The Buffalo Bills' constant shuffling between 3-4 and 4-3 defenses the past few years has produced more failures than successes.
As a result, the team has gone through significant personnel changes. Gone from last year's secondary is the starting safety duo of Corey Graham and Aaron Williams, as well as cornerback Stephon Gilmore. In their place are Micah Hyde, Jordan Poyer and first-round draft pick Tre-Davious White.
Likewise, the linebackers will look different in a base 4-3 scheme, with potentially two new additions to the starting lineup (Reggie Ragland in the middle and Ramon Humber on the weak side) as well as a returning player in a new position (Lorenzo Alexander).
Up front, defensive ends Shaq Lawson and Jerry Hughes will return to a position that should be more natural for them instead of playing outside linebacker. All of that change surely factors into how USA Today's Nate Davis has ranked the Bills' positional groupings in a series he's working on. Here's a look at where Davis has the Bills slotted so far, along with our take on their spot on his list:
• Defensive line: "15. Reverting to a four-man front designed to apply pressure should better suit DEs Jerry Hughes and Shaq Lawson, who managed just two sacks in Rex Ryan's defense. Veteran DTs Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus have proven they'll thrive in any scheme."
Our take: Slightly better than league average seems to be underselling the Bills up front. While it's true Lawson is still an unknown commodity, the defensive tackle duo of Williams and Dareus has the potential to be one of the best in the league. Hughes looks more at home in a 4-3 when he's asked to simply get off the quarterback, so a better season from him is expeceted in 2017. Depth is a concern here, but the starting four looks like a top-10 group in the NFL.
• Linebackers: "24. Buffalo Bills: They're switching schemes (again), with new coach Sean McDermott a 4-3 proponent. Lorenzo Alexander had a breakout 2016, but how will he adapt after thriving on the edge? Reggie Ragland is an unknown after a knee injury ruined his rookie year."
Our take: This feels higher than where we would have ranked them. As Davis points out, Ragland is an unknown, and he might not even beat out Preston Brown for a starting job. Ramon Humber is penciled in on the weak side, and he's been mostly a special teams player as a professional. Again as Davis pointed out, Alexander found his niche as a pass rusher last season. How much of that he'll do in coach Sean McDermott's scheme remains to be seen. Maybe Gerald Hodges can work his way into the rotation, but he was running with the third team in the spring after signing late as a free agent.
• Secondary: "29. Micah Hyde was a nice signing, and first-round CB Tre'Davious White projects as a solid starter even if he may not have the ceiling of departed Stephon Gilmore. Still, in the midst of a defensive overhaul, expect significant issues."
Our take: Ouch. Davis hands out a pretty harsh grade, although his reasoning is sound. White, as a rookie, shouldn't be asked to fill the role of No. 1 cornerback that Gilmore held. Maybe that falls to Ronald Darby, but he wasn't as good last year in his second season. The safety swap of Hyde and Jordan Poyer replacing Corey Graham and Aaron Williams doesn't appear to be any worse on paper, but the depth behind the starters is woefully thin. We'd have the Bills ranked higher, but not in the top half of the league.
• Special teams: "23. Ex-Seattle K Steven Hauschka is an upgrade, though he's been more accurate on FGs than PATs each of the last two seasons. Colton Schmidt's 42.4 yards per punt were fewest in the NFL. Brandon Tate has always been a good return man."
Our take: This seems about right. Hauschka should be better than Dan Carpenter, but that's not saying much. Schmidt will have to be better, or he'll be out of a job. For as good as Tate was, he didn't reach the end zone, leaving a noticeable lack of explosive plays on special teams. The coverage units should improve some with the draft picks of linebackers Matt Milano and Tanner Vallejo. The Bills ranked 24th in the Dallas Morning News' special teams rankings in 2016, which are accepted as the league standard.