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Bills Mailbag: What was the biggest talent wasted during the drought years?

Jay Skurski

Watching the Sabres on Thursday night, I was left with one thought: The Sabres are wasting Jack Eichel's prime.

Eichel is an MVP candidate this year, and it's not going to mean a thing. Maybe his best years are still to come, which is a scary thought for the league, but do you have confidence in the Sabres getting it together any time soon?

Eichel turns 24 next year. By that age, Patrick Kane had two Stanley Cups with the Chicago Blackhawks.

Let's start this week's Bills Mailbag with a comparison of sorts ...

Don Regensdorfer asks: As the Sabres waste Jack Eichel’s greatness, what Bills talent was most wasted during the drought?

Jay: Love this question, but could go a few different ways with it. Are we talking strictly the most-talented player to line up for the Bills during the drought? If so, my candidates are Jason Peters, Ruben Brown and Mario Williams. If we’re talking longtime service to the Bills coupled with talent, the choices are running back Fred Jackson and punter Brian Moorman. I’m not including defensive tackle Kyle Williams or wide receiver Eric Moulds, since they made the postseason. Eichel, of course, would fit into both categories – at least until he gets fed up with losing and demands a trade (kidding! I think …). I prefer the first category, so I’ll say the Bills’ most-wasted talent during the drought was Peters, who is on his way to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

4th and 27 asks: What analytics was Sean McDermott using when he decided to go for it on fourth and 27 from the Houston 42-yard line with 1:45 to go and three timeouts?

Jay: Truthfully, I have no clue. My guess, though, is that McDermott was figuring that, even if he didn’t pick up the first down, going for it would be sort of a de facto punt. Say a short pass to Cole Beasley picks up 15 yards. It’s probably worth the chance that Beasley makes enough Texans miss and gains the first down, as opposed to simply punting it away for 10 or 15 more yards of field position. The defense was going to need a stop either way. I can assure the plan was not for Allen to get sacked in Buffalo territory. Despite all that, they had more chances to win the game.

Jimmy Zolnowski asks: Why are the Bills so stubborn about playing Patrick DiMarco?

Jay: I’m guessing the play against Houston in which DiMarco was the intended receiver (which is being generous) on a bomb by quarterback Josh Allen is sticking with you. The truth is, he really doesn’t play that much. DiMarco played 15.5% of the offensive snaps this season. I don’t have much of an issue with that number. He’s a big part of special teams, and is a valued leader in the locker room.

MFitzCT asks: Could the Bills be better next year and have a worse record?

Jay: It’s entirely possible. There is no denying the Bills fattened up on a soft schedule this year, which they shouldn’t have to apologize for. The truth is, they’ll absolutely have to be a better team next year to match this year’s 10-6 record. In fact, my belief is Buffalo’s best path to the playoffs next season might be the AFC East title. If Tom Brady leaves New England, Buffalo probably goes into 2020 as the division favorite.

Bills could very well be new favorite to win AFC East

Ed Helinski asks: With so many picks in the upcoming draft, in your estimation, what areas do the Bills address by position importance?

Jay: In order, my needs would be edge rusher, wide receiver, cornerback, right tackle, running back and linebacker.

There are quite a few factors that can impact this list: For example, if Quinton Spain leaves in free agency and the Bills elect to keep Cody Ford at right tackle, that would make guard a higher priority. If Ford moves inside to guard, then tackle might move up the list. If cornerback Kevin Johnson re-signs, that moves cornerback down slightly, although I’d say more depth at the position is a need regardless. If the Bills make a big splash at receiver or edge rusher (more on that later), those needs would move down the list. That’s a lot of unknowns, but my list is a good starting point for the offseason.

Ken Kujawa asks: Regarding the second-half kickoff, what would have happened if Tony Corrente made that call during a regular-season game that had no alternate officials? Could it be challenged? Why can’t NFL referees wear pager devices that are tied to the play clock? Basketball refs do. They can then focus solely on the movement of the ball.

Jay: The play wouldn’t have needed to be challenged, because Corrente initially ruled it a touchdown and all scoring plays are reviewed. As for the second question, I don’t have a great answer. The website, which is a great resource for all things relating to NFL officiating, wrote about situations in which the play clock expired in 2018. From that article: “Officiating mechanics build in a fraction of a second’s grace for the offense to get the play off. … The back judge is responsible for the play clock. …  As the play clock winds down, he focuses on the clock. When the play clock hits zero, he shifts his gaze to the offensive formation. If the center is snapping the ball, the back judge does not call delay of game. If the quarterback is still in his cadence and the center has not snapped the ball, then the back judge throws a flag for delay of game.”

It sure seems like there should be an easier way, whether it was a bright light or buzzer, to indicate that the play clock has expired, so the back judge doesn’t have to look in two places. Since when does the NFL make its rules easier to comprehend, though?

bk asks: Why do the Bills insist on using running backs who are past their prime? Chris Ivory, Mike Tolbert and now Frank Gore. If they are great mentors, then make them a coach. They couldn’t outrun most Sabres fans going to the exits with 10 minutes left in the game.

Jay: Good one, bk. As for why the team uses those running backs, McDermott has made it clear that he likes to have a veteran leader in every position room. Tolbert and especially Gore fit that description. Gore gave the Bills solid play, especially while rookie Devin Singletary was out because of a hamstring injury. There is no denying, however, that his production dipped over the second half of the season.

Mike Canfield asks: Odds on Shaq Lawson being re-signed? Same question on Jordan Phillips.

Jay: Fairly high. I’ll say 75% on Lawson and 60% on Phillips. The big takeaway from McDermott during Tuesday’s season-ending press conference was his desire to keep as much of the team intact as possible. The Bills have the money to do that. While there are concerns about Lawson, as outlined above, General Manager Brandon Beane said he’d be reaching out shortly to Lawson’s representatives. I don’t think Beane would say that if he wasn’t serious about having a desire to bring him back. As for Phillips, Beane wasn’t as forthcoming, saying the defensive tackle has earned the right to test the open market after finishing with 9.5 sacks. That’s why I’d put the odds of his return lower than Lawson.

How Sean McDermott plans to change pain of Bills' loss into strength

Jim asks: Still (ticked) about the loss. How do people shift to postseason mode so easily?

Jay: Because there is no other choice. I get that the wound is still fresh, but you can look at the Bills’ roster and conclude the future is bright. The team took a big step forward in 2019 and has a chance to do so again in 2020. Looking ahead to free agency, in which the Bills have plenty of money to spend, and the draft is a way to move on from what was a painful loss.

Sam Ruggiero asks: If a player willingly plays games and practices while injured, as Jerry Hughes did for a portion of the season, why should the Bills potentially be sanctioned?

Jay: Simple: Because the team didn’t report the injury to the league. Every week, players play through injuries. If the Bills had simply listed Hughes as missing practice because of a wrist injury, rather than the ambiguous “rest,” they wouldn’t be having an issue. As it is, defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier first brought the injury up without being asked about it, then Hughes said he played through torn ligaments. That sounds serious enough for the NFL to investigate, which it is doing.

Rick McGuire asks: 1. Was the play where the play clock expired on the Texans’ third and 18 challengeable? 2. This will sound dumb, but hear me out: I’m concerned Josh Allen will struggle badly next year with our opponents. Would it make sense to sign someone like Philip Rivers just in case he does? Rivers said he would be willing to play elsewhere. He threw for more than 4,600 yards and 23 touchdowns this year on a bad Chargers team and had a higher QBR. Allen was bad against the better teams. Just saying.

Jay: The play clock expiring can’t be reviewed. As for the second question, I don’t see Rivers being at all interested in coming to Buffalo. If he plays elsewhere, he’ll want a chance at being a starter. That’s not going to present itself in Buffalo, unless there was an injury to Allen. The Bills are fully committed to Allen as their starting quarterback, as they should be. It would send the wrong message to him if the Bills went after a quarterback with Rivers’ credentials.

Casey asks: With the Eagles picking ahead of the Bills, what’s the chances of grabbing Tee Higgins?

Jay: There is a reasonable chance Higgins would be there, but it would require some receiver-needy teams electing to wait to address the position. That’s possible, because this draft is loaded with receivers. For that reason, the case could be made that the Bills should be one of those teams that waits. If Higgins were available, though, he would be hard to pass up. At 6-foot-4, he would bring the desired size to the Bills’ group of receivers. He’s produced at the highest level, with 25 touchdown catches over the past two seasons for Clemson. Higgins is one of many receivers the Bills will take a close look at in the coming months.

Chase Cohen asks: Give me your top offensive and defensive free agents to target. Day Two wide receivers and running backs to target in the draft?

Jay: Keeping in mind that Beane said this week that he doesn’t think the Bills are one player away, thus hinting that a big splash in free agency shouldn’t be expected, the top targets in my mind would be Cowboys wide receiver Amari Cooper and Bucs linebacker Shaquil Barrett. Either of those players would instantly fill two of the Bills’ biggest needs – a true No. 1 receiver and a dynamic edge rusher. I wouldn’t hold my breath on the Bills being serious suitors for either player, despite ample salary-cap space.

As for the draft, there are several running backs and wide receivers who could be in play in either the second or third round, but first we have to see how many of the underclassmen declare for the draft. One to watch in that regard is Alabama running back Najee Harris, who at 6-2 and 230 pounds would be a nice change of pace from Devin Singletary. It’s possible Harris would be gone before the third round if he declares.

At wide receiver, one player to watch in Monday’s national championship game is LSU’s Justin Jefferson. Like Higgins, Jefferson is a big target at 6-3. He could play himself into being a first-rounder with a big performance against Clemson, but if he was around in the second round, it would be enticing. There will be a whole bunch more draft content coming in the weeks ahead. Thanks for all the questions this week!

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