Bills to lean on youth entering final month of season

THE ASSOCIATED PRESSBuffalo Bills offensive tackle Dion Dawkins (73) scores a touchdown against the New York Jets during their NFL game earlier this year in New Jersey.

ORCHARD PARK — Left tackle Dion Dawkins scans the Buffalo Bills locker room from the vantage point of his corner stall and sees a glimpse of a young and promising future core of a team beginning to emerge.

"It's just like a freshman class at college, and we all are growing as one," the second-year player said following practice Wednesday.

The potential is all around him.

To Dawkins' far left is rookie quarterback Josh Allen's locker. To his immediate right is rookie receiver Robert Foster's stall, while second-year receiver Zay Jones sits a little further down.

And on the far side of the room, blocked from Dawkins' view, are two newly emptied lockers once occupied by receivers Kelvin Benjamin and Andre Holmes, who were cut a day earlier.

Their departures are not lost on Dawkins, either. He realizes how the moves have created opportunities for other youngsters over the final four weeks of a season in which the Bills (4-8) are all but mathematically eliminated from playoff contention.

"Those guys know the table is wide open, so choose wisely and go hard because they could be that guy for us if they choose to," Dawkins said.

Call it an audition or "evaluation," as coach Sean McDermott phrased it, the Bills are turning their attention to beyond this season in determining who merits further consideration and which players don't, such as Benjamin and Holmes.

Benjamin, whose contract is about to expire, underperformed during his 13-month stint in Buffalo after the Bills acquired the 2014 first-round pick in a trade with Carolina. Holmes, signed through the end of the 2019 season, provided little value beyond being a regular on special teams.

"It obviously didn't work," McDermott said, referring to Benjamin, who caught 39 of the 89 passes thrown in his direction for 571 yards and two touchdowns in 18 games in Buffalo.

McDermott, however, defended the Bills' philosophy behind trading a third- and seventh-round pick to acquire the 6-foot-5, 245-pound receiver who showed potential during three-plus seasons in Carolina.

"The important thing for us is that we continue to take swings," he said. "Some of those are going to work, and some aren't. But the only way you get a hit is if you take a swing."

Minus Benjamin, the Bills prepare to host the New York Jets (3-9) on Sunday with an offense that could feature as many as five starters with fewer than two full seasons of NFL experience. Buffalo's defense has four starters in their first or second NFL seasons.

The youth movement is starting to show signs of gaining traction.

Buffalo's once sputtering offense, which averaged 248 yards, 18 first downs and 10.6 points through nine games, is averaging 398 yards, 22 first downs and 27 points in its past three.

Allen has combined for 391 yards passing and three touchdowns with two interceptions, and 234 yards rushing and a score in his past two games since missing four with a sprained right throwing elbow.

Jones is showing signs of blossoming. He's combined for 12 catches for 160 yards and three scores in his past three games after managing just 29 catches for 299 yards and one touchdown in his first nine.

Foster has 226 yards receiving and a touchdown in three games since being promoted off the practice squad.

And even Isaiah McKenzie has contributed since being claimed by Buffalo after being released by Denver last month. The second-year speedster, initially projected to return punts and kickoffs, had a career-best four catches for 46 yards in a 21-17 loss to Miami last weekend.

Veteran defensive tackle Kyle Williams' spirits are buoyed by how he saw the youngsters perform against the Dolphins.

It was a game in which Buffalo rallied from a 14-6 deficit to take a lead in the fourth quarter. It was decided when Allen's fourth-down pass landed just out of tight end Charles Clay's reach at the goal line in the final minute.

Despite the loss, it instilled a belief in Williams that the Bills are on the right path.

"The heart they showed," Williams said, referring to the youngsters. "Obviously, the result doesn't come back the way you want it to, but they're growing up, and you feel it and you see it."

NOTES: Rookie CB Taron Johnson is in jeopardy of missing the remainder of the season after having surgery to repair a nagging shoulder injury. ... The Bills still have one open roster spot, while signing WR Da'Mari Scott and T Andrew Lauderdale to their practice squad.