As the Buffalo Bills begin the OTA portion of offseason training this week, it’s a good time to examine where things stand with their roster.
The following is a closer look at what the Bills have done – and still need to do – to address each position, followed by a grade of plus (better than last year), minus (worse) or same:
Headline: Plenty riding on Ken Dorsey hire as QBs coach
Details: Fourteen years of playing experience exited the Bills’ quarterback room when Derek Anderson retired May 9. Asked how the team would make up for it, coach Sean McDermott promptly pointed to the hiring of Dorsey. The coach firmly believes Dorsey’s background as an NFL QB, along with the work he did coaching the position with the Carolina Panthers when McDermott was on the same staff as defensive coordinator, will provide instruction boosted by the credibility of someone who has been there and done it.
The Bills rightfully view hiring Dorsey to replace David Culley, who had limited experience coaching quarterbacks, as a substantial upgrade. They also have reason to believe that Dorsey’s hand in helping Panthers quarterback Cam Newton become an MVP and reach the Super Bowl should be a cause for optimism that he can have a positive impact on Josh Allen, who shares Newton’s considerable size, arm strength and athleticism.
Allen should benefit greatly from entering offseason workouts and beyond as the unquestioned starter. The big unknowns are how much Allen has done on his own to improve his throwing mechanics – particularly as they apply to his ability to be more accurate – and how quickly he can develop chemistry with as many as four new targets (not counting new running backs) and a revamped offensive line.
Headline: Free agents, draft pick crowd backfield
Details: What once was the LeSean McCoy Show has suddenly morphed into a committee approach that has a broad range of experience and running styles.
Frank Gore, who turned 36 last week, is the most intriguing of the free-agent additions. He has largely been an ageless wonder because of how well he takes care of his body and his tremendous instincts as a runner. Whether Gore can squeeze out a solid 15th season remains to be seen and will mainly depend on how judicious the Bills are with using him. Another free agent, T.J. Yeldon, would figure to take on more of a workhorse role, while third-round draft pick Devin Singletary could factor into the mix as a change-of-pace runner and receiver out of the backfield.
Where does that leave McCoy, who turns 31 in July? General Manager Brandon Beane went out of his way during the draft to say that McCoy was still the starter and would continue to be the main man in the running game. That very well could have been done to let the rest of the NFL know that McCoy’s current team still believes he has value, so a prospective trade partner doesn’t assume it can simply wait for him to be released, which can’t be ruled out.
McCoy performed badly in 2018, and not solely because of poor blocking. Here’s the bottom line: If the Bills truly believed in renewing the LeSean McCoy Show for another season, they wouldn’t have been as aggressive as they were in adding backs.
Headline: John Brown, Cole Beasley added to get more from Allen
Details: After practically ignoring wide receiver during last year’s offseason, the Bills went at it hard with the additions of Brown and Beasley.
Brown provides a heavy injection of speed that Allen, who never hesitates to show off one of the NFL’s stronger arms, can use to his advantage. He could very well provide a consistently dynamic element the passing game hasn’t had in a long time. Beasley is the slot target missing from the New England-style, underneath-attacking scheme that offensive coordinator Brian Daboll brought with him from his time with the Patriots. If Allen and the offense function as Daboll envisions, Beasley should lead the team in receptions and perhaps receiving yards.
It’s easy to see another free-agent signee, Andre Roberts, filling a third or fourth spot. Not only does he provide game-changing skills as a return man (which made the New York Jets’ decision to allow him to get away bizarre), but he also provides solid depth as a receiver.
Zay Jones and Robert Foster figure to be locked into an intense battle for the remaining spots. Jones needs to be nearly perfect and prove that the garbage-time production he largely had last season can translate into more meaningful contribution.
Jason Croom and free agents Tyler Kroft and Lee Smith, back for a second stint with the Bills, are the main components of a revamped tight end group. Smith is a strong blocker whose presence will likely make it hard for third-rounder Dawson Knox to fill the third tight end spot.
Headline: Five new starters a distinct possibility
Details: What do you do when your line was the disaster the Bills’ was last season? You blow it up.
The extreme makeover began with the signing of six O-linemen among the 13 free agents added on offense. Those moves followed the firing of Juan Castillo, who coached the Bills’ offensive line the past two years and has a long history with McDermott, and the hiring of Bobby Johnson as his replacement. Johnson has been a career assistant O-line coach in the NFL, but does come from the Indianapolis Colts, whose line performed exceptionally well last year.
The most important free-agent addition is center Mitch Morse, who was a key part of the Kansas City Chiefs’ highly explosive attack. He should provide stability that vanished following the sudden retirement of Eric Wood after the 2017 season and the inability to find an adequate replacement in either Russell Bodine or Ryan Groy.
Dion Dawkins regressed badly at left tackle after a rookie season in ’17 that was strong enough to help lead to Cordy Glenn being traded. Dawkins readily acknowledges he is fighting for his survival and knows, if he does stick around, he could very well end up at a position other than left tackle.
Cody Ford, second-round draft pick from Oklahoma, is going to have a better than decent shot at winning the starting job at right tackle. Free agents Ty Nsekhe and LaAdrian Waddle also will compete for starting spots previously held by Dawkins and former Bill Jordan Mills, who signed with the Miami Dolphins.
Three other free-agent additions – Spencer Long, Jon Feliciano and Quinton Spain – are vying for the starting guard spots. That probably leaves Vlad Ducasse as the odd man out.
It’s fair to think the Bills’ offensive line will be better. It’s equally fair to believe it will take time, possibly as long as half the season, for everyone up front to get comfortable with playing together and with Allen and the running backs.
Headline: Ed Oliver provides much-needed interior explosiveness
Details: Based on scouting grades and need, the Bills made a no-brainer choice with defensive tackle Oliver as the ninth overall pick. Kyle Williams’ retirement after 13 years with the Bills was a major setback on two fronts. Besides taking away leadership, it also removed a disruptive force in the middle. Oliver, a former standout at the University of Houston, has the skills to address the latter void.
Last year’s free-agent signing of tackle Star Lotulelei provided someone who entangles blockers and helps create room for others to generate pressure and make plays. However, there still was a need to bolster the interior of the line. Harrison Phillips, a 2018 third-rounder, did an OK job but needs to make significant strides. Jordan Phillips, a Week 5 waiver acquisition, was a little bit better, but neither offered the sort of impact the Bills think Oliver can provide.
Although end Jerry Hughes has yet to match the back-to-back 10-sack seasons he had in 2014 and ’13, he’s still the team’s best pass-rusher. Trent Murphy, another end who joined the team as an ’18 free-agent pickup, can make a difference by doing what he hasn’t done the past two seasons: stay healthy. Shaq Lawson finished last year strong, but the team understandably chose not to pick up his fifth-year option because it would have cost $10 million and he has the incentive of entering a contract year to convince the Bills to keep him long-term.
Headline: Expectations for Tremaine Edmunds climb dramatically
Details: As a rookie, Edmunds showed flashes of the difference-making impact he was expected to have in the middle. The Bills had reason to feel satisfied with their decision to trade up in the first round to land him, as they did with the other generational (they hope) piece added in the same draft in Allen.
Now, they’re looking for the 21-year-old to further elevate his game after he led the team with 121 combined tackles and 12 passes defensed as a rookie. There isn’t a more important position in McDermott’s defense, and plenty of time and energy has been and will continue to be spent by the coaches and the diligent Edmunds to get him to realize the full range of his capabilities.
The best offseason development in light of Williams’ retirement was strong-side linebacker Lorenzo Alexander's decision to return for a 13th season. He, too, is a primary leader who also still plays at a high level as evidenced by the six sacks, nine passes defensed and two interceptions he had last year. Before he sustained a season-ending broken fibula, Matt Milano was a consistent play-making force on the weak side. He should pick right up where he left off.
Headline: Strongest area loses no ground … and maybe gains some
Details: Once again, the Bills enter the offseason with this being their greatest strength. All of the starters who did plenty to help the Bills allow an NFL-low 179.2 passing yards per game are back. Only the cornerback spot opposite Tre’Davious White approaches what could be considered a question mark, and that’s because there were four different starters there last season.
But No. 2 corner could even be seen as stable after Levi Wallace more than held his own as the starter through the final seven games of the season. Nevertheless, he faces competition from E.J. Gaines, re-signed after departing in free agency last year, and free agent Kevin Johnson. Additionally, there can be no overlooking the impressive work Taron Johnson did as a rookie nickel cornerback before he suffered a shoulder injury.
Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer remain among the top safety duos in the NFL. Last season, Poyer had 97 tackles (including nine for loss), two sacks and four interceptions. Hyde contributed 57 tackles, two interceptions and a fumble recovery.
Headline: Cleaning up a big mess
Details: The first step in trying to fix all that was broken here was firing longtime special teams coordinator Danny Crossman. His replacement is Heath Farwell, a former NFL special teams player who spent the past three years as an assistant special teams coach with Carolina and Seattle.
McDermott is banking on Farwell’s fresher approach to favorably impact a unit whose problems last year began with going through three punters and, therefore, three holders for kicker Stephen Hauschka. The lack of continuity contributed to Hauschka connecting on 78.6 percent of his field-goal attempts, his lowest since 2009. Still, Hauschka must do his part to pick up the pieces.
Punting was a problem, too, thanks to the shoddy performances of Corey Bojorquez, Colton Schmidt and Matt Darr. In addition, the Bills were 21st in the NFL with an average of 6.7 yards per punt return and 24th with an average of 21.2 yards per kickoff return.
Primary punt returners proved so unreliable the Bills had to enlist Hyde’s more trustworthy hands to field punts close to their own end zone. That should change with the singing of Roberts, who has proven game-breaking return ability.