Now three days into their 2023 season preparations at training camp, the Bills get a chance to take a breath for their first day off on Saturday. Friday’s session was one of their last non-padded practices of the summer for Day 3 at St. John Fisher University, before the pads go on and things ramp up next week.
And for the third straight day, the Bills remained fully healthy going into the session. The team waived cornerback Cameron Dantzler on Friday morning and signed cornerback Kyron Brown to take his place, and all 87 members of the active roster were on the field participating in practice.
And as the players start to settle in at camp, we’ve already seen some advancement from the first practice. Who stood out, and how are the battles for starting jobs shaping up? Here are several observations from Day 3 at Bills camp.
Rust begone, Allen turns in an excellent Day 3
It was only a matter of time. It’s like clockwork for most training camps with Josh Allen and the Bills offense, and we saw some slight signs of the eventual rust-busting day during Day 2. But on Friday, it was the passing offense breaking loose for their best collective performance of camp with Allen at the helm. His first throw in team drills was his worst of the day, after rolling to his left and putting a ball just behind receiver Trent Sherfield, allowing nickel corner Taron Johnson to break up the pass. But from that point forward, the franchise quarterback was on point and only a standout defensive play or a dropped pass led to an incompletion. Linebacker Baylon Spector made a really athletic play in the deep middle to break up one pass, defensive tackle DaQuan Jones batted down a throw at the line and another pass went right through fullback Reggie Gilliam’s hands for a drop.
Outside of those four plays, Allen completed his other 17 passes in team drills, pushing his completion rate for the day to 81 percent, though most the incompletions weren’t his fault. Among Allen’s highlights was a dart to Dawson Knox over the middle of the field in between multiple defenders and then an all-world throw deep down the field over two defenders to connect with Stefon Diggs for a touchdown. The connection with Diggs has really jumped off the page over the last two practices. The receiver has shown no signs of a drop-off in his route running or separation skills, getting open almost every time he runs a route. On Friday, Allen connected with Diggs on all five of his attempts during team drills.
Along with his four catches on Day 2 on five opportunities, that brought Diggs’ practice output — in which he was not taking every first-team snap — to nine catches on 10 targets on only 37 total pass attempts. If anyone was slightly concerned about that relationship based on the spring drama, it’s probably time to move on from that thought process. The duo has been completely in sync to open up training camp in 2023.
Kincaid’s route running stands out
As the passing offense has started to establish itself at training camp, rookie tight end Dalton Kincaid has remained a significant component of the Allen-led attack. Allen has consistently targeted Kincaid every practice, continuing their chemistry from the end of spring workouts. If the Bills were afraid of putting too much on Kincaid’s plate as a rookie, their actions don’t indicate that for how often he has worked with the Allen-led offense through the first three practices. Although Kincaid’s blocking leaves quite a bit to be desired, it’s his ability as a pass catcher in the intermediate areas that could secure a good role as a first-year player this season.
Kincaid’s footwork, how he stacks a defender to one side and his separation are immediately translatable to what the Bills were lacking at times during the 2022 season. Kincaid does an excellent job at not giving up his intentions at the beginning of his route, using a long step to wall off his closest defender and then possessing both the burst out of his break and the change of direction skill to keep the defender guessing. He’s a tough cover over the middle of the field, and he’s already drawn a lot of praise from Allen, Diggs, Knox and other veterans. If nothing else, Kincaid looks like he belongs with the top unit when he’s on the field. If Kincaid can continue the strong showings through the summer, there’s no one currently standing in his way of having a role as either a fill-in tight end for Knox, a slot receiver or whatever they see fit.
Davis targeted minimally the last two practices
Following the Bills’ second day of practice, starting receiver Gabe Davis was quite candid about some of his physical and mental struggles during the 2022 season, stemming from an early-year high ankle sprain that wound up defining his output. He didn’t take the leap many were hoping for, but he remains very well thought of throughout the building. There’s no doubt Davis looks a lot smoother and more explosive on his routes than from when he was injured, but it hasn’t translated to much production through the early portion of camp. Of those 37 Allen pass attempts over the last two practices, Davis was only targeted in team drills twice. Both targets occurred on Friday, and to Davis’ credit, he brought in both for a shorter reception. Over the same span, Diggs (10), Trent Sherfield (6), Knox (5) and Kincaid (3) were all targeted more often by Allen. It could just be the start of camp and a feeling out process with Allen and Davis, or perhaps it’s a continuation of the lower target share Davis accrued during 2022. Either way, all eyes will be on the now-healthy Davis in a contract year.
Elam mixes in with 1s, albeit in a slightly different way
Through the first two days of training camp and the starting cornerback competition, the Bills went exclusively with Dane Jackson and Christian Benford to work with Tre’Davious White and the first-team unit. That left 2022 first-round pick Kaiir Elam on the outside looking in, working with the second-team defense. Albeit only in a slight manner that requires some context, Elam did get a bit of first-team work. He was out there with the first team to begin practice in their usual half-speed, situational installation period. From that point forward, he only mixed into the first-team defense during full-speed 11-on-11 drills when top cornerback Tre’Davious White took a few snaps off on the sidelines. Whether it was Elam or Jackson subbing in for White is an unknown, but it’s worth pointing out the nuance of the reps. For the rest of the practice, it was Jackson and Benford getting the initial first-team work during team drills. Regardless of the context, it’s positive that Elam began to work a little with the top unit Friday. The second cornerback job remains a wide-open contest between Elam, Jackson and Benford.
Bills observations: High praise for James Cook, Terrel Bernard makes impact play
The middle linebacker rotation continues with a minor surprise
The team’s approach to their starting middle linebacker competition has been to give each of the prospective players their own day to work alongside starter Matt Milano. On Day 1, it was Tyrel Dodson. Yesterday for the second practice, it was 2022 third-round pick Terrel Bernard. Many expected 2023 third-round pick Dorian Williams to be the third entrant, but it was actually 2022 seventh-round pick Baylon Spector getting those first-team reps on Friday. Spector made a couple of really good athletic plays in coverage, which is likely a big reason why they’re giving him a shot to enter the starting conversation. Most importantly, we still need to see where the linebacker competition will begin to repeat. If Williams doesn’t get the nod on Sunday’s practice to play alongside Milano, and it instead goes back to one of Dodson, Bernard or Spector, that would define the opening parameters of who is in serious discussion to be the opening day starter. Though, given the slight surprise of Spector getting his own day, a day for both veteran A.J. Klein and the rookie Williams before the rotation begins again can’t be ruled out at this point.
Harris continues as RB2, but Murray looks better as a pass catcher
The battle for playing time at running back beyond James Cook will likely be an ongoing discussion for much of the season. To begin training camp, Damien Harris has been the clear second back behind Cook, though trying to find his potential role within the Bills’ offense — a far different one than what he came from in New England — is beginning to surface a bit. Harris is a pounding, between-the-tackles runner, and his proficiency in that area is something the Bills haven’t had in a while. What makes it a slightly odd fit is that the Bills haven’t really built their offensive line with the power to push the pile, and have often deferred to Josh Allen in most short-yardage and goal line situations. His biggest competition for playing time right now is the 33-year-old Latavius Murray, and even at his age, Murray has been a far more fluid and impressive pass catcher than Harris.
Harris fights the ball occasionally and doesn’t get much yardage after the catch. It remains to be seen what the vision for Harris in their offense will be, though the below average pass-catching ability in a pass-first offense — especially after the loss of Nyheim Hines — could become a factor when in-game reps are actually getting doled out.
Doyle has a tough start to training camp
At the tail end of spring practices, 2021 fifth-round pick and offensive tackle Tommy Doyle took a big step forward in his rehab from a torn ACL to participate in team drills. It got him to the point where, to begin camp, he has been a full participant. Doyle made the 53-man roster outright each of the last two years, though it could be a bit tougher in his third season. Through the first three practices, Doyle has struggled against some of the depth pass rushers on the roster. In the first two days, it was Shane Ray getting the better of Doyle, and then on Day 3, Boogie Basham worked past him to the outside rather easily on Doyle’s lone one-on-on rep. Granted, it isn’t a perfect set of circumstances for Doyle, as he didn’t have much of a true offseason, and that has to be factored into his early-camp struggles. It can be a slower process to get back to your usual playing level after a major injury like that one. At the same time, he has legitimate competition for a roster spot in offensive tackles David Quessenberry, Brandon Shell and some of the interior reserve players, so the Bills are likely going to need to see Doyle take a step forward at some point this summer. With so much competition, a spot on the practice squad could be in his future in 2023. But the Bills have always liked Doyle’s potential as a tall, long and athletic offensive tackle. For now, they’ll continue to support Doyle and his journey back from a major injury on the third-team offense and hope that he can move past one or both of Quessenberry and Shell.
(Photo of Dalton Kincaid: Gregory Fisher / USA Today)