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COMMENTARY

Jay Skurski's final Bills Report Card: Offensive grades lagging behind defense

Jay Skurski

Sean McDermott was asked Monday during his season-ending press conference if it was fair to grade his team on a curve, given the youth of the roster and the salary cap situation heading into the year.

“I understand where you’re coming from with that and I’m more concerned right now with the direction of the organization, the direction of our football team,” the Buffalo Bills’ second-year head coach said. “I’ll let you guys grade on a curve or not grade on a curve. That’s not for me to do.”

Sounds good, coach. Here is The Buffalo News’ final position-by-position report card following the 2018 season:

Quarterbacks: D+

It was tempting to push this grade up to a C after Josh Allen’s five-touchdown performance Sunday against the Miami Dolphins, but that would be putting too much weight into one game. The Bills finished 31st in the NFL in total passing, so it’s impossible to give a passing grade. The entire body of work was not good for the Bills’ quarterbacks. As a group, they completed 270 of 496 passes (54.4 completion percentage) for 3,067 yards, 13 touchdowns and 23 interceptions. Allen had a quarterback rating of 67.9, Nathan Peterman – remember him? – had a 30.7, Derek Anderson had a 56.0 and Matt Barkley had a 117.4 in one quality start against the New York Jets.

The good news is, Allen ended the season on a strong note, and generally looked like he was making progress week to week after the team’s bye. The team has stability at the position, too, with both Barkley and Anderson being re-signed in the past couple weeks. There is reason to hope this grade improves greatly in 2019.

Running backs/fullback: F

It was easily the worst season of LeSean McCoy’s 10-year career. He finished with 514 yards and three touchdowns on 161 carries, an average of just 3.2 yards per rush. Backup Chris Ivory wasn’t much better, averaging 3.3 yards per rush. He finished with 115 carries for 385 yards. The only running back who averaged better than 4.0 yards per carry was third-stringer Marcus Murphy, who averaged 4.8, rushing 52 times for 250 yards. He ended the season on injured reserve. Rookie undrafted free agent Keith Ford carried 21 times for 79 yards. He evidently did not make an overly strong impression on the coaching staff, since he was a healthy inactive in Week 17.

“I just never felt our run game for the most part got into a consistent groove, and that’s something that we have to be honest about as we make changes going forward this offseason,” General Manager Brandon Beane said Monday.

Thanks largely to Allen’s team-leading 631 rushing yards, the Bills ranked ninth in the NFL in rushing, averaging 124.0 yards per game.

“You don’t want to rely on your quarterback running – that can be problematic from an injury standpoint,” Beane said. “We want to be able to run the ball. Good teams can run the ball when the defense and everybody in the building knows you’ve got to run it in your four-minute offense to close out games, close out halves. We definitely understand the importance of that. We’re not happy with it.”

Fullback Patrick DiMarco did not play a big role, taking just 16 percent of the offensive snaps.

Bills-Dolphins Report Card: Rare 'A' grade for Buffalo's passing game

Wide receivers/tight ends: D

Robert Foster’s emergence late in the season rescued this from an F grade. Foster had 25 catches for 511 yards and three touchdowns over the final seven games of the season. He’s in the mix for a starting job next year.

Zay Jones’ final numbers look OK – 56 catches for 652 yards and seven touchdowns. Too much of that production, though, came in garbage time when the game was already out of reach. Still, Jones should have a top-three job next year. Kelvin Benjamin was a bust, making just 23 catches for 354 yards and one touchdown before he was sent packing. Isaiah McKenzie had 18 catches for 179 yards and added 66 yards and two touchdowns on 10 rushing attempts. He’d be a nice No. 5 receiver next year.

Rookie sixth-round draft pick Ray-Ray McCloud barely contributed anything, finishing with five catches for 36 yards.

Tight end Jason Croom finished with 22 catches for 259 yards and one touchdown. One of the biggest questions this offseason is whether he’s capable of stepping into the starting role that would become vacant if the team moves on from Charles Clay. That seems likely after Clay finished with 21 catches for 184 yards. Cutting him would save $4.5 million against the 2019 salary cap.

The Bills’ 271 catches ranked last in the NFL, while their 3,082 receiving yards ranked 31st.

Offensive line: F

It felt like McCoy was greeted by two or three defenders almost immediately after he got the ball. That’s on the guys up front. Bills quarterbacks were sacked 41 times, tied for 14th most in the league. Not all of those are necessarily on the line, but it’s still not a good number.

It’s possible the Bills could have five new starters next season. Right tackle Jordan Mills and right guard John Miller are unrestricted free agents, as is center Ryan Groy, who ended the season as the starter after Russell Bodine was injured. On the left side, rookie fifth-round draft pick Wyatt Teller started the final seven games of the season. Second-year left tackle Dion Dawkins took a step back after a promising rookie year. It’s no guarantee he’s back as the starter at left tackle in 2019, with Beane saying Monday that he wasn’t going to “slot anybody in.”

Among offensive linemen who took at least 50 percent of their team’s offensive snaps, the Bills’ highest-graded player, according to analytics website Pro Football Focus, was Dawkins, at No. 58 out of 143 qualified players. Miller was next at No. 75, and Mills was at No. 114.

“Having a good O-line is a sum of the parts,” Beane said. “You can have three or four really good ones, but if they’re not gelled, it doesn’t matter who you’ve got. Our line individually, there’s some guys that have played a lot of snaps and have been on some good O-lines, even here, that have rushed for a lot of yardage. But this year, we weren’t able to gel. We recognize that, and we’ll continue to work on improving that. We’re going to try to bring in competition like we’ll do across the board and we’ll try to prove that. We have to be honest.

Report: Bills fire offensive line coach Juan Castillo

Defensive line: B-

The Bills’ run defense was improved, but a 273-yard performance by New England in Week 16 pushed the team down to 16th in the league, with 114.9 yards allowed per game. The defensive tackle rotation of Kyle Williams, Star Lotulelei, Harrison Phillips and Jordan Phillips was steady. The retiring Williams finished with five sacks and is likely to make his sixth Pro Bowl as an injury replacement. Lotulelei didn’t produce a lot of statistics, but that was to be expected. His defensive teammates credit him for doing the dirty work occupying blockers. Defensive end Jerry Hughes remains the team’s best pass rusher, finishing with a team-leading seven sacks. The Bills would probably like to see that number closer to 10 given Hughes’ salary-cap hit, which is $10.4 million.

Trent Murphy struggled through injuries, finishing with 24 tackles, four sacks, nine quarterback hits and two forced fumbles. It will be important for him to take a step forward in 2019. Former first-round pick Shaq Lawson closed the season strong with his first career multisack game against Miami. He finished the year with four sacks to go along with 30 tackles, 11 quarterback hits and two forced fumbles.

Fourth defensive end Eddie Yarbrough didn’t take a step forward in his second season. He ended the year as a healthy inactive against Miami.

The Bills finished 26th in the NFL with 36 sacks.

Linebackers: B

Matt Milano was having a season worthy of Pro Bowl consideration before suffering a broken fibula. He should come back strong next season, teaming with Tremaine Edmunds, who finished his rookie season Sunday with a strong game against the Dolphins. Edmunds had one interception and one sack against Miami, raising his season total to two in both of those categories. He led the team with 121 combined tackles and 12 passes defensed. He doesn’t turn 21 until May, so the best is yet to come. Lorenzo Alexander was probably the Bills’ defensive MVP at 35 years old. It can’t be overstated how impressive his season was. He finished with six sacks, nine passes defensed, 68 tackles (11 of which went for losses), two interceptions, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery.

Secondary: A-

Cornerback Tre’Davious White had a lofty goal of the secondary getting 20 interceptions coming into the year. While the Bills fell short of that, it was still a successful season for the back end of the defense. The Bills led the NFL in average passing yards against, allowing 179.2. White handled the opposing team’s No. 1 receiver pretty much all season. He had two interceptions and eight passes defensed.

Undrafted rookie Levi Wallace was the biggest, and best, surprise on the roster. Promoted from the practice squad prior to Week 10, he went straight into the starting lineup opposite White and didn’t look out of place. Before Wallace, the Bills cycled through Phillip Gaines, Vontae Davis and Ryan Lewis at the position. It’s hard to believe Davis’ midgame retirement even happened in 2018 because it feels so long ago.

Safeties Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde each put together solid seasons. Poyer finished with 97 tackles, two sacks, nine tackles for loss, four interceptions, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery. Hyde had 57 tackles, two interceptions and one fumble recovery. Both Poyer and Hyde will be counted on to take on an increased leadership role with Williams retiring.

Nickel cornerback Taron Johnson, a fourth-round draft pick, looks like a find. He had 41 tackles, one sack and one interception. His season ended early because of shoulder surgery, but he’s expected to be healthy for the start of training camp.

Special teams: F

You name it, it was a problem in 2018. Losing Taiwan Jones to injury and cutting veteran special-teams aces Andre Holmes and Ramon Humber in season certainly did not help matters.

The Bills used three different punters, which meant three different holders for kicker Stephen Hauschka. He went 22 of 28 on field goals, a success rate of 78.6 that was his worst since 2009. Hauschka came up short on field goals from 43 and 42 yards in the last two weeks of the season. That’s unacceptable.

The Bills ranked 21st in yards per punt return (6.7) and 24th in yards per kickoff return (21.2), failing to score a touchdown on either one. The team had to use Hyde to field punts near its own end zone because it couldn’t trust its other returners, be it McCloud or McKenzie.

The team ranked 20th in punt-return average allowed, at 9.0 yards. The kickoff coverage fared better, ranking 10th with 22.2 yards per return.

Coordinator Danny Crossman is on the hot seat with fans – we’ll see if McDermott feels the same way.

Coaching: B

There’s no getting around it: McDermott and Co. botched the quarterback situation at the beginning of the season in the worst way possible. Peterman did not belong anywhere near the starting lineup. It was also a mistake not to bring in Anderson as a veteran mentor to Allen sooner, although that falls on Beane.

McDermott’s challenge process needs a serious revamping. He’s 1 for 10 in two years on the job and 0 for 6 this year.

Overall, though, the Bills played hard. The head coach should get a lot of credit for that. Their discipline improved as the season went on and the penalty numbers went down.

Going back to the question about grading on a curve, here’s what else McDermott had to say Monday:

“For me, it’s to look at our football team and say where were we a year ago? I know where we were a year ago in respect to the record, but where are we now one year later as it relates to this organization, where this team is headed? As you look at our young football players, namely Josh Allen, Tremaine Edmunds and the games that they had down the stretch, the games they had yesterday, totally different complexion at those positions than it was a year ago. To me, the direction of the football team is a positive one with a lot of work to be done yet.”

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