The Buffalo Bills are in the thick of a playoff race. With a 5-3 record, the team holds the sixth and final spot in the AFC entering Week 10.
Despite that, the 2018 NFL Draft remains of particular interest to fans, because the Bills currently hold five picks in the first three rounds. A look at the roster shows no shortage of directions the team could go with those selections. That leads us to this week's mailbag. Let's get to your questions:
Charley Nadolny asks: If you had to pick the positions they will draft for in the first three rounds, what would they be and in what order?
Jay: I’m not convinced the Bills will make all those picks, but I’ll give it a shot.
• No. 1: Quarterback. This is why I’m not convinced the Bills will make all five picks. They have the ammunition to package some of them in a trade to move up if there is a quarterback they are convinced can be the future of the franchise. The class still needs to sort itself out in terms of which underclassmen declare for the draft, but this remains Buffalo’s biggest need, and in my mind that’s a major reason why General Manager Brandon Beane has amassed as much draft capital as he has.
• No. 2: Defensive tackle. Marcell Dareus is gone, Kyle Williams is nearing retirement and the Panthers had a history of spending early-round picks on the position while Sean McDermott was the defensive coordinator there.
• No. 3: Wide receiver. Even after adding Kelvin Benjamin, the Bills could use another receiver, preferably a burner who can stretch defenses vertically.
• No. 4: Cornerback. This need could change depending on what happens with E.J. Gaines, Leonard Johnson and Shareece Wright, all of whom are scheduled to be free agents. If one or two of them depart, it could move up the list. Even if they all return, this is a position that always needs quality depth.
• No. 5: Guard. Richie Incognito will be in the final year of his contract in 2018, and the play at right guard – whether it’s John Miller or Vlad Ducasse in the lineup – has left the Bills needing more.
Linebacker, running back and tight end all also deserve consideration on this list. So it’s a good thing the Bills are scheduled to have nine draft picks, because there are plenty of roster holes to fill.
Thomas Pullano asks: With the addition of Benjamin and the possible return of Clay, where do you think this offense ranks from a talent perspective in the league? Are they in the top half?
Jay: A big part of this rests on how you feel about Tyrod Taylor. For what it’s worth, NFL.com’s Gregg Rosenthal ranks him 11th overall in his Week 10 QB Index, comfortably inside the top half. It’s fair to rank both tight end Charles Clay and running back LeSean McCoy in the top half of the league at their positions, too, so that leaves receiver. Even with the addition of Benjamin, I don’t think the Bills fall in the top half of the league at that position, although it will be interesting to see what Benjamin, Jordan Matthews and Zay Jones can do together. Taken overall, I’d say the Bills’ collection of talent falls just inside the top half of the league.
Alan Hutson asks: Where did Brandon Tate disappear to last game? Didn't return punts.
Jay: He actually didn’t do anything, because he was inactive. That’s a decision I disagreed with at the time, and still do, even if it likely wouldn’t have changed the outcome based on the way the game went. The No. 1 reason for that is I don’t want safety Micah Hyde returning punts. He’s playing like one of the best players in the NFL at his position and is too important defensively, in my mind, to be subjecting himself to the punishment that a punt returner takes. Tate is also darn good at that job, too. With Benjamin set to make his Bills debut Sunday, it might mean Tate sits out again, though.
Frank in Cheektowaga asks: What does Tyrod need to do the remainder of this season to win the starting role for next year?
Jay: Go .500. If the Bills can get to 9-7, they’ll have a decent chance at ending a 17-year playoff drought. Even if that weren’t to happen, though, that record would be better than just about anyone predicted before the season.
The Bills can bring Taylor back next year for the final season of his contract and still take a quarterback early in the 2018 draft.
With Taylor as the starter, Nathan Peterman as the backup and a rookie, there would be no pressure to force that drafted player into the lineup. At this point, it looks like a fairly easy call for Taylor to return. The better question might be, barring a catastrophic injury, what would he have to do over the second half for the Bills to decide to move on from him this offseason? A bottoming out with only one or two wins the rest of the way just might do that.
Aaron DePonceau asks: Why do the Bills throw to Tolbert in the flat every game.
Jay: That’s a fantastic-looking question, Aaron. Early in the season, offensive coordinator Rick Dennison said the Bills need to get Tolbert moving in one direction, and that’s toward the other team’s goal line. It’s clear that elusiveness is not his No. 1 trait. In a larger sense, the Bills need to get Tolbert going. He’s coming off a game with just 3 yards on four carries. When McCoy needs a breather, the Bills need Tolbert to be someone opposing defenses respect as a threat.
Bill N. asks: What’s up with the Bills’ OL coach? Inherits top rush line, benches Miller, hides Dawkins, ignores Groy, now results poor.
Jay: These are all fair criticisms. It’s been well documented that the scheme change implemented by Dennison asks the linemen to do some things differently from what they had been the past couple seasons, when the team led the league in rushing. Offensive line coach Juan Castillo thus has to take some of the blame for not adequately having his group sufficiently up to speed.
Regarding the decision to bench John Miller, there isn’t any more to read into it than the coaching staff isn’t high on his performance. Veteran Vlad Ducasse had done a decent job in Miller’s place, but struggled against the Jets in Week 9 – just like the rest of the O-line. Rookie Dion Dawkins looks to be Cordy Glenn’s long-term replacement at left tackle rather than the right tackle moving forward. When Glenn has been healthy, Dawkins hasn’t pushed Jordan Mills on the right side. Regarding Groy, that question has been answered seemingly every week – the coaching staff likes him best at center, and he’s not playing there unless Eric Wood were to get hurt.
John Duran asks: Do you think the addition of KB13 will entice Taylor to take more chances?
Jay: Taylor was asked a variation of that question this week. Here was his answer: “If you look at the plays he’s made over his career, he’s definitely made a bunch of contested throws. Just have to give him a chance and those opportunities where it’s him one-on-one with a DB. More times than likely, he’s going to have the size advantage, so we’ve talked and trying to get on the same page and it’s going to take reps, but just give him a chance. His ball or nobody’s ball.”
Now, am I convinced that’s going to happen? Not entirely, and certainly not right away. Protecting the football is in Taylor’s DNA. Obviously, that’s not a bad thing. But I don’t anticipate him changing his approach to the position overnight. With time, he may develop a chemistry with Benjamin that ends with him throwing passes he might otherwise not have, but I don’t expect it right away.
Rick McGuire asks: I’ve noticed the Bills never seem to get close to blocking punts. The nearest guy seems to be a mile away. Is this the game plan to perhaps avoid a penalty or is the execution just not good enough? It's not like we have an outstanding return game to set up.
Jay: Without knowing the game plan, I’d say it’s most likely because the team is setting up a return. Of course, execution is a part of it, but how many other teams can say that? It’s not like there are blocked punts happening in every game. The last time the Bills did it, coincidentally, was almost exactly a year ago, when Jerry Hughes blocked one on Monday Night Football against the Seahawks, Nov. 7, 2016.
Matt Williams asks: Was Kelvin Benjamin a gift to Tyrod, who tends to avoid throwing in to tight coverage, or to a QB set to arrive next year?
Jay: For the reasons listed above, I'd say Taylor. After acquiring Benjamin, Bills GM Brandon Beane indicated this wasn’t a trade made solely for this year. Benjamin is signed through the 2018 season, as is Taylor. There is no guarantee either of them will be with the team past that point.
Jim Banko asks: What is the likelihood of the Bills releasing Andre Holmes because of the draft pick implications? Are you getting a golf game for Christmas?
Jay: The chances fall somewhere between very slim and none. That's because the Bills wouldn't have to release just Holmes. Nick Veronica laid out the entire scenario here, but it boils down to this: They would have to release four players among a group that includes safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer, kicker Stephen Hauschka, fullback Patrick DiMarco, guard Vlad Ducasse, defensive end Ryan Davis, cornerback Leonard Johnson and Holmes. That's not happening for a team that is currently in a playoff spot.
As for the second part of the question, that's just ugly. It's the holiday season. Thanks for all the questions this week!
Story topics: Brandon Beane/ Brandon Tate/ Cordy Glenn/ Dion Dawkins/ E.J. Gaines/ John Miller/ Kelvin Benjamin/ Leonard Johnson/ LeSean McCoy/ Mike Tolbert/ Nathan Peterman/ Ryan Groy/ shareece wright/ Tyrod Taylor/ Vlad Ducasse