The Buffalo Bills play the Carolina Panthers on Friday night in the team’s first preseason contest of 2015. After an exciting offseason, fans are anxious to see how Rex Ryan’s defense, along with the big-name offensive additions such as LeSean McCoy, Percy Harvin, Charles Clay and Richie Incognito will perform in Greg Roman’s offense.
Starters typically play only two-to-three series’ in the first preseason game of the year, as coaches need to get an in-game look at bottom of the roster players that are battling for roles on the team. The Bills have competition at nearly every starting position throughout the depth chart, so Friday’s contest will be interesting from both an excitement and a competitiveness perspective. Let’s take a look at which player matchups will be crucial to watch, along with some players that need to stand out.
For the sake of my sanity, I opted against discussing quarterbacks until after the game.
Bills RT Cyrus Kouandjio vs Panthers DE Kony Ealy
Cyrus Kouandjio saw significant time with the Bills’ first-team offense during the first two weeks of training camp, but is listed as the No. 2 right tackle behind Seantrel Henderson. Kouandjio, who was Buffalo’s second-round pick in last year’s draft, has yet to take a regular season snap and will look to prove that his disastrous rookie preseason outings are behind him.
On Friday, he’ll face off with Panthers’ left defensive end, Kony Ealy, a fellow 2014 second-round pick who played just 368 defensive snaps as a rookie. Ealy, who stands 6’5” and weighs 276 pounds recorded 12 tackles and four sacks last year and is the backup to Frank Alexander. Both players are fighting to prove that they deserve playing time, so this battle in the trenches should be fun to watch.
Bills DT Stefan Charles vs Panthers LG Andrew Norwell/Amini Silatolu
With Kyle Williams reportedly set to miss a “few days” per Rex Ryan after a minor injury, it appears that Stefan Charles will step into his role if he misses Friday’s game. Charles has been productive in his limited action with the team as a rotational player over the past two seasons and a solid outing against a first-team offensive linemen could go a long way in his battle with Corbin Bryant for playing time.
Andrew Norwell is listed as Carolina’s starting left guard after starting the final 10 games of the 2014 season there, while allowing one sack, one QB Hit and 16 pressures in 848 offensive snaps. If Charles faces the second-team unit, he’ll square off with Amini Silatolu, who was benched after five games last year.
Charles fits Ryan’s prototype for the five-technique defensive end that can kick inside to tackle. The 6’5” 305-pounder has made the most of his opportunities to date, and he’ll look to continue that on Friday.
Bills TE MarQueis Gray vs Panthers SLB Shaq Thompson
MarQuies Gray is the Bills’ No. 2 tight end and will be running routes with the second team against Carolina’s first-round pick, Shaq Thompson, an undersized, yet athletic linebacker with speed that fits the mold of today’s “three down coverage ‘backer.”
While Gray clearly has a leg up on the rest of the competition on the Bills’ tight end depth chart, a strong showing in both his run blocking and route running should widen the gap between himself and fellow tight ends Chris Gragg and rookie Nick O’Leary.
Player to Watch
RB Karlos Williams
Karlos Williams has been making headlines throughout the last few days of Bills practices and the Bills’ rookie fifth-round pick should see a significant amount of work against Carolina with injuries to Fred Jackson and Boobie Dixon. Williams is a big, physical back with speed that could potentially break off a few big gains against some suspect backups within the Panthers’ defense. What else do you want in the second half of the opening preseason game?