The Buffalo Bills insist they’re focused on the 2017 season – even if everyone else is looking ahead.
With six picks in the top three rounds, and a possible avenue to acquire even more, the 2018 draft will likely determine the success or failure of Brandon Beane and Sean McDermott in Buffalo. If the team’s general manager and head coach can nab a franchise quarterback with all that draft ammo, they could perhaps finally restore the franchise to its former glory.
If not, they could join the long list of failed executives and coaches who preceded them.
Before that moment of truth arrives, however, there is a season to be played. It’s easy to look at some of the moves made this offseason as signs the team is in the middle of a rebuild. Trading away players like Sammy Watkins and Ronald Darby last month sent shockwaves through the NFL, and showed no job is safe. The continued purge of players drafted by former General Manager Doug Whaley – including 2016 second-round pick Reggie Ragland – also spells r-e-b-u-i-l-d.
After Watkins was traded, McDermott knew the public perception regarding the Bills’ intentions in 2017 took a hit. He was determined to keep that kind of thought process out of his locker room.
“My stance with our football team and the leaders of our football team … is to be honest and up front with these guys and they know that we’re going to do everything possible and make every decision that’s in the best interest of this football team short and long term,” he said. “That’s my responsibility. I believe in clear and concise communication and developing trust and that’s what I hope has developed over the course of the first six months, six and a half months on the job and we’re going to continue to work our tails off to put this football team and this organization in a position to win and sustain success.”
In addition to the trades, the Bills also signed veteran receiver Anquan Boldin – a move Beane pointed to as evidence the team isn’t punting on 2017 – only to see him retire two weeks later. So even before a meaningful game has been played, there has been a decent amount of drama in Buffalo, as there always seems to be.
“I believe that the NFL is a test of how long a group of people can hang together to get to where we’re trying to get in to in terms of the playoffs and to build this team the right way,” McDermott said. “We’re going to be stretched by and other teams are going to be stretched by injuries, internal crossroads, external crossroads. There are just things that come up that we have to be as mentally tough as we can to get ourselves to where we’re trying to go.”
Here’s a capsule preview of the Bills’ 2017 season:
• Shady: In running back LeSean McCoy, the Bills have one of the most talented players in the NFL. McCoy has made the Pro Bowl in his first two seasons in Buffalo and showed during training camp and his limited appearances in the preseason that he hasn’t lost a step at age 29.
The Bills have led the NFL in rushing in back-to-back years. While quarterback Tyrod Taylor’s ability as a runner contributes to that, it starts with an offensive line that returns the same five starters from last year, and McCoy, who can make a tight case for being the most valuable player on the roster.
“Shady will be the focal point of a Buffalo offense that is now being run by Rick Dennison, who did remarkable things as the offensive coordinator for Arian Foster back in Houston,” NFL.com’s Alex Gelhar wrote in predicting McCoy will win the 2017 rushing title. “When taking a stab at projecting the rushing leader, my thought process is to find a talented back in a solid offense who should see a high number of touches. McCoy checks all those boxes and has thrived in a brand new offense before: Shady led the league in rushing in 2013, his first year with Chip Kelly.”
• The defensive scheme: Former coach Rex Ryan might have been the only person on the planet who thought the Bills should run a 3-4 defense. McDermott took over and scrapped that, which should be good news. Particularly up front, the Bills’ personnel fits a 4-3 better. The defensive line of ends Jerry Hughes and Shaq Lawson outside of tackles Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams looks good on paper. Lawson, coming off an injury season hampered by a shoulder injury, looks fit and ready for a breakout second year. Williams remains the heart and soul of the team, and continues to play at a high level. McDermott has a challenge in keeping Dareus – who was sent home from the third preseason game for a violation of team rules – on the straight and narrow. The team and player say they’re on the same page. We’ll see.
The secondary is completely rebuilt with rookie first-round draft pick Tre’Davious White and E.J. Gaines – acquired in the Watkins trade – at cornerback. Free agents Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde are the safeties.
Their performance will be closely scrutinized, but it’s not hard to envision the Bills improving after back-to-back 19th-place finishes on defense.
• Coaching upgrade: In McDermott, the Bills should have someone who at least gets 11 players on the field. That’s more than can be said for Ryan, who made it less than two full seasons into a five-year contract. While we haven’t seen him in action as a head coach yet in a game that matters, the bar is low to be better than Ryan.
The upgrade from the comedy act that was Dennis Thurman/Rob Ryan to Leslie Frazier at defensive coordinator should also be significant.
• Tyrod Taylor: This has more to do with just the concussion that has him uncertain for the season opener against the Jets. Taylor ranged from mediocre in camp practices to abysmal in the preseason snaps he took.
People are already calling for rookie Nathan Peterman to get a shot as the starter. Those calls will only grow louder if Taylor gets off to a slow start in 2017. Overreacting to the preseason is always a bad idea, but Taylor has to see the writing on the wall. He took a $10 million pay cut to return – hardly a vote of confidence – and the Bills can get out of his contract after this year. Everyone and their grandma expect the team to draft a quarterback in 2018. That can’t sit well with the current starter, who oh-by-the-way saw his best receiver get traded. Which leads us to …
• Wide receivers: Save for Brandon Tate, the Bills have an entirely new unit here. The top three projects to be Jordan Matthews, who acquired from Philadelphia in the trade for Darby, rookie Zay Jones and free agent Andre Holmes. Matthews was hurt 15 minutes into his first practice with the Bills and his status for Week One is still up in the air. That means Jones is going to be relied on heavily. Any rookie receiver starts off as a question mark. Holmes, meanwhile, is coming off a rough preseason and could be on the roster bubble as one of the players who factors into the compensatory draft-pick formula. More on that in a bit.
• The linebackers: Preston Brown in the middle, Ramon Humber on the weak side and veteran Lorenzo Alexander on the strong side are the projected starters. Is that group fast enough? What happens if there is an injury to Brown? Those could quickly become concerns. Run defense was a struggle in 2016, so that needs to be shored up if the defense is to take a step forward.
Figure out some way to throw it better. The Bills have led the NFL in rushing the past two seasons and we all know what that’s been worth. Unless Taylor and Co. can give defenses a reason not to, the obvious game plan against the Bills will be to load up the box against McCoy.
When that happens, Taylor has to take advantage. Given the lack of time he had to work with is projected No. 1 receiver in the summer, it’s going to be a challenge for Taylor to get on the same page with Matthews, but it has to happen.
The team also needs a deep threat to emerge now that Watkins and speedster Marquise Goodwin are no longer on the roster.
Tackle well and take the ball away. That sounds simple, but it’s a good indication of what the team wants to do.
The “takeaway part of the game on defense is so important,” defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said. “Trying to set our offense up to score or scoring on defense, so it’s something we are emphasizing every day. Just getting that mindset of taking the ball away, but not at the expense at getting the ball carrier down.
“We’re always talking about the first guys getting there and making the tackle, the next guy coming in and trying to strip the football and get it out, but we definitely want to secure the tackle. We don’t want to get away from taking the ball away. That’s a big deal in our league and we all know that.”
Turnovers can’t always be coached – particularly the unpredictable ways fumbles bounce around – but defenses led by Frazier and McDermott have been good at it. The Panthers last season had 27 takeaways (17 interceptions, 10 fumble recoveries), while Frazier’s last two seasons as a coordinator with Tampa Bay saw the Bucs record 25 and 23 takeaways, respectively. Conversely, the Bills had just 18 a year ago.
Will Beane make a move to acquire at least one compensatory draft pick? To review, the Bills would need to cut three of the following seven players to be eligible for a compensatory pick, based on a projection from overthecap.com – Patrick DiMarco, Stephen Hauschka, Jordan Poyer, Micah Hyde, Andre Holmes, Vlad Ducasse and Ryan Davis. The first four on that list likely aren’t going anywhere. That leaves Holmes, Ducasse and Davis.
If the Bills were to cut those three players before Week 10 of the regular season, they would potentially get a third-round draft choice as compensation for losing cornerback Stephon Gilmore to the New England Patriots. It’s important to note that is just a projection, but a third-round pick would be a valuable commodity next April.
If the Bills were to cut four of those seven players, they could possibly land a third- and fourth-round pick, with the later of those coming for the loss of wide receiver Robert Woods.
“It’s something you always keep your eye on,” McDermott said. “Obviously, it’s a way that some teams are operating out there. It’s something that we are certainly aware of. We’ll just see how that plays out over the next couple of weeks.”
Prepare for another season of being “in the hunt.” The Bills have enough talent that they don’t figure to bottom out. Expecting a playoff run, however, looks overly optimistic at this point. The difficulty of playing in a division lorded over by the New England Patriots can’t be overstated. With the AFC East basically off limits, the Bills are left to compete with 14 other teams for two wild-card spots. Both games against New England come in December, as do the two Miami games, so it’s imperative the Bills get off to a good start to the season. The first five games – against the Jets, at Carolina, vs. Denver, at Atlanta and at Cincinnati – include three AFC games the Bills likely need to win if they have any hope of making a playoff push. Not many are expecting that to happen. What the fans need now, and it’s not easy to write when considering the 17-year playoff drought, is patience. Maybe McDermott and Beane only look so polished because of their predecessors. But the new football department at One Bills Drive needs time to put its “process” in place.
Projected record: 6-10.
Story topics: Andre Holmes/ Anquan Boldin/ Brandon Beane/ Dennis Thurman/ Doug Whaley/ E.J. Gaines/ Jerry Hughes/ Jordan Matthews/ Jordan Poyer/ LeSean McCoy/ Leslie Frazier/ Lorenzo Alexander/ Marquise Goodwin/ Micah Hyde/ Nathan Peterman/ Patrick DiMarco/ Preston Brown/ Rex Ryan/ Rob Ryan/ Robert Woods/ Ronald Darby/ ryan davis/ Sammy Watkins/ Sean McDermott/ Shaq Lawson/ Stephen Hauschka/ Stephon Gilmore/ Tyrod Taylor/ Vlad Ducasse/ Zay Jones