The Bills have been right on the cusp of the post-season for the past two seasons, finishing 9-7 in 2014 and 8-8 in 2015. However, the two teams were very different from each other. In 2014, they finished 19th in rate of moving the chains, but won games because of a defense that finished 1st in rate of moving the chains allowed. Their defense wasn’t nearly as good in 2015, falling to 19th, but their offense picked up the slack on a much more balanced, but not necessarily improved overall team, finishing 19th in rate of moving the chains. If their offense can play like they did in 2015 and their defense can play like they did in 2014, or somewhere close to there, this team has a good chance to end the NFL’s longest playoff drought and make the playoffs for the first time since 1999.
Whether or not their offense plays well again in 2015 depends heavily on quarterback Tyrod Taylor, whose breakout 2015 season was the single biggest reason behind their offensive improvement. After the underwhelming duo of Kyle Orton and EJ Manuel combined to complete 62.7% of their passes for an average of 6.66 YPA, 23 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions in 2014, Taylor completed 63.7% of his passes for an average of 7.99 YPA, 20 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions in 2015, making the first starts of his career in his 5th year in the league.
The Bills are not a team built on the pass, as they were one of 4 teams (Seattle, Carolina, Minnesota) to run the ball more times than they passed in 2015, but Taylor is also a big part of this team’s running game, rushing for 568 yards and 4 touchdowns on 104 carries (5.46 YPC). Overall on the season, Taylor finished 9th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus. He remains an obvious one-year wonder, so it’s hard to trust the 2011 6th round pick, but he definitely could have another strong season. The Bills gave him a 5-year, 90 million dollar extension ahead of the final year of his contract this off-season, but only 9.5 million in 2016 is guaranteed, so they can get out of the rest of the deal after the season if they need to. Most likely, they won’t need to. He’s their best quarterback since Jim Kelly.
In addition to Taylor averaging 5.46 YPC on 104 carries, starting running back LeSean McCoy averaged 4.40 YPC on 203 carries and backup running back Karlos Williams averaged 5.56 YPC on 93 carries. As a team, the Bills averaged 4.77 yards per carry, best in the NFL. They figure to run the ball a whole lot once again in 2016, especially if the defense is improved and lets them play with more leads. Taylor figures to be somewhere around where he was last season in terms of carries. McCoy, meanwhile, figures to see more than the 203 carries he saw last season.
The most obvious reason he figures to exceed his 2015 carry total is that he’s most likely going to play more games, after missing 4 games with injury last season. The second reason is Karlos Williams was cut this off-season, despite a strong year as a 5th round rookie in 2015. Williams showed up 20-25 pounds overweight for training camp, got suspended for failing a drug test, and then was cut in August after he failed to lose any weight. With Mike Gillislee, a 2013 5th round pick with 53 career carries, and rookie 5th round pick Jonathan Williams are now the backups, McCoy figures to dominate carries and could have his 3rd career 300-carry season if he can stay healthy.
In a league with very few true feature backs, McCoy figures to finish among the league leaders in touches and yards from scrimmage in 2016. Not a dominant running back, never finishing in the top-10 outside of a 2013 season in which he finished #1 at the position, McCoy is a solid running back and a valuable contributor nonetheless. He’s finished above average in 5 of 7 seasons in the league, including 20th among running backs in 2015. It’s a thinner running back group than last year, but McCoy is one of the league’s better backs.
Along with Tyrod Taylor and the running game, the left side of the Bills’ offensive line was a big part of this team’s offensive success in 2015. Left tackle Cordy Glenn finished 10th among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus, a career best for a player who has finished in the top-33 among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons, since being drafted in the 2nd round in 2012, and who has made 61 starts over those 4 seasons. Last year may have been his best year, but he’s far from a one-year wonder. He may not quite be an elite left tackle, but the Bills didn’t have a choice but to franchise tag him and eventually re-sign him to a 5-year, 65 million dollar contract this off-season.
Left guard Richie Incognito was re-signed, after a dominant 2015 season on a one-year deal. One of the biggest reasons for the Bills’ offensive turnaround and dominant running game in 2015, Incognito finished 2nd among guards on Pro Football Focus. Out of the league for a year and a half after a bullying scandal with the Miami Dolphins, Incognito made the most of his 2nd chance in Buffalo. His age is a concern, as he goes into his age 33 season, but he’s finished above average in each of the last 7 seasons he’s played. He might not repeat the best year of his career, but he should still be a valuable asset upfront if he can continue to stay out of trouble. He was well worth being re-signed to a 3-year, 15.75 million dollar deal this off-season.
The rest of the offensive line isn’t as good. Center Eric Wood is solid and actually finished 8th among centers in 16 starts last season, but the 2009 1st round pick has graded out below average in 4 of 7 seasons in the league, including 2014. He’s plenty experienced with 95 career starts and he’s certainly a capable starter, but he’s also going into his age 30 season. While Wood is at least decent at center, the right side of the offensive line was a complete disaster in 2015 and figures to be a disaster again in 2016.
Right guard John Miller finished 77th out of 81 eligible at his position in 12 starts. Fortunately, he was just a rookie, but there’s no guarantee he’s much better in his 2nd year in the league. Miller was a mere 3rd round pick, so it shouldn’t be a surprise if he never becomes consistent starter in the NFL. If he does emerge as a starting caliber player, it might not be for a couple years, as he’s still young. He’ll probably be better than he was last season, but it might be only by default. Veteran Kraig Urbik is no longer with the team, after making 4 starts last season, so Cyril Richardson is their other option if Miller continues to struggle. Richardson didn’t play a snap in 2015 after a miserable 2014 season in which the 5th round rookie finished 60th out of 78 eligible guards on Pro Football Focus on 321 snaps. He’s probably not a better option.
Meanwhile, at right tackle it’s a three-way competition. Seantrel Henderson has made 26 starts there over the last 2 seasons, but the 2014 undrafted free agent has struggled mightily, finishing 3rd worst among offensive tackles as a rookie and 8th worst among offensive tackles last season. Making matters worse, Henderson is dealing with complicated medical issues and might not be ready for the start of the season. Even if he is, he’s unlikely to see any action this off-season, which obviously hurts him in a tight competition. It’s not like he has a strong history to fall back on.
Jordan Mills made the final 5 starts of the season in Henderson’s absence last season, but wasn’t really much better, finishing 57th out of 77 eligible offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus. This shouldn’t surprise anyone who watched him with the Bears. A week 1 starter after the Bears drafted him in the 5th round in 2013, Mills made 29 starts in 2 seasons with the Bears and finished 3rd worst at his position in 2013 and 19th worst at his position in 2014, barely better than how Henderson started his career. As a result, the Bears benched and cut him, which is how he ended up in Buffalo. He wouldn’t be an upgrade over Henderson.
The wild card of the competition is 2014 2nd round pick Cyrus Kouandjio. Despite being a high pick, Kouandjio was beaten out for the starting right tackle job as a rookie by Henderson, who went undrafted that same year. After not playing a snap as a rookie, Kouandjio didn’t even get the starting job when Henderson went down in 2015 and was limited to 227 total snaps. For what it’s worth, he flashed on those snaps and he probably has the highest upside of the bunch, but Mills is reportedly the favorite. Kouandjio is also theoretically an option at right guard at some point. It’s an offensive line with both strong starters and positions of major weakness that averages out to around average as a unit.
#1 wide receiver Sammy Watkins also had a big season for the Bills and was a big part of their offensive success. The 4th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Watkins almost had 1000 receiving yards as a rookie on an overall terrible offense and then surpassed 1000 yards on a much better offense in his 2nd year in the league in 2015, despite missing 3 games and being limited in others with injuries. Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked wide receiver in 2015, Watkins caught 60 passes for 1047 yards and 9 touchdowns in 13 games. Most importantly he played his best football down the stretch, catching 35 passes for 679 yards and 6 touchdowns in the final 6 games of the season. Watkins broke his foot this off-season, but is expected back for week 1. He’s dripping with upside and could take another step forward in his 3rd year in the league in 2016 (still only his age 23 season), as long as he stays healthy.
Unfortunately, the Bills really lack secondary receiving options. Outside of Watkins, no Bill had more than 554 receiving yards in 2015. Part of that was that they ran the ball often, but the lack of talent is also an obvious problem. Robert Woods is a mediocre #2 receiver, while last year’s #3 receiver Chris Hogan signed with New England this off-season. Despite that, they didn’t do anything to address the position this off-season aside from drafting Kolby Listenbee in the 6th round, but he won’t be ready to play as a rookie.
Woods is locked in as the #2 receiver for the 4th straight year, as the 2013 2nd round pick has made 38 starts in 44 games in 3 seasons in the league. He hasn’t been good though, finishing below average on Pro Football Focus in all 3 seasons, including 107th out of 121 eligible last season. A groin injury was likely the culprit last season and he could be better in 2016 after having off-season surgery, but he’s never been a great player and he’s not a high upside starter, even if he’s healthy. They also have no depth as Greg Salas (who has 46 catches in 5 seasons in the league) is currently penciled in as the 3rd receiver.
Last off-season, they spent big money to bring ex-Dolphin tight end Charles Clay to town to be a valuable target over the middle, but he didn’t live up to his 5-year, 38 million dollar contract in the first year of that deal in 2015. He’s graded out above average in each of the past 3 seasons, making 42 starts over that time period, but has never finished better than 12th and is the 7th highest paid tight end in the NFL in average annual salary. He’s a good all-around tight end, but he’s not going to put up huge numbers in the passing game. Mediocre veteran Jim Dray will back him up. He’s not the #2 receiver this offense needs either.
As I mentioned, even with a much improved offense, the Bills actually finished with 1 fewer win than they did in 2014, as the results of a defense that was not nearly as good. They weren’t bad, finishing 19th in rate of moving the chains allowed, but that’s far worse than 2014 when they were best in the NFL in that measure. One of the problems was defensive lineman Kyle Williams missing 10 games with injury, a huge loss considering he has finished in the top-7 at his position on Pro Football Focus in each of his last 4 healthy seasons.
Even when on the field in 2015, Williams was not nearly the same player, finishing much closer to middle of the pack at his position. That’s a major concern, considering he’s going into his age 33 season. He’s an accomplished veteran who has graded out above average in 8 straight seasons, but he’s missed 22 games with injury over the past 5 seasons and seems to be breaking down. He could still be a nice re-addition for them upfront, but anyone expecting him to be the same player he once was will probably be disappointed.
In his absence, Corbin Bryant finished 2nd on the defensive line in snaps played with 781 and played surprisingly well. A 2011 undrafted free agent who struggled mightily in each of his first 4 seasons in the league, including bottom-10 finishes among 3-4 defensive ends in 2013 and 2014, Bryant graded out above average for the first time in his career in 2015. It’s unclear if he can repeat that season though. He’ll play a much smaller role with Williams back, playing primarily in base packages as a two-down run stuffer, and he probably played well enough last season to begin the season as the starter, but could be pushed for snaps by 3rd round rookie Adolphus Washington sooner rather than later.
Washington could also see playing time early in the season with Marcell Dareus getting suspended for the first 4 games of the season, after failing a drug test. He’ll be missed. The one constant between 2014 and 2015, Dareus finished 10th among defensive tackles last season. The 3rd overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, Dareus has been a top-15 player at his position in each of his first 5 seasons in the league. One of the few nose tackles in the NFL capable of playing every down effectively, Dareus elevates this entire defensive line and allows Bryant’s spot to be only a two-down position. Williams and Dareus will see the majority of snaps inside in sub packages after Dareus returns, with Washington working in as an interior pass rusher while Dareus is out.
Jerry Hughes will be the primary edge rusher in sub packages on one side and is locked in as an every down player once again. A first round pick by the Colts in 2010, Hughes was a bust through 3 years in Indianapolis, playing just 850 snaps in those 3 seasons combined and struggling mightily in his only season of significant action in 2012. However, since the Bills acquired him for a backup linebacker prior to the 2013 season, he’s proven himself as one of the better edge defenders in the league over the past 3 seasons, finishing in the top-14 at his position all 3 seasons. Last season, he finished 13th among 3-4 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus. He’ll once again play outside linebacker in sub packages in the Bills’ base 3-4 defense and provide the most value to the Bills as a rusher off the edge in sub packages.
The other side is much more of a mystery. Mario Williams was horrible there last season, finishing 93rd out of 110 eligible edge defenders on Pro Football Focus. Williams had graded out above average on Pro Football Focus in every season of his career prior to last season, including 8th among 4-3 defensive ends in 2014, so his poor play last season was a huge part of the reason why the Bills weren’t as good defensively as they were in 2015. A 10-year NFL veteran, Williams was released ahead of his age 31 season this off-season and replaced by Shaq Lawson, the Bills’ first round pick this year.
A top-10 talent, Lawson fell to the Bills at 19 because of a questionable medical on his shoulder. The Bills were comfortable with his medicals, but may be re-thinking that after he further injured his shoulder this off-season and needed surgery in May. His timetable of 5-6 months means he’ll likely start the season on the Physically Unable to Perform list, keeping him off the roster for 6 weeks, and might not return until week 10 or later. A rookie with little off-season practice, Lawson figures to be very much behind the 8 ball when he returns and may just be limited to pass rush snaps in sub packages as a rookie. It’s unfortunately shaping up as close to a lost first season in the league for a player who could very well become a great pass rusher down the line.
In his absence, veteran Kroy Biermann figures to start. Going into his age 31 season, his best days are likely behind him, which is why he was available into August for the Bills to sign. He graded out slightly above average on 516 snaps in 2015, but last season was his first above average season since 2010. He’s an obvious downgrade from Lawson, who will be missed. Lawson wasn’t the only linebacker the Bills drafted early and he’s not the only one they lost to injury either, as 2nd round pick Reggie Ragland was supposed to start at middle linebacker, but instead will miss his entire rookie season after taking his ACL.
Along with Washington in the 3rd, the Bills used their first 3 draft picks on defense and could wind up with 3 starters down the road, but they could get very little from their draft class as rookies. WIth Ragland out, veterans Brandon Spikes and Zach Brown figure to split snaps. Spikes was out of the league in 2015 because of off-the-field issues, but was one of the better run stopping linebackers in the league in the first 5 years of his career from 2010-2014. He graded out 4th, 22nd, 1st, 1st, and 9th among middle linebackers against the run in 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014 respectively and spent 2014 with the Bills.
Spikes has never played more than 742 snaps in a season because of his issues in coverage, but he will only play base packages this season and could easily play well in that role. Brown, meanwhile, is a better coverage athlete and has starting experience (33 starts in 49 career games in 4 years in the league), but isn’t nearly as physical as Spikes. In 3 healthy seasons in the league, the 2012 2nd round pick has graded out above average in all 3 seasons in coverage, but below average in all 3 seasons against the run. He was a good value on 1-year, 1.25 million dollar deal this off-season and he and Spikes figure to be a solid platoon.
At the other inside linebacker spot, Preston Brown remains as the every down player. A 3rd round pick in 2014, Brown finished 15th among middle linebackers as a rookie, but finished 90th out of 97 eligible linebackers in his 2nd year in the league in 2015, a huge part of the reason for the Bills’ defensive decline. Though he struggled in his first year in Rex Ryan’s defense, Ryan talked him up this off-season and he’s certainly a bounce back candidate, but that’s far from a given, considering he’s not really that proven. Still, he wouldn’t be hard for him to be better in 2016. If not for injuries, this would be a strong group, but the injury situation can’t be ignored.
Cornerback was the real strength of this team last season, as Stephon Gilmore and Ronald Darby were arguably the best cornerback duo in the NFL. They might not be who you’d think of first when you think of the best cornerbacks duos in the NFL, but they had a combined 39 pass deflections last season, most by any pair of cornerbacks. Gilmore, Pro Football Focus’ 8th ranked cornerback in 2015, was not a surprise, as the 2012 1st round pick has always had great upside and showed steady improvement throughout his career.
Gilmore is a one-year wonder in terms of being a dominant #1 cornerback like he was last year, but he’s made 51 starts in 4 years in the league and is only going into his age 26 season. The one concern is he’s missed 11 games with injury over the past 3 seasons. Going into the final year of his rookie deal, The Bills will try hard to extend Gilmore ahead of free agency next off-season and would likely use the franchise tag if it came to that. The 4-year, 41.1 million dollar extension the Ravens gave to Jimmy Smith last off-season should serve as a framework for Gilmore’s extension. Smith has had a similar career path to Gilmore and is currently the 10th highest paid cornerback in the NFL in average annual salary.
Darby’s strong season was much more of a surprise, as the 2nd round rookie was only in the lineup early in the season because of injuries. Darby ended up making 15 starts and finishing 4th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus. Though Kansas City’s Marcus Peters tied for the league lead with 8 interceptions and won Defensive Rookie of the year, I would have chosen Darby for that award. He didn’t have nearly as many interceptions and deflections as Peters (34 to 23), Darby allowed far fewer big plays and was overall the better player. It might be tough for both Darby and Gilmore to be as good as they were in 2015 again in 2016, but both are young and have bright futures, so I expect another strong year from both.
Their depth at concern is suspect though, as Nickell Robey remains as the 3rd cornerback. He finished 90th out of 111 eligible cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus on 673 snaps. Robey flashed on 629 snaps as an undrafted rookie in 2013, but has fallen back to earth over the past couple of seasons, finishing in the bottom-20 in both seasons. The Bills would really be in trouble if Gilmore or Darby got hurt. Roby isn’t good on the slot, but he’d be even worse outside, as he’s way undersized at 5-8 165.
Corey Graham used to be the Bills’ slot cornerback, but has moved to safety permanently as he heads into the later part of his career. After finishing above average on Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons from 2011-2014 as a slot cornerback, Graham finished slightly below average in 2015 in his first season as a safety. He finished 8th among cornerbacks as recently as 2014, but going into his age 31 season, at a new position, Graham’s best days are likely behind him. He probably has a couple solid seasons left in the tank though.
Aaron Williams is expected to return as the other starting safety, after suffering a scary neck injury last season. Even only going into his age 26 season, Williams is a major injury concern going forward and has missed 28 games in 5 seasons in the league. A 2011 2nd round pick, Williams struggled mightily in his first 2 years in the league at cornerback, but has proven to be a capable starter at safety over the past 3 seasons, grading out above average in 2 of those 3 seasons. If he’s healthy, it’s a nice re-addition, but that’s a big if.
If he’s not healthy, free agent acquisition Robert Blanton would likely become the starter, taking the place of departed safety Bacarri Rambo, who started in Williams’ absence last season. Blanton has starting experience, making 13 starts with the Vikings in 2014, and was a nice, cheap signing this off-season on 1-year, minimum deal. Prior to a 2015 season in which he struggled on just 231 snaps, Blanton had graded out above average in each of the first 3 seasons of his career, including 17th in 2014. It’s unclear why he barely played in his final year in Minnesota, but the 2012 undrafted free agent has nice bounce back potential. If everyone’s healthy, the Bills may reportedly experiment with using more 3 safety looks rather than 3 cornerback looks in sub packages and lining Graham up on the slot in sub packages, to help mask their lack of cornerback depth. Even without great depth at cornerback, it’s a strong secondary.
A couple months ago, I had the Bills as a playoff team, but they’ve had horrible luck since then. Their top-two draft picks are both dealing with serious injuries, while top defensive lineman Marcell Dareus will miss the first 4 games of the season with injury and running back Karlos Williams was let go after he showed up way overweight to training camp and failed a drug test. They still have enough talent to sneak into the playoffs, after coming very close in each of the last 2 seasons, but that’s less likely than it was in May.
Prediction: 8-8 2nd in AFC East