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Inside the Bills: Handing out midterm grades, position by position

Ask any Bills fan if they would have signed up for a 5-3 record at the midway point before the 2017 season started and the answer surely would have been a resounding “yes.”

Accepting that might be tough coming off the team’s worst performance of the season, but it’s reality. Although the sting of Thursday night’s loss to the New York Jets will sting until Week 10 arrives, it doesn’t paint a complete picture of the season to date.

“I would say that we’ve certainly done some good things,” coach Sean McDermott said Friday when asked to size up where the team is at the midway point. “We are still building, we’re not where we need to be. We’ve won five games, which I’m proud of the fact that we’ve done that. We have to continue to build; continue to do things the right way; continue to evolve as a football team, of what it takes to win on a week-to-week basis; what’s it going to take to win in order to get to the playoffs.”

That goal is still alive. The Bills will be in a playoff position no matter what happens the rest of Week Nine. They are ahead of schedule when it comes to the progress made with a new front office and coaching staff.

“There’s been some darn good things that have happened,” McDermott said. “Great leadership on this football team, great effort. … This team has come a long way. There’s a lot we can take from the first half of the season, and yet, there’s a lot of work to be done.”

That can be seen in the constant tinkering done by General Manager Brandon Beane and his staff – whether the moves are major, like the acquisition of wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin last week, or minor in nature, like the near-constant churn at the bottom of the roster.

“We continue to build fundamentals, techniques, and continue to establish the standard of what it takes to sustain winning,” McDermott said. “That’s what I’m most excited about. That’s where we have to continue to grind.”

Sean McDermott: 'You have to start with being honest with yourself'

Here is The Buffalo News’ position-by-position midterm report card:

• Quarterbacks: B

Tyrod Taylor earns this grade all by himself, as backup Nathan Peterman has yet to take a snap as a rookie. Taylor’s statistics through eight games – 154 of 236 (65.3 completion percentage), 1,628 yards, 6.9 yards per attempt, 10 touchdowns, two interceptions – fall mostly in line with what he’s done in past seasons. He’s rarely going to make the big mistake that hurts the team, but isn’t consistently going to throw for 300 yards a game, either. Leading back-to-back comeback victories over Tampa Bay and Oakland, however, can be looked at as a huge step forward for Taylor.

“Tyrod is a young man that takes his job extremely seriously and takes a lot of pride in what he does,” McDermott said. “He’s a man of faith, and he continues to be himself. That’s what’s important.

• Running backs: B-

LeSean McCoy has run hot and cold this season. He has three games with 90 or more rushing yards and three games with 25 or fewer. He ranks fourth in rushing attempts (149) and seventh in yards (546), but his average carry of 3.7 yards is down sharply from 5.4 a year ago. No. 2 running back Mike Tolbert hasn’t seen more than four carries in any of the last four games. That means it’s up to McCoy to establish the run game on a weekly basis (sometimes with help from Taylor). No. 3 running back Taiwan Jones has been a special-teams standout, but is now out for the season after breaking his arm Thursday night against the Jets.

• Wide receivers: D

There was obviously a level of dissatisfaction among the Bills’ front office, or else the team wouldn’t have made the trade with Carolina to acquire Kelvin Benjamin. No. 1 wideout Jordan Matthews missed just one game with a broken thumb, showing an impressive level of toughness and commitment to the team. Statistically, however, Matthews has just 21 catches (which ranks tied for 89th in the NFL) for 239 yards (88th) and one touchdown (tied for 72nd). Rookie Zay Jones has taken positive steps in each of the last two weeks, including his first career touchdown catch Thursday against New York.

No. 3 wideout Andre Holmes does have three touchdown catches, but has been targeted just 18 times all season. Newcome Deonte Thompson has 80-plus receiving yards in two of three games with the Bills. Benjamin should add a sorely needed No. 1 option when the team hosts the Saints in Week 10.

• Tight ends: C

When Charles Clay went down with a knee injury in Cincinnati in Week Five, it was easy to predict trouble at this position. Clay is the type of do-it-all tight end that few teams have. That prediction has played out. Nick O’Leary and Logan Thomas have combined for 11 catches, 168 yards and one touchdown in the three games since Clay got hurt. The good news is Clay, who has 20 catches for 258 yards and two touchdowns this year, could be back for Week 10 against New Orleans.

• Offensive line: D

It’s hard not to let the abysmal performance against the Jets influence this grade too much. By every available measure, the Bills have struggled up front. Quarterback Tyrod Taylor has been sacked 29 times, which is tied for second most in the league. Even if Taylor hangs onto the ball too long at times and is responsible for some of them, that number of sacks reflects poorly on the line. The rushing attack is also not operating at the level it once did. The Bills rank tied for 23rd in the NFL with an average of 3.7 yards per rush. Not including Thursday’s game, the analytics website Pro Football Focus ranks the Bills’ offensive line 17th in run blocking and 27th in pass blocking through the first eight weeks.

The coaching staff is still searching for an answer at left guard, with John Miller starting the first four games and veteran Vlad Ducasse taking over for him in the last four. Left tackle Cordy Glenn has also been hobbled by foot and ankle injuries, although he has been able to play the complete game the last two weeks.

• Defensive line: B

McDermott and General Manager Brandon Beane were comfortable enough with the depth up front to trade away Marcell Dareus for a sixth-round draft pick. Veteran Kyle Williams remains the heart and soul of not just the defensive line, but the entire team. His leadership simply can’t be overstated. Adolphus Washington has started the past two games in Dareus’ absence. He impresses at times, but lacks consistency. Ends Jerry Hughes and Shaq Lawson have been stout against the run, but have seen their sack numbers dwindle recently as teams make it a point to get the ball out quick.

• Linebackers: B-

Preston Brown is the only defensive player to have taken every snap this season. While he has some limitations in coverage and as a pass rusher, he’s been a reliable tackler. Rookie Matt Milano contributed some huge plays after stepping in as a starter for Ramon Humber, who missed three games with a broken thumb, but returned to the lineup Thursday night. Veteran Lorenzo Alexander is asked to do a little bit of everything. Analytics website Pro Football Focus has been critical of Alexander’s pass coverage, but he has good results against the run and as a pass rusher.

• Secondary: B+

Safety Micah Hyde leads the NFL with five interceptions and was named the league’s Defensive Player of the Month for October. Rookie cornerback Tre’Davious White’s 12 passes defensed also top the NFL. Jordan Poyer has cooled off some since a hot start, suffering a knee injury against Tampa Bay in Week Seven and missing a game. He returned Thursday night against the Jets, but played “terrible,” in his own words. E.J. Gaines has played well when he’s in the lineup, but durability has been an issue. He’s missed the last two games because of a hamstring injury. Slot cornerback Leonard Johnson has quietly had two really good games in a row.

• Special teams: B

Solid, but not spectacular is the best way to describe the special teams. There haven’t been any explosive plays in the return game, either for or against. Kicker Stephen Hauschka is 16 of 18 on field goals and hasn’t missed an extra point. Punter Colton Schmidt has rebounded from a subpar season and is averaging 41.4 net yards per punt. The Bills will face a challenge in replacing Jones as the primary gunner on coverage units.

• Coaching: B+

McDermott’s constant preaching of “process” is easy to have fun with. Fans have alternately been addicted to it and questioned it at times. McDermott has largely succeeded in building a team that is extremely close – players have commented both publicly and privately about how strong the bond is between them. It’s impressive that the Bills hadn’t fallen behind by more than seven points in any of their first seven games. The issues that arose against the Jets, however, can’t be ignored. The team was unprepared and undisciplined, and a lot of that has to fall on McDermott.

There have also been a couple huge issues that connect to coaching that haven't caught more scrutiny because they came in wins. The team had just 10 players on the field defensively in a key situation against Atlanta, and the clock-management gaffe at the end of the first half against Tampa was atrocious.

Offensive coordinator Rick Dennison has not done a good job with halftime adjustments. Outside of a touchdown drive to start the second half against Tampa Bay, the Bills’ first offensive possession after the break has generally been terrible.

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