The Buffalo Bills have completely revamped their offense in an effort to end a 15-year playoff drought, the longest such streak in the NFL.
Greg Roman is the new offensive coordinator, coming over from San Francisco, where he engineered a solid rushing attack in four seasons with the 49ers.
A blockbuster trade of linebacker Kiko Alonso to Philadelphia brought LeSean McCoy over from the Eagles. A big-money offer sheet lured Charles Clay away from the division-rival Miami Dolphins after they chose not to match the contract for the tight end.
Percy Harvin, a wide receiver with a reputation as a malcontent, signed as a free agent, following new coach Rex Ryan and wide receivers coach Sanjay Lal over from the New York Jets. Ryan replaces Doug Marrone, who opted out of the final two years of his contract – a move many view as an upgrade for the Bills.
The offensive line has been rebuilt on the inside, with two new guards. On the left side, Richie Incognito is getting another shot in the NFL after being exiled for his role in the Miami Dolphins’ bullying scandal, while rookie third-round draft pick John Miller solidified a starting job on the right side after a strong training camp.
The biggest change, however, comes at quarterback. After four years as Joe Flacco’s backup in Baltimore, Tyrod Taylor signed with the Bills to pursue a starting job. He achieved that goal thanks to a strong training camp and preseason, beating out holdover EJ Manuel and veteran Matt Cassel – who was acquired in a trade with Minnesota.
The task for Taylor & Co. will be to show that the offense can support a defense that expects to challenge for the No. 1 ranking in the NFL. Even though the defense will have a new coordinator for the fifth time in the past five years, all the pieces are in place to again be a dominant unit.
The special teams, which took a huge step forward in 2014, also look good on paper. If the offense does struggle, can those other two units not just keep the team in games, but steal wins?
Here are the most significant aspects of the upcoming season:
Defensive line: This is unchanged from a year ago. Three of the four members of the line (Mario Williams, Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams) went to the Pro Bowl. The fourth member, Jerry Hughes, had 10 sacks, showed he can be an every-down player and made a strong case he deserved to go, too.
“Their defensive line is really good,” Cleveland Browns quarterback Josh McCown said last month after the two teams held joint practices. “It’s the strong point of their team.”
Wide receiver depth: It’s been a challenge for the group to stay healthy, but assuming they are all ready to go Sept. 13 against the Indianapolis Colts, putting Sammy Watkins, Robert Woods and Harvin on the field at the same time is an attractive set of pass-catchers for Taylor. Behind them, Chris Hogan showed last year he’s a solid fourth option, while players like Marquise Goodwin, Deonte Thompson and even undrafted free agent Andre Davis had good showings in training camp.
Ownership: As Terry and Kim Pegula approach the one-year anniversary of their purchase of the team, it’s evident they’re willing to do whatever the front office feels is necessary to build a winner. They were also successful in attracting a high-profile coach in Ryan, who it would have been hard to imagine coming to Buffalo in previous years.
Tyrod Taylor: Yes, he’s looked good in training camp and the preseason. But truthfully, nobody has any idea what he’ll look like when the games start to count – and defenses start game-planning to stop him. Counting on a quarterback who has yet to make an NFL start to lead a team built to win now is without question a big risk.
“It is built to win now and we expect to win,” Ryan said of the team’s roster. “That fact hasn’t changed regardless of who is going at quarterback. … I’m confident that with the players that we have with him and the support that he has from this football team, the coaching that he’s getting, he’s done a tremendous job to this point and I expect him to even get a little bit better as we move forward.”
Chemistry: The Bills have not been shy about bringing in players who have burned bridges because of behavioral issues in previous stops. Included among those are Incognito, Harvin and defensive end IK Enemkpali, who came to the Bills in training camp after the Jets cut him for punching quarterback Geno Smith, breaking his jaw. The team also drafted cornerback Ronald Darby and running back Karlos Williams despite their off-the-field issues while at Florida State. Offensive line coach Aaron Kromer was suspended for six games, instead of being fired, after his arrest for assaulting a minor over the use of beach chairs. Lastly, beloved veteran running back Fred Jackson, a team captain and one of the locker-room leaders, was released. Fans will look the other way on all, or at least a lot, of those moves, provided the Bills win. But if the team gets off to a slow start, Ryan will have an interesting mix of personalities to deal with.
Cornerback depth: What looked to be a deep position in the spring looks a lot less so today. Veteran Leodis McKelvin doesn’t look like he’ll be ready to return any time soon from an ankle injury and Corey Graham has been shifted to safety. That has pushed Darby into the starting lineup. He’s been picked on often during the preseason. Ross Cockrell, a 2014 fourth-round pick, was released. Stephon Gilmore suffered a shoulder injury in the third preseason game, but luckily for the Bills isn’t expected to miss any action in the regular season. Given the other issues at the position, Gilmore may be the defense’s most indispensable player.
Take the pressure off Tyrod: For as much attention as the quarterback competition received, it masked what will be the identity of the offense. That’s running the ball.
The Bills acquired McCoy to be their franchise back – and paid him accordingly. A five-year contract worth up to $40 million sounds like bad business for a 27-year-old running back, but it shows the commitment the team has to building around a strong running game.
There are definite concerns about the workload McCoy has handled in the past and whether his best football is behind him. With Jackson gone, don’t be surprised if Williams earns some carries. He’s been impressive in the summer.
Be the best: It’s a lofty goal, but ask anyone on the defense and they’ll say finishing No. 1 in the NFL this season is what they’re chasing. Last year, the Seattle Seahawks held that spot, giving up 267 yards and 15.9 points per game. The Bills finished fourth in both categories, at 312 yards and 18.1 points per game.
Buffalo’s passing defense ranked third, but its run defense was 11th. With Ryan leading the way, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see that improve. With the Jets, his run defense ranked fifth and third the past two seasons, respectively.
43.14 percent: That’s how often the Bills scored touchdowns when they got to the red zone in 2014. It’s the second straight year the Bills have finished 29th in the NFL in that category. The offense simply can’t keep finishing drives with field goals instead of touchdowns.
We should learn a lot about the Bills right out of the gate. Indianapolis, New England and a road trip to Miami represent three games against teams expected to also be in the postseason hunt. Come through those games with a winning record, and the Bills should challenge for a playoff spot. But get off to a slow start, and the possibility that things could unravel is present, especially if Taylor is in over his head. Nevertheless, this is as talented a roster as we’ve seen around here in a long time, one that should challenge for a playoff spot.
Projected record: 10-6.