As the 2018 NFL season approaches, there’s a growing optimism in Buffalo regarding the future of the Bills. They snapped the longest playoff drought in pro sports to cap off a storytale season before revamping the roster and adding several young, quality players that figure to grow into the team’s franchise cornerstones.
However, the team is young and the selection of rookie quarterback Josh Allen is keeping most outside of Buffalo hesitant to buy in until they prove they can take another positive step forward. OddsShark.com has set the Bills over/under for total season wins at 6.5 – the sixth-lowest projection in the NFL and about the same as what many expected from last year’s cinderella squad.
Granted, Buffalo still has quite a bit of work to do in order to prove that last season’s playoff appearance wasn’t a fluke. Heck, even most local analysts aren’t ready to predict success just yet. In fact, many are expected a regression from the team, due to the sheer quantity of unknowns. The roster is young and inexperienced while last year’s team needed serious help to crack the postseason and had multiple week stretches of atrocious play. But can they find a way to overcome adversity and repeat the success enjoyed in the first year with Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane calling shots?
Many argue that the Bills’ roster got worse as a result of the drastic turnover and will result in the team taking a step back. Sure, there are unknown commodities, new faces and an influx of youth. But inexperience doesn’t necessarily equate to failure.
We analyzed the position groups that underwent the most change during the offseason in order to determine if they got worse as a result.
While the Bills’ front office won’t hesitate to admit that Josh Allen is a work in progress and A.J. McCarron isn’t the flashiest passer, there’s nowhere for the team’s passing game to go but up after finishing 31st in the NFL last season. Tyrod Taylor struggled and former offensive coordinator Rick Dennison failed to evolve and put players in position to succeed.
Taylor’s athleticism is his calling card but the veteran did a fantastic job taking care of the football, throwing just four interceptions all season. Many credit his low interception rate to his hesitancy to take chances down the field, opting to tuck the ball and run, take a sack or check down, instead of trusting his arm and throwing into tight windows. While some of his struggles can be chalked up to unfamiliarity with the wide receivers and Charles Clay’s injury, it was clear that Taylor and Buffalo needed to part ways.
Allen, who the Bills selected No. 7 overall in the 2018 NFL draft, will be expected to come in and play early but McCarron shouldn’t be slept on just yet. He’s attempted only 133 career passes in his four seasons backing up Andy Dalton with the Cincinnati Bengals but won consecutive National Championships at Alabama, where he was able to play smart, efficient football thanks to a strong run game.
Allen was one of the most scrutinized prospects in the draft due to his poor production at Wyoming where he didn’t face the greatest of teams, and his accuracy is a concern. He has all the physical tools but he’ll need to clean up his game and play smarter than he did at times in college. The best way to facilitate this is to be patient and allow ample time for him to get comfortable with the offense and develop his game.
If the Bills can handle the quarterback situation wisely, they certainly won’t be among the NFL’s most explosive passing offenses but behind a strong rushing attack, protecting the football and making smart, quick decisions should keep things simple for whoever is under center.
The Bills’ defensive line was the weak link of the 2017 squad, as they struggled against both the run and pass. The team finished 29th in run defense and surrendered 22 rushing touchdowns – the most in the NFL. Marcell Dareus was traded and the defensive tackle rotation was abysmal. During the offseason, Buffalo invested $50 million into Star Lotulelei to plug up the middle of the defensive line before drafting former Stanford star Harrison Phillips while Kyle Williams came back for another season. The team signed Trent Murphy and Owa Odighizuhwa to join Jerry Hughes, Eddie Yarbrough and Shaq Lawson, who led a Bills pass rush that managed just 27 sacks in 2017.
The Bills still lack a star pass rusher to consistently harrass opposing signal callers but they added quality players that allow for a solid rotation that should do a better job defending the run and get after quarterbacks than a year ago.
LeSean McCoy may be 30-years old at the start of the 2018 season but it’s hard to not feel confident that the Pro Bowler will back up his impressive 2017 campaign in which he ran for 1,138 yards while leading the team in targets (77) and receptions (59) and racking up the second-most receiving yards on the team (448.)
Chris Ivory was signed to complement McCoy’s shifty, one-cut running style as the 30-year old is a bruiser that should fill in as a solid short-yardage back, much like Mike Tolbert did. Travaris Cadet is returning from a nasty broken leg suffered towards the end of last season but he brings another dimension as a quality receiver out of the backfield.
Buffalo has two young and talented linebackers in Matt Milano and rookie first-round draft pick Tremaine Edmunds. Milano had an impressive rookie season, earning a starting job and outplaying his fifth-round draft status. Edmunds has amazing potential but growing pains should be expected from the ripe 20-year old Virginia Tech standout. Ramon Humber and Lorenzo Alexander are aging veterans who struggled last season, especially in coverage where their lack of elite athleticism was exposed.
The Bills had linebackers Karlos Dansby, Will Compton and Kevin Minter in for tryouts, indicating that they’re aware of the thin position group and they’d be wise to try and add a veteran after the initial round of cuts as insurance.
Wide receiver is another area Buffalo is thin at. Kelvin Benjamin headlines the team’s pass catchers and Zay Jones will be counted on to make a big improvement upon his forgettable rookie campaign. Jeremy Kerley was signed as a free agent and while he isn’t going to scare any defensive coordinators, he’s a reliable intermediate option. Ray-Ray McCloud and Austin Proehl were late round draft picks who figure to fight for roles on special teams as they hone their receiving skills while undrafted rookie free agents Robert Foster and Cam Phillips are very intriguing and could potentially crack the 53-man roster.
Still, Buffalo could stand to add another veteran wideout that can be depended on. Brandon Beane hasn’t ruled that out and mentioned Dez Bryant and Eric Decker as free agents that he’d be watching film of.
The Bills have a new-look offensive line this year following the bizzare Eric Wood and Richie Incognito situations while Cordy Glenn was dealt to the Cincinnati Bengals in an offseason trade.
Dion Dawkins impressed at left tackle last season as a rookie and he looks to be the future at the position. Center Russell Bodine and right tackle Marshall Newhouse were signed as free agents and the team may have found a potential steal in offensive guard Wyatt Teller, a fifth-round selection who could potentially be a day one starter if he can edge out Ryan Groy or John Miller during training camp.
Buffalo’s offensive line was one of the more dominant run blocking units in the NFL in recent years, but the group’s inconsistencies in pass protection often left a lot to be desired. It will be interesting to see how the new faces gel together throughout training camp and preseason.
It’s always difficult to project how a team’s season will wind up, particularly when there’s been so much change throughout the roster. But looking at this year’s roster, it’s hard to make an argument that the defense could possibly have regressed. Richie Incognito, Eric Wood and Cordy Glenn all have been valuable to the Bills over the years but Glenn was a non-factor last season while Wood and Incognito aren’t the difference-makers that they once were. The growth of the offensive line as a whole will be critical to the team’s offensive success.
How the Bills’ coaching staff handles the quarterback position will ultimately be the deciding factor in how the 2018 season plays out. Allen will likely be the team’s starting passer for most of the season, even if McCarron opens the year under center. While Allen will be under the microscope, it’s important to remember last year’s stagnant passing game and how inconsistent the rushing attack was for the first half of the year. Defensively, Buffalo was opportunistic and turnovers masked the incredible inability to defend the run. It’s hard to look at this front seven and believe they’ll give up 140-plus rushing yards in eight games – as they did last year.
The faces are new, some names unfamiliar and it sure is easy to be skeptical of the unknown. Just pause and look back to last year when this was a team with no direction. Tanking was on the minds of everyone last year, a shot at the self-proclaimed misfits and castaways sprinkled throughout the Bills’ roster. This team thrives when doubted and playing the underdog role. So let Vegas, the fans and media pundits manage expectations and cast doubt. That’s when they’re most comfortable, after all.