By Jay Skurski
News Sports Reporter
1. Will there be any changes to the coaching staff? Owner Terry Pegula announced last week that General Manager Doug Whaley and head coach Rex Ryan will return in 2016. Left unsaid, so far, is the status of the team’s assistant coaches. Special teams coordinator Danny Crossman could be a convenient scapegoat for the team, being that he was not a Ryan hire and his unit regressed significantly in 2015. It’s also worth speculating about the future of defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman. In his limited dealings with the media, Thurman carries himself like he was the architect of the Steel Curtain defenses, although his actual results in three years of “running” defenses is far less impressive. Thurman’s actual role in running the Bills’ unit is up for debate. He’s a coordinator in the same way that Curtis Modkins was the offensive coordinator when Chan Gailey was coaching the Bills. This is Rex Ryan’s defense, Thurman just carries a fancy title. If the Bills did want to make a splashy change, Ryan’s former defensive coordinator, Mike Pettine, was fired Sunday by the Cleveland Browns. It might be worth a phone call to see if he’s interested in coming back.
2. What does the team do at quarterback? The Bills got promising play from first-year starting quarterback Tyrod Taylor in 2015. But was it enough to offer him a contract extension? Or do they let him head into the final year of his deal? Taylor’s 8-6 record as a starter looks good, but not great. His 99.4 passer rating is second best in franchise history for a single season, trailing only Hall of Famer Jim Kelly. But Taylor went just 1-4 in fourth-quarter comeback situations, which are defined as leading an offensive scoring drive to either the tying or go-ahead points when starting a possession down by one score, ultimately resulting in a win. In today’s NFL, with more close games than ever before, that number has to improve. The Bills had the No. 1 rushing attack in the NFL this season but still missed the playoffs. The failures of both the defense and special teams factored into that, of course, but the league is as pass-happy as ever. Can the Bills trust Taylor to be that type of quarterback? It’s a huge question. Buffalo also needs to find a backup quarterback it can trust. Former first-round draft pick EJ Manuel has proved to be a bust – his 0-2 stint as a starter likely ended any chance of a future here. That means the Bills could add a veteran in free agency and a rookie through the draft who could be the “quarterback of the future” depending on what happens with Taylor in 2016.
3. How much of a defensive overhaul will there be? Mario Williams is a goner. That much seems simple. But after that, the Bills have several other changes to mull over on the defense. Veteran defensive tackle Kyle Williams played in just six games in 2015, with 14 tackles and one sack. He’s due to make $8 million against the salary cap in 2016, $5 million of which the Bills could save by cutting him. Does Williams want to return? Linebacker Nigel Bradham took a step back statistically from 2014 and seems likely to depart as an unrestricted free agent. There could be up to four new starters in the defensive front seven. While cornerback appears set with Stephon Gilmore and Ronald Darby, the Bills could have two new starters at safety, as well. The neck injury of Aaron Williams leaves his availability in doubt, while Buffalo native Corey Graham carries a big salary cap hit and was exposed in coverage at times in 2015.
4. How much money will the team have to spend in free agency? According to records kept by the NFL Players Association, the Bills have $154,810,782 committed to the 2016 salary cap. While the league-wide cap limit – and Buffalo’s carryover from 2015 – have not been set, it’s safe to say the Bills will have big decisions to make in regards to the cap. The 2015 salary cap was $143.28 million, and if it goes up about $10 million, the Bills will be close to up against it – or slightly over. Releasing Mario Williams saves $12.9 million in cap space, but the Bills will need to make several more moves to be active in free agency and be able to sign their draft class.
5. How much change will there be on the offensive line? Left tackle Cordy Glenn and left guard Richie Incognito are both slated to become unrestricted free agents. Both will be looking for huge raises after quality seasons. The Bills no doubt would like to have both players back. The right side of the offensive line also needs some work. Rookie right guard John Miller had an up-and-down season even before an ankle injury nagged him for the final month. Right tackle, meanwhile, is a big mess with second-year starter Seantrel Henderson being shut down late in the season with an illness that seems to threaten his career. Second-year veteran Cyrus Kouandjio couldn’t beat out off-the-street free agent Jordan Mills for the right tackle job, a huge red flag for the 2014 second-round draft pick. The Bills sorely need an upgrade at that position.