The playoff drought is finally over, but there's work to be done
By breaking a 17-year playoff drought, longest in North American professional sports, the Bills gave their loyal, frustrated fan base a reason to exhale in 2017. New GM Brandon Beane and head coach Sean McDermott were the toast of the town. Had the Bills discovered a little more offense, they may even have enjoyed a deeper playoff run instead of exiting with a 10-3 Wild Card loss to Jacksonville.
But Beane and McDermott know their work isn’t done. Last year’s 9-7 team was heavily flawed, and it took a miracle victory by Cincinnati over Baltimore to allow Buffalo to sneak into the postseason on tiebreakers. “This is a new year, but hopefully fans understand or believe in what we’re doing here as a group ... that we have it [headed] in the right direction, but we have not arrived, by any means,” Beane says.
Translation: Fans will still have to exercise patience waiting for new and old parts to mesh and for Josh Allen to be ready to assume the role of “franchise” quarterback.
Armed with six picks in the top 100 of the draft, Beane didn’t disappoint in landing a top quarterback prospect to replace Tyrod Taylor, trading up five spots to take Allen seventh overall. While another Josh, UCLA’s Rosen, is more NFL ready and was available, the Bills believe Allen’s ceiling is much higher and aren’t afraid to give him the time and the coaching he needs to succeed. Veteran AJ McCarron and second-year pro Nathan Peterman give Buffalo options until Allen is ready. McCarron, the former Alabama star who sat behind Andy Dalton in Cincinnati, refuses to believe he’s a “bridge” quarterback. But Allen is the highest QB ever taken by Buffalo, and it won’t take much of a stumble out of the starting gate for fans to start calling for the prized rookie.
For the short term, new coordinator Brian Daboll will have no choice but to give lots of touches to venerable running back LeSean McCoy, who just gets better with age. McCoy has rushed for 3,300 yards (on a 4.6-yard average) and 22 touchdowns since coming to Buffalo three seasons ago in a trade with Philadelphia that still seems too good to be true. The Bills have finished, first, first and sixth in rushing with McCoy on board. The addition of Chris Ivory gives the Bills a bigger change-of-pace back who can spell McCoy and keep his workload at about 250 carries now that he’ll be 30 years old.
A major unknown, however, is whether Buffalo can rebuild a line that was jolted by the retirements of center Eric Wood and Richie Incognito and a trade that sent left tackle Cordy Glenn to Cincinnati. Dion Dawkins, who earned 11 starts as a rookie, will step in full time at left tackle, and free agent Russell Bodine, a four-year starter for the Bengals, will fill the giant hole left by Wood at center. But Incognito’s left guard spot will be open for competition, with former starter John Miller penciled in. Incognito was placed on the reserve/retired list, but it’s possible he could return for a 13th season at age 34. If not, Wyatt Teller, a fifth-round pick from Virginia Tech, has a chance to start at one of the guard spots. Jordan Mills returns at right tackle.
If the Bills can keep their QB upright, improving a 31st-ranked passing game will depend on a troubled receiving corps. Beane and McDermott tapped their connections to add Jordan Matthews and Kelvin Benjamin with in-season moves last year that didn’t produce much. If the 6'5" Benjamin can shake his history of injuries, he can cause matchup headaches in the red zone. Meanwhile, Zay Jones, who caught 27 passes for 316 yards and two scores as a rookie, must overcome the dropsies and a bizarre offseason episode in a hotel hallway to get his career back on track.
The Bills did not bring in a lot of receiving competition and lost Deonte Thompson to Dallas and Matthews to New England. Brandon Reilly, who turned heads in camp last year, has a chance to earn more time.
Buffalo’s most reliable targets are tight ends Charles Clay, who had one of his better seasons, and underrated backup Nick O’Leary.
The former defensive coordinator in Philadelphia and Carolina, McDermott quickly put his stamp on a unit that played exceptionally well against the pass and ranked 18th in points allowed. The biggest weakness was run defense, but the team made major upgrades, adding defensive tackles Star Lotulelei, a five-year starter in Carolina and former first-round pick, and Harrison Phillips, a top-rated run stuffer taken in the third round of the draft. The Bills traded up to snag coveted linebacker Tremaine Edmunds of Virginia Tech with the 16th overall pick. He steps in immediately in place of leading tackler Preston Brown (Bengals).
The Bills have a large stable to rotate on the defensive line in their 4-3 look. All four starters are back in ends Jerry Hughes and Shaq Lawson and tackles Kyle Williams and Adolphus Washington. That foursome combined for 12 sacks in 2017 in Buffalo’s one-gap assault. Williams, 34, will return for a 13th season and will groom Phillips to take his place. Williams has 575 career tackles and 43.5 sacks and can still bring it. He’s someone McDermott leans on heavily. Hughes’ sack production has tailed off since back-to-back 10-sack seasons in 2013 and ’14, but he still must be accounted for. Lawson, Buffalo’s first-round pick in 2016 who was slowed by injury in his rookie season, established himself with 33 tackles and four sacks and will be expected to double those totals. Eddie Yarbrough and free agent Trent Murphy, coming off a nine-sack year with Washington, add depth.
At linebacker, Lorenzo Alexander, 34, another of Rex Ryan’s productive holdovers, is coming off a 73-tackle, three-sack season. He is a team leader but will need a big training camp to stick. Edmunds is a huge addition. He led the Hokies in tackles with 109, adding 5.5 sacks, 14 tackles for a loss and three forced fumbles. The belief is that he’ll be for Buffalo what Luke Kuechly was for McDermott in Carolina: a three-down, sideline-to-sideline player who makes it all click. Matt Milano, who earned five starts as a rookie out of Boston College, should man the left outside spot. He proved to be an underrated playmaker.
The strength of the defense is the secondary, which got even stronger with the addition of longtime Colt Vontae Davis. Safeties Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde, along with rookie corner Tre’Davious White, combined for 246 tackles and 14 interceptions. Davis adds 22 career interceptions to the group. He appeared in just five games last year for the Colts due to groin surgery, but if he can return to his Pro Bowl form he would give Buffalo a top 1-2 cornerback combination with the talented White, who earned NFL All-Rookie honors.
Poyer and Hyde already have chemistry at safety in the Bills’ zone-heavy scheme. Poyer had a career year with 95 tackles and five interceptions, and Hyde was a solid pickup from Green Bay. Fourth-round pick Taron Johnson of Weber State will get a long look at nickel after the Bills lost two solid veterans in Shareece Wright and E.J. Gaines.
The Bills are in excellent shape with placekicker Stephen Hauschka and punter Colton Schmidt. Hauschka, the longtime Seattle Seahawk, enjoyed one of his best seasons after signing as a free agent, going 29-of-33 on field goals, including an eye-popping 7-of-9 from 50 yards or more. Kaelin Clay, who has averaged 9.4 yards on punt returns and 23.2 on kickoffs for his career, likely has first dibs on the return jobs.
While making the playoffs for the first time since 1999 was cause for dancing in the streets in Western New York, Bills fans are bracing for a step back. Even though Taylor had his limitations, he was experienced, and he had a track record (22-20) of moderate success. If McCarron can lend some stability until Allen is ready, and if Buffalo’s defense can improve at stopping the run, the Bills could make a push for a return to the postseason. But they still play in the AFC East where the Patriots reign, and their schedule (five of the first seven games are on the road) won’t make a fast start very easy.