Over the weekend, Zach Vaughn and I co-hosted a Writer’s Club Spaces discussion on the BF Twitter page. We talked for over an hour and a half about the many different training camp battles, trying to figure out the best route to the Buffalo Bills 53-man roster.
One listener suggested right off the bat that the Bills should not keep as many offensive linemen and, instead, keep extra DB depth in order to help defend against the speedy, athletic WRs that they’ll face this year. One way the team can keep more cornerbacks in my mind is by shedding some defensive linemen. The top eight, led by Von Miller, is significantly stronger this year as opposed to last year’s 11-man DL rotation. But I don’t think this is the year to thin out the offensive line.
Improving the Run Game Through the Trenches
The Bills have clearly placed an emphasis on enhancing the run game in 2022. They brought in Aaron Kromer, known for his physical, nasty, and aggressive trench units, to coach the offensive line. Kromer was the Bills OL coach with Rex Ryan (2015-16) and helped lead the Bills to the number one rushing attack in 2016 (164.4 yards per game).
This offseason, Buffalo signed OG Roger Saffold, OL David Quessenberry, IOL Greg Mancz, G Greg Van Roten and, most recently, OG Jordan Simmons in free agency. They also drafted OT Luke Tenuta. Saffold and Quessenberry were both top-10 run blockers last season with the Titans, helping pave the way for Derrick Henry. Not to mention, the Bills also signed TE O.J. Howard and drafted RB James Cook in the second round; further signs that they want to run the ball better this season.
I’m not saying that the Bills are going to be a run-heavy team now; with Josh Allen as your quarterback, you’re going to be a pass-first team. But I do think the Bills want to be able to run the ball when they have to this season to keep defenses honest. A perfect example is the first New England game last year. That was a game where the Bills had to be able to run the ball, but couldn’t. Allen’s arm was somehow still more effective in 50+ mph winds than Devin Singletary’s, Matt Breida’s, and Zack Moss’ legs were.
All signs point to the Bills wanting to establish a more effective run game this season and to win up front, but at what expense?
Sacrificing WR Depth/Return Specialists
We continued on in our conversation. It was proposed that, rather than thinning out the offensive line, this might be the year where the Bills cut an extra wide receiver instead. The Bills kept six WRs last year, and then had Marquez Stevenson return from IR as their seventh WR. If I were to guess, the Bills top six WRs this year are Stefon Diggs, Gabe Davis, Jamison Crowder, Khalil Shakir, Isaiah McKenzie and Jake Kumerow. The reason I have Shakir ahead of McKenzie is because Brandon Beane said at his Post-Draft Town Hall that they see him as their WR4, meaning he is the first backup off the bench to come in and either play on the inside or the outside.
So we finally boiled the conversation down to two players…
Who to Keep: WR/PR Tavon Austin or OL Cody Ford?
Let’s say the Bills keep the six receivers that I mentioned and put Stevenson, Isaiah Hodgins and Tanner Gentry on the practice squad. And they retain Quessenberry, Mancz, and OT Tommy Doyle as the backup offensive linemen, with OG Ike Boettger on the PUP list. (He’d be eligible to come back after Week 4 with the league’s new rule.)
Would you rather have Tavon Austin as the seventh wide receiver, a speedy slot receiver who can also return punts and kicks, or Cody Ford as the ninth or tenth offensive linemen to provide extra depth on the line?
The Lesser of Two Evils?
On the surface, you might think Tavon Austin. He is known as a speed demon, a human highlight reel, and a guy who can take one to the house at any given moment. Austin definitely seems to fit the mold that the Bills are looking for to get over the hump. Meanwhile, Cody Ford has struggled in his three years in the league, never finishing a season with a PFF grade above 54 (… out of 100). He finished last season with a 46.4… yikes.
However, the more we looked into it, the tougher the decision became. Austin, surprisingly, has 25 fumbles over his nine seasons in the league. While he hasn’t lost all of them, he’s still mishandled them, something the Bills are trying to improve on from last season. Even more surprising, Austin hasn’t topped 100 return yards in a season since 2016. Over the past five seasons, he has 212 total punt return yards on 44 punt returns for a 4.82 yard/return average between the Rams, Cowboys, Packers, and Jaguars. And on top of it, Austin only has 244 receptions, 2,239 receiving yards, and 16 TDs in his career. He’s only topped 500 receiving yards and five receiving TDs once each in his career (2016 and 2015, respectively).
So now, after looking at it, it appears as though both players have struggled over the last few years. Everything I’ve heard about Tavon Austin has been positive so far though, as people close to the team have said he still has plenty of juice left in the tank. Another bonus of having someone like Austin is the Bills wouldn’t rely on him too much for offense. His primary focus would be on special teams, returning punts and kicks. If they put Isaiah McKenzie, James Cook, or Micah Hyde back there, they are putting crucial assets at risk for injury. Obviously you don’t want Austin to get hurt, but if he does, the offense and defense wouldn’t miss a step.
On the other hand, Cody Ford could be Aaron Kromer’s project this year. I think Beane has learned to give his offensive linemen time to develop after dealing Wyatt Teller to the Browns a few years ago. So the Bills may look at 2022 (year number four) as the make-or-break year for Ford. If Kromer is as good as they say he is, maybe he can get Ford back to playing like a 40th overall pick should. If he can’t, well… Ford will have a tough time sticking around the NFL.
You can make a case to keep or cut either player. So you tell me Bills Mafia: Would you rather keep Tavon Austin or Cody Ford?
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