Analysis: Backups put on centerstage

BFR's Patrick Moran breaks down Thursday night's 14-6 loss to Detroit. Several players helped and hurt their chances at making the final 53-man roster. Details inside...

The Buffalo Bills lost to the Detroit Lions Thursday night in their final preseason tune up. At least I think they did. Someone told me the final score was 14-6.

While they kept score and some fans even bought tickets and showed up, the score had about as much meaning as… well, nothing could have less meaning. This wasn't lost on head coach Dick Jauron, who rested all but one of his 24 starters (sorry Ko Simpson) the entire game.

If anyone questioned the irrelevance from a final score standpoint, look no further than the final two minutes, when the Bills, down by eight points, ran out the clock instead of trying to score and tie the game. Well, I take that back—it wasn't meaningless to several dopes in the crowd who boo'd lustfully because Jauron had the audacity to not see J.P. Losman get his head knocked off behind an offensive line that made you yearn for the likes of Mike Pucillo, Terrence Pennington and Greg Jerman. Yes, they were that bad.

A summary on some key players and fights at roster positions.

OFFENSE

--- It was delightful to witness a Steve Johnson sighting tonight. I've followed his every move through training camp and the preseason more than any rookie, because this kid has productive NFL receiver written all over him. We finally saw it tonight as he grabbed everything in sight, finishing with 8 catches for 74 yards. I really hope it's not a case of too little, too late, because not only do I think he can make this roster, I'm confident he can contribute immediately. Felton Huggins had a great game, including a couple of tough catches that made him stand out. It'll be fascinating to see who gets caught in the numbers game. The Bills kept only five receivers last season and the top four are already etched in stone; Lee Evans, Josh Reed, Roscoe Parrish and James Hardy. That leaves Johnson, Huggins and Justin Jenkins to compete for one, possibly two spots. Jenkins has a big advantage because he's more accomplished on special teams, a must for any fifth or sixth guy on the depth chart. This may benefit Johnson, whom head coach Dick Jauron praised after the game for a good special teams play.

--- Speaking of Hardy, he looked a lot better running routes, caught all three passes thrown to him and didn't show any effects from a sore hamstring. I expect him to get eased into a role that will increase as the season wears on.

--- Here's praying that the starters on the offensive line play all 16 games this season. The reserves verged on putrid with their play Thursday night. Kurt Chambers is the only reliable backup, who is starting as long as Jason Peters is MIA. Duke Preston, who's failed in numerous opportunities to contribute didn't play, while Jason Whittle was out with a bad knee (again.) The reserves beyond them played as bad as it gets. Christian Gaidas, Nevin McKaskill, Robert Felton and Patrick Estes were dreadful. If any see the field during a regular season game it could turn disastrous quickly. Demetrius Bell looked like he's made progress throughout camp, but was terrible Thursday. He missed numerous assignments and blocks and it culminated in almost getting Gibran Hamden decapitated. Bell is a good future talent but his lack of football experience is starting to show. He's a year away, minimum from being able to contribute successfully. The Bills will probably be forced to keep nine linemen including Peters but I'm hard-pressed to find two viable backups after Preston. Put it this way; when you're resting Kurt freekin' Chambers because he's suddenly vital, you're begging for trouble.

--- The bad news for Dwayne Wright is he fumbled for the third time in four games. The good news is he can file for unemployment online instead of waiting in long, public lines. He runs with a purpose and hits the holes hard, but in the words of Jerry Glanville, the NFL means "not for long," especially when you can't hold on to the ball. Nothing gets under Jauron's skin worse than turnovers and I'd bet Wright pays for it with his job. Start looking at real estate, Xavier Omon.

--- Hamden looked decent under center when he wasn't under siege in the pocket. He could've had a pair of touchdown throws had Mayle come down with a couple of catches. I'm not ready to say he's ready for regular season action, but there are worse third quarterbacks in the league.

DEFENSE

--- All of the starters rested with the exception of Simpson. He needed to shake off rust and had a nice breakup on a long pass early in the game. He looks good to go for the regular season.

--- John McCargo should count his blessings when he doesn't get cut in the next 48 hours. The former first rounder has teetered on being a bust after two seasons and did nothing this preseason to bust that theory. Only a lack of a better option than Jason Jefferson probably keeps him on the roster. He looked disinterested Thursday night and was tossed all over the field.

---- Jon Corto suffered a concussion, unfortunate considering he got the start at linebacker; a sign he's close to making the team. The extent of the injury isn't known as of press time, but he's a strong candidate to overtake Donnie Spragan for the sixth spot on the roster. Spragen was signed late and has looked late on most plays, including looking slow on a touchdown by Detroit's Jerome Felton. Spragan may be looking for work before Labor Day.

--- I didn't think it would happen, but a tip of the proverbial hat goes to Ashton Youboty. He was the Bills best defender this preseason. He had his second sack Thursday to go along with a pair of beautiful pass breakups. I didn't think a month ago he'd make the final roster. Now I suggest he's earned the right to start the season as the nickel corner. Leodis McKelvin might be the top draft pick, but Youboty's outplayed him this summer.

--- Aside from receiver, I'm most interested in is what corners stay on the roster. Will James was the nickel in every preseason game, but got little time and made even less impact. Youboty and McKelvin are locks to make the team behind starters Terrence McGee and Jabrari Greer. Like receiver, it's unknown if the Bills will keep five or six corners. If they only keep the former, it comes down to James or rookie Reggie Corner. By most accounts Corner has had the better training camp. Still, James brings experience and the depth behind the starters is young and raw. That may keep James on the roster and move Corner to the practice squad, though I'd be less astonished if James gets cut than I would've a month ago.

--- Bryan Copeland looked terrific Thursday night in recording a team-high five tackles and a sack. Regrettably it probably wasn't enough to make the final roster. The Bills are set with four defensive ends and I don't anticipate them expanding to five, especially when tackle Spencer Johnson is capable of playing on the end. If he doesn't make the Bills roster, here's to the kid getting a shot elsewhere.

SPECIAL TEAMS

--- I'm far from ready to push the panic button, but Brian Moorman hasn't looked good on his punts this summer.

--- The kick and punt coverage teams were appalling and preseason or not, Bobby April wasn't happy after the game.

--- McGee and Parrish are two of the best returners in football, but you can bet the farm McKelvin will see plenty of action this season as a rookie. He's simply spectacular, when he's not making typical rookie mistakes. He make look lost at times at corner or occasionally field a kick he shouldn't, but he's going to be the real deal in this league for years to come.

SUMMARY

--- Jauron has some tough decisions to make. A few good players are going to be let go. If I'm Johnson, Jenkins or Huggins at receiver I'm not sleeping tonight. Ditto for James and Corner. George Wilson, though not likely could find himself looking for work. Perhaps Jauron's toughest task will be finding three or four competent reserve linemen. I don't think Bell is ready for the NFL, but he's Anthony Munoz compared to Estes. Regardless of who's to blame, this team desperately needs Peters in the lineup.

Lastly, I feel bad for Wright. I love his toughness, but you can't hack it in the NFL if you're not reliable with the football. That goes double for a team like Buffalo, a team which depends profoundly on field position and winning turnover battles. For future reference he may want to rent the football flick "The Program" and study running back Darnell Jefferson. Do what Jefferson did; carry a football everywhere, including his sleep.

patmoran2006@aim.com

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