Buffalo Bills 2018 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Bills were a very improbable playoff team last season, for several reasons. They had the longest playoff drought in the NFL, with their most recent playoff appearance before last season coming almost two decades ago in 1999. Before the season, the Bills appeared to be building for the future, trading away their top receiver Sammy Watkins and their top cornerback Ronald Darby in August in trades that got them an extra 2nd and 3rd round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. On top of that, the way they actually qualified for the post-season was also improbable. Despite finishing 9-7, the Bills needed a Baltimore loss at home to the Bengals to qualify for the post-season, which came when the Bengals scored a stunning last second game winning 49-yard touchdown on 4th and 12.

Making their trip to the post-season even more improbable, the Bills really didn’t play all that well last season, despite winning 9 games. They were by far the worst team to qualify for the playoffs, finishing with a -57 point differential that was not only the worst among playoff teams, but also worse than 9 other non-playoff teams. Five of their 7 losses came by more than 10 points, as opposed to just 1 win by more than 10 points.

That’s despite the fact that they finished with a solid +9 turnover margin, 7th best in the league. Turnover margins tend to be inconsistent on a year-to-year and week-to-week basis, so they won’t be able to rely on that in 2018. Case in point, the Bills had a league leading +14 turnover margin through the first 7 games of 2017 and were 5-2 with a +38 point differential as a result, but they were -5 in their final 9 games and went 4-5 with a -95 point differential in those games.

The Bills joined the Indianapolis Colts (+5) as the only teams in the league with a positive turnover margin and a negative point differential. In terms of first down rate differential, the Bills finished 31st in the league at -5.73%, easily the worst among playoff teams and only ahead of the aforementioned Colts. The Bills managed just 278 first downs on the season, as opposed to 348 for their opponents, a -70 differential that was the worst in the NFL last season. If you played the 2017 season 1000 times, I have a hard time believing the Bills would have made the playoffs even a quarter of the time.

Despite making the post-season, the Bills continued with their rebuild this off-season, trading starting quarterback Tyrod Taylor to the Browns for the 65th pick in the draft. Taylor was a solid starter in 3 seasons in Buffalo (43 starts), finishing 12th, 14th, and 11th among quarterbacks on Pro Football Focus in 2015, 2016, and 2017 respectively. Considering he came to Buffalo as a former 6th round pick who threw 35 passes in 4 seasons in Baltimore as Joe Flacco’s backup, Taylor was more than a pleasant surprise as the starter in Buffalo, but the Bills were never sold on him as their long-term starter.

Part of that was likely because he never fit the prototype for a franchise quarterback. In 3 seasons, his pass attempt totals were 380, 436, and 420, giving him an average of just 28.2 pass attempt per start, but he offset that by rushing for 1,575 yards on 283 carries (5.57 YPC), the second most rushing yards by a quarterback over that time period, only behind Cam Newton. He also put up decent passing numbers on those limited attempts, completing 62.6% of his passes for an average of 7.17 YPA, 51 touchdowns, and 16 interceptions.

Those numbers are even more impressive when you consider the lack of talented weapons that Taylor had around him during his tenure in Buffalo. The lack of weapons around him also made his rushing abilities that much more valuable, as he could take off and run when receivers couldn’t get open downfield. The Bills got a decent return for him in a trade and save money by not having to pay his 16 million dollar salary for 2018, but he was an underappreciated starter and will likely be missed more than the Bills are anticipating.

Between their trades of Watkins, Darby, and Taylor, as well as their trade down with the Chiefs from 10 to 27 in the 2017 NFL Draft, the Bills entered the 2018 NFL draft with an extra pick in the first round, an extra pick in the second round, and two extra picks in the third round (though they traded away with own 3rd rounder in another trade). They also traded away left tackle Cordy Glenn to Cincinnati this off-season in a deal that allowed them to swap the 21st pick for the 12th pick. The Bills then packaged the 12th pick, along with their two second round picks, in a deal to move up with the Buccaneers to draft Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen with the 7th overall pick.

Allen is a bit of a strange fit for the Bills, as he is a project who likely won’t be ready to start as a rookie and the Bills lack an experienced veteran quarterback to serve as the stopgap. Allen probably has the most upside of any quarterback in the draft, but is a major work in progress and put up disastrous numbers against ranked opponents in college. A quarterback like Josh Rosen, who is much more polished and NFL ready, seemed like a better fit for them given their situation, but they’re swinging for the fences with a quarterback that has drawn comparisons to Ben Roethlisberger and Brett Favre, leaving Rosen to fall to the Cardinals at 10.

Allen will compete with AJ McCarron and Nathan Peterman, two quarterbacks with a combined 6 career starts, for the quarterback job. Peterman was a 5th round pick by the Bills in last year’s draft and still remains in high standing with the organization as a developmental prospect, despite struggling mightily in two rookie season starts, completing 49.0% for an average of 5.14 YPA, 2 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions. He likely won’t develop into anything more than a solid backup.

McCarron is the favorite to start week 1, after spending the past 4 seasons as Andy Dalton’s backup in Cincinnati. McCarron flashed in 4 spot starts when Dalton was hurt in 2015, completing 66.4% of his passes for an average of 7.18 YPA, 6 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions, and was widely regarded as one of the better backup quarterbacks in the NFL. Even still, this is arguably the worst quarterback situation in the league unless Allen can exceed expectations and have success as a rookie. The Bills will likely start multiple quarterbacks in 2018 and may even start all three over the course of the season. Tyrod Taylor wasn’t the best quarterback in the world but, the Bills will likely miss him in 2018.

Grade: C-

Receiving Corps

While most of the Bills’ trades in the past year have been geared towards building for the future, they did acquire wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin from the Panthers for a 3rd round pick at the deadline last year to bolster their receiving corps. The move was a big surprise because Benjamin was Carolina’s #1 receiver and the Panthers were 5-3 and contenders in the NFC at the time. However, Benjamin never really meshed in Buffalo and dealt with lingering injuries, totaling just 16 catches for 217 yards and 1 touchdown in 6 games, so the Panthers look like the early winners of that trade.

That could obviously change if Benjamin has a big year in 2018 in his first full season in Buffalo, but that’s far from a guarantee. Benjamin had a 73/1008/9 slash line as a first round rookie in 2014, a 63/941/7 slash line in 2016 (after missing all of 2015 with a torn ACL), and was on pace for a 64/950/4 slash line through 8 games in 2017 before getting traded, but that’s largely because of how many targets he was receiving. He’s caught just 53.8% of his targets in his career and has earned middling grades from Pro Football Focus as a result.

Part of that is because his quarterback in Carolina was Cam Newton, who has never completed a high percentage of his passes, but Benjamin was never as good as his numbers suggested in Carolina. He did show impressive ability on deep balls and has a career 14.4 yards per catch average, but, given all of the targets he received in Carolina, he should have done more with them. There’s a reason the Panthers were comfortable parting ways with him. He still has a lot of talent and upside, but, already going into his 5th season in the league, the Bills can’t expect him to be much better than what he’s been thus far in his career.

Benjamin could still have a big statistical year even if he doesn’t play all that well though, as he’ll likely remain a target monster on a team with a thin receiving corps. That could make him very expensive to keep as a free agent next off-season. Second year receiver Zay Jones is expected to be the other starter, but he was horrible as a rookie, catching just 27 of 74 targets for 316 yards and 2 touchdowns after going 37th overall. He averaged just 0.69 yards per route run on 461 routes, 2nd worst in the NFL, and finished 106th out of 118 eligible wide receivers on PFF.

Jones dealt with shoulder and knee injuries during his rookie year, which could explain some of his struggles, but, after having off-season surgery to repair both injuries, he’s out indefinitely. It doesn’t sound like he’s in any danger of missing the start of the season, but it will cost him valuable off-season reps. If he’s healthy, he could be better in 2018, but that could be largely by default, given how overmatched he looked as a rookie. He’s no guarantee to ever develop into a competent starter, but the Bills need him to be that now, with no depth behind him and Benjamin on the roster.

With Jones struggling as a rookie and Benjamin not fitting in well as a mid-season addition, the Bills’ leaders in receiving yards in 2017 were tight end Charles Clay (558), running back LeSean McCoy (448), journeyman wide receiver Deonte Thompson (430), and backup tight end Nick O’Leary (322). Thompson is no longer with the team, signing with the Cowboys this off-season, so Jones is actually their leading returning wide receiver in terms of receiving yards.

Given that, it’s a bit of a surprise that the Bills didn’t add a wide receiver until the 6th round when they took Ray-Ray McCloud. They also took Austin Proehl in the 7th round, but neither are likely to make a rookie year impact, so it’ll be veterans Andre Holmes and Jeremy Kerley competing for the #3 receiver job. Both are journeymen and underwhelming options. Holmes had a decent 47/693/4 slash line in 2014, but hasn’t topped 354 snaps or 201 yards since then and is now going into his age 30 season. He’s a bottom of the roster talent. Kerley is a more natural fit on the slot and is probably the favorite for the job, but he’s also going into his age 30 season and has been up and down in recent years, catching 16 passes in 2015, 64 passes in 2016, and 22 passes last season. Both will likely be involved in the offense, which is a testament to their lack of depth at wide receiver.

Given that, the Bills will have to rely heavily on their tight ends in the passing game again. Unfortunately, both Charles Clay and Nick O’Leary are underwhelming talents. Clay is a capable all-around tight end who has averaged 52 catches for 546 yards and 3 touchdowns in 3 seasons in Buffalo, but he has degenerative knee problems and isn’t getting any younger, going into his age 29 season. He’s only missed 7 games in the past 3 seasons, but he’s only played all 16 games once in 7 seasons in the league. He may be their #2 option in the passing game, though largely by default.

O’Leary, on the other hand, is primarily a run blocker and even struggled in that aspect in 2017, which led to him finishing as PFF’s 62nd ranked tight end out of 72 eligible. He took on a larger role in the passing game out of necessity last season, but only finished with 22 catches for 322 yards and 2 touchdowns. The 2015 6th round pick is now going into the final year of his rookie deal and looks unlikely to ever breakout as a real weapon in the passing game. The Bills once again lack weapons and depth in the receiving corps.

Grade: D

Running Backs

With a thin receiving corps, the Bills will once again rely heavily on feature back LeSean McCoy, both as a runner and a receiver. McCoy has topped 50 catches in each of the past 2 seasons and will likely do so again in 2018, barring injury. The Bills will likely become more of a pass heavy team with a more traditional quarterback under center, after finishing in the bottom-2 in pass attempts in all 3 seasons with Taylor at the helm. That shouldn’t affect McCoy’s carries though, as the reduction in rush attempts will come primarily from quarterbacks not taking off as often as Taylor did. McCoy has topped 200 carries in 8 straight seasons, the longest streak in the NFL, and should at least come close to the 287 carries he had in 2017, 2nd most in the league.

The concern with McCoy is twofold. For one, he likely won’t have a lot of room to run, given the lack of talent around him on offense. He’s averaged 4.56 yards per carry in 3 seasons in Buffalo, but he was helped by defenses having to worry about Taylor taking off and running and this is arguably the weakest supporting cast he’s had in 4 seasons with the Bills. The second issue is his age, as he’s going into his age 30 season.

McCoy is coming off of another strong season (despite an underwhelming 3.96 yards per carry average), finishing 8th overall among running backs on Pro Football Focus, but running backs break down quick after 30, especially ones like McCoy who have had a lot of touches in their career (2626 career touches). McCoy has never suffered a major injury, playing in at least 12 games in all 9 seasons in the league, but he’s dealt with a lot of nagging injuries and will likely break down and decline in the next 2-3 seasons. McCoy is probably the Bills’ most important offensive player, so if his abilities start to decline this season, it would be a big problem for this offense.

Ivory was signed to a 2-year, 5.5 million dollar deal this off-season, but won’t be anything other than a backup. Ivory has an impressive 4.36 career YPC on 1112 carries in 8 seasons in the league, but he is going into his age 30 season, has averaged just 3.59 yards per carry in the past 2 seasons, and is useless on passing downs, with just 94 catches in 95 career games. He shouldn’t see any more than 5-7 touches per game as long as McCoy is healthy.

Grade: A-

Offensive Line

The Bills had issues on the offensive line last season and they could be even worse this season, after losing 3 starters this off-season, Cordy Glenn, Richie Incognito, and Eric Wood. Glenn is the best player of the trio, but he missed 11 games with injury last season and the Bills also have an obvious internal replacement in Dion Dawkins, a 2017 2nd round pick who earned a positive grade in those 11 starts in Glenn’s absence last season.

Glenn was traded along with the 21st pick for the 12th pick, so the Bills got the equivalent of about a late second round pick for him. That’s not a bad return for a player who has missed 16 games with foot and ankle injuries in the past 2 seasons and who is owed 11.25 million in 2018 (6th most of any left tackle in the league), but Glenn was once one of the better left tackles in the league and is still only going into his age 29 season, so he had bounce back potential.

If they had kept Glenn, Dawkins could have played the right side. Instead, Jordan Mills remains locked in at right tackle. Mills has made 66 starts in 5 seasons in the league, since going in the 5th round in 2013, but he’s been one of the worst starting offensive tackles in the league over that time period. He was adequate in pass protection in 16 starts last season, but struggled mightily as a run blocker and finished 56th out of 83 eligible offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus. He’ll likely remain a liability in 2018.

Incognito and Wood will be tougher to replace than Glenn, as they don’t have obvious replacements for them. Both were capable starters in 2017 and Incognito was actually one of the better guards in the league, finishing 12th at his position on PFF, but both retired this off-season. The Bills signed Russell Bodine from the Bengals to replace Wood at center. He has plenty of experience, making all 64 starts over the past 4 seasons after going in the 4th round of the 2014 NFL Draft, but he’s been one of the worst starting centers in the league over that time period. Last season, he was PFF’s 32nd ranked center out of 38 eligible. He’s not a lock for the starting job.

Ryan Groy is their other option at center. Groy doesn’t have Bodine’s experience, with only 11 starts in 4 seasons in the league, but he’s flashed in limited action when counted on as a fill-in, both at center and guard. Groy’s versatility should also make him a candidate for either of the starting guard jobs. His primary competition for the guard jobs will be John Miller and Vlad Ducasse. Miller was the week 1 starter at right guard last season, but struggled so much in the first 4 weeks of the season that he was benched for Ducasse, a veteran journeyman.

Miller was a 3rd round pick in 2015 and has 32 career starts, but he’s struggled throughout his career. Ducasse performed admirably in 12 starts last season, but he is going into his age 31 season and earned negative grades from PFF in his previous 4 seasons prior to 2017. Fifth round rookie Wyatt Teller could also earn some playing time down the stretch, but he’s unlikely to be a huge upgrade. Outside of new left tackle Dion Dawkins, this offensive line has major problems.

Grade: C-

Defensive Line

With a lack of talent on offense, the Bills will need a strong performance from their defense if they’re going to have any shot of making it back to the post-season. They have more talent on defense than they do on offense, but they still finished just 27th in first down rate allowed last season. That was in large part due to their terrible run defense. They finished the season dead last in both rushing first downs allowed (121) and rushing touchdowns allowed (22) and got worse as the season went on, after trading overpaid defensive tackle Marcell Dareus to the Jaguars in a mid-season salary dump.

Given that, defensive tackle was a huge need for the Bills this off-season. They addressed it by signing ex-Panther Star Lotulelei in free agency, but they majorly overpaid him, giving him a 5-year, 50 million dollar deal that pays him 26 million over the first 2 years of the deal. Lotulelei is a competent run stuffer at 6-2 315, but doesn’t offer much on passing downs, with 11.5 sacks in 5 seasons in the league since being drafted in the first round in 2013. He’s also coming off of arguably the worst season of his career, finishing last season 72nd out of 79 eligible defensive tackles on Pro Football Focus. He’d be best as a two-down player, but his salary suggests they’ll be counting on him for an every down role.

Kyle Williams remains as the other starter, after re-signing on a one-year, 5.5 million dollar deal this off-season. Just a 5th round pick back in 2006, Williams is by far the longest tenured Bill. He’s a 5-time Pro Bowler and was PFF’s 13th ranked interior defensive lineman as recently as 2016, but he’s going into his age 35 season and likely doesn’t have much left in the tank. He still earned a positive grade from PFF last season, while leading the Bills defensive line in snaps with 756, but didn’t play as well as the Bills were used to him playing and appears to be on the decline. After contemplating retirement this off-season, it’s very possible 2018 is his final season in the league.

Adolphus Washington finished with the second most snaps of any Buffalo defensive tackle last season with 509, but he struggled mightily, finishing 74th out of 79 eligible defensive tackles. The 2016 3rd round pick struggled on 330 snaps as a rookie too and has been a major disappointment thus far in his career. He was a big part of the reason why they struggled against the run last season. He’ll have to compete to be the top reserve defensive tackle behind Williams and Lotulelei. The Bills also used a 3rd round pick in this year’s draft on a defensive tackle, taking Stanford’s Harrison Phillips with the 96th overall pick. He should also be in the mix for snaps and has the upside to develop into a long-term replacement for Kyle Williams.

The Bills are better at defensive end, led by top pass rusher Jerry Hughes. Hughes only managed 4 sacks, but that still led the team, as they had 27 sacks total. He also had 9 quarterback hits and 32 quarterback hurries on 454 total pass rush snaps, impressive considering he did not have a consistent pass rush presence opposite him, and he played well against the run. Hughes isn’t known for his run defense at 6-2 254, but he’s earned a positive pass rush grade in 6 straight seasons from PFF. He finished the 2017 season as PFF’s #10 ranked 4-3 defensive end and, despite going into his age 30 season, he should have at least a couple more solid seasons left in the tank.

Shaq Lawson was the starter opposite Hughes last season. A first round pick in 2016, Lawson developed into a competent run stuffer in 2017 after a tough rookie year, but continued to struggle as a pass rusher. In 2 seasons in the league, Lawson has just 6 sacks, 4 quarterback hits, and 20 quarterback hurries on 374 pass rush snaps. He’s also missed 11 games with shoulder, knee, and ankle injuries. Growing impatient with Lawson’s development, the Bills signed ex-Redskin Trent Murphy to a 3-year, 22.5 million dollar deal this off-season to give them a consistent pass rush presence opposite Hughes.

Murphy missed all of last season with a torn ACL, so it’s a bit of a surprise that he was able to get a good multi-year offer, but Murphy was an above average starter prior to the injury, so this signing definitely comes with a lot more upside than the Lotulelei signing. He was PFF’s 13th ranked 3-4 outside linebacker in both 2015 and 2016. He comes with risk, not just because of the injury, but also because he has a PED suspension on his resume and because he’s never played in a 4-3 front like the one the Bills run, but he should give their pass rush a boost. If Lawson can show a little bit more pass rush ability in 2018, the Bills would have a talented trio of edge rushers. This defensive line has still issues on the interior, but this isn’t a bad unit.

Grade: B-

Linebackers

Along with defensive tackle, linebacker was also a huge position of need for the Bills this off-season. They got poor play from their linebacking corps, a big part of the reason why they struggled against the run, and they lost their top linebacker and leading tackler Preston Brown to the Bengals in free agency. In order to improve at the position, the Bills packaged their other first round pick (#22) with one of their extra third round picks (#65) to move up to 16th overall with the Ravens to draft Virginia Tech’s Tremaine Edmunds.

Edmunds was a top-10 talent who slid because of an early run on quarterbacks and the Bills were wise to jump up and stop his slide. Not even 20 years old on draft day, Edmunds is a freak athlete with 4.54 speed at 6-5 253 and has the versatility to rush the passer, drop in coverage, and stuff the run. He’ll likely play close to every down as the Bills’ middle linebacker as a rookie, but could also see some snaps as a edge rusher because of his pass rush abilities. He may also be used as a blitzer more often than an average middle linebacker. Regardless of how they use him, he’ll have a big rookie year role for a linebacking corps that needs it. He’ll likely be in the running for Defensive Rookie of the Year.

Second year linebacker Matt Milano is expected to be the other every down linebacker. Milano was just a 5th round pick and didn’t play a snap until week 4, but he flashed in limited action and was close to an every down player by the end of the season, playing in 68% of the team’s defensive snaps in the final 4 weeks of the season. Milano is a still projection to a larger role, but could easily develop into a capable starter.

His only real competition for snaps is Ramon Humber, a journeyman who is going into his age 31 season and who finished 33rd out of 39 eligible 4-3 outside linebackers on Pro Football Focus on 570 snaps last season. He’s been in the league 10 years, but has primarily been a special teams player. He has just 28 career starts with 9 of them coming last season. He’d be a very underwhelming starting option. Milano at least gives them upside.

Veteran Lorenzo Alexander will likely remain the 3rd linebacker, though his age is a concern, going into his age 35 season. Largely a career special teamer, Alexander has taken on a larger defensive role over the past 2 seasons since arriving in Buffalo. He’s played 786 snaps and 672 snaps in the past 2 seasons respectively, the two highest defensive snap totals of his 13-year career. Alexander shockingly put up 12.5 sacks in 2016, more than half of his career total (24.5), but did not play nearly as well in 2017, managing just 3 sacks and finishing with a below average grade on PFF.

He’s largely a one-year wonder, so I wouldn’t expect big things from him in 2018, especially at his age. He’ll be the 3rd linebacker in base packages and will also see some snaps as an edge rusher in sub packages, though I would expect he’d be no higher than their 4th sub package edge rusher on the depth chart, behind Jerry Hughes, Trent Murphy, and Shaq Lawson. The addition of Tremaine Edmunds should upgrade this linebacking corps, as could Milano if he breaks out in an every down role, but both are young and unproven, so that’s far from a guarantee.

Grade: C+

Secondary

While the Bills had major problems against the run last season, their pass defense was solid, thanks primarily to their secondary. That came as a bit of a surprise, considering the Bills lost their top-2 cornerbacks from the previous season, losing Stephon Gilmore to the Patriots in free agency and then trading Ronald Darby to the Eagles. In fact, the Bills basically completely redid their secondary from 2016 to 2017 and they did it without adding any big name players.

Easily the most impactful addition they made to their secondary last off-season was first round pick Tre’Davious White, who excelled as the Bills’ de facto #1 cornerback as a rookie. Fellow first round cornerback Marshon Lattimore got more attention and certainly was deserving of the Defensive Player of the Year award he won, but you could argue that White had just as good of a season. He allowed just 50.6% completion and 3 touchdowns on 77 targets, while picking off 4 passes and deflecting another 11. He finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ #2 ranked cornerback, 7 spots ahead of Lattimore. A sophomore slump is always a possibility, but he’s a first round talent with a bright future and could easily have another dominant season in 2018.

EJ Gaines had a solid season as the #2 cornerback opposite White, even though he was just a throw-in in the trade that sent Sammy Watkins to the Rams for a 2nd round pick. He finished the season as PFF’s 28th ranked cornerback, allowing just 5.12 yards per attempt and deflecting 6 passes on 60 targets. Despite that, the Bills opted to sign Vontae Davis, a cap casualty released by the Indianapolis Colts, early in February before free agency even started, rather than attempting to re-sign Gaines in free agency.

Gaines did have injury issues in 2017, missing 5 games with knee, shoulder, and hamstring injuries, but Davis also has an extensive injury history. Davis only missed 2 games in 2016, but dealt with ankle and groin injuries and finished the season as PFF’s 113th ranked cornerback out of 120 eligible, after finishing 2nd at his position in 2014 and 24th in 2015. In 2017, his groin issues flared up again and he only played 5 underwhelming games before having season ending surgery.

Despite that, the Bills gave him a 1-year, 5 million dollar deal this off-season. Davis has some bounce back potential, but he’ll need to stay healthy, which is far from a guarantee, especially now that he’s going into his age 30 season. After seeing Gaines have to settle for just 4 million on a one-year deal from the Browns, the Bills might be kicking themselves a little bit for signing Davis instead. He’s unlikely to be better than Gaines was last season.

The Bills also got good play at the safety position in 2017 as well, with veterans Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer both having the best seasons of their career in their first season in Buffalo, finishing 16th and 18th respectively among safeties on PFF. Both are one-year wonders though, especially Poyer, a 7th round pick by the Browns in 2013 who made just 10 starts in 4 seasons before signing with the Bills. Hyde has more experience, making 33 starts in 4 seasons with the Packers, who took him in the 5th round in 2013, but he’s never had a season like 2017 before. Both could continue their strong play into 2018, but there’s a good chance at least one of them regresses.

The only weakness the Bills had in the secondary last season was the slot, as top slot cornerback Leonard Johnson led the NFL with 603 slot yards allowed, including a whopping 355 yards after the catch (also most in the NFL). Unfortunately, they’re unlikely to be better on the slot this season, given their lack of depth at cornerback. Free agent addition Phillip Gaines is likely the favorite for the slot job, but he’s been one of the worst cornerbacks in the league over the past couple years, both outside and on the slot.

He finished the 2016 season as PFF’s 116th ranked cornerback out of 120 eligible on 448 snaps and then finished the 2017 season 117th out of 120 eligible on 419 snaps. His primary competition for the job will be 4th round rookie Taron Johnson, but he’s unlikely to be much of an upgrade immediately. The Bills should still get good secondary play in 2018, but they lost starter EJ Gaines and may not get the same performance from Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde, who are both coming off of career years.

Grade: B

Conclusion

The Bills surprisingly made the post-season last year, but they were arguably one of the worst teams in the league. Most of their wins were close, while most of their losses were not. And that was despite the fact that they had a capable quarterback under center and finished with a +9 turnover margin. This season, they have an unsettled situation at quarterback with a career backup competing with a raw rookie for the starting job and they’re unlikely to have the same success turnover margin wise, as that tends to be inconsistent week-to-week and year-to-year. As the Bills proved last year, you don’t have to be that good to sneak into the post-season in a 16 game season, but they’re unlikely to be able to repeat that and may end the season as one of the worst teams in the league. On paper, this team has a lot of problems.  I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.

Prediction: XX-XX XX in AFC East

Buffalo Bills at Jacksonville Jaguars: 2017 NFL Wild Card Round Pick

Buffalo Bills (9-7) at Jacksonville Jaguars (10-6)

The Jaguars finished with the easiest schedule in the NFL in 2017, in terms of opponents record. Ordinarily, that would make them a smart team to bet against in the post-season, but they played at a very high level across that easy schedule, finishing 3rd in point differential at +149 and 2nd in first down rate differential at 5.95%. On top of that, they get to face the weakest playoff qualifier in their first game, with the Buffalo Bills coming to town, potentially missing stud running back LeSean McCoy.

Not only were the Bills the last team to clinch a playoff spot, sneaking into the AFC’s 6th seed at 9-7 on a strength of schedule tiebreaker, but they were not as good as their record suggested this season, as they finished with a -57 point differential that is not only the worst among playoff teams, but also worse than 9 other non-playoff teams. Five of their 7 losses came by more than 10 points, as opposed to just 1 win by more than 10 points. The Jaguars, meanwhile, won by more than 10 in all but two of their wins and have a good chance to get another one here this week. I wouldn’t recommend betting on this because the line is pretty steep at -8, but Jacksonville should win this one relatively easily.

Jacksonville Jaguars 20 Buffalo Bills 10

Pick against the spread: Jacksonville -8

Confidence: Low

Buffalo Bills at Miami Dolphins: 2017 Week 17 NFL Pick

Buffalo Bills (8-7) at Miami Dolphins (6-9)

Both of these teams have had a lot of close wins and big losses. The Bills’ have just 1 victory by more than 10 points, as opposed to 5 losses by more than 10 points. Their 8 wins have come by a combined 68 points (8.50 points per game), while their 7 losses have come by a combined 131 points (18.71 points per game). The Dolphins, meanwhile, have just 1 victory by more than 7 points, as opposed to 8 losses by more than 7 points. Their 6 wins have come by a combined 47 points (7.83 points per game), while their 9 losses have come by a combined 153 points (17.00 points per game). In point differential, the Bills rank 23rd at -63, while the Dolphins rank 29th at -106.

The Bills have been even worse than their point differential suggests though, as they’ve been overly reliant on winning the turnover margin, which is unpredictable on a week-to-week basis. They rank 6th in the NFL with a +8 turnover margin, making them the only team with a turnover margin of +5 or better and a negative point differential. In first down rate differential, they rank just 31st at -6.46%, even worse than the Dolphins, who rank -4.93% at 29th.

The Bills are better with Tyrod Taylor under center instead of Nathan Peterman, who has seen some action this season, but the Dolphins have been better since promoting running back Kenyan Drake to the feature back role. At the very least, these two teams are about even right now. Given that, we’re getting good line value with the Dolphins as 2.5 point home underdogs in this matchup. I would need a full field goal with the Dolphins to bet on them, but the money line is worth a small bet at +110, as this game is no worse than a toss up for the Dolphins.

Miami Dolphins 19 Buffalo Bills 17 Upset Pick +110

Pick against the spread: Miami +2.5

Confidence: Low

Buffalo Bills at New England Patriots: 2017 Week 16 NFL Pick

Buffalo Bills (8-6) at New England Patriots (11-3)

The Bills are 8-6 and right in the mix for one of the two wild card spots in the AFC, which would send them to the post-season for the first time since 1999 and end the longest active playoff drought in the NFL. However, they face a bit of an uphill battle, as their final two games are on the road and they probably need to win at least one of those games to remain in the playoff pictures, with the 8-6 Titans, the 8-6 Ravens, and the 7-7 Chargers also in the mix for those two wild card spots. On top of that, they haven’t been as good as their record suggests, as they have just one win by more than 10 points, as opposed to 4 losses, and have a mediocre point differential of -43. That’s despite having +7 turnover margin, tied for 5th best in the NFL.

Turnover margins tend to be unpredictable on a week-to-week basis, so they won’t necessarily be able to rely on that going forward, and they rank just 31st in first down rate differential at -5.30%. They are also the only team in the league with a turnover margin of +6 and a negative point differential. They are obviously a better team with Tyrod Taylor under center, instead of Nathan Peterman, but even with Taylor under center they’ve had major problems moving the ball because of their lack of pass catchers. On top of that, their defense has had major problems getting off the field without forcing turnovers.

Their opponents this week, the New England Patriots, beat them 23-3 in Buffalo a few weeks back. They rank 6th in first down rate differential at +4.36% and have been even better in recent weeks since working through some early season kinks on defense. The Patriots are also in a great spot, as they have no upcoming distractions with only a home game against the Jets on deck. Favorites of 7+ are 70-43 ATS since 2012 before being favorites of 7+ again, as good teams tend to take care of business against inferior teams when they don’t have any upcoming distractions. The Patriots have not been as good of a bet at home as they have been on the road in recent seasons and we’re not getting much line value at New England -11.5 (I have this line calculated at 12.5), so I would not recommend betting on this one, but the Patriots should be the right side for pick’em purposes.

Sunday update: Buffalo ruled out starting cornerback EJ Gaines, but this line still fell to 11 Sunday morning. I was on the fence about betting this game before, but I think it’s worth a small wager now. Gaines has been having a solid season and their pass defense has been worse when he’s been out of the lineup, something that’s going to be a big problem against Tom Brady.

New England Patriots 31 Buffalo Bills 17

Pick against the spread: New England -11

Confidence: Medium

Miami Dolphins at Buffalo Bills: 2017 Week 15 NFL Pick

Miami Dolphins (6-7) at Buffalo Bills (7-6)

The Bills pulled out an overtime victory at home against the Colts last week 13-7 with Nate Peterman under center, a game they could have easily lost on several occasions. As a result, the Bills are now 7-6 and turn the team back to starting quarterback Tyrod Taylor, who returns from a one-game absence with a knee injury. The Bills are not nearly as good as their record though. They rank 23rd in point differential at -50 and 31st in first down rate differential at -6.44%.

The Dolphins have had their share of issues this season, but they’ve been better in recent weeks. People thought they were crazy for trading away Jay Ajayi at the trade deadline, but new starter Kenyan Drake has proven to be a much better fit in this offense and has given this offense a new dimension in recent weeks, as he’s taken over as the feature back with backup Damien Williams out. They’ve also been better defensively since getting safety TJ McDonald back from suspension. Last week’s win at home over the Patriots may not have been a complete fluke, especially since the Dolphins easily beat a capable Broncos team the week before.

Last week’s win puts the Dolphins in a terrible spot, as teams tend to be flat off of wins as home underdogs. Teams cover at a mere 45% rate off of a home upset win. However, the Bills aren’t in a great spot either, as they have to face New England next week in Foxboro, a game in which they will almost definitely be double digit underdogs. Teams are 50-86 ATS since 2012 before being double digit underdogs, as it’s understandably tough to play your best when you have a really tough game on deck.

On top of that, divisional home favorites are just 25-62 ATS since 2002 before being divisional road underdogs. The Dolphins are probably the better team and definitely in the better spot, so I like getting more than a field goal with them. About 1 in 4 games are decided by a field goal or less, so getting Miami +3.5 gives us some significant cushion if the Dolphins can’t pull the upset. The Dolphins are worth a small bet if you can get 3.5.

Buffalo Bills 19 Miami Dolphins 17

Pick against the spread: Miami +3.5

Confidence: Medium

Indianapolis Colts at Buffalo Bills: 2017 Week 14 NFL Pick

Indianapolis Colts (3-9) at Buffalo Bills (6-6)

The Bills started 5-2, but have since fallen to 6-6. What happened? Well, this decline should have been expected, given how reliant they were on the turnover margin to win games early in the season. They started the season with a +14 turnover margin in their first 7 games, but turnover margins tend to be very inconsistent on a week-to-week basis, so they were unlikely to be able to continue relying on that going forward. Sure enough, the Bills have a -8 turnover margin in their last 5 games and are 1-4 in those 5 games as a result.

The Bills are even worse than their 6-6 record too, as they have a point differential of -56, 9th worst in the NFL. Having a point differential that bad, despite still having a positive turnover margin at +6, is very rare. The Bills have struggled mightily to move the ball this season and to get off the field without forcing takeaways. They rank 29th in first down rate at 29.83%, 30th in first down rate allowed at 36.76%, and 31st in first down rate differential at -6.93%. The only team the Bills rank higher than in that metric are their opponents this week, the Indianapolis Colts, who rank dead last at -7.63%.

Making matters even worse for the Bills, they have to start rookie quarterback Nathan Peterman this week with Tyrod Taylor injured and he has struggled mightily in limited action this season, showing why he fell to the 5th round of the draft in April in the first place. The Colts are one of the worst teams in the league, especially with valuable players like left guard Jack Mewhort, defensive end Henry Anderson, outside linebacker John Simon, cornerback Rashaan Melvin, and safety Malik Hooker out for the season. However, I still have this line calculated at -3 with Peterman in the lineup because I have these two teams about even at the moment.

The Colts are also in a good spot in their second of two road games.  Teams typically do better in their second of two road games, as opposed to a single road game sandwiched between two home games. Teams are 256-274 straight up in their 2nd of two road games since 2008, getting outscored by an average of 0.89 points per game, as opposed to 379-523 straight up in a road game that’s sandwiched between two home games, getting outscored by an average of 2.94 points per game, a difference of about 2 points. Lines don’t really adjust for that, which can give us some good betting spots, especially with road underdogs off of a road loss, like the Colts are this week. Teams are 121-78 ATS since 2008 as road underdogs off of a road loss in their second of two road games.

The Colts are 3-9 with their only wins coming against the 49ers, Browns, and Texans, three of the worst teams in the league. However, the Bills are arguably just as bad as those teams right now, so the Colts have a chance to pull this upset straight up and, even if they don’t, we get a good cushion at +3.5, as about 1 in 4 games are decided by a field goal or less. At the very least, I’m happy getting more than a field goal with the significantly better quarterback, which is what Colts quarterback Jacoby Brissett is in this matchup with Peterman. The Colts are worth a small bet at 3.5.

Buffalo Bills 17 Indianapolis Colts 16

Pick against the spread: Indianapolis +3.5

Confidence: Medium

New England Patriots at Buffalo Bills: 2017 Week 13 NFL Pick

New England Patriots (9-2) at Buffalo Bills (6-5)

The Bills pulled the upset in Kansas City last week, but the Chiefs have long been overrated and have lost 5 of 6, so that upset isn’t as impressive as it might seem. The Bills are undoubtedly a better team with Tyrod Taylor back under center, but they lost by a combined 50 points to the Jets and Saints in Taylor’s two starts prior to his start in Kansas City. The Bills started the season 5-2 with Taylor under center before that, but that was largely because of a +14 turnover margin. In the 4 games since, they are -8 in turnover margin.

Part of that is because of Nathan Peterman’s 5-interception half against the Chargers, but turnover margins tend to be inconsistent on a week-to-week basis, so the Bills were always likely to regress to the mean in turnover margin. They’ve struggled to win the first down battle regardless of who is under center, as they rank 30th in first down rate differential at -6.48%. Taylor is a capable starting quarterback, but he isn’t working with much in the receiving corps, especially with Kelvin Benjamin out, and their defense has problems getting off the field if they aren’t forcing turnovers.

The New England Patriots come to town on a 7-game winning streak and, even more impressively, a 14-game winning streak away from New England. They’ve won those 14 games by an average of 13.21 points and covered the spread in 11 of them. The Patriots have fans throughout the country, much like the Cowboys, so it makes sense that they’d do well even away from home. They’re also in a great spot with only a trip to Miami on deck. Big favorites tend to cover before being big favorites again, as favorites of 7+ are 67-42 ATS since 2012 before being favorites of 7+ again (New England is -11.5 in Miami on the early line). Without any upcoming distractions, the Patriots should take care of business and get another double digit road victory, against a significantly inferior Bills team. This is a high confidence pick as long as the line is below 10.

New England Patriots 34 Buffalo Bills 20

Pick against the spread: New England -9

Confidence: High