There have been a few delays along the way as the Buffalo Bills renovate their defense.
The centerpiece of the remodel, outside linebacker Shaq Lawson, is on backorder.
Linebacker Reggie Ragland, the accent piece, is out of stock.
Still, head coach Rex Ryan believes that the result will be a beautiful sight.
“A hell of a lot further along than we were last year” is how Ryan described his defense at the end of training camp. “I mean that goes without saying. I think it’s pretty obvious. Just every day at practice, it’s a different defense than it was last year, thank goodness.”
It’s easy to be cynical about that. Pro Bowl defensive tackle Marcell Dareus is in a rehabilitation facility after missing an NFL drug test – which the league treats as a failure – and will serve a four-game suspension to start the year. Lawson – the team’s first-round draft pick out of Clemson – underwent shoulder surgery in May and there’s no timetable on when he’ll be ready to play.
Ragland, the Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year, tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in a non-contact injury at training camp and is out for the season.
Those two were the big additions to a defense that dropped to 19th overall last season in Ryan’s first year.
So where does that confidence come from?
“I knew it from the guys that we hired, it was going to be a lot better, and it is,” Ryan said. “So I’m not surprised. I’ve said from Day One. we’ll improve on last year, there’s no question about it. Whether who’s here, who’s not here, I knew we’d get better.
“I think that’s a tribute to, No. 1 it’s our players, for saying, ‘You know what? We’re all in.’ Our coaches and some of the guys we brought in and made a difference.”
While the losses of Dareus, Lawson and Ragland will be difficult to overcome, the defense will get veteran tackle and leader Kyle Williams back from a knee injury, as well as safety Aaron Williams – provided he makes a full recovery from a concussion suffered during training camp.
Here’s a capsule preview of the Bills’ 2016 season:
• Offensive continuity: Offensive coordinator Greg Roman returns his starting quarterback, leading rusher, top three receivers and entire offensive line. That’s almost unheard of in a league with so much turnover year to year. Quarterback Tyrod Taylor has a new contract extension that works out as a win-win for both sides. If he regresses, the Bills can get out of the deal with minimal salary-cap consequences. If Taylor takes the next step to becoming a franchise passer, he’ll collect financially and the Bills will have him under contract at a great rate for a starting quarterback. Having all of the offensive pieces back will allow the Bills to build on what they did last year, which included leading the NFL in rushing.
Running back LeSean McCoy is healthy heading into the season and looks explosive, while No. 1 receiver Sammy Watkins is poised to join the elite at his position. The offensive line, meanwhile, features three Pro Bowl talents in left tackle Cordy Glenn, left guard Richie Incognito and center Eric Wood.
For a unit that finished 13th in total yards (5,775) and 12th in points (379) last year, climbing into the top 10 in both categories is a realistic goal.
• The secondary: When asked who impressed him most during training camp, Rex Ryan rattled off a few names, but couldn’t limit it to just one when it came to the defensive backfield.
In Stephon Gilmore and Ronald Darby, the Bills may have the best cornerback duo in the NFL. They’ve also got a quality contributor in slot corner Nickell Robey-Coleman and a possible steal in sixth-round draft pick Kevon Seymour. At safety, Williams should be back to join Buffalo native Corey Graham in the starting lineup.
“I think our coverage is way better than it was this time last year – any time last year,” Ryan said.
• Coaching changes: Ryan made four significant moves to his staff in the offseason: Hiring his twin brother, Rob, as an assistant head coach, replacing Karl Dunbar as the defensive line coach with John Blake, naming future Hall of Famer Ed Reed an assistant defensive backs coach and making Kathryn Smith the special-teams quality control coach, making her the first-ever full-time female assistant coach in NFL history.
Those moves were designed to improve the communication on defense and guarantee that each player had a better understanding of exactly what his job is on every play.
• Where will the pass rush come from: A team that finished 31st in sacks last year cut Mario Williams and has to deal with a four-game suspension of Dareus, in addition to being without Lawson for an undetermined amount of time. On paper, the pass rush looks like Jerry Hughes and then a whole bunch of question marks. Getting Kyle Williams back should help, but he had just one sack in six games last year before getting hurt. Who is going to step up if defenses overload Hughes’ side of the field with blockers?
• Penalties: The Bills drew the most flags in the NFL last year, for the most yardage against. Ryan has tried everything from push-ups to penalty laps in an effort to fix the problem, but there appears to be no end in sight. The team was penalized 10 times in the preseason opener.
• Injuries: A team that seems forever snake-bitten has already seen four players lost for the season because of knee injuries. Three more players – Shaq Lawson and receivers Marcus Easley and Kolby Listenbee – will miss a significant chunk of time, as well. Every NFL team has issues with depth, but few seem to have it consistently tested the way it is in Buffalo.
Let Tyrod spread his wings: The Bills led the NFL in rushing last year, and return a healthy McCoy, so there’s no doubt running the ball will continue as a huge priority, as it should be.
But Taylor’s contract extension will come with the expectation that he carries more responsibility. Last season, the Bills finished 27th in the league in passing attempts. That screams “game manager” more than “franchise quarterback.” That’s not to say the Bills have to blindly abandon the run to throw it more, but their two big offensive weaknesses last season were converting inside the red zone and on third downs. In both of those situations, the pressure on Taylor increases.
Don’t just talk about it, be about it: The company line during training camp has been about how much better the communication will be on defense in 2016. If that’s true, it means no more players yelling back and forth at each other about blown assignments, or painfully late substitutions.
Of course, it’s fair to be skeptical. Ryan came in boasting about how it was a disappointment the Bills finished No. 4 on defense the year before he arrived. At this point, nobody wants to hear about the improvements, but instead would rather just see them on the field.
50 percent. The Bills’ touchdown rate inside the red zone, which ranked 26th in the NFL, a small improvement from back-to-back 29th-place finishes the previous two seasons. Turning more red-zone trips from field goals into touchdowns remains one of the team’s bigger priorities in 2016.
The first four games will be crucial. A three-game stretch in the middle of the year against Seattle, New England and Cincinnati is a nightmare, so it’s imperative the Bills get off to a good start in the first month. For as much doom and gloom that has surrounded the team in recent weeks, there is still talent across the board. As it is for so many teams, the big determining factor will be Taylor’s success at quarterback. In that regard, there is a lot to feel optimistic about.
While it might sound odd for a Rex Ryan team, the blueprint for the Bills this season may very well end up being centered around the offense.
Projected record: 8-8.