ORCHARD PARK — Over 35,000 members of Bills Mafia swarmed Highmark Stadium on Friday night for the team’s ‘Return of the Blue and Red’ practice — 35,911 to be exact,the highest number of fans ever to attend a Bills practice.
“I’ve been telling (the new guys), ya’ll have no idea. Now they see it,” said Dion Dawkins upon meeting with the media after practice. “The fans continue to show out and show up. This place is epic, and it’s electric here. I’m just happy to be a part of it and give these people some hope through playing ball. It’s a beautiful thing.”
Rookie wide receiver Khalil Shakir was awestruck by the mass of Bills fans that made their way to the stadium for practice.
“This is probably the most fans I’ve ever played in front of, and it’s a practice,” said Shakir, who played collegiately at Boise State. “It was a fun experience. Great atmosphere. I had fun today.”
The energy inside the building for Friday’s open practice was palpable, and those in attendance were treated to an exciting session that featured a number of big plays and several moments that induced large cheers from the crowd. Here are a few observations from the sidelines at Highmark Stadium:
At the start of Friday’s practice, Josh Allen ran onto the field through the tunnel sporting a red helmet, which fans have been clamoring for the Bills to adopt as their alternate look for the 2022 season. While photos and videos of Allen’s new look took social media by storm, it turns out the team will not be suiting up in the lid worn by the Jim Kelly-era Bills. At least, not this season.
Per WGR 550’s Sal Capaccio, who spoke with Bills Chief Operating Officer Ron Raccuia, the Bills will not don the red helmets this year because to do so, the helmet would have to match the team’s throwback uniform or color rush uniform. The Bills’ throwback uniform is worn with the helmet featuring the standing Buffalo, eliminating that possibility, while the team’s color rush uniform is red, and a look with red pants, a red jersey and a red helmet goes against the team’s preferred look, per Capaccio. Therefore, the Bills will either wait until the NFL changes its uniform policy or until the team decides to make a change to their alternate uniform.
That’s bad news for some Bills fans.
Shakir and fellow WR Gabe Davis put on a show in front of the sizeable crowd, each player catching a touchdown pass while hauling in several other receptions throughout the practice.
Davis’ productive session began on the opening drive of team drills when he caught a TD pass from Allen on a slant that came off of play action to conclude the first-team offense’s first possession. On the first team’s next drive, Davis got things going with a solid catch and run near the sideline that appeared to come as a result of blown coverage by the Bills’ secondary. The possession ended with a beautiful throw from Allen to Dawson Knox, who had beaten safety Jaquon Johnson Jr. to make a nice grab while securing the catch through the ground in the end zone for a touchdown.
Two possessions later, Davis appeared to make his best catch of the night on a ball Allen lofted to the corner of the end zone, just out of the reach of cornerback Dane Jackson who was in on the coverage. Davis was initially ruled to have gotten both feet down before running out of bounds and crashing into the wall separating the field and the crowd. Although the reception was ruled a touchdown by the official nearest the play, Jackson and Micah Hyde came over to protest the call, claiming the Bills’ No. 2 receiver failed to get both feet in bounds. Shortly after that, the call was overturned. Davis’ final catch of the night came near the end of the practice on a two-point pass over the middle from Allen, which followed a rushing TD for the Bills quarterback.
Shakir recorded a touchdown grab from Matt Barkley early during Friday’s session, with Barkley delivering a catchable ball on the rookie WR’s back shoulder, which he fought with a Bills defender to haul in. Shakir was also on the field during punt/punt return, fielding punts alongside Isaiah McKenzie.
Before the start of camp, everyone was aware of the impact Davis is expected to have on the Bills’ offense this season. He has since backed up the high expectations surrounding his ’22 season with a number of productive practices. As camp has progressed, it’s also become clear that Shakir is another player that is set to play an impactful role for Buffalo, both offensively and perhaps on special teams. Day after day, the rookie continues to flash.
Devin Singletary and James Cook have gotten a lot of attention when discussing the Bills’ running backs to begin training camp. And for good reason, both have shown great burst and ability through the team’s first 10 practices. On Thursday, Duke Johnson got involved in the action. On Friday, it was Zack Moss’s turn.
On the first drive during team drills, Moss ran the ball four times inside the 10-yard line but failed to cross the goal line for a touchdown, eventually leading to Davis’ TD from Allen. Although he was held out of the end zone, Moss continued to get a bunch of the Bills’ short-yardage work, which has been the case throughout training camp.
While many view Moss’s presence on this roster as expendable, the Bills clearly value his ability near the goal line and on third and fourth and short. Don’t write off the former third-round pick from contributing to this team just yet.
Rookie punter Matt Araiza had an up and down practice punting the football. The “Punt God” started hot, with one of his first punts of the session traveling about 80 yards in the air before bouncing through the end zone. However, later on, Araiza was backed up inside his own end zone and booted a low, line-drive kick which came off of his foot awkwardly and bounced at the 45-yard line. He also punted a ball from near midfield that traveled into the end zone for a touchback.
That wasn’t the full extent of the action Araiza saw during practice, as he went on to hold flawlessly for kicker Tyler Bass, including on a 52-yarder which Bass drilled near the middle of the session.
While he wasn’t perfect in front of the large crowd at Highmark Stadium, Araiza continues to look as if he has a leg up in his battle with Matt Haack to become the team’s starting punter.
The Bills will have a day off on Saturday before returning to the practice field on Sunday at 11:45 a.m.