The Buffalo Bills sure haven't gotten everything right personnel-wise the last few years. The EJ Manuel and Cyrus Kouandjio picks alone — swinging and missing at two premium positions in the first and second rounds — will set any franchise back.
But this front office has managed to re-sign a handful of core players to long-term deals. And now, it's wise to follow that money. If the Bills do, if the Bills scheme offensively and defensively with their top investments in mind, they'll have a shot this season.
On offense, this is a team the doled out big money to the left side of the offensive line. Tackle Cordy Glenn (five years, $65 million) and guard Richie Incognito (three years, $15.75 million) will be paving the way for running back LeSean McCoy, who you may recall, inked a five-year, $40 million deal last off-season. The team made Jerome Felton the second highest-paid fullback and Charles Clay one of the richest tight ends.
While Felton's role was reduced to 10 snaps a game, the Bills mostly did play to their strength on offense by the leading the NFL in rushing. Glenn, Incognito and Clay morphed one of the NFL's worst front lines into the one of the best. Center Eric Wood made the Pro Bowl. So through a rocky off-season packed with shoulder surgeries, broken feet, a promising back showing up overweight and a cornerback's lukewarm appearance, re-upping Glenn and Incognito to deals was smart. Especially considering the Bills will be facing thee smashmouth AFC North and NFC West this year.
Don't forget: Peyton Manning was the last QB standing a year ago. Manning, and his career-low 67.9 passer rating and nine touchdown passes, took the Denver Broncos to the Super Bowl. As Tyrod Taylor put bluntly in our Q&A, "It doesn’t have to be pretty. The Super Bowl was not pretty at all last year. At all."
Which brings us to the defense.
All week in San Francisco, that Denver defense praised coordinator Wade Phillips for giving them the green light. See ball, get ball. It wasn't too complicated in Denver's defense with Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware wreaking havoc off the edge and the likes of Derek Wolfe and Malik Jackson eating inside. Maybe the Bills have mastered Rex Ryan's playbook in Year 2. The head coach took every opportunity in OTA's and minicamp to tell us that it is night and day, that now players do understand the in's and out's and are fully buying in.
That's all well and a good.
But the Bills should also follow the money on defense with arguably their best player on the 90-man roster, defensive tackle Marcell Dareus. For one, he's in a much better place mentally now than ever thanks to his psychologist and psychiatrist. He's more equipped to deal with the stress and depression that has bogged him down in the past. And the Bills should probably remember in 2016 that they, you know, gave this guy a $108 million contract extension. Mario Williams wasn't the only one playing out of position last season; Dareus was often asked to take on double-teams and drop into the coverage.
The site of Dareus backpedaling into coverage vs. nothing by air on two Kansas City Chiefs touchdowns might be the lasting image of the 2015 Bills defense.
He's not sure yet if his role will change. Asked if Ryan will cut him loose more often, he only said “We’ll see.”
“Rex has a pretty damn crazy playbook,” he said then. “So we’ll see what he has in mind. And he’s adding new plays every damn day. When we get to camp, it’s going to be even more. There’s not really much you can do but sit back and let him do his thing.”
Whenever Kyle Williams is cleared to play, it'd be smart for the Bills to get more creative with Dareus along the line. He may be the single most athletic, explosive, menacing 330-pounder in the league. Having him clog up traffic play to play is a waste of talent. And elsewhere, early signs do point to the Bills utilizing Jerry Hughes in a different role. One year after signing his five-year, $45 million pact, he'll be playing more outside linebacker in a traditional 3-4.
The Bills' front office has wandered aimlessly too often these last 16 playoff-less years be it overpaying for Derrick Dockery and Langston Walker, letting elite talent walk in free agency or general incompetence at quarterback. The last two off-seasons, they have paid up for a talented core.
But now the question is if they'll use this core effectively.