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Jay Skurski's Bills Mailbag: Which young players will form the team's nucleus?

No room for any extended introductions to the mailbag this week. With the season opener on tap, we're loaded with questions. Let's get to them ...

Jimmy Zolnowski asks: Other than Josh Allen and Tremaine Edmonds, who are the young guys the Bills want to build around?

Jay: We shouldn’t limit this to only rookies, although the two Jimmy mentioned are at the top of the list. I’d also include cornerback Tre’Davious White and left tackle Dion Dawkins. That’s the Big 4, if you will. After that, the team really needs Zay Jones to develop into a reliable receiver. Harrison Phillips had a nice summer and figures to see plenty of playing time in the defensive tackle rotation. It’s unfair to him to say he’s going to replace Kyle Williams, but that might end up being the case after the season. The last one I’d mention is linebacker Matt Milano. He exceeded expectations as a rookie, but the bar is higher now entering his second season.

Jim Eimer asks: Excluding LeSean McCoy, which skill player puts up the best statistical season in 2018?

Jay: The chalk choice has to be Kelvin Benjamin. He’s the undisputed No. 1 receiver and figures to compete with tight end Charles Clay to lead the team in targets. Benjamin will be highly motivated to have a career season considering it’s a contract year.

Matt Eyring asks: After the first five games, is there a team we can’t compete with?

Jay: The Patriots are still on the schedule, right? I’m not picking the Bills against New England until Tom Brady is done playing. After that, I’d say the Bills will easily be underdogs at Houston and at home against Jacksonville, although I’d stop short of saying they “can’t compete” with those teams. The second half of the schedule, which is loaded with home games, is more favorable.

Gabe Toro asks: Which is more likely for Josh Allen: Hall of Fame or not in the league in three-four years? Which extreme would you bet on if you had to?

Jay: Fun question. Not in the league in the next three or four years would be my bet if I had to choose between the two. Even if the Pro Football Hall of Fame has, in my mind, been watered down some, there are still only 318 people enshrined in Canton. Projecting any rookie to be a Hall of Famer is a big-time reach.

Before anyone rushes to say I’m predicting that Allen will be out of the league – I’m not. I’d just bet on that as opposed to him making the Hall of Fame.

Brendan O’Brien asks: When does everyone turn on Brandon Beane?

Jay: This isn’t a thing, is it? It shouldn’t be a thing. Beane gets as long of a leash as it takes for fans to decide if Allen is a franchise quarterback. I’ll say three years. I’m as down as anyone on the team’s chances this year, but I can see the plan that has been put in place. The cap situation will be cleaned up after this year, the potential franchise quarterback has been acquired, and there are young players to build a nucleus around (more on them later). Oh, and by the way, the team ended a 17-year playoff drought last year. All of that adds up to a long leash for the current front office and coaching staff.

Brendan Sweet asks: How many Bills are going to make the Pro Bowl? What pick will we have in the draft and what position and player will we select?

Jay: Let me break out my crystal ball. I’ll say the Bills have three Pro Bowlers – Micah Hyde, Tre’Davious White and LeSean McCoy. As for the draft, my season prediction has the team going 6-10. The three teams that finished with that record last year picked ninth, 10th and 11th. We’ll split the difference and say the Bills finish with the 10th overall pick. As for who they’ll take, we’re really getting into the weeds with projections now, but I’ll do it for Brendan, a loyal mailbag participant. With the 10th overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, the Bills select … N’Keal Harry, wide receiver, Arizona State. There you have it.

John Farley Jr. asks: As someone who currently lives outside the area, I truly enjoy reading your work. It helps keep a strong connection to the Bills. I’m optimistic this year, but if things go south quickly and LeSean McCoy is a bright spot, is it realistic to see him traded?

Jay: First off, thank you, John. Trading McCoy is an interesting thought. It’s quite possible the Bills get off to the kind of start that makes it clear by the trading deadline they have no chance of making the playoffs. Would the Bills listen if a team called about McCoy? Here are some reasons they might: He’ll be 31 next season, carrying a salary-cap figure of $9.05 million. The Bills would save $6.375 million of that by trading McCoy in season. It would make more sense for any trade to happen in season, because a team that has Super Bowl aspirations could feel like McCoy is its missing piece. The likelihood of a trade after the year decreases, in my mind, because 31-year-old running backs – even ones as good as McCoy – don’t carry much trade value. I’d say the possibility of McCoy being traded is slim, but can’t entirely be ruled out.

Rick McGuire asks: What was the purpose of bringing in Paxton Lynch for a tryout just days after trading AJ McCarron? The trade of McCarron was understandable but if they're looking to keep 3 quarterbacks on the roster, why wouldn't they keep the guy who's a better quarterback and also knows Brian Daboll's offense?

Jay: Well, Lynch didn’t sign, so for right now the team is comfortable going into the season with two quarterbacks. I didn’t see the harm in bringing Lynch in for a workout. Cheap plug: Take a look at this week’s Inside the Bills to learn more about Tuesday tryouts, which might help explain why they kicked the tires on Lynch.

Paul Catalano asks: In what possible way can we believe this team has any shot of winning four-plus games? I understand "The Process," but I believe "The Process" is more for the upcoming years and this year is a waste.

Jay: I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s a waste. If, for example, Allen gets into the lineup and looks good (or bad, for that matter), that will be valuable information going forward. I understand the skepticism about the team’s chances this year, though. How can they win more than four games? Start by being a good home team. As mentioned above, the second half of the schedule is more favorable, and they’ll be at New Era Field a lot during that time. Another way of getting there would be to steal a game or two, like possibly against Baltimore on Sunday or against the Chargers in next week’s home opener.

Andy Fleming asks: After the Bills start 0-4 and are down by then to only one healthy quarterback, will anyone be critical of Beane's failure to address the brutal O-line situation?

Jay: Man, way to bring everyone down, Andy. Not to sound like a Beane apologist, but he got dealt a couple of tough hands up front. The team obviously wasn’t predicting Eric Wood would suffer a career-ending injury, and it’s sad and unfortunate to see what’s happened to Richie Incognito. Should they have done more to address those departures? That’s a fair criticism of the general manager, but let’s wait and see if the line can outperform everyone’s low expectations before we all find the nearest mountaintop to scream off of.

Bill N. asks: The top defenses each season all seem to have a physical, get-after-it attitude. Big, fast athletes who support a scheme of intimidating and sticking opponents. What’s with Buffalo and its soft, bend-but-don’t-break approach? Is that lack of talent or Leslie Frazier’s laid-back mentality?

Jay: The No. 1 goal of any defense is to … wait for it … prevent the offense from scoring points. I don’t particularly care how they do that. The Bills ranked 18th last year in points per game allowed, at 22.4. It’s reasonable to expect them to improve in the second year of the same scheme, with the additions of players such as Star Lotulelei and Tremaine Edmunds. If that takes the shape of a “bend-but-don’t-break” approach, that’s fine in my mind.

Bryan Smith asks: The O-line looked pretty bad, but it was preseason. What do you expect for Sunday and the season?

Jay: I expect them to struggle, quite frankly. My biggest concern coming out of the summer for this team is up front. Not only did the starting quarterback get hurt in back-to-back weeks behind the starters, McCoy couldn’t find any room on the few preseason carries he did get. McCoy took the blame for that, but he didn’t get much help from the guys up front. The losses of Wood and Incognito are looming larger right now than I thought they would. My expectation is it’s going to be a long season for the guys up front, and that will be an area Beane targets heavily next offseason.

Machino asks: Will the Bills play more two or even three tight end sets this year? I could see them doing this not only to help the O-Line but to create mismatches for the passing game. Thoughts? #Machino

Jay: I like it. Looking at Brian Daboll’s background, he has extensive experience as a tight ends coach. It shouldn’t have been a surprise that the team kept four tight ends on the roster in Clay, Jason Croom, Logan Thomas and Khari Lee. Daboll values mismatches above all else on offense, which is a good reason why players such as Croom and Thomas made the roster over Nick O’Leary. Even though he was a solid player, O’Leary didn’t create any mismatches for a defense. Croom and Thomas can do that with their speed and height. Lee, meanwhile, is the best blocker of the bunch. I do expect there will be plenty of times we see two tight ends on the field. When Clay is healthy, he’s good for about 80 percent of the snaps. After that, it comes down to the situation. P.S., dropping a hashtag on your Twitter name is a boss move.

Tony asks: Croom. To me the most intriguing asset on the offensive side of the ball. Also the most unknown (obviously). What kind of impact do you think he has this season?

Jay: Let me start by saying he did a great job this summer, and is deserving of a spot on the 53-man roster. That said, I’m not predicting any sort of breakout season. We’ve seen this before with tight ends, most recently with Thomas. He was mentioned as being a candidate for that type of season last year, and it never materialized. At the very best, Croom figures to be the fourth option on offense behind McCoy, Benjamin and Clay. Other players such as Zay Jones, Jeremy Kerley, Chris Ivory and Marcus Murphy are in competition for that role, too. I love the summer Croom had, but I’m not ready to predict a huge season because of it.

Jim Banko asks: At what game do you predict Allen will get the start? And when will you declare I’m the superior golfer?

Jay: The earliest I could see that happening is Week 5, at home against Tennessee. The first month of the season is brutal, with road games at Baltimore, Minnesota and Green Bay, with the home opener in between against an L.A. Chargers team that brings Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram to town. There is logic behind giving Allen a month to watch from the sideline and learn, while also getting the added benefit of seeing whether the offensive line can actually protect the passer. If that’s throwing Peterman to the wolves a bit, so be it. The Bills drafted Allen seventh overall, so the most important thing they can do is give him every chance to be successful. Jobs are riding on it.

My golf game has been a mess lately, so right now, I do have to declare that. I’ve reached the “I need a new driver” stage, which really means “I need a lesson” stage. Thanks for all the questions this week!

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