a three-year deal worth $5.5 million just to cut him for someone else. Haack is a capable holder, pin-down artist, and all-around athlete. (Dare I say he’s Moorman-esqe?)
LS (1): Reid Ferguson
Reid Ferguson is the Long Snapper. That is all.
Practice Squad (12): Davis Webb (QB), Taiwan Jones (RB). Isaiah Hodgins (WR), Tanner Gentry (WR), Quintin Morris (TE), Jack Anderson (OG), Darryl Johnson (DE), Brandin Bryant (DT), Andre Smith (LB), Cam Lewis (CB), Rachad Wildgoose (CB), Tariq Thompson (S)
- David Fucillo (DraftKings Nation): “Everything you need to know about 2020 practice squad rules”
- Ryan Talbot (NewYorkUpstate.com): “Buffalo Bills UDFA tracker: Who did team sign after 2021 NFL Draft?”