If coach Dabo Swinney’s “All In’’ slogan can help get Clemson to the national title game, maybe it will get the Buffalo Bills to the NFL playoffs.
After a league-high 16 consecutive seasons of failing to accomplish what should happen just by the law of averages, the Bills are willing to try anything. And after an 8–8 finish punctuated by unfulfilled promises and grumbling among the troops, coach Rex Ryan isn’t too proud to steal a good idea when he hears one.
“I think it’s a great slogan,’’ Ryan says. “[Dabo] used it several years ago, but it was something that I think resonates with our football team. It’s easy to talk, ‘Yeah, I’m all in.’ But having it there is a daily reminder of the commitment we have to each other.’’
Sounds good. But the reality is that salary cap jail resulted in Buffalo’s .500 roster being gutted of expensive veterans, little free-agent shopping and the placement of big pressure on an impressive draft class. If quarterback Tyrod Taylor doesn’t elevate his game significantly, another year out of the postseason is guaranteed
Taylor, the ex-Baltimore Raven, provided a lot of highlight-reel plays on the way to accumulating 3,603 total yards and 24 touchdowns in 2015. Now he must provide a lot more consistency and the ability to close out close games. But at least Buffalo goes into the season knowing who is under center. EJ Manuel, a stagnating first-round pick from 2013, was kept as the No. 2 man as the team squeezes every ounce out of his rookie contract.
Taylor will continue to benefit from a “ground-and-pound’’ approach under Ryan and offensive coordinator Greg Roman. Buffalo’s running game jumped from 26th in the NFL to No. 1 in rushing, improving by nearly 60 yards per game. Some of that is deceiving since Taylor accounted for 568 yards with his scrambling ability. But the additions of Eagles All-Pro LeSean McCoy and rookie Karlos Williams, along with veteran fullback Jerome Felton, made Buffalo a team that could legitimately set its mind to running the ball against anybody.
It was paramount that Buffalo retain the left side of its line, and that was achieved with rich new deals for tackle Cordy Glenn and guard Richie Incognito. The entire unit returns intact. Center Eric Wood remains one of the NFL’s most underrated players; 2015 third-round pick John Miller was a first-day starter at right guard; and Seantrel Henderson is back at right tackle. How his newly diagnosed Crohn’s disease affects his play is uncertain, but the team has very strong depth on the line.
The same can’t be said for wide receiver. Although there will be a dozen players at the position when camp opens, it’s really a case of superstar Sammy Watkins (60 catches, 1,047 yards, nine TDs) and everybody else. And in the case of Watkins, he will likely start camp on the sidelines following surgery in April to insert two screws into his left foot to repair a stress fracture. Fourth-year pro Robert Woods doesn’t draw much coverage away from Watkins. Olympic track athlete Marquise Goodwin and rookie Kolby Listenbee offer some field-stretching options. But the team is likely to miss Chris Hogan (Patriots) and Percy Harvin (retired) in a big way.
That’s unless the tight end plays a larger role, which is what former Dolphin Charles Clay began to do last year with 51 catches. Many believe Clay’s potential is just being scratched. And it wouldn’t hurt if McCoy could increase his production in the passing game after catching 32 passes in 2015.
The Bills’ drop from a No. 4 ranking in yards allowed per game (312.2) to No. 19 (356.4) was the major storyline of Ryan’s first season and a source of great embarrassment. Buffalo’s sack total plummeted from an NFL-best 54 to 21, with players such as the departed Mario Williams and Pro Bowl defensive tackle Marcell Dareus clearly incapable of doing some of the things Ryan was asking in his hybrid 2-5, 3-4, 4-3 scheme. Getting players who fit his plan was the main focus of the offseason, and while it was difficult to achieve in free agency, the Bills believe they accomplished that goal in the draft.
First-round pick Shaq Lawson of Clemson, a hybrid end/outside linebacker, and second-rounder Reggie Ragland of Alabama, a linebacker with blitzing skills, have already been named “Day 1” starters by the team’s brass. Third-round pick Adolphus Washington of Ohio State, a defensive tackle, was also projected as part of Buffalo’s remodeled front seven.
However, Lawson’s debut will be delayed after he underwent shoulder surgery in May. Lawson’s shoulder was initially flagged during the Scouting Combine and reports are he re-injured it during offseason workouts. With an expected timetable of five to six months, Lawson could start the season on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list, which means he could miss as many as the first six games.
Pro Bowl tackles Dareus and Kyle Williams (when healthy) form one of the NFL’s best 1-2 punches, with Corbin Bryant and the rookie Washington behind them.
At end/outside linebacker, Jerry Hughes, Buffalo’s most consistent performer in 2015, is expected to be even better when Lawson is finally able to join him on the other side. Lawson had 12.5 sacks and 25.5 tackles for a loss last fall for Clemson.
Ragland joins young veteran Preston Brown (120 tackles), free agent Zach Brown (Titans) and Manny Lawson in the linebacker corps, which should be much better at making Ryan’s blitz packages work.
In the secondary, cornerback Leodis McKelvin (Eagles) was lost in the salary cap purge. But there is plenty of size, strength and closing speed in the remaining collection of players.
Now in his fifth season, Stephon Gilmore, the 10th overall pick in 2012, has emerged as one of the league’s best man-coverage corners. Opposite him is Ronald Darby, one of the steals of the 2015 draft as a second-rounder out of Florida State. Darby was an instant-impact player with 68 tackles, two interceptions and 21 passes defended. Nickell Robey and Mario Butler, proven playmakers, will see the bulk of the time in nickel and dime.
Strong safety Aaron Williams was lost to a neck injury in Week 2 last season. He underwent surgery and has been cleared to play, but he’s no lock to reclaim his starting job opposite free safety Corey Graham (team-high 127 tackles, two interceptions). Depth is serviceable with Duke Williams and Jonathan Meeks. Free agents Corey White, Robert Blanton and Colt Anderson will compete for spots judging on their special teams contributions.
Veteran placekicker Dan Carpenter is on the hot seat after missing six kicks from the new PAT distance. He was also just 23-of-27 on field goals after converting a franchise record 34 the season before. He was in Ryan’s doghouse much of the year. Punter Colton Schmidt, a waiver find, has found a home in Buffalo, turning in a second solid season with a 46.4-yard average and 22 kicks dropped inside the 20.
With roster departures, receiver Walter Powell moves to the top of the return specialist list. He’ll have plenty of competition as things develop.
After sitting out the playoffs for a fifth consecutive season dating to his days with the Jets, Ryan has toned down his rhetoric. He needs to focus on making Buffalo’s defense one of the top units in the NFL. If he does that, and Taylor takes a step forward at quarterback, the Bills might just win those two to three extra games needed to snap their unfathomable postseason drought.