Sean McDermott is right to believe the Buffalo Bills are better off now, after finishing the season with a 6-10 record, than they were last year, after going 9-7 and losing a wild-card playoff game against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
“I’m not a good loser in terms of 6-10,” the coach said during his season-ending news conference Monday. “I’m not going to go there with that. But in terms of where we’re trying to go and what I’ve been around in this process before – once in Philadelphia and once in Carolina – and what it takes to try and get the organization to where we’re trying to go, I feel like there’s been some small wins – albeit not on the scoreboard enough – that have us headed in the right direction.”
To advance in this journey, however, it’s vital the Bills do a good job of winning the offseason. Despite the sense of optimism players have expressed publicly and in their exit meetings with McDermott, the team faces a fairly large chore in addressing areas that need repairing or upgrading. The majority can be found within the NFL’s 30th-ranked offense.
As General Manager Brandon Beane pointed out, merely having $90 million under the salary cap to spend on free agents to go along with 10 draft picks aren’t an automatic cure-all.
“It’s not about having it to spend it, it’s about having it to be smart,” Beane said during his portion of the season-ending news conference. “It’s important to be judicious and not just go spend it – to be selective, be smart, bring in some added competition to both sides of the ball and special teams.”
On top of that, the Bills must find ways to improve in places that are crucial to the ability to win more and become consistent contenders.
The following is one man’s suggested offseason to-do list for the team, listed in order of priority:
1. Make Josh Allen a more effective thrower than runner.
The quarterback ended his up-and-down rookie season on a high note, with his three touchdown passes and two TD runs against Miami last Sunday that earned him AFC Offensive Player of the Week.
The performance was significant but shouldn’t blind the Bills’ decision-makers to: A. the fact the Dolphins were largely going through the motions with a coach, Adam Gase, a day away from being fired; B. Allen, while showing progress in parts of his game, still has some notable flaws; C. Allen’s 10 starts had a role in the Bills ranking next-to-last in the NFL in passing.
With his first full offseason dedicated to doing things the way offensive coordinator Brian Daboll needs him to do them to excel in Daboll's offense, there’s reason to believe Allen can make important strides even before the start of on-field workouts at One Bills Drive. Allen needs extensive mechanical work that there wasn’t time to do while going through the game-plan-specific preparation for each opponent.
He needs to continue to address his footwork, which is the key to becoming more accurate. He needs to get the ball out of his hands quicker. Most of all, he needs to be far more selective about when he runs, treating opponents (such as the Dolphins) that don’t focus on containing him the same as those (such as the New England Patriots) that do.
“There’s still a lot of improvement to go,” Allen said last week. “I want to be better. I want to be as best as I can be, and that’s putting in the work and taking as many … reps as possible, drill work in the offseason, throwing with our guys and just trying to get back in that mindset of being in the gamelike situations.”
It will be interesting to see what will happen between him and his personal quarterback guru, Jordan Palmer, with whom Allen worked extensively in preparation for last year’s NFL Scouting Combine and other pre-draft auditioning. Palmer and Allen said they concentrated heavily on footwork during their sessions in Southern California, but Daboll undoubtedly will prefer having only one consistent message delivered to the young QB: His.
2. Fix the running game.
The struggles of the Bills’ running game – and LeSean McCoy, in particular – contributed to Allen having to carry far too large a burden than a rookie should be required to bear. The Bills did not have sufficient offensive balance, because they couldn’t get the elevated production they had gotten from McCoy through most of his first three seasons with the Bills.
At 30, McCoy began showing signs that age is catching up to him. As with Allen's, McCoy's impressive flashes against the Dolphins’ semi-engaged defense need to be viewed through a lens of caution. He’ll be 31 next season, yet apparently the Bills are banking on a rebound from his career-low 514 rushing yards and second-lowest career total for rushing touchdowns with three.
“He’s part of our plan,” Beane said, adding that it was unfair to single out McCoy.
Perhaps. However, it’s also reasonable to think that he likely will need to continue to create more running room for himself – an aspect of his game where he frequently came up short during the season – with the expectation of additional revamping of the O-line. That isn’t only about blockers learning their assignments and how to work with each other, but also learning how to work with McCoy and McCoy learning how to work with them.
3. Fix the offensive line.
Juan Castillo’s firing after two seasons as the Bills’ offensive line coach was, McDermott determined, the necessary first step toward picking up the pieces to one of the worst collections of blockers the team has fielded in a long time.
It’s far from the only move that must be made, though.
A coaching change doesn’t guarantee the presumed major reason for Castillo’s ouster, the regression of left tackle Dion Dawkins from a strong rookie season in 2017, will be suddenly resolved. Besides adjusting to another coaching style, Dawkins also needs to take a good deal of accountability to invest the work needed to make himself a better player, physically and mentally.
McDermott acknowledged as much when he said, “There were some moments that I thought Dion improved this year from what he was a year ago. I thought as a whole, (he was) too inconsistent, starting with penalties. We talked about that, and this will be an important offseason for Dion.”
It’s also entirely plausible to think the Bills will look to acquire a left tackle in free agency and move Dawkins to the right side, a switch some within the team believe is a must if the offense has any hope of escaping the league’s lower reaches.
4. Fix the wide-receiver corps.
McDermott believes firing Terry Robiskie after only one season as receivers coach gives the Bills a head start on getting better production from their pass-catchers. As with the offensive line, it’s far from the only one that needs to be taken.
For whatever shortcomings Robiskie had, the Bills did see Zay Jones take noteworthy forward steps with his play through the second half of the season. As Beane mentioned to reporters, “I think we all can agree that Zay Jones is trending up.” He seems to have done a decent job of distancing himself from an offseason of health and personal problems that raised serious doubts about his future. Rookie Robert Foster also established himself as a viable big-play threat.
But after missing badly on Kelvin Benjamin, who was acquired from Carolina for third- and seventh-round draft picks last year and released in early December, and finally showing the door at the same time to underachieving Andre Holmes, the Bills have to find more substantial help at the position.
By most accounts, the draft isn’t expected to offer a whole lot in the way of game-changing receiver talent. What the Bills might find via free agency and/or trade remains to be seen.
5. Bolster the pass rush.
The Bills have only one impactful edge rusher, Jerry Hughes, although his output was far from overwhelming. He led the Bills with seven sacks, the most since his 10-sack seasons in 2013 and 2014.
Hughes did a consistent job of pressuring quarterbacks, but he too often was a one-man show.
Linebacker Lorenzo Alexander provided more than decent assistance. Fellow end Shaq Lawson rallied from mediocrity in his first two seasons to make his presence felt with a higher degree of effort. However, Trent Murphy couldn’t stay healthy enough to make the impact the Bills were hoping when they signed the end as a free agent from Washington.
It isn’t a slam dunk that Alexander, a free agent, will return. The jury is out as to whether Lawson can put back-to-back solid seasons together, and there’s no telling whether Murphy can bounce back and stay in one piece, especially given his grueling individual offseason workout routine.
The problem here also isn’t only about the edge rushers. The Bills need to find a replacement for the steady interior contribution of retired tackle Kyle Williams. Harrison Phillips has considerable room to grow from a so-so rookie season. Jordan Phillips, acquired off waivers from Miami in early October, was solid against the run, but he, too, can still develop into a more complete player should he re-sign.
6. Find a starting cornerback opposite Tre’Davious White.
The fail that was the free-agent signing of Vontae Davis has yet to stop haunting this team. Never mind the embarrassment he caused by quitting at halftime of the Sept. 16 loss against the Los Angeles Chargers.
The optics were bad, but what was worse was the Bills’ inability to solidify a replacement.
They went through multiple players before finishing the year with Levi Wallace. He’ll compete to keep the job, but the team will be looking hard at candidates who could come from the draft or free agency.
Don’t be shocked if the Bills use their first-round pick on a corner.
7. Find a No. 1 tight end.
Charles Clay has proved he’s not the answer. It would hardly be a surprise if the team, with so much cap room, moved on from him after the season.
Jason Croom emerged as the most impactful playmaker at the position, but he’s a converted receiver and has some limitations when it comes to blocking. Logan Thomas is a serviceable backup.
Whether through free agency or the draft, the Bills have to make a concerted effort to find a true starter who upgrades them at the position. As McDermott overhauls his coaching staff, it’s possible he’ll look to replace tight ends coach Rob Boras.
8. Fix special teams.
To clean up the mess that was the Bills’ special teams, McDermott decided it was time to move on from the longest-tenured member of the coaching staff, Danny Crossman.
It’s almost hard to believe that a year ago, at the end of Crossman's fifth season in Bufalo, the Bills had made the biggest jump in the league in Rick Gosselin’s respected annual special teams rankings to No. 7 overall.
There was nothing short of a full-fledged meltdown this season, with all sorts of coverage problems. Some of it stemmed from inadequate personnel, but a fairly strong case could be made that scheming left something to be desired.
One of the new coach’s biggest challenges will be finding a punter. Through injury and poor performance, the Bills went through three of them last season. Frequent changes with the holder and a hip injury made this a more difficult season for otherwise highly dependable kicker Stephen Hauschka.
9. Figure out a way to keep Lorenzo Alexander.
It won’t be easy. Going on 36, Alexander continues to play at a high level and rank among the top performers on the team, but his age impacts the leverage he has in contract talks. The linebacker is going to want his new deal to reflect his viability, while the Bills are going to likely try to take advantage of what they anticipate will be little or no other options for him.
The balance for the Bills is deciding just how important Alexander’s leadership, both by what he says and does as a player and quality person, means to the rest of the locker room. That has become especially important now that the Bills have said goodbye to one of the all-time great leaders in franchise history with Williams’ retirement.
10. Find some stability on the coaching staff.
McDermott and Beane firmly believe that being unafraid to make changes is a key to success. They’ve done it repeatedly with their roster … and with their coaching staff.
Since arriving in Buffalo in 2017, McDermott has had two offensive coordinators, two defensive backs coaches, two defensive line coaches (prompted by the retirement of Mike Waufle after one season), and is going on his second offensive line coach, his third receivers coach and his second special teams coach.
On one hand, it’s commendable the Bills’ hierarchy constantly strives to find ways to improve. They don’t hesitate to admit and correct mistakes in acquiring players or those who coach them.
On the other hand, the fact that McDermott has had to make so many changes on his staff in such a short time is somewhat troubling. The timing of the latest round of replacements is also less than ideal. With head-coaching openings on eight teams, and several assistant spots vacant on clubs that haven’t fired head coaches, the Bills will face considerable competition for viable candidates.