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Bills camp observations: O-line getting healthy, Jamison Crowder stands out

PITTSFORD, N.Y. — As Bills training camp winds down, the reality of the impending season is intensifying. And Ken Dorsey’s much-discussed position as a first-time offensive coordinator taking over a prolific offense with Super Bowl aspirations will be tested as soon as the season arrives.

The Bills are sure to get everyone’s best shot this season as teams will develop unique game plans to contend with quarterback Josh Allen and the offense. But as the summer has progressed, Dorsey has impressed the players with his offensive ideas and play-calling acumen.

“His call sheet, it’s like ‘A Beautiful mind,’” backup quarterback Case Keenum said Monday with a laugh.

Allen and the offense have had good and bad moments throughout camp, but at times they have been nearly impossible to slow down. A prime example was Friday night in the team-drill-heavy session at Highmark Stadium.

Much of that can be traced to the rapport Dorsey has with Allen, their prior relationship and how they can evolve it in a new role for the former Bills quarterbacks coach.

“I think it’s as good of a relationship and communication, seeing the field the same way, knowing the play caller’s intent — with those two guys, it’s as good as I’ve ever been around,” Keenum said. “It’s impressive to know the confidence that Dorse has in Josh, the confidence that Josh has in the play call, but then also being able to see something, ‘Hey, I see it this way, I’m gonna change it up. I’m gonna do this.’ It’s been truly cool. Fun to watch. Cool to be behind the scenes and see what’s really going on.”

Allen, Dorsey and the offense had to contend with a big defensive effort Monday but had as close to a full starting offensive line as they’ve ever had all summer. How did they deal with it, and what else stood out from Day 12 of Bills camp?

Here are seven observations from the Bills’ third-to-last practice at St. John Fisher University.

Saffold, Brown continue their upward trajectory

After a significant step on Sunday, left guard Rodger Saffold and right tackle Spencer Brown continued their climb toward a full return on Monday. Saffold participated in one-on-one drills, and Brown got more reps in team drills than he had at any point in this camp. Saffold showed some rust in his first few competitive reps, with defensive tackle Ed Oliver getting the better of him, and then playing to a draw with his former Titans teammate DaQuan Jones. Saffold’s impact will be felt most in team drills and how well he works with left tackle Dion Dawkins and center Mitch Morse. Meanwhile, Brown showed a bit better in team drills than he did on Sunday as he continues to get his wind back.

But the more significant point is that things are looking promising for the starting five. The practice also marked the return of Morse to practice after a veteran rest day. During those one-on-ones, the Bills had their entire projected starting offensive line together for the first time all summer. And with Saffold and Brown nearing a complete return, the team has an entire month to build chemistry before the season opener. They have yet to take a snap of team drills together, but with how much Saffold progressed Monday, it would not be a surprise to see the entire group together in 11-on-11 before camp breaks on Thursday.

Hyde is completely back from his injury

When starting free safety Micah Hyde fell to the ground with a thud early in camp, it halted the practice. It was one of the few moments this summer when the team collectively feared the worst, but it wasn’t for long. Hyde’s hip/glute injury was ruled to be relatively minor, and he wound up missing only one day of practice. The team has been cautious with him since, slowly working him back to full participation and giving him plenty of time on the sidelines to rest during team drills.

Hyde has graduated from the build-up after his injury and on Monday worked into his first full practice since the injury occurred. He remained on the field almost the entire time, working against the Allen-led offense. Starting safety Jordan Poyer did not participate, with Jaquan Johnson and Damar Hamlin getting turns in his place. Poyer was again on the sideline with the same wrap on his left arm as during the practice at Highmark Stadium. He has yet to do any work to the side with the strength and conditioning staff during practice.

Crowder stands out as McKenzie misses another day

Isaiah McKenzie’s performance was a significant development. But McKenzie missed a second practice with unspecified soreness Monday, allowing slot receiver Jamison Crowder another full day to creep closer in the starting battle. Crowder took full advantage, drawing an enthusiastic response from teammates by getting the defender to bite on a fake on his first two one-on-one reps. Then in team drills, he brought in a pair of catches on a handful of targets.

Crowder benefited from the absence of starting nickel cornerback Taron Johnson for the second straight day, working primarily against Cam Lewis. But the Bills know exactly what they have in Crowder — a consistent player who is almost always going to be where they need him. Even if he may lack some explosiveness and yards-after-the-catch potential, Crowder is proving he can still play at a high level and looks like a safe bet to make the team. Crowder is still likely behind McKenzie because of the Bills’ explosive potential with McKenzie in the lineup. Upon his return from injury, McKenzie can end the competition with some more solid days.

Elam, Benford flash as corner competition heats up

The cornerback competition has quickly become appointment viewing at practice because of its uncertainty. Dane Jackson, Kaiir Elan and Christian Benford all appear to have a legitimate chance to start if Tre’Davious White isn’t ready to go for Week 1. Elam’s hold on a starting job doesn’t seem as secure as it did early in camp because of some struggles, but he battled back Monday with one of his best reps at camp during one-on-ones.

On Elam’s first rep against wide receiver Gabriel Davis, Davis broke to the middle and the rookie first-round pick slipped in coverage. Then against Stefon Diggs, Elam bit on a double move and lost Diggs to the middle of the field. But on a different Diggs rep, Elam stayed step for step with Diggs as he tried to deceive him both to the inside and outside. Elam stayed firm against Diggs, stayed in his hip pocket and gave Allen no window to throw the ball. It was a great rep to build on.

Meanwhile, Jackson and Benford put some great reps together during team drills. Jackson showed especially well in run support and on shorter routes. Benford nearly came down with an interception on an underthrown ball to Davis, then read receiver Isaiah Hodgins’ route to the middle with ease and slapped the ball away for a second pass breakup. Monday’s practice was the best day for the trio of cornerbacks over the last few sessions, and the preseason looms large for who could be in the starting lineup in Los Angeles on opening night.

Lawson brings some noise from the edge, Epenesa gives a wow rep

It’s been a bit of a slow camp for veteran pass rusher Shaq Lawson, but he had his most impactful day yet on Monday. Lawson worked in for a handful of pressures against Case Keenum and Matt Barkley, using his physicality to walk back the offensive tackle into the quarterback and helped force some early throws and incompletions. Lawson had fallen behind A.J. Epenesa and Boogie Basham, so getting back on track as camp is winding down is likely a welcomed sight for the Bills.

Lawson remains a good bet to make the roster as the fifth defensive end, though the Bills will likely favor the younger Epenesa and Basham for playing time. Epenesa had one of his best one-on-one reps in camp on Monday. Working against tackle Tommy Doyle, Epenesa put on an incredible speed-to-power move that knocked Doyle back a few yards. Epenesa then used his long arms to swipe away Doyle’s outstretched arms for the instant win into the backfield. Epenesa has continued playing confidently and is getting plenty of opportunities during practices.

Is the #MattVsMattPuntapalooza nearing a conclusion?

Rookie Matt Araiza earned another narrow victory over veteran Matt Haack as he continues to pull away in the punting battle. Each punter received eight reps in the same situations, and both continued to do what they do best. For Haack, it’s the hang time. He opened the practice with a rough rep that went only 35 yards with a 3.85-second hang time. After that, it seemed as if Haack tried to kick it as high up in the air as he could. Three of his next four attempts hung in the air at least 4.95 seconds, including a booming 52-yard punt that had a ridiculous 5.30-second hang time. Even with all the hang time (4.41 seconds on average), Haack’s yardage was not ideal, generating only 39.3 yards per punt.

On the other hand, Araiza failed to get as close to Haack in hang time as he had in previous practices. Still, he easily won in the yardage department. Araiza averaged 46 yards per punt, and that’s after subtracting 20 net yards on a pair of punts that sailed through the end zone. He also averaged a respectable 4.12 seconds of hang time per punt and had two 60-plus-yard punts. The raw talent is there for him to be a great punter, and he continues to improve his hang time.

It still feels like this is Araiza’s competition, needing only a good preseason game or two to finalize it. It would not be surprising if the Bills decided to give Haack time to find a job elsewhere after the first or second preseason game. That’s what they did with kicker Stephen Hauschka after then-rookie Tyler Bass won the job.

Sweeney makes a late-camp push

The Bills are short on roster spots, and with three tight end and fullback spots already dedicated to Dawson Knox, O.J. Howard and Reggie Gilliam, another tight end would need to earn a spot over a different position on the roster. Fourth-year tight end Tommy Sweeney got off to a slow start, struggling with some drops and hiccups as a blocker. To Sweeney’s credit, he has turned in three consecutive practices with terrific pass-catching results.

On Monday, Sweeney made an extremely difficult over-the-shoulder catch well off his body and along the sideline. These are the types of practices he’s needed to position himself on the bubble and ahead of fellow tight end Quintin Morris. Sweeney will need to show well in the preseason and offer some special teams ability to wrap up a spot on the 53-man roster. Short term, he may still wind up on the Bills’ practice squad in 2022, but he is undoubtedly raising his level of play to make it a difficult decision.

Did not practice: WR Isaiah McKenzie (soreness), WR Marquez Stevenson (foot), WR Khalil Shakir (soreness), WR Tavon Austin (no update), LB Tyrel Dodson (no update), CB Taron Johnson (soreness), CB Tim Harris (no update), S Jordan Poyer (elbow), CB Tre’Davious White (knee, PUP list), G Ike Boettger (Achilles, PUP list), DT Eli Ankou (calf, PUP list)

Up next: The Bills have the day off Tuesday and return to St. John Fisher University on Wednesday. Practice begins at 9:45 a.m.

(Top photo of Jamison Crowder: Rich Barnes / USA Today)

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