The first quarter of the 2015 Buffalo Bills season is in the books and the team is sitting in third place in the AFC East with a 2-2 record. This Bills team has been one of the more entertaining ones to watch in recent years, thanks to an influx of star-power that’s generated tons of excitement and lofty expectations.
While four games isn’t a big enough sample size to make bold predictions as to how the rest of the year will shake out, I decided to take a look at some noteworthy individual performances—Bills who’ve played well and Bills that need to step their game up for the next quarter of the season.
LG Richie Incognito
After spending a year away from football following a bullying scandal during his time with the Miami Dolphins, Rex Ryan believed that Richie Incognito deserved a second chance. He signed a one-year, $1.1 million deal with the Bills and through four games, it appears that the 32-year old has arguably been the most underrated free agent signing of the 2015 offseason. Incognito has started every game at left guard and has performed admirably.
He hasn’t allowed a single sack, just two QB hits and one hurry, while grading out as ProFootballFocus’ No. 4 ranked guard out of 79 qualifying players. He’s played a big role in the Bills’ league-leading rushing attack, driving defenders off the ball or pulling out around the edge to clear lanes for his running backs.
There might not be a cornerback in the entire National Football League playing as well as second-round rookie Ronald Darby is right now. After a rough preseason, Darby has seemingly gotten better every time he takes the field. In his first four games, he’s faced premier pass catchers of the likes of T.Y. Hilton, Donte Moncrief, Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman and Odell Beckham Jr., among others.
Darby has held his opponents to 15 receptions on 36 targets (3rd-most in NFL) for 153 yards and just 33 yards-after-the-catch (9th-fewest). His 41.7-percent catch rate allowed is third-best among cornerbacks and quarterbacks are posting a 41.7 passer rating when targeting him, the third-lowest total in the league. He hasn’t surrendered a touchdown yet, but he’s intercepted two passes and has broken up a league-leading 10 balls.
His development has been steady and the future is looking bright for this raw, yet athletic rookie cornerback.
When simply looking at box scores, it may seem as if Mario Williams is having a down year. He’s recorded just seven tackles and one sack through the first four games of the year, but even though he hasn’t gotten the sacks that fans want to see, he’s done a good job disrupting the backfield, registering three quarterback hits and eight hurries in his new role in Rex Ryan’s defense.
He’s been dominant against the run, whether he’s lined up at his traditional 4-3 defensive end spot, as a stand-up linebacker or even as an interior defensive tackle. Williams sets the edge as well as any defender in the league, and opposing running backs have gained just 38 yards on 12 carries (3.16 YPC) when running in his direction.
Charles Clay was another big free agent addition from this past offseason that has already found himself as a featured cog within Buffalo’s offense. A prototypical “H-Back,” Clay is a moveable chess-piece in Greg Roman’s scheme, lining up all over the field—anywhere from a wing in the backfield, to an in-line tight end, the slot, or even split out wide. He’s caught 21 passes for 255 yards and two touchdowns this year.
He has the athleticism to threaten every level of the field, with speed to get on top of linebackers and the size to out-muscle defensive backs. He’s an active blocker in the run game as well, where he’s often put in motion to crack block or seal out the edge. Through four games, Charles Clay looks like an ideal fit within the Bills’ offense.
Yet another newcomer has made the list, with Tyrod Taylor playing some fantastic football. The Bills signed Taylor to a three-year $3.18 million deal after the former sixth-round pick out of Virginia Tech spent his first four professional seasons as Joe Flacco’s backup in Baltimore.
Now, he’s seized his opportunity, completing 71.7-percent of his passes (3rd-best, min 100 att.) for 988 yards at an 8.23 yards-per-attempt rate (9th), while tossing eight touchdowns (5th) to just four interceptions. The dual-threat passer has added another 111 yards and a touchdown on the ground as well.
Taylor certainly has a lot of room to improve, particularly in learning when to leave the pocket and when not to, but he’s accurate, has a strong arm and stays poised under duress. According to ProFootballFocus, Taylor is 20-of-29 on passes in which he’s pressured, a 69% completion rate that’s tied with Tom Brady and Phillip Rivers for highest in the league.
He’s not afraid to go deep, as noted by his 21 pass attempts over 20+ yards, the fifth most of any quarterback. He’s connected on nine of those throws (3rd-most) for 282 yards and five touchdowns (1st).
RT Seantrel Henderson
Seantrel Henderson has started 20 games at right tackle now, and while he possesses all the physical traits you seek in an offensive linemen, his technique has led to him being wildly inconsistent. He’s credited with allowing 1 sack, three QB Hits and five QB hurries through four games, which isn’t awful, but it isn’t spectacular.
For a man that stands 6’7” and weighs 330+ pounds, you’d expect him to have a little more power as a run blocker, but his size seems to be a detriment to him at times as he appears clumsy when kicking out to the second level.
The Bills have gained 101 yards on 29 carries (3.9 YPC) when running behind Henderson, and that’s including a 41-yard gain. Henderson is arguably the most athletically gifted lineman on the team, but he still has a lot of work to do before he reaches his full potential.
LB Nigel Bradham
Heading into the season, I thought this would be Nigel Bradham’s coming out party. In 14 games last year, Bradham racked up 104 tackles, 2.5 sacks, forced two fumbles, broke up seven passes and grabbed one interception. ProFootballFocus graded him as one of the best coverage linebackers in the league, and it seemed like he was ready to take the next step to becoming a borderline elite player in the league, in a contract year.
However, he’s struggled in Rex Ryan’s new system, where he’s used in a variety of different positions and has a lot of different responsibilities on any given play. He’ll line up on both sides of the formation as the “WILL” or “SAM” linebacker, as a stand-up edge rusher, or as an “A” Gap blitzer. Through four games, he’s made 25 tackles and a sack, while missing six tackles. In coverage, he’s struggled mightily, allowing 15 catches (3rd most) for 202 yards (3rd most) at a 13.5 yards-per-reception (most), with 147 yards coming after the catch (2nd most).
Where he’s been effective is as a run defender, where his speed, physicality and downhill mentality allow him to blow up plays in the backfield or take on lead blockers. His eight “stops” against the run rank eighth among 28 qualifying 4-3 outside linebackers.
S Baccari Rambo
Injuries to Corey Graham and Aaron Williams have propelled Baccari Rambo into a full-time role at safety, and while he made waves on Twitter with his suplex, his actual play has been pretty dreadful. Rambo is a physical player that lacks discipline and is slow to react to developing plays, whether it’s a run or a pass.
While he’s recorded 19 tackles this season, none of them have been meaningful. He’s ranked last in PFF’s “Run Stop %” statistic with zero stops (a tackle that results in a “loss” for the offense, or prevents them from gaining a percentage of yards needed towards a first down).
He’s allowed 7 receptions for 57 yards and two touchdowns, and his 116.3 passer rating against ranks 53rd out of 81 qualifying safeties, while his -4.4 pass coverage grade ranks 80th.
LB Manny Lawson
When Rex Ryan was hired, it appeared that Manny Lawson would find himself back in the role best suited for his skill set—the “SAM” in Ryan’s hybrid defensive scheme. Lawson’s size, length, speed and strength make him an ideal candidate for a job that requires someone that can drop into coverage, set the edge against the tight end when defending the run and rushing the passer. However, in Lawson’s 124 defensive snaps, he’s been a non-factor, recording just four tackles and generating one quarterback hurry in 46 pass rush attempts.
ProFootballFocus grades Lawson as the No. 28 ranked 4-3 outside linebacker of 31 qualifiers, No. 20 in pass coverage as well as run defense, and No. 31 in pass rushing. At this stage in his career Lawson shouldn’t be asked to do more than set the edge against the run on the strong side.