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As training camp opens: Will Tyrod Taylor prove he is a franchise QB?

This is the finale of a 10-part series previewing some of the biggest questions the Buffalo Bills will have to answer when training camp begins Thursday at St. John Fisher College in Pittsford.

Exactly what do the Buffalo Bills have in Tyrod Taylor?

Entering his third season as the starting quarterback, there is still no clear-cut answer to that question.

Taylor undoubtedly has had his moments. In his first year as a starter, he had a 99.4 passer rating – which matched that of league MVP Cam Newton. According to ESPN’s QBR rankings, Taylor has been a 10-top quarterback the over the past two years, during which he’s thrown for 37 touchdowns against just 12 interceptions.

Of course, he has share of detractors, too. In fact, there may not be a more polarizing figure on the team. The Bills have ranked 30th and 28th in passing offense the last two years, with Taylor starting 29 of the 32 games over that time. While it’s true they’ve also ranked No. 1 in rushing over that same time span, it’s a passing league. Taylor’s record as a starter is 3-10 in games that the Bills are tied or within one possession in the fourth quarter or overtime. If the “clutch” gene exists inside Taylor, he hasn’t shown it nearly enough.

His use of the middle of the field – or lack thereof – is most often cited as a major deficiency in his game. According to the analytics website Pro Football Focus, just over 21 percent of Taylor’s passes that traveled at least 10 yards in the air were aimed at the middle of the field, while a little more than 35 percent went to the left and 43 percent went to the right.

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“To be in this league, whether it’s Tyrod or name the quarterback, you have to make plays consistently from the pocket,” General Manager Brandon Beane said. “The quarterbacks that are succeeding year after year after year consistently make plays from the pocket. That’s what, whoever the franchise quarterback is going to be, that’s what he’ll have to do.”

Many have concluded Taylor is either unable or unwilling to utilize the field between the numbers.

If that’s the case, the hope has to be that new offensive coordinator Rick Dennison’s system can put Taylor in positions where he can be successful. One obvious way to do that would be to get him out of the pocket on rollouts or bootlegs. That way he has a clear throwing lane, or the ability to run, which he’s shown to be good at with back-to-back seasons of more than 500 rushing yards.

“Right fit or not fit, he’s a good player,” Dennison said. “He throws the ball well and he’s athletic so he can do some of the stuff that we want to do when we move him out of the pocket. But I’ve had quarterbacks that aren’t as gifted that can still get that done because they have to defend the run, and obviously with the guys we have up front and LeSean McCoy, I think we can run the ball pretty dog-gone good. They will have to defend a lot of the field.”

While the Bills’ defense went through some significant changes this offseason, the offense returns relatively intact. Along with Taylor, the team’s No. 1 receiver (Sammy Watkins), running back (McCoy), tight end (Charles Clay) and potentially the entire starting offensive line return. A pair of second-round draft picks in receiver Zay Jones and offensive tackle Dion Dawkins were also added to the mix. Along with a new system that should accentuate his positives, there aren’t any excuses for Taylor this year.

“I definitely think I can take it to the next level,” he said in the spring. “It’s something that I’ve focused on throughout this offseason, which is to continue to keep digesting the offense and trying to be better at it each day.”

The Bills still need convincing Taylor can be that guy. The team took the decision on whether to bring him back right up to the deadline before coming to an agreement on a restructured contract that included a $10 million pay cut. If Taylor regresses in 2017, the Bills can move on with a manageable impact on their 2018 salary cap.

So just like in 2016, Taylor’s performance will be under the microscope on a drive-by-drive basis.

“It’s a quarterback league. I mean, who are we kidding?” Beane said. “If you look at the playoff teams, the consistent guys that at least qualify for the playoffs or are close every year, most of them have QBs, most of them have a legit quarterback. If you want to use the word franchise, whatever word you want to use, so I understand that.

“Cam in Carolina was, is, a franchise quarterback. If you’re a GM, you have to find a franchise quarterback. It obviously helps keep you on a consistent playing field if you have one, so I get that.”

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