This week’s Mailbag has a heavy emphasis on how the Bills should go about rebuilding on the offensive side. Let’s get right to your questions …
Greg Tompsett asks: Do you think it makes sense to view the offensive line rebuild as a two-year project: a few free-agent signings and multiple draft picks, then further investment in free agency and the draft in 2020, viewing the long-term line being in place by then?
Jay: If they do think that way, 2018 counts as Year One. There’s no doubt the team got dealt a tough hand when Eric Wood was forced to retire because of a neck injury and left guard Richie Incognito abruptly retired. Especially with Wood, though, that happened early enough in the offseason to come up with a plan to replace him. It turns out that plan – signing Russell Bodine to compete with Ryan Groy – wasn’t good enough. The front office needs to fix that this offseason. With Jordan Mills and John Miller set to become free agents in March, that’s two more holes that potentially have to be filled, too. With a projected $80 million in cap space and 10 draft picks, there are avenues to get that done.
The big question for me along the offensive line centers on Dion Dawkins. Are the Bills convinced he’s a franchise left tackle? I don’t think they can or should be after 2018. The possibility of a position change was left open by General Manager Brandon Beane. That would be a significant move if the team brought in someone else to protect quarterback Josh Allen’s blind side.
Bk asks: I know it’s old news, but has Sean McDermott or Brandon Beane ever admitted what a mistake relying on Peterman was? It is hard to trust their judgement when they have made such a huge mistake.
Jay: The closest either of them came was when Beane admitted to making a mistake by not bringing Derek Anderson in sooner. That was refreshing to hear from a general manager. Of course, the two don’t have to be related, because the Bills could have brought Anderson in and still kept Peterman. McDermott time and again publicly supported Peterman, even hours before he was released. “I’m still confident in Nate,” McDermott said on Nov. 12 – the day Peterman was cut. Of course, that’s the coach’s nature. He’s rarely going to publicly criticize a player, which is what admitting a mistake with Peterman would have been.
I’m also not sure how much it really matters. Anyone watching the team knows it was a colossal blunder by McDermott. I thought it was over the top when he said he would “go to his grave” thinking he made the right call in starting Peterman in last year’s season opener.
Would it be nice if McDermott admitted the mistake? Sure, but it really wouldn’t change anything. Admission or not, we all know it was an error.
Brett Caruthers asks: Does signing Lorenzo Alexander to a one-year contract change mid-round draft choices or midrange free-agent signings?
Jay: Not at all. Alexander has said publicly the 2019 season will be his last, so the team should actively be preparing for how they will fill that hole in their lineup. His re-signing shouldn’t impact the team’s approach in free agency to any significant degree, given that there is expected to be so much cap space available.
As far as the draft, bringing Alexander back gives the team more options, which means they can potentially avoid having to draft for need and instead focus on acquiring the “best player available.” If that happens to be a pass rusher early in the draft, there’s nothing that should stop Beane from pulling the trigger.
Michael Parthum asks: Do we anticipate the Bills will address wide receiver or offensive line primarily in free agency, the draft, or a combination of both? Potentially how many new players from either avenue?
Jay: Absolutely it’s both. As for how many new players might be added, that made for a lively discussion in the team’s media room at the end of the season. As I see it, the returning starters on offense right now are quarterback Josh Allen, running back LeSean McCoy, offensive lineman Dion Dawkins and receiver Zay Jones as part of a three-wide set. So that leaves seven positions that could conceivably have new starters in 2019 – right tackle, right guard, center, left tackle, tight end and two wide receivers.
It’s possible that receiver Robert Foster and guard Wyatt Teller take two of those spots, but I’d stop short of saying that’s a guarantee. Bottom line: There’s going to be a whole bunch of turnover on offense. As for how that’s accomplished, a mix of the draft and free agency makes the most sense. Ideally, the Bills can fill at least a few of those holes ahead of the draft so they’re not desperate to fix the offense and can, as mentioned above, focus on the best player available.
Jake Wakely asks: Are the Bills more likely to go offensive line with the ninth pick? Or is wide receiver the more likely route unless Ed Oliver is on the board? Who are some names the Bills will in fact target in free agency?
Jay: Again, let’s see what happens in free agency. If the Bills land a starting center (Matt Paradis?) and right tackle (Ja’Wuan James, Daryl Williams?), that pushes wide receiver up the priority list. If the team instead looks at receivers in free agency (Chris Conley, Devin Funchess, Randall Cobb, John Brown, Tyrell Williams, Adam Humphries?), then the O-line would take precedence.
If Beane stays true to his word, don’t expect the Bills to break the bank in free agency. Beane seems set on not overspending, but that’s hard to do when competing with other teams for players. He’s going to have to pay players maybe more than he’s comfortable with to fill holes. The key is to make sure those contracts have escape routes for the Bills if they don’t pan out.
Eric Duvall asks: Obviously, the focus this offseason is on rebuilding the offensive side of the ball. Where would you start, GM Jay? And what’s going to be tougher to find through the draft and free agency: skill players or linemen?
Jay: Let’s start with the second part of that first. I’d say it will be harder to find skill players in the draft and free agency, particularly at wide receiver. None of the names mentioned above would fit into the somewhat subjective “No. 1 receiver” category. The draft also doesn’t have an overabundance of players who project that way, either. Some of the offensive line options, such as the ones mentioned above, fit the mold of what a team should look for in free agency – young players entering the prime of their career, not exiting it.
As for what my priority would be, it starts along the offensive line. I believe a lot of McCoy’s troubles in 2018 can be traced to subpar blocking up front. If the Bills still want to be a team that runs the football, and I believe that they do, they need to upgrade up front. The other obvious benefit of that is giving Allen more time to throw. So I’d start by signing at least two offensive linemen I believe can be opening day starters. After that, I’d add a wide receiver who can compete to be part of the top three. I’m not all that hopeful of finding a dominant No. 1 receiver anywhere this offseason – and am not entirely convinced I need one, anyway. A case can be made that the Rams and Patriots don’t have true “No. 1 receivers” and they’ve done just fine this year.
Tony Spina asks: If the Bills don’t make the playoffs in 2019, is McDermott on the hot seat?
Jay: That depends on how they miss the playoffs. They can’t go 2-14 or something like that. If they go, say 8-8 or 9-7, but miss they playoffs, are you really firing him? That would be an improvement over this season, and the team will once again have plenty of cap space in the 2020 offseason to continue to build the roster. The gray area would be if they finished with the same record as this past season, 6-10, give or take an extra win or loss. At that point, there will probably be two camps formed – those who think McDermott should go and those who think sticking with the organization’s plan is the better path to success.
If I had to guess, I’d say the Pegulas are in the latter group, so barring a disastrous season, McDermott should be back for a fourth year in 2020. By that point, with Josh Allen in his third year, anything less than a spot in the playoffs would automatically put him on the hot seat.
Thanks for all the questions this week!
Story topics: Brandon Beane/ Dion Dawkins/ Eric Wood/ LeSean McCoy/ Lorenzo Alexander/ Nathan Peterman/ Richie Incognito/ Robert Foster/ Russell Bodine/ Ryan Groy/ Sean McDermott/ Wyatt Teller/ Zay Jones