In order to preview this matchup, I reached out to our friends over at Buffalo Rumblings. The great Jeff Hunter (@MrJeffHunter) kindly took the time to answer my questions about the upcoming game. Let's take a look at the answers. (Also don't forget to check out my Q&A exchange over at BR.)
1) It sounds like some have speculated Buffalo could be tanking due to the trades they made last week. How do you expect the Bills to do this year? What’s their outlook?
No, no, a million times no, the Bills are not tanking in 2017. A few of us in the writer's room had a discussion about this topic (and some others) the night of the trades, and I pointed out that there's a difference between making a trade that's geared for the future and an all-out tank. Add in the fact that the Bills just moved to add a veteran contributor in Anquan Boldin and the continued presence of LeSean McCoy, and the Bills are miles ahead of the Jets and 49ers at this point.
There are a lot of people whose opinions I respect who feel that the Bills aren't significantly worse after the trades, and a few of them expect the Bills to compete for a wild card spot. I think they could be in the mix if everything goes well, especially given that they'll have two games against the Jets and the Jay Cutler-led Dolphins, but I'm personally not optimistic about their chances at a winning record. I feel like the loss of Darby and Watkins is a bit overstated in the national media, since the Bills went 7-9 with a half season from Watkins and a down year from Darby in 2016, but I'm expecting a similar finish this season. Things will be a lot better moving forward, once they can make use of their impressive draft pick stock in 2018 (two firsts, two seconds, and two third), but for now I'm braced for an 18th consecutive season without a playoff run.
2) In that vein, LeSean McCoy didn’t seem thrilled with the Sammy Watkins trade. What did you make of his comments about Watkins and Jordan Matthews?
Shady is going to speak his mind. I can't remember if he was all that vocal in Philly, but in Buffalo he's going to say what he thinks. Hearing him say that Watkins is better than Matthews was a little jarring, if only because it was so candid. When you get down to it, though, he's right. Sammy Watkins is a top-10 receiver in the NFL when he's healthy, and Jordan Matthews...well...isn't. There was a lot of excitement around the fact that Watkins finally seemed to be 100% healthy after a couple seasons suffering through nagging injuries, and to see him shipped off right when he seemed ready to make some noise was incredibly disappointing. Shady just said what we were all thinking, and given that he's a veteran who doesn't have a whole lot of football left in him he wasn't given a lot of fault for voicing his disappointment in the moves.
3) What is the strongest position on the team? What about the weakest?
Speaking of McCoy, the strongest position on the Bills right now is easily running back. Everybody's expecting Shady to be the focal point of the offense again (especially after losing Watkins), and top backup Jonathan Williams has been impressive in camp and through the preseason. Losing restricted free Mike Gillislee to the Patriots hurt, but Williams had a nice preseason in 2016 and looks ready to take on a larger role with the offense. Fullback Mike Tolbert will be involved with the running game as well, something that you should see Thursday night.
There are a few positions that could qualify as weak, but I'm going to focus on the secondary as a whole here. The loss of Darby leaves first-round pick Tre'Davious White as the top cornerback, and while he's had an impressive offseason it's a lot to ask of him to shoulder such a big role early on. The corner that the Bills acquired from the Rams to replace Darby, E.J. Gaines, is actually practicing with the second team behind White right now, while the other starting spot seems to be up between Kevon Seymour (a sixth-round pick from a year ago who played well as a rookie) and Shareece Wright (whose claim to fame is taking a super-long Uber ride to practice a couple months ago). Both starting safeties are free-agent signees, with Jordan Poyer coming over from the Browns after missing ten games last year with a ruptured kidney, and Micah Hyde coming over from the Packers as a well-regarded talent whose best attribute is versatility, something that's hard to take advantage of with a slew of UDFAs and free agent castoffs on the depth chart behind him. So...yeah...it's not looking great back there right now.
4) Can you give us an outsider’s take on the Eagles’ outlook this year?
Half the battle in the NFL these days is finding a franchise quarterback, and the Eagles might have that guy in Carson Wentz. You guys probably have a better idea than I do about whether he's really destined for stardom, but I saw enough from what I did catch in 2016 to think that he probably is. As a Bills fan, it's just amazing to me how many guys I recognize in Philly, both on the coaching staff and on the roster. The first three games on the schedule seem pretty big; beating two division rivals and a perennial contender in the Chiefs can really set the tone for a strong year. I think a 3-0 start would be a better indicator that the Eagles are contenders than it was last year, but an 0-3 start wouldn't shock me, either. I feel like we'll know where they stand once October rolls around.
5) Can you name an under-the-radar player on offense and on defense we should watch out for on Thursday?
I'll start with defense, because Eddie Yarbrough fever has swept through Western New York since training camp opened. After a nice career at Wyoming, Yarbrough went undrafted in 2016 and missed the cut with the Broncos. He stayed off the NFL radar until the Bills came calling in April, and went from something of an afterthought to a strong contender for some playing time with a phenomenal camp. He started the Bills' preseason opener in place of the injured Shaq Lawson, and after recording a sack and two more hurries in a quarter of work he sealed his spot on the 53. If either Lawson or Jerry Hughes were to go down, I don't think anybody who's been watching Yarbrough play would be too worried.
On offense, I'm intrigued to see what fifth-round pick Nathan Peterman can do at quarterback after earning a promotion to the second team for at least one week. He's been pretty inconsistent in camp, throwing more than his fair share of interceptions, but he turned in a decent performance in the second half against the Vikings. It was far from perfect; the only people who think he'll start in 2017 are the same ones who think the Bills are tanking (and expect them to pick a quarterback early in the draft anyway). Still, he made some good plays with his arm and his legs. There has been legitimate talk about rolling with him as the primary backup over veteran T.J. Yates, and a few more performances like the one against Minnesota might make that a reality.
Bonus: Score prediction?
Final Score: Bills win, 23-18 (a few two-point conversions or some missed kicks, you decide.)