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Bills 53-man roster projection: Who’s in and who’s out ahead of final cuts?

After three preseason games, all that separates the Bills from one of the most highly anticipated regular seasons in franchise history is one final cutdown day. They wrapped up their preseason calendar with a 21-0 loss to the Carolina Panthers on Friday.

On Aug. 30, all NFL teams must trim rosters to 53 players by the end of the business day. It gives the Bills some practice in between the preseason finale and those decisions, but they will finalize most of their choices soon.

Where do things stand with the roster, and how might it look at final cuts? Here is my final Bills roster projection, corresponding moves after cutdown day and a projected practice squad.

Quarterback (2)

Josh Allen, Case Keenum

Released: Matt Barkley

Allen is the clear-cut starter, and Keenum is his clear-as-day backup. Barkley, who loves Buffalo, will likely agree to return to the practice squad immediately without going through waivers. So I expect that’s how the room plays out next week.

Running back (4)

Devin Singletary, Zack Moss, James Cook, Reggie Gilliam (FB)

Released: Taiwan Jones, Duke Johnson
Waived: Raheem Blackshear

The top trio of Singletary, Moss and Cook appear poised to be a piece of the offense this year, with all three potentially having a game day role given their training camp and preseason usage. The Jones release is only temporary, as you’ll see after the initial 53-man roster. He is a favorite of special teams coordinator Matthew Smiley and hasn’t touched the field all preseason, which means he has excellent job security.

This move is possible because Jones isn’t subject to waivers because of his status as a vested veteran. They have used him in previous seasons as a cutdown day transaction to get another injured player on the active roster before putting them on in-season injured reserve. That way, they could keep their options open with the player and wouldn’t have to shut them down for the entire season. Johnson and Blackshear will be excellent practice squad candidates. Running backs rarely get claimed on waivers, so the Bills should be safe getting Blackshear through the massive wave of final cuts.

Wide receiver (7)

Stefon Diggs, Gabriel Davis, Isaiah McKenzie, Jamison Crowder, Khalil Shakir, Jake Kumerow, Marquez Stevenson

Released: Isaiah Hodgins
Waived: Tanner Gentry, Neil Pau’u

The top five are all locks, but the end of this group might be a slight surprise. Recently we’ve seen Stevenson ramping up his rehab workouts following mid-camp foot surgery. Keeping him on the active roster is merely a move before putting him on in-season injured reserve. They wouldn’t have to force him into the lineup, but they would keep their options open with this reasonably simple maneuver.

The toughest cut here is Hodgins. He played well into the preseason finale, which was a red flag despite making some excellent plays, but he just does not give them enough on special teams, and that’s where Kumerow shines. Hodgins would be a priority practice squad addition if they can get him back. He almost made it too difficult to cut him in the preseason finale with some tough catches. The Bills will hope his lack of special teams skills can sneak him through.

The Bills guaranteed O.J. Howard’s entire $1.945 million base salary. To cut him, they would lose out on $2 million they could use elsewhere. (Rich Barnes / USA Today)

Tight end (4)

Dawson Knox, O.J. Howard, Quintin Morris, Tommy Sweeney

Waived: None

Four tight ends? If they can’t find a trade for Howard, yes, it’s possible. It’s a complicated situation due to Howard’s fully guaranteed base salary and the emergence of both Sweeney and Howard this summer. Still, the Bills gave themselves ample flexibility with the restructuring of Dion Dawkins’ contract to open up $5.6 million on this year’s salary cap. If they wanted to, they could use some of that space in a $2.62 million dead cap hit to move on from Howard if they are dissatisfied. Howard has struggled this summer and allowed Sweeney and Morris to catch up to him. Howard also played deep into the game during all three preseason games, including the run-out-the-clock drive against the Panthers. If they wanted to move on, the ideal solution would be to move him in a trade to relinquish $1.945 million from the cap that they owe him in base salary while still paying out $675,000 in already paid bonuses to the cap. Another outcome is that they could keep him for now and try to trade him as the year progresses with injuries racking up around the league.

The Bills likely do not want to risk losing one of Sweeney or Morris to waivers. Morris is a direct fill-in for Gilliam if something happens there while also showing well on special teams. They also are likely to utilize two-tight end formations more often than in the past, which could make keeping all four players on the 53-man roster more logical to the front office. While it isn’t ideal, it’s justifiable. One or two tight ends could also help fill the inactive list on game days. But given the lack of depth league-wide at tight end, and a relatively low contract cost, there could be some team out there willing to take a shot on Howard.

Offensive line (8)

Dion Dawkins, Rodger Saffold, Mitch Morse, Ryan Bates, Spencer Brown, David Quessenberry, Tommy Doyle, Greg Van Roten

Released: Bobby Hart and Greg Mancz
Waived: Luke Tenuta, Alec Anderson, Jacob Capra, Tanner Owen
Reserve/PUP: Ike Boettger

The Cody Ford trade helped make this decision a bit more clear. Quessenberry and Hart are two of their top reserves and seem like roster locks. But they can do the same thing with Hart as a vested veteran as they would with Jones, allowing them to hang on to another injured player. Hart played well into the preseason finale basically out of necessity. I think he’s a solid bet to be on the 53-man roster after all the dust settles. Doyle will remain in the mix while developing in the background, but keep an eye on his foot injury. He’s now out of his walking boot but could be an early-season injured reserve candidate to make room for another vested veteran they briefly released, like Hart.

Mancz is the better reserve center, which initially gave him an advantage over Greg Van Roten for that final offensive line spot, but Mancz has not been able to stay healthy this summer. Van Roten did not play at all in the preseason finale despite being healthy, which is a great sign that he’s safe. If Ike Boettger progresses to the point that he’s ready to play this season, it could be a one-for-one roster spot swap with Van Roten down the line. Mancz should be on the practice squad radar.

Sixth-round rookie Luke Tenuta is a rare waived draft pick by general manager Brandon Beane in this case, but he has struggled for much of the summer. They would likely want to continue his development on the practice squad.

Defensive end (5)

Von Miller, Greg Rousseau, A.J. Epenesa, Boogie Basham, Shaq Lawson

Waived: Mike Love, Daniel Joseph, Kingsley Jonathan

The defensive end group is as clear-cut as it gets with this roster. All five players are locks, and none of the players outside of them have made a strong enough push to steal a spot. The biggest question is how the Bills will handle divvying up snaps in the regular season.

Defensive tackle (4)

Ed Oliver, DaQuan Jones, Jordan Phillips, Tim Settle

Released: Eli Ankou
Waived: Brandin Bryant, Prince Emili, C.J. Brewer

Brandin Bryant made a good push for the 53-man roster, but ultimately his lack of special teams ability prevents him from cracking the team in this case. If the Bills move on from O.J. Howard before cutdown day via trade or a release, Bryant could be a beneficiary; if not, the Bills will hope Bryant gets through waivers and to their practice squad.

Linebacker (6)

Tremaine Edmunds, Matt Milano, Terrel Bernard, Tyrel Dodson, Tyler Matakevich, Baylon Spector

Waived: Joe Giles-Harris
Reserve/Suspended: Andre Smith

After being a bubble player heading into training camp, the seventh-round rookie Spector played his way onto the roster and could serve in an immediate special teams role on game days. Even if he’s inactive to open the season, he would be a direct plug-and-play resource on special teams if one of the other linebackers were injured. With Matakevich on the last year of his contract, Spector could be a key piece to their special teams units moving forward, and the Bills would have him on a cost-controlled deal through 2025.

Bills cornerback Tre’Davious White could start 2022 on the physically unable to perform list. (Mark Konezny / USA Today)

Cornerback (6)

Taron Johnson, Dane Jackson, Kaiir Elam, Christian Benford, Siran Neal, Cam Lewis

Reserve/PUP: Tre’Davious White
Waived: Nick McCloud, Ja’Marcus Ingram, Jordan Miller

Without any sign that White is close to a return, he lands on the physically unable to perform list to begin the season. That would mean White is out for the first four games of the season and cannot participate in practice until those four weeks have expired. Unless he makes significant strides during Saturday or Monday’s practices, the PUP list is becoming more likely.

After being on the wrong side of the bubble for the last two years, Cam Lewis sticks on the final roster projection. Lewis benefitted from the White injury and by showing some positional flexibility at safety over the final two preseason games. When White is ready to return, he would likely take Lewis’ spot unless another long-term injury was on the roster.

Safety (4)

Micah Hyde, Jordan Poyer, Jaquan Johnson, Damar Hamlin

Waived: Josh Thomas

Hyde, Poyer and Johnson are all safely on the roster. Hamlin is also a solid bet to make the final team, but he isn’t as secure as the other three. If Cam Lewis showed them enough at safety in the last two games, it could potentially put Hamlin at risk. Although a brief consideration, that almost would feel like too soon of a move that the Bills don’t usually make with coach Sean McDermott and Beane. Hamlin has been in their system for the last year and a half, and they won’t want to take chances with their depth should anything happen to their starters.

Specialists (3)

Tyler Bass (K), Reid Ferguson (LS), Punter TBD

Rookie punter Matt Araiza did not play in Friday’s game. He was at the stadium, but did not appear to be wearing team-related gear when he arrived and was not on the sideline during the game.

Araiza and two former San Diego State teammates have been accused of gang-raping a 17-year-old high school student last year.

McDermott spoke for over nine minutes about the decision to keep Araiza on the roster Friday, and addressed the severity of the situation.

The Athletic’s Tim Graham compiled the alarming details of the civil lawsuit and reported the Bills were made aware of the accusations last month and before they released veteran punter Matt Haack on Monday. Araiza’s attorney on Friday expressed concern that his client would be released by the team.

“The facts of the incident are not what they are portrayed in the lawsuit or in the press,” Araiza said in a statement via his agent. “I look forward to quickly setting the record straight.”

For now, the Bills have kept Araiza on the roster, and there likely will be a punter on the 53-man roster when cuts are due. That’s why we put ‘Punter TBD’ for this exercise. It’s merely a matter of if it will be Araiza, a current free agent, or someone that has yet to be released by their current team. Matt Barkley handled punting duties in Friday’s game.

Post-cutdown day moves

Added to injured reserve after making 53-man roster: WR Marquez Stevenson and OT Tommy Doyle

Re-signed after corresponding IR moves: RB Taiwan Jones and OT Bobby Hart

Claimed on waivers by another team: WR Isaiah Hodgins and DT Brandin Bryant

Practice Squad (14)
QB Matt Barkley, RB Duke Johnson, RB Raheem Blackshear, WR Tanner Gentry, IOL Greg Mancz, OL Alec Anderson, OT Luke Tenuta, DE Mike Love, DE Kingsley Jonathan, DT Eli Ankou, DT C.J. Brewer, LB Joe Giles-Harris, CB Ja’Marcus Ingram, CB/S Nick McCloud

Note: Teams can carry 16 on their practice squad, leaving two spots open for players currently on other teams.

(Top photo of James Cook (28): Jim Dedmon / USA Today)

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