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Jay Skurski's final Bills Report Card: Passing game grades out poorly

The drought is dead.

The Buffalo Bills finally ended a 17-year postseason dry spell, leading to mass celebrations, six-figure charitable donations and hope that, finally, the team is on the right path under the leadership of General Manager Brandon Beane and coach Sean McDermott.

Before attention turns squarely to planning for 2018, though, here is one final look back at the 2017 season, in the form of The Buffalo News’ position-by-position report card:

Quarterbacks: D

Tyrod Taylor regressed in his third season as Buffalo’s starter. His passing yards (2,799), rushing yards (427), touchdowns (14) and passer rating (89.2) were all the lowest of his time with the Bills. He did take excellent care of the ball, as usual, with just six total turnovers (four interceptions, two lost fumbles), but the Bills’ passing game finished 31st in the NFL. Taylor, who was benched in Week 11, only to return to the lineup after rookie Nathan Peterman imploded against the Chargers in spectacular fashion, missed one game because of a knee injury. He also suffered two concussions in the span of five months – one in the preseason and one in the final minute of Buffalo’s playoff loss to Jacksonville.

With a $6 million roster bonus due on March 16, a decision on his future will have to be made in the next two months. At this point, it would be a surprise to see him back next season. Peterman, meanwhile, threw five interceptions in that disastrous start in Los Angeles, one of the worst quarterback performances in history. He started against Indianapolis when Taylor was out with a knee injury, but left that game with a concussion. After replacing Taylor against the Chargers, the Bills’ season came to an end on, you guessed it, a Peterman pick. Counting on him to be anything more than a backup in 2018 would be a reach.

Third quarterback Joe Webb made a huge throw in overtime to help beat the Colts after replacing Peterman. His primary contributions, however, came on special teams.

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Running backs: B+

This grade is all LeSean McCoy, who at 29 showed he hasn’t lost a step. McCoy finished fourth in the NFL with 1,138 rushing yards. His 12 runs of 20-plus yards tied for the league lead. He produced 55 first downs, which tied for sixth most.

Far too often, the Bills’ offense was McCoy and nothing else, as evidenced by the fact he also led the team with 59 catches. McCoy was durable, finishing with 346 touches, the second most in his nine-year career. The backup running back position was an adventure, with Mike Tolbert getting the most work (66 carries, 247 yards) but mostly driving fans nuts by running outside or even lining up at times as a wide receiver. Travaris Cadet (22 carries, 93 yards) looked good on a few occasions spelling McCoy before suffering a broken ankle in Week 16 at New England.

Finding the heir apparent to McCoy will be a priority this offseason.

Wide receivers: F

There might not be a worse group in the NFL. Buffalo’s leading receiver, Deonte Thompson, was a free-agent signing off the street in the middle of the season. He finished with 27 catches for 430 yards and one touchdown. That ranked 149th in catches and 101st in the NFL in yards.

Kelvin Benjamin, acquired in a deadline trade with Carolina, got hurt in Week 11 and gutted through a knee injury the rest of the year. He’s entering the final season of his contract in 2018 and has a lot to prove.

Rookie Zay Jones struggled with drops (five on just 65 targets) and went missing from the offense entirely for games at a time. Throughout the ups and downs, the team stood by him and Jones owned up to the struggles, but he’ll need to take a major step forward as well in 2018.

Veteran Jordan Matthews was a total bust after coming over in a trade with Philadelphia, finishing with 25 catches for 282 yards and one touchdown before landing on injured reserve because of knee and ankle injuries that required surgery. It would be a surprise if the Bills brought the impending unrestricted free agent back.

Tight ends: C

Charles Clay fought through a knee injury to finish with 49 catches for 558 yards. He’s been solid, but not spectacular in three seasons with the Bills. There isn’t much cap savings if the Bills were to release Clay, so he’s expected back in 2018. One area he has struggled is with drops. He had seven in 2017, tied for second most at his position.

Nick O’Leary had 22 catches for 322 yards and two touchdowns, but did lose one fumble. Both Clay and O’Leary did not grade out well as run blockers. Third tight end Logan Thomas was mostly a non-factor, with seven catches for 67 yards and one touchdown. Khari Lee was used exclusively as a blocker.

Offensive line: C-

The Bills rebounded from a slow start to finish sixth overall in rushing, but a lot of the credit goes to McCoy for that. The analytics website Football Outsiders ranked the Bills’ offensive line 27th in the league with an “adjusted line yards” of 3.66, which is the amount per rush an offensive line is found to be responsible for.

The Bills really struggled in “power situations,” defined as third or fourth downs needing 2 yards or less for a first down or touchdown, converting just 61 percent of the time, which ranked 22nd in the league. Buffalo’s run game was also “stuffed,” meaning stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage, on 26 percent of carries, which ranked 28th.

The Bills surrendered 47 sacks, which was tied for seventh most in the NFL, but not all of them should be blamed on the line. PFF blamed Taylor for 14 of those sacks, for example, while assigning blame to the Bills’ offensive line on just 16, which was ninth fewest among any line in the league.

Left guard Richie Incognito made his third straight Pro Bowl, while center Eric Wood took every snap. Rookie left tackle Dion Dawkins took over for an injured Cordy Glenn and did not look out of place.

The right side of the line saw a change with Vlad Ducasse replacing John Miller, while right tackle Jordan Mills played 97 percent of the snaps. Dawkins’ performance may lead the Bills to moving Glenn in the offseason, while Incognito’s status might now also be up in the air after he was accused of making racial comments directed at a Jacksonville defensive player during the postseason game against the Jaguars.

Defensive line: D

The pass rush was an issue all season, as Buffalo’s 27 sacks tied for 29th in the league. Former first-round pick Shaq Lawson contributed four of those, which tied for the team lead with his counterpart at defensive end, Jerry Hughes. The Bills expected more from both of them in terms of sack numbers.

Defensive tackle Kyle Williams had 41 tackles, three sacks and nine quarterback hits. He was also the unquestioned leader in the locker room. The team getting him a spot in the postseason in his 12th year was one of the highlights of 2017.

The combination of Cedric Thornton and Adolphus Washington, both of whom were counted on after the team traded away Marcell Dareus, finished as the lowest-graded players on the defense, according to PFF. The run defense finished a woeful 29th in the NFL, allowing 124.6 yards per game. That makes defensive tackle one of the top needs in the offseason, particularly if Williams decides to retire.

Linebackers: C

Middle linebacker Preston Brown led the NFL in tackles with 144. He did not have any sacks, interceptions, forced fumbles or fumble recoveries, though, and just three passes defensed. That’s why it’s fair to wonder if the Bills might try to find an upgrade with Brown entering unrestricted free agency in March.

Rookie Matt Milano forced his way into the starting lineup – a move that should have been made sooner than it was – and made headlines with his interception against Tampa Bay and fumble return for a touchdown the following week against Oakland. Milano was also surprisingly stout in run defense and projects as a starter next year. He exceeded expectations for a fifth-round draft pick.

Veteran Lorenzo Alexander saw his playing time fluctuate throughout the year, but was the team’s best defender in the playoffs against Jacksonville. He’s best suited for a specialized role if he returns in 2018, while also serving as a leader and key contributor on special teams.

Ramon Humber got off to a good start in 2017, but eventually lost his starting job to Milano. Forced back into the starting lineup against the Jaguars because of an injury to Milano, Humber gave up the only touchdown of the game. He’s also a pending unrestricted free agent, but one the Bills don’t need to put a high priority on.

Secondary: A

The Bills ranked 20th in passing yards allowed per game at 230.5, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. Buffalo’s 18 interceptions ranked tied for sixth in the league, and members of the secondary recorded 17 of those. Additionally, the team allowed just 14 passing touchdowns, which was second fewest in the NFL.

Cornerback Tre’Davious White graded out as the top rookie in the NFL at his position, according to PFF, and made a strong case to be a finalist for the league’s rookie of the year award. White’s counterpart, E.J. Gaines, also had a strong season (nine passes defensed, three forced fumbles), but dealt with some nagging injuries that held him out of five games. Slot cornerback Leonard Johnson was also a good find as a bargain-basement free agent.

The safety tandem of Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer made NFL history by becoming the first teammates at their position to each get the AFC Defensive Rookie of the Month award – Hyde in October and Poyer in December. They will enter 2018 as one of the best tandems in the NFL at the position, and lead a secondary that should once again be the strength of the defense.

Special teams: B+

It was mostly a bounce-back year for coordinator Danny Crossman’s group.

Kicker Stephen Hauschka was a home run as a free-agent signing. He went 29 of 33 on field goals, setting an NFL record for consecutive makes from 50-plus yards. Hauschka’s seven field goals from 50-plus yards tied for second most in the NFL, and he was one of only seven kickers to complete the season without missing an extra point.

Punter Colton Schmidt also had a solid year, averaging 40.5 net yards per attempt. Schmidt placed 28 punts inside the opponent’s 20-yard line, with just six touchbacks. Returner Brandon Tate did a nice job on punts, averaging 9.7 yards per return (sixth in the NFL), but struggled on kickoffs, ranking last among 12 qualified returners (those with at least 20 attempts) with an average of 19.6 yards per return.

The Bills will likely look to find a player who can bring more explosiveness to that role in 2018. Buffalo’s coverage units were solid all season, holding teams without a touchdown on both kickoff and punt returns. Alexander and safety Shamarko Thomas shared the team lead with nine tackles on special teams. The Bills failed to recover onside kicks in both wins over Miami, bring drama to what should have been easy wins. Those are routine plays for most other teams.

Coaching: B

Coach Sean McDermott will go down as the man who ended a 17-year playoff drought. Lifting that enormous burden off the franchise is a tremendous accomplishment in McDermott’s first year.

On and off the record, players spoke frequently about how the 2017 Bills were one of the closest teams they’ve ever been on. That’s a credit to McDermott, who used the right team-building techniques to establish such a close chemistry among players. Keeping the team together during a disastrous three-game losing streak was impressive. McDermott did so by never wavering from his message of “trusting the process.” There were parts of his game management that left something to be desired – the overtime punt against Indianapolis and the call for a field goal in the fourth quarter at New England were weak.

McDermott’s conservative nature unfortunately falls in line with other coaches. Offensive coordinator Rick Dennison brings the overall grade down. The Bills regressed badly on offense in 2018, finishing 29th in yards and 22nd in points. Dennison’s playcalling was easily questioned several times, with the most glaring example coming on first and goal from the 1-yard line in the playoff game against Jacksonville. Why not just run the ball? It would not be a surprise if McDermott elects to make a change at offensive coordinator.

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