On the back page of the Sunday sports section, Bills beat writers Vic Carucci, Tyler Dunne and myself hand out our end-of-season awards for the Bills, in 14 different categories.
The feature is in print only, but if you haven't seen the paper yet, 1. What are you waiting for?; and 2. You're in luck. My ballot is below, with expanded explanations for each winner. I'd encourage you to get a print copy to see what Vic and Tyler have to say, too.
• Offensive MVP: QB Tyrod Taylor. An 8-6 record as a starter, a franchise record for rushing yards by a quarterback, more than 3,000 passing yards and a 20-to-6 touchdown-to-interception ratio all came after Taylor emerged from a three-man competition to win the starting job. He surpassed all reasonable expectations.
• Defensive MVP: CB Ronald Darby. The rookie finished with 21 passes defensed (fifth in the NFL) and a pair of interceptions, forming one half of a pair of dominant cornerbacks (along with Stephon Gilmore) the Bills can build their defense around in coming seasons.
• Breakout player: WR Sammy Watkins. The second-year pro fought through injuries and some ill-advised social media comments early in the year to become one of the league’s best at his position over the final nine games of the season – when he had 49 catches for 900 yards and seven touchdowns.
• Most disappointing player: DE Mario Williams. He had just 19 tackles and five sacks in 15 games. All of that for nearly a $20 million salary-cap hit. No wonder it’s an inevitability he’ll be cut.
• Biggest surprise: LG Richie Incognito. His play appeared to be on the decline in 2013 with Miami before the bullying scandal there kept him out of football for more than a full year, but the time off treated Incognito well. He took every offensive snap for the Bills and made a strong case for the Pro Bowl – and a new, more lucrative contract.
• Unsung: LB Manny Lawson: The Bills asked Lawson to line up all over the defense this season – both on and off the line of scrimmage, on the strong and weak sides – with coach Rex Ryan saying he’s like a utility player in baseball. Lawson might not be a star, but he’s a valuable piece for the Bills’ defense.
• On the rise: RB Karlos Williams. Injuries slowed him down, but when the rookie fifth-round draft pick was on the field, he was a punishing, explosive runner who averaged 5.6 yards per carry and scored nine total touchdowns.
• On the decline: QB EJ Manuel. It’s rare that General Manager Doug Whaley speaks in absolutes, but he did after the season in saying Manuel “has to get better.” The Bills’ 2013 first-round draft pick might be back to play out his rookie contract in 2016, but after an 0-2 stint in relief of Taylor this past season, the ship has sailed on Manuel ever becoming the long-term answer at quarterback.
• Biggest victory: Bills 27, Colts 14: Remember how you felt after this game, when the Bills absolutely put it on a team coming off an appearance in the AFC Championship Game? It turned out to be a mirage – the Bills and Colts simply weren’t as good as we thought.
• Worst loss: Chiefs 30, Bills 22. A passive defensive game plan gave Alex Smith all the time in the world to carve up Buffalo’s secondary, Rex Ryan’s challenge system melted down in spectacular fashion and the Bills’ playoff hopes took a drastic blow just three days after Thanksgiving.
• Quotable: “I’m not going to let our fans down. I am not going to do that. I know it’s been 15 years since the Bills made the playoffs. Well get ready, man, we’re going. We are going.” Of all the things Rex Ryan said this season – and there were plenty to choose from – this, from his introductory press conference on Jan. 14, 2015, set the expectations for what would ultimately be a failed season, making it now 16 straight years without a postseason appearance.
• Pending free agent the Bills must re-sign: LT Cordy Glenn. Quality left tackles are prized commodities in the NFL, and although he’s not a Pro Bowler, Glenn gives the Bills just that.
• Top priority in offseason: Fix the defense. Buffalo set a franchise record for fewest sacks (21) despite having the most pass attempts against them in team history. Whether it’s through tweaking his scheme to fit the available talent, bringing in new players or a likely combination of both, the pressure will be on Ryan to turn this unit around.
• With the 19th pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, the Buffalo Bills select … DE DeForest Buckner, Oregon. The Pac-12’ Morris Trophy winner as top defensive lineman, Buckner has positional flexibility to play multiple spots on the defensive line and is experienced, with 51 career college starts. He would replace Mario Williams’ in the Bills’ starting lineup.