Buffalo Bills 2017 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Bills found a steal at the quarterback position in free agency two off-seasons ago, a very uncommon occurrence. They gave a 3-year, 3.55 million dollar deal to Tyrod Taylor, who, at the time, was a 2011 6th round pick with 35 career pass attempts in 4 seasons as Joe Flacco’s backup in Baltimore, and Taylor came in and won their starting quarterback job, beating out veteran journeyman Matt Cassel and 2013 1st round pick bust EJ Manuel. Not only did Taylor win the job, but he kept it all season and performed at a high level, completing 63.7% of his passes for an average 7.99 YPA, 20 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions. He only attempted 380 passes in 14 games on a run heavy offense, but he also took off 104 times as well, rushing for another 568 yards (5.46 YPC) and 4 touchdowns on the ground. He finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 9th ranked quarterback

He was a bargain in 2015, making just 1.15 million despite the strong season, but, because of how many starts he made, language was triggered in his contract voiding the 3rd year of the deal and making 2016 his contract year. That put a lot of pressure on the Bills to extend him before the season and they did so with a “5-year, 90 million dollar deal.” I put that in quotes because all that was guaranteed was that he’d make 9.5 million in 2016. It was a significant pay increase, but provided no long-term security.

In 2016, he started another 15 games, but only completed 61.7% of his passes for an average of 6.93 YPA, 17 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions on 436 pass attempts on once again a heavy run offense. However, the dip in statistical production is not really his fault, as his #1 receiver Sammy Watkins missed most of the season with a foot injury, leaving him with arguably the worst receiving corps in the league (more on them later). He also once again added significant value on the ground, rushing for 580 yards (6.11 YPC) and 6 touchdowns on 95 attempts. He finished 11th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus, just two spots behind 2015.

Despite that, there were many reports that the Bills would not be picking up Taylor’s option for next season, allowing him to hit free agency. The Bills even sat Taylor in week 17 of last season after they had been eliminated from the playoffs because they didn’t want to risk him getting injured and guaranteeing his salary for 2017. It’s possible they never really wanted to part ways with Taylor and that much of that might have been an act by the Bills in order to scare Taylor into renegotiating his contract, which he ultimately did, but they still don’t seem sold on Taylor long-term. His renegotiated contract guarantees him 14.5 million this off-season, but nothing beyond that, so he and the Bills could go through this situation all over again next off-season.

The most likely reason why the Bills are not sold on Taylor is because he’s always been supported by a strong running game and hasn’t had to throw many passes, even if he has contributed on the ground. The Bills’ defense hasn’t been great in the past 2 seasons, so the Bills and the new offensive coaching staff under first-year head coach Sean McDermott may want a more traditional quarterback so they can open their offense up more. New offensive coordinator Rick Dennison has always worked with pocket passers like Matt Schaub, Peyton Manning, and Joe Flacco, though he was the quarterbacks coach in Baltimore in 2014 when Taylor was the backup there.

They drafted a more traditional quarterback in the 5th round in Nathan Peterman, who was regarded to be a steal that late in the draft, so they may be preparing to part ways with Taylor next off-season. I think that would be a mistake and that a poor receiving corps is what’s preventing this team from opening up the playbook offensively much more than Taylor. Taylor is actually the perfect fit for this offense right now, because he can make plays with his legs when receivers don’t get open, which is often. Fortunately, Taylor will have at least one more season to prove himself.

Grade: B+

Receiving Corps

As mentioned, Sammy Watkins’ injury was a big problem for this receiving corps last season and a big reason why Taylor’s numbers declined. The 4th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, who the Bills traded two first round picks (#9 in 2014 and #19 in 2015) to move up and draft, Watkins came into the 2016 season with huge expectations, after catching 60 passes for 1,047 yards and 9 touchdowns in 13 games on a run heavy offense in his age-22 season in 2015. Unfortunately, he had foot surgery before the season and never got right, catching just 28 passes for 430 yards and 2 touchdowns in 8 games on 235 routes run.

Not only did he miss time, but he wasn’t himself when on the field and finished just 47th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus, after finishing 10th in 2015. The foot injury didn’t just limit his explosiveness, but it also limited his snaps and forced the Bills to basically only use him in passing situations. The Bills passed on 61.7% of the snaps he played, significantly higher than their team average. That allowed opposing defenses to guess run or pass much more easily, a big problem for a wideout who is at his best on deep shots off of play action.

Still only going into his age 24 season and dripping with natural talent, Watkins has obvious bounce back potential if he can stay healthy and play every down again. The Bills seem to be hedging their bet with him though, declining his 5th year option for 2018. That makes more sense than it seems given his injury situation. If the Bills picked up the option and Watkins was to seriously re-injure his foot, the Bills would be locked into paying Watkins the average cap number of the top-10 highest paid receivers in the league in 2018, regardless of whether or not he plays.

By declining the option, the Bills avoid that scenario and, because they have the franchise tag available, they can still keep him for 2018 if he has a big year. The franchise tag value is the average of the top-5 cap numbers for wide receivers, a little bit more than his 5th year option would have been, but, if they’re really not sure about his health long-term, it might be worth the risk. Regardless, the move casts a shadow of doubt on his ability to return to form this season, which makes this receiving corps a big question mark.

Robert Woods led the Bills in receiving last year in Watkins’ absence, but he signed with the Rams this off-season. He only had 613 yards on 1 touchdown on 51 catches, but his numbers were kept down by how run heavy this offense was. Those numbers came on 382 routes run and 74 targets in 13 games and he finished about average on Pro Football Focus, so he’s no small loss. He’ll be replaced by 2nd round pick Zay Jones, who will immediately slot in as the #2 guy in this weak wide receiver group and could have a significant role as a rookie.

Outside of Woods, no Buffalo wide receiver had more than 29 catches last season. Marquise Goodwin was their de facto #2 receiver when Watkins was out. He averaged 14.9 yards per catch, but he also only caught 42.6% of his targets and finished 94th out of 115 eligible wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. A one-dimensional speedster, Goodwin signed with the 49ers on a 2-year, 8 million dollar deal this off-season and won’t really be missed, even on a team with a thin receiving corps.

With Goodwin gone, free agent acquisitions Corey Brown and Andre Holmes will compete for the #3 receiver job. A 2014 undrafted free agent, Brown has 19 starts over the past 2 seasons, but has finished below average in both seasons and was not tendered as a restricted free agent by the Panthers this off-season, even though the Panthers also have a thin receiving corps. Holmes, meanwhile, made 13 starts in 2014 with Oakland, but finished 103th out of 121 eligible receivers on Pro Football Focus that season and has been the Raiders’ #4 receiver in 2 seasons since. The 2011 undrafted free agent has made just 7 starts in his other 6 years in the league. Both he and Davis are poor options.

Given how thin they are at wide receiver, the Bills need their tight ends to step up in the passing game. Charles Clay finished second on the team with 57 catches for 552 yards and 4 touchdowns last season, but averaged just 6.34 yards per target on a team high 87 targets and finished below average on Pro Football Focus as a pass catcher. Meanwhile, #2 tight end Nick O’Leary caught just 8 passes. Fortunately, Clay and O’Leary were strong run blockers, finishing 4th and 2nd respectively among tight ends in pure run blocking grade on Pro Football Focus. O’Leary was a 6th round pick in 2015 and played just 373 snaps in the first significant action of his career in 2016, but Clay actually has finished above average on Pro Football Focus in each of the last 4 seasons. Unfortunately, he’s averaged just 611 yards per season over those 4 seasons. A strong run blocker and a reliable set of hands at 6-3 255, Clay is useful player, but he isn’t the weapon they need in a weak receiving corps.

Grade: C

Running Backs

Despite the decreased production in the passing game, the Bills actually picked up first downs at a much higher rate in 2016. In 2015, they ranked just 25th in first down rate at 33.37%, but in 2016 they jumped to 36.96%, 11th in the NFL. They had 31 more first downs and 4 more offensive touchdowns on 4 fewer offensive snaps. That’s because the Bills’ running game was much improved in 2016. It wasn’t that they had a bad running game in 2015. In fact, they had one of the best in the league, finishing 2nd in carries with 509, first in rushing yards with 2432, and first in yards per carry with 4.78.

However, they took it to another level in 2016. On 17 fewer carries (492), they rushed for 198 more yards (2630), and their YPC of 5.35 was more than 4/10ths of a point higher than any other team in the league and close to 6/10ths of a point higher than the number they led the league with in 2016. They led the league with 146 rushing first downs and got 44.51% of their first downs on the ground, more than 4% higher than any other team in the league and the highest run first down percentage of any team since Tim Tebow’s 2011 Broncos.

Tyrod Taylor’s 6.11 YPC average on 95 rushes was a big help, but the Bills also got great play from their top-two running backs. Feature back LeSean McCoy rushed for 1267 yards and 13 touchdowns on 234 carries, an average of 5.41 YPC, and was also their 3rd leading receiver, catching 50 passes for another 356 yards and a touchdown out of the backfield. He was Pro Football Focus’ 6th ranked running back, not a huge surprise, considering McCoy has been one of the better backs in the league over the past few seasons.

The surprise was backup Mike Gillislee rushing for 577 yards and 8 touchdowns on 101 carries, considering he entered the season with just 53 career carries. That’s an average of 5.71 yards per carry, best in the league among backs with more than 100 rushes. Gillislee signed with the Patriots this off-season and, because of how run heavy this team is, that could prove to be a significant loss. Second year back Jonathan Williams is expected to take over as the #2 back, but he rushed for just 94 yards on 27 carries (3.48 YPC) as a 5th round rookie in 2016 and he’s highly unlikely to have the kind of breakout season that Gillislee had in 2016.

LeSean McCoy could also take a step back too. He’s a talented back, but his YPC average of 5.41 was a career high and significantly higher than his career average of 4.72 YPC. In 2015, his first season with the Bills, he averaged just 4.41 yards per carry on 203 carries. What he did last season is simply very tough to repeat. Since the AFL/NFL merger, 76 backs have averaged more than 5 yards per carry on more than 200 carries in a season. Only 7 of them did so again the following season. McCoy is also getting up there in age, going into his age 29 season with 2,280 career touches. He could still have a strong season, but he’s likely to be significantly less effective than last season, which would have a very noticeable impact on this offense.

Grade: A

Offensive Line

This strong running game was definitely helped out by a strong run blocking offensive line. They are a solid offensive line overall, but they excel in the run game, which makes them a perfect fit for this offense. Their best offensive lineman over the past 2 seasons, as surprising as this may be, has been left guard Richie Incognito. Incognito is infamous for his role in the Miami Dolphins bullying scandal and sat out a year and a half from 2013-2014, but the Bills took a chance on him after the 2014 season and it has paid off in a big way, as he has finished 2nd and 6th among guards on Pro Football Focus in 2015 and 2016 respectively. Incognito has been especially good in run blocking.

In 2014, the Bills averaged just 4.11 yards per carry on the ground, but they have been significantly better over the past 2 seasons as a direct result of the additions of Richie Incognito and LeSean McCoy that off-season. The one concern with Incognito, besides his checkered past, is that he’s going into his age 34 season, so he could decline soon. He’s finished above average in each of the past 8 seasons he’s been in the league though and could easily be a big asset for the Bills upfront again this season.

Incognito forms a strong left side of the offensive line with highly paid left tackle Cordy Glenn, who should be healthier this season, after missing 5 games last year with ankle problems that limited him throughout the season. Even playing through injury, he still finished 22nd among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus, but he finished 10th in 2015, so he could be even better in 2017 if he’s 100%. The 2012 2nd round pick has made 72 starts in 5 seasons in the league at left tackle and finished in the top-33 among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in all 5 seasons. The Bills locked him down with a 5-year, 60 million dollar deal last off-season. Going into his age 28 season, he’s still in the prime of his career and should have another strong season on the blindside.

Also returning from injury is center Eric Wood, who broke his leg and missed the final 7 games of last season. Backup Ryan Groy wasn’t bad in his absence, but Wood has started all 104 games of his career and is likely to remain the starter. He’s been about a league average starter throughout his career, but he finished last season 32nd out of 39 eligible centers on Pro Football Focus and he’s going into his age 31 season, so he could be on the decline. Groy actually outplayed him last season.

Groy was offered a 2-year, 5 million dollar deal as a restricted free agent to start at center for the Rams this season, but the Bills matched it, suggesting they see him as a starter in 2018. Wood is going into the final year of his contract. Groy also has experience at guard and could be a long-term replacement for Incognito at left guard. He’ll also provide insurance at right guard, but he’s unlikely to be needed there. Right guard John Miller, a 2016 3rd round pick, is coming off of what looks like a breakout 2016 season, finishing 29th among guards on Pro Football Focus. He’s a one-year wonder who struggled mightily as a rookie, finishing 77th out of 81 eligible guards in 2015, but it’s possible he’s turned a corner and will continue to be a solid starting option going forward.

Rounding out this offensive line at right tackle is likely going to be 2nd round rookie Dion Dawkins. The Bills moved up from the 3rd round to grab him at the end of the 2nd at #63 overall and he has the tools to be a starting right tackle in the NFL. He could struggle as a rookie, but has little competition for the job. Seantrel Henderson and Jordan Mills, their last two starting right tackles, are both still on the roster, but both struggled mightily in their opportunities. Henderson finished 81st out of 84 eligible offensive tackles in 16 starts in 2014 and then 69th out of 77 eligible offensive tackles on 10 starts in 2015. Mills then took over and finished 57th out of 77 eligible in 6 starts in 2015 and 64th out of 78 eligible in 16 starts in 2016. It wouldn’t be hard for Dawkins to be an upgrade over them. Outside of right tackle, this is a strong offensive line.

Grade: B+

Defensive Line

In 2014, the Bills had one of the best defenses in the league under defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz. Schwartz was let go when the Bills fired head coach Doug Marrone and replaced him with Rex Ryan, who wanted his own defensive staff and to implement a 3-4 defense. The results were not good, as the Bills finished 20th in first down rate allowed in 2015 and then 24th in first down rate allowed in 2016, a big part of why the Bills made the decision to fire Rex Ryan this off-season.

Ryan will be replaced with another defensive minded head coach, ex-Carolina defensive coordinator Sean McDermott, who will convert this defense back to a 4-3. Unfortunately, the Bills have just 4 starters left from their 2014 defense and McDermott isn’t working with the most talented group, but his defenses always outperformed their talent level in Carolina. It’s unclear if that will continue with McDermott in a head coaching role with less of a hands on approach with the defensive players, but he was a wise hire by the Bills.

Two of those four starters that return are defensive tackles Marcell Dareus and Kyle WIlliams, who both played at a high level last season, finishing 23th and 16th respectively among interior defensive linemen on Pro Football Focus. Dareus should also play significantly more snaps than last season, when he was limited to 417 snaps in 8 games by suspension and injury. Prior to last season, Dareus missed just 5 games in his first 6 seasons in the league. The 3rd overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, Dareus finished in the top-15 at his position in each of his first 5 seasons in the league. Still only going into his age 27 season, I see no reason why he can’t play at that level again in 2017.

Williams was limited to 6 games by injury in 2015, so Dareus and Williams haven’t been healthy in the same season since 2014. Having them back together inside in this 4-3 defense should be a good thing for them, as they were once arguably the best 4-3 defensive tackle duo in the league, but Williams’ age is a bit of a concern, as he’s going into his age 34 season. Williams still played at a high level last season and has been one of the best interior defensive linemen in the league when healthy over the past several seasons, finishing in the top-7 at his position in his 4 previous healthy seasons prior to 2016, so he could have another strong season, but it’s far from a guarantee. Owed 8.4 million in the final season of his contract, this could be his final season with the Bills. His long-term replacement is likely Adolphus Washington, a 2016 3rd round pick who was alright on 331 snaps as a rookie. Washington will be the primary reserve at defensive tackle this season.

Defensive end Jerry Hughes was also with the Bills in 2014. Hughes finished in the top-14 at his position in 3 straight seasons from 2013-2015, but fell to 32nd among 3-4 outside linebackers in 2016, slightly below average. Hughes is scheme versatile and had a strong season in a 4-3 in 2014, so he has bounce back potential, still going into only his age 29 season. If the Bills can get strong seasons from Williams, Dareus, and Hughes, like they did in 2014, that will go a lot way towards fixing this defense.

Mario Williams, the 4th member of the Bills’ dangerous 2014 defensive line, is no longer with the team, but the Bills replaced him in the first round in 2016, taking Clemson’s Shaq Lawson. Unfortunately, shoulder surgery limited him to 236 unimpressive snaps as a rookie, but he is healthy now and is moving back to his collegiate position of 4-3 defensive end, so he could have a solid second season in the league. Ryan Davis, a journeyman reserve who has always flashed in limited action, but has never found a permanent home, will be the primary reserve at defensive end this season on what could be a very strong defensive line if all goes well.

Grade: A

Linebackers

While there are some familiar faces on the Bills’ defensive line, the Bills’ back 7 has been almost completely remade over the past few off-seasons and they have a lot of problems. Preston Brown is the only back 7 player who started on the 2014 team that remains on the 2017 team and he’s far from a lock to be a starter this season. Brown has made 46 starts in 48 games in 3 seasons in the league, but struggled mightily in Rex Ryan’s 3-4, after finishing 15th among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus in Jim Schwartz’s 4-3 defense as a 3rd round rookie in 2014. He’s finished in the bottom-10 among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus in each of the past 2 seasons, a significant dropoff.

A switch back to a 4-3 could be good for Brown, but McDermott seems less than convinced, bringing in veteran Gerald Hodges to compete with him and talking up 2016 2nd round pick Reggie Ragland as a starter, after he missed his entire rookie season with a torn ACL. Hodges and Ragland are the favorites to be the two starters, although Brown could still see a passing down role because Ragland is best as a two-down thumper and Hodges has never played more than 584 snaps in a season. Brown isn’t great in coverage though, so the Bills are likely hoping Ragland and Hodges can breakout in every down roles this season.

The 6-2 252 pound Ragland has good upside, but wasn’t very good moving in reverse even before the torn ACL. Hodges, meanwhile, has finished in the top-14 at his position in 2 of the last 3 seasons and has experience at both outside and inside linebacker, but is much better against the run than he is in coverage and has never been used as an every down player. The 2013 4th round pick was a solid cheap signing late in free agency on a 1-year deal, but he doesn’t give the Bills the coverage athlete they need. They could really miss Zach Brown, who finished 11th among middle linebackers last season and excelled in coverage. He signed with the Redskins this off-season.

Lorenzo Alexander isn’t the coverage athlete they need either, but he’ll play a two-down role at outside linebacker and either come off the field in passing situations for a 5th defensive back or move to the defensive line and rush the passer off the edge in a rotational role behind Hughes and Lawson. Alexander played 788 snaps at 3-4 outside linebacker last season when Lawson was injured and improbably finished with 12.5 sacks, after totalling just 9 in his previous 9 seasons. He also played the run well. A complete one-year wonder who isn’t a great fit in a 4-3 defense at 6-1 245, Alexander probably won’t come close to having the kind of impact he had last season, but could still be an asset for them as a hybrid player off the edge. This linebacking corps should be good against the run, but they’ll have serious problems covering running backs and tight ends and playing zone coverage underneath.

Grade: C

Secondary

In addition to losing Zach Brown to the Redskins, the Bills were dealt a shocking blow this off-season when Stephon Gilmore signed with the the division rival Patriots on a 5-year, 65 million dollar deal. Gilmore was a first round pick by the Bills in 2012 and seemed like someone the Bills would keep long-term after he finished 8th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in 2015, but he fell to 60th among 111 eligible in 2016, so the Bills declined to franchise tag him. No one saw the Patriots snatching him in free agency because they never sign big money free agents and letting him go could prove to be a mistake if he bounces back and the Bills have to face him twice a year, but the Bills at least did a good job of replacing him, drafting Tre’Davious White 27th overall.

White isn’t a flashy player, but he’s a rock solid cover cornerback who can play in any system and ranked 12th among draft prospects on Pro Football Focus. Not only does he fill a huge need, but the Bills picked up a 2018 1st round pick when they traded down from 10 to 27. With White, Zay Jones, and Dion Dawkins, the Bills ended up with three solid players in the draft who will start immediately at positions of need. Add in the future first rounder they got and that they got Nathan Peterman in the 5th round and they were one of the obvious winners on draft weekend.

White will start opposite Ronald Darby, a third year cornerback that the Bills need to step up in Gilmore’s absence. Darby, a 2015 2nd round pick, had a great rookie season, finishing 6th in pass deflections with 21 and ranking 4th among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus in 14 starts. However, his play was much more average in 2016, as he finished 66th out of 111 eligible cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus and deflected just 12 passes. Still only going into his age 23 season, Darby still has a great upside and could easily be closer to his rookie year form in 2017. He could develop into a long-term #1 cornerback, probably part of the reason why the Bills were so comfortable letting Gilmore walk in free agency.

Gilmore wasn’t the only defensive back the Bills lost this off-season, as slot cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman and safeties Corey Graham and Aaron Williams are no longer with the team. They added veteran cornerbacks Leonard Johnson and Shareece Wright in free agency, but neither of them is any good. Johnson has 20 career starts in 5 seasons since going undrafted in 2012, but hasn’t finished above average since his rookie season and finished 104th out of 111 eligible cornerbacks on 436 snaps last season.

Wright, meanwhile, is a 2011 3rd round pick and has made 42 starts over the past 4 seasons, but only finished above average once in those 4 seasons. That was in 2015 when he made just 6 starts, but he fell to 75th out of 111 eligible in 2016 in 9 starts, which led to his release. Second year cornerback Kevon Seymour is also in the mix and he might be their best option, which says something about Johnson and Wright because Seymour was just a 6th round pick and played just 287 snaps as a rookie. Their depth at cornerback behind White and Darby is very suspect.

At safety, the Bills signed Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer in free agency. Hyde was a hybrid cornerback/safety in Green Bay and, though he started most seasons as a reserve, the 2013 5th round pick ended up making 33 starts in 4 seasons with the Packers because of his versatility and finished about average in all 4 seasons. He’ll be a pure every down safety in Buffalo, for the first time in his career. He was more expensive than I would have guessed, signing for 30.5 million over 5 years, but he should be at least a capable starter for the Bills.

That’s a lot more than you can say about Jordan Poyer, who came much cheaper, 13 million over 4 years, but for good reason. Poyer, a 7th round pick in 2013, has just 10 career starts and didn’t become a full-time starter until his 4th season in the league in 2016 with the Browns, who had arguably the worst safety group in the league. Poyer only lasted 6 games before getting injured and finished the season 70th out of 90 eligible safeties. He’s never proven himself as a starter and could easily be one of the worst starting safeties in the league again this season. He’s likely locked into a starting job out of desperation though. The Bills’ secondary is far from what it once was.

Grade: C+

Conclusion

On one hand, the Bills should be healthier this season, after having the 8th most adjusted games lost to injury last season, including injuries to key players like Marcell Dareus, Cordy Glenn, and Sammy Watkins and their top-2 draft picks Shaq Lawson and Reggie Ragland. The Bills also drafted well, filling major needs with their first 3 picks, all of whom are projected week 1 starter. On the other hand, they lost key players like Stephon Gilmore, Zach Brown, Mike Gillislee, and Robert Woods in free agency and didn’t sign any replacements. Their rookie class is strong, but they are still just rookies and could have growing pains in their first year in the league.

Their passing game should be better with the return of Sammy Watkins and their defensive line should be better as well, but their running game is unlikely to be as good as it was last season and their defensive back seven has a lot of problems. They were slightly better than their 7-9 record last season, finishing 17th in first down rate differential, but they could have a tough time exceeding that record in 2017. 

Prediction: 6-10, 3rd in AFC East

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