For a 16th consecutive year the Buffalo Bills are spending January plotting their off-season strategies instead of participating in the playoffs. Over a week removed from the regular season they’ve already made headlines with several front office moves, which included a contract extension for general manager Doug Whaley, the hiring of Rex Ryan’s brother Rob to the coaching staff as the assistant head coach/defense and most recently the hiring of nine-time Pro Bowler Ed Reed as the an assistant defensive back coach.
Those moves are fine – maybe debatable by some – from a continuity standpoint. But after what Whaley himself called a “disappointing” 8-8 season there are numerous decisions that must be made in regards to the personnel on the roster, in order to right this ship.
Last year the Bills paid a pretty penny to redesign the offense around talented players like RB LeSean McCoy, TE Charles Clay, G Richie Incognito and of course QB Tyrod Taylor. Those additions paid immense dividends as the unit led the league in rushing and improved in their efficiency overall. However, with a much tighter budget now at their disposal because of last year’s overhaul, Whaley and the rest of the staff will have to choose their moves more wisely in 2016. That is why the Bills’ GM made it clear at the season-ending presser that this upcoming off-season will be more about retaining their own players than signing ridiculous amounts of outsiders.
Taking a look at some of this past season’s shortcomings, we’ll try to sort out some of the decisions Buffalo must make, in order to end this playoff drought next season.
Areas of improvement:
Rex Ryan wasted no time anointing the defense when he accepted the Bills’ head coaching job last off-season. In hindsight that wasn’t so smart – Ryan acknowledged that in Week 17 – but he did have reason to bring optimism and confidence to Buffalo, given the unit he was inheriting. In 2014 the Bills’ defense finished fourth overall in terms of total yards allowed and of course the most well known stat was their league leading 54 sacks. The season before that they finished ranked 10th in yards allowed and actually earned an even more impressive 57 sacks. The path was paved for Ryan – a known defensive guru in the NFL – to lead Buffalo to even greater heights.
He didn’t. The Bills finished 2015 as the 19th rated defense in yards allowed, surrendering an astounding 356.4 yards per game and registering a dismal 21 sacks. It was far from what anyone expected – including the players and coaches themselves – but Ryan has since admitted that he tried to blend last year’s dominant 4-3 scheme with his complex 3-4 system and it completely blew up in his face.
Retainment was a common theme among Ryan and GM Doug Whaley at Buffalo’s season-ending press conference. Of his defense Ryan said, “the core is definitely in place here. We have a lot of good players here, I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. So there doesn’t need to be five changes or something on defense. I don’t believe that’s necessary.” Maybe so, but there is no denying that some of the Bills’ current players didn’t work so well in Ryan’s scheme. The most obvious is DE Mario Williams, who many are anticipating will be cut sooner rather than later, saving the Bills $12.9 million in cap space. Williams seemed very out of place this season and also seemed to put forth little effort in attempting to fit Ryan’s defense.
It would also make sense for Buffalo to part ways with CB Leodis McKelvin in order to save themselves another $3.9 million, although there is the possibility of keeping him, only if he can successfully transition into a safety. Additionally, questions remain about Buffalo’s desire to bring back unrestricted free agent, linebacker Nigel Bradham as well. Perhaps the one saving grace for Bradham is that after suffering a high ankle sprain and missing the final five weeks of play, Buffalo’s defense became extremely porous in his absence.
Still, the Bills have a dire need for safeties and linebackers this off-season. Holding the 19th overall pick in this year’s draft, it’s almost essential that Buffalo grabs a “ready to play” defensive impact player. One such player being mentioned in all the Mock Drafts out there is Alabama LB Reggie Ragland. Ragland helped lead the Crimson Tide defense to a national title with 97 tackles and showed an ability to grasp Nick Saban’s NFL-style scheme. He could wreak havoc under Ryan at 6-foot-2, 252 pounds.
The reason safety is such a concern is because the future of Aaron Williams remains so uncertain. There has been optimism surrounding his return after suffering a serious neck injury way back in Week Two, but until he experience that first hit no one really knows how his body will respond. Outside of Williams both Corey Graham and Bacarri Rambo proved to be formidable options at safety, but also very mistake prone. The draft could present some viable targets for Buffalo as they’ve already been linked to Clemson, S Jayron Kearse. Likewise, there are some talented unrestricted free agent safeties available like Kansas City’s Eric Berry and San Diego’s Eric Weddle, but given the Bills’ financial situation those may not be realistic options. It’s a situation to monitor, no doubt given that it was major area of weakness for Buffalo’s defense this season.
Some other defensive players early Mock Drafts project Buffalo taking with their first pick include Alabama, DT A’Shawn Robinson and Clemson, DE Shaq Lawson – if he drops that far.
This area in particular needs a complete overhaul. As of now special teams coordinator Danny Crossman is safe, but given how badly his unit performed this season – coupled with the fact that he’s originally from Doug Marrone’s regime – he may be the next to go. We’ll see. Even if he does stay though, some major changes are needed on special teams.
That starts with the penalties – Buffalo racked up 25 of them on special teams plays alone, which suggests a need for new personnel. The Bills need to revamp those units with players who are going to be more disciplined.
The Bills’ kicking situation is certainly one to monitor as well. Dan Carpenter struggled this season missing six extra points and five field goals and was pretty much on Ryan’s bad sige from August, forward. While kickoff specialist Jordan Gay recorded 41 touchbacks this season, it’s hard to imagine the Bills allowing kickers to take up two roster spots in 2016. They need to find a kicker who is all encompassing. One thing’s for sure though, that’s not Billy Cundiff.
Believe it or not the Bills kick return game was probably the biggest disaster this season. They averaged just 18.8 yards per return on kickoffs and 7.5 on punt returns. 32 yards was their longest kick return this year, while a pitiful 27 yards is all they could register for a season-long on punt returns. Just pathetic all around. No doubt Buffalo will be looking for a reliable returner this season.
The offensive line
As a whole the offensive line was a strength of the 2015 Bills – they did after all lead the league in rushing (2,432 yards). It was obvious though that Buffalo favored running behind the left side of the line, anchored by LG Richie Incognito and LT Cordy Glenn, over the right side, which featured rookie, G John Miller and – for most of the season – LT Seantrel Henderson. Pass protection is really the biggest concern, as Bills’ quarterbacks were sacked 42 times this season, ranking just outside the bottom third of the league.
There is still plenty of room for Miller to grow, having just finished his rookie season, but he became part of a carousel of injuries that plagued the Bills throughout the 2015 campaign, as was Henderson – who according to the Buffalo New was battling Crohn’s Disease. Injuries certainly didn’t help the Bills upfront and that’s exactly why adding some depth in the trenches could pay dividends.
As Incognito and Glenn hit the free agent market beginning March 9, re-signing them should be first and foremost. Based on Whaley’s comments during the season-ending press conference it seems like they are priority number 1. “It is a major point of emphasis this off-season because you love to have those big uglies up there for continuity sake and the longer you can [keep] them together the better they are going to be,” Whaley said. “Am I guaranteeing anything? I am not in that business anymore. But we are going to try our hardest and it of high importance to us because the longer you have those five guys together the better they are going to play and the better we are going to be as a team, especially offensively.”
Like he said though, there are no guarantees, which is just another reason Buffalo needs to bolster their offensive line depth. Knowing they’ll have to fork over some money for Incognito and Glenn, the draft is likely the best way to do add some O-line depth. There are some talented players to choose from, including Ohio State OT Taylor Decker, Michigan State OT Jack Conklin and Auburn OT Shon Coleman, to name a few.
The Receiving core
One thing missing from the Bills’ passing game this past season was a reliable number two receiver to lineup opposite of Sammy Watkins. He’s their home run threat no doubt, but now that he’s grabbed the league’s attention following a tremendous 1,000-yard season, he’ll be seeing a lot more double teams from opposing defenses. That’s where having a second major receiving weapon comes into play. It keeps an opposing defense honest.
Everyone thought Robert Woods would fit that number two role perfectly, but because he toughed out a torn groin all season, he was far from consistent. Even Chris Hogan played through injury as torn wrist ligaments bothered him for the last quarter of the season. Obviously both wideouts deserve to be on the roster and can provide some much needed depth at the position. However, adding another big-time playmaker to the passing attack would open things up immensely for Tyrod Taylor.
Initially, Percy Harvin was brought in to be that threat on the other side of Buffalo’s offense, and early on in the season he was Taylor’s favorite target. Then of course Harvin’s nagging hip injury flared up, costing him the season. It’s unlikely the Bills turn to him again to fill that void considering the injury risk that comes with him.
A few free agent options exist such as Cincinnati’s Marvin Jones, Seattle’s Jermaine Kearse, the Giants’ Rueben Randle or even Miami’s Rishard Matthews. Of course the draft offers some viable options as well including Ole Miss’ WR Loquan Treadwell, Ohio State’s Michael Thomas, Pittsburgh’s Tyler Boyd and Baylor’s Corey Coleman. The Bills have actually been linked to Treadwell in several Mock Drafts, but as the top rated receiver it’s unclear if he’ll even make it to Buffalo at 19.