ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (WIVB) — The Bills were back on the turf at Highmark Stadium for the first time in over six months, performing under the the Friday night lights in front of an estimated crowd of 35,000 for the annual Return of the Blue and Red open practice. Here are four observations from the event.
The brightest star
Damar Hamlin received the loudest ovation when he was the final Bills player to run out of the tunnel for practice. The last time he dressed in full uniform inside Buffalo’s home locker room was Dec. 17, 2022, two weeks before his harrowing collapse on the field in Cincinnati. Following his first contact practice since Hamlin’s heart stopped during a game earlier this week, reconnecting with the Bills fan energy was another emotional experience for the Hamlin.
“I probably shed tears like twice out here,” Hamlin said. “Once I tried to snuggle back into this tight jersey with the shorter pads, just that process right there was kind of like one of those moments for me. And then just walking out here on the field, that was one of the biggest moments as well. So much energy just flowed out.”
Josh Allen’s lid
The star quarterback drew attention by wearing a sparkling blue helmet while playing catch with fans in the front row at the start of practice. He changed into the standard white helmet before on-field drills. Allen made a similar fashion statement with a red helmet at last year’s open practice. The Bills won’t be wearing alternate headwear this season, and there is no indication that the colorful models Allen has showcased will be seen in game action any time soon.
All-Pro linebacker Matt Milano and nickel cornerback Taron Johnson sat out practice due to general soreness. Tyrel Dodson and Terrel Bernard took most of the first-team reps together at linebacker. Siran Neal stepped into the starting secondary, while cornerbacks Dane Jackson, Kaiir Elam and Christian Benford continued rotating outside. The Bills switched players out often, giving several different players snaps with the starters. Ed Oliver did not finish practice after going into the sideline medical tent toward the end of team drills. His status is unclear. Spencer Brown was a full participant after he walked off the field with trainers at the very end of Thursday’s practice at St. John Fisher.
Backed up in the Bills end zone, James Cook burst off tackle for a run that crossed the 50-yard-line before a defender got near to him. Cook has emerged as the clear favorite to start at running back in his second season. … Defensive back Cam Lewis blitzed the backfield for goal-to-go stop, continuing a strong training camp in his fourth pro season since playing for University at Buffalo. … Allen and Stefon Diggs have made a daily habit of connecting for touchdowns, and they did it again near the goal line, allowing Diggs to leap into the fans in the corner of the stadium. … Tyler Bass boomed a 60-yard field goal with slight assist from the wind to conclude practice. … One function of the stadium practice is to put the Bills new players in gameday situations in preparation for next Saturday’s preseason contest. “You definitely feel some more juice out here, and putting the pads on, especially the whole uniform, and then even just playing on this field,” rookie tight end Dalton Kincaid said. “It’s valuable time being out here as much as you can.”
Jonah Bronstein joined the WIVB squad in 2022 as a digital sports reporter. The Buffalonian has covered the Bills, Sabres, Bandits, Bisons, colleges, high schools and other notable sporting events in Western New York since 2005, for publications including The Associated Press, The Buffalo News, and Niagara Gazette. Read more of his work here.