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Grading the Bills: Final 2016 report card

Progress was nowhere to be found for the Buffalo Bills in 2016.

A defense that finished 19th in the league in 2015 occupied the exact same spot this past season. The offense went from 13th in 2015 in yards to 16th in 2016. An 8-8 record in 2015 was followed up by a 7-9 mark. Over the past three seasons, the team is 24-24. Mediocrity, thy name is Bills.

Coach Rex Ryan ultimately paid the price, losing his job less than two full seasons into a five-year contract. Reset the counter, spin the wheel and try again. That’s familiar territory for a team that has missed the postseason for 17 straight seasons.

Here is the Buffalo News’ final report card for the 2016 season:

Quarterbacks: D

In what can only be described as the Bills being the Bills, Tyrod Taylor was benched for the season finale after the best game of his career. To be fair, the decision made sense from a financial perspective. The team would have put itself at risk of having to pay Taylor’s $27.5 million 2017 salary if he were to suffer a serious injury, but the awkwardness of the situation left the quarterback feeling like he’s not wanted. Taylor’s 2016 season is nearly identical to 2015. His yards per attempt dropped (8.0 to 6.9) as did his passer rating (99.4 to 89.7). In a must-win game against Pittsburgh in Week 14, he was at his worst in the first three quarters. Taylor ranked 25th in the NFL in passing yards (3,023) and 24th in touchdowns (17), although he did lead the league at his position in rushing yards (580) and touchdowns (six). Whoever the next coach ends up being will have a big say in whether the Bills pick up Taylor’s contract option, tying him to the team for at least the next two years. The Week 17 loss showed once and for all that it’s time for the Bills to move on from EJ Manuel, a bust as a first-round draft pick in 2013. Rookie Cardale Jones played the fourth quarter of that loss to the Jets, hardly a big-enough sample size to learn much about him.

Running backs: A

LeSean McCoy finished the year sixth in rushing yards (1,267), fourth in touchdowns (13) and third in yards per carry (5.4). He looked as shifty as ever, dodging a would-be tackler on seemingly every run. He seemed to really find himself in the offense in his second year and generally looked much more comfortable than his first season in Buffalo. His leadership was on display in Week 17, when he suffered an ankle injury, was ruled out of the game by the team, but came back to the sideline and pleaded with trainers to play again. Backup Mike Gillislee led the NFL in yards per carry (5.7), chipping in eight touchdowns. He’s proved to be a threat in his own right and a great pairing with McCoy. They were primarily responsible for the Bills leading the NFL in rushing, along with Taylor’s contributions. Rookie Jonathan Williams lost two fumbles on 27 carries. He’ll have to clean that up if he wants a role next season. Poor Reggie Bush suffered the embarrassment of finishing the season with minus-3 rushing yards on 12 carries, becoming the first back since 1961 to finish with negative yardage on at least 10 carries. But, hey, he did make $500,000 for each lost yard, so that’s pretty neat.

Wide receivers: F

A seven-catch, 154-yard game against Miami in Week 16 showed what Sammy Watkins can provide the offense. Unfortunately for the Bills, Watkins was only able to provide that type of production once in what was basically a lost season because of a lingering foot injury. He’s expected to have another surgery on his left foot this offseason in hopes of returning to full health in 2017. No. 2 receiver Robert Woods also battled injuries this season, including a sprained knee. He wasn’t the same player after returning. His 613 receiving yards did lead the team, but ranked just 71st in the NFL. Marquise Goodwin had career highs in catches (29), yards (431) and touchdowns (three), but those numbers are replaceable. Justin Hunter did have four touchdown catches, but his playing time dropped dramatically the final month of the season. Expect big changes at this position next season.

Tight ends: D

Charles Clay missed the Week 13 game in Oakland for the birth of his baby, and returned a changed man. In the final month of the season, he had 21 catches for 229 yards and four touchdowns. Project those out over an entire season, and Clay would be a Pro Bowler. He played in every situation for the Bills this season, which means he was a big part of the rushing attack, as well. Unfortunately, his production didn’t approach that in the first three-quarters of the year. Behind Clay, there’s not much. Nick O’Leary finished with nine catches for 114 yards, while Gerald Christian spent most of the season inactive and Logan Thomas is strictly a project for next year.

Offensive line: B

The rushing attack put up huge numbers, leading the league in yards per game (164.4), yards per attempt (5.3) and touchdowns (29). The line obviously gets a lot of credit for that, but McCoy especially made a lot of yards happen on his own. The Bills ranked in the bottom half of the league in both “power” situations (runs needing less than 2 yards for a first down or touchdown on third or fourth down) and “stuffed” runs (those that go for no gain or a loss), as tracked by Football Outsiders. Bills quarterbacks were also sacked 46 times, but that’s also somewhat misleading, as Taylor had a tendency to hold onto the ball too long at times, leading to sacks that shouldn’t be pinned on the offensive line. The good news is that injuries to both center Eric Wood (leg) and left tackle Cordy Glenn (back) weren’t impossible to overcome. In Ryan Groy and Cyrus Kouandjio, the Bills found out they have quality depth. Expect the team to try and upgrade at right tackle this offseason, where Jordan Mills will be a free agent.

Defensive line: C-

The rush defense starts here, and it was bad. The Bills finished 29th in the NFL, allowing more than 133 yards per game. Marcell Dareus missing eight games because of a suspension and injuries clearly didn’t help matters. The depth on the line took a hit when Corbin Bryant went on injured reserve. Leger Douzable made some nice plays against the run, while Kyle Williams was dominant at times. Rookie third-round pick Adolphus Washington played a role that wasn’t going to lead to big statistics, but he was benched for the season finale – a sign the coaching staff was not satisfied with how he finished the year. The line finished ranked 22nd by Football Outsiders, but did do well in short-yardage, “power” situations, ranking sixth. Based on the overall results, though, it’s easy to wonder whether the Bills’ personnel is better suited for a 4-3 scheme.

Linebackers: B

Outside linebacker Lorenzo Alexander was possibly the steal of the offseason, finishing with 12.5 sacks and a spot in the Pro Bowl after originally being signed to play special teams. Inside linebacker Zach Brown similarly impressed as a moderately priced free agent, finishing second in the NFL in tackles (149). Fellow inside linebacker Preston Brown was seventh in the NFL with 135 tackles. Outside linebacker Jerry Hughes registered a lot of pressure, but finished with just six sacks, giving him just 11 the last two years after he had 20 in his first two seasons in Buffalo. First-round draft pick Shaq Lawson started strong with two sacks in his first three weeks, but cooled from there. His playing time dropped over the last few weeks of the season. Lawson is entering a big offseason. He’ll be under pressure to show why he was taken in the first round next year.

Secondary: C-

Aaron Williams’ injury might have been the costliest one suffered by the Bills this season. The team used eight safeties, an amazing number considering Corey Graham took virtually every snap. Williams said he’s still deciding whether he’ll try to continue his career after a pair of neck injuries ended each of the last two seasons. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore closed the season strong, finishing with five interceptions. He’s an unrestricted free agent. The team could use the franchise tag on him. Ronald Darby’s second season wasn’t as good as his first year. Nickell Robey-Coleman was the Bills’ best cornerback for a stretch, but had some tough games as the season went on. Help in the secondary figures to be one of the biggest priorities in the draft.

Special teams: C-

Expect kicker Dan Carpenter to be replaced this offseason. He went 5 of 11 on field goals of 40-plus yards, with the nail in the coffin coming when he missed from 45 yards in overtime against the Dolphins in Week 16. Return man Brandon Tate was a bright spot, finishing fifth in the NFL in both kickoff and punt returning. The punt coverage team finished sixth overall, while the kickoff coverage was 17th, with some noticeable late-season breakdowns. Linebacker Ramon Humber and safety Jonathan Meeks anchored the coverage units. After being in the top 10 earlier in the season, the Bills finished the year 23rd in Football Outsiders’ rankings.

Coaching: F

How could it be anything else? The Bills thought so little of the job Ryan did, he was fired two days after Christmas and denied a chance to coach against his former team. It’s hard to put up much of a fight for why he should have stayed. An embarrassing problem with getting the right number of players on the field and an overall failure of his defensive scheme provided the reasoning for ownership, even as they made a mess of the decision. For all of Ryan’s brash talk, he could never back it up in Buffalo. That doesn’t go over well in this town. Offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn kept the running game humming after taking over for the fired Greg Roman. The passing attack never took off, however, leading to a 16th-place finish in total offense. The Bills did finish tied for 10th in scoring offense, though, which shows that more of the blame needed to, and rightfully did, go to Ryan’s defense.

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