Who could forget New Year’s Eve last year? An incredible, against-all-odds Andy Dalton touchdown pass marked the most joyous occasion Bills fans have experienced in the last two decades. In just his first season as head coach, Sean McDermott took a team who many pundits felt would finish toward the bottom of the league, and winded up busting the longest playoff drought in the NFL (with some help from friends).
After a 2017 campaign that most of us won’t soon forget, fans have started to speculate whether or not the team will qualify for the playoffs in 2018. Expectations are all over the map, and with a great deal of roster turnover, it’s fair to wonder whether the roster has improved, or regressed.
Let’s take a look at the key factors that will determine where the Bills finish in the standings next season.
Uncertainty on the O-Line
Nobody predicted just how much of a shake-up there would be in the trenches for the Bills this offseason. Not long after veteran center, Eric Wood announced his retirement, Richie Incognito followed suit (then decided to un-retire, got released by the team, and decided to go postal at a gym in suburban Florida, but I digress).
Just like that, the two best linemen on the roster were gone. Brandon Beane tried to stop the bleeding with the signings of Russell Bodine and Marshall Newhouse at the start of free agency, however those two acquisitions have inspired little confidence among fans. If rookie fifth-round pick Wyatt Teller can nab himself a starting gig, there could very well be four brand new starters up front on opening day.
As almost any experienced fan knows, it takes time to build chemistry as an offensive line, and with a brand new blocking strategy set to be implemented by offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, there is reason for concern. Pair that with a very shaky group of quarterbacks, and it could spell disaster.
Which brings us to our next topic…
Have They Really Upgraded from Tyrod?
It’s a fair question. Sure, after watching Tyrod Taylor struggle time and time again to produce anything significant with his arm last season, it seems like anything would be an upgrade, however the current quarterback room holds a lot more questions than answers (for now).
Let’s assume for a moment that McDermott and company do the right thing and let Josh Allen sit for a while and learn behind bridge-starter, A.J. McCarron. Though he certainly brings a different set of skills (and weaknesses), it is fair to question what he’ll be able to reasonably accomplish behind a patchwork offensive line, and with a set of wide receivers who rank somewhere near the bottom of the league in terms of talent.
Without turning this section into a Tyrod debate, we do need to recognize that his ability to make plays with his feet certainly covered up some of the sins committed by the offensive line last season, particularly on the right side. With a noticeably weaker line and a less mobile quarterback in McCarron, the end results could prove nightmarish.
Hopefully Lesean McCoy has another great year left in him on the ground. Realistically, the offense in Buffalo will likely start and end with him for the third consecutive year.
Big Upgrades on Defense
Let’s not kid ourselves. The Bills defense in 2017 was more “opportunistic” than good. Without one or two timely interceptions by the likes of Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde, we might very well be sitting in year 18 of the playoff drought. Fortunately, Beane was quick to address the flaws on the roster that were covered up in part last season by the team’s ball-hawking secondary.
On the defensive line, Beane played the role of Ash Ketchum (or maybe Gary Oak? But whatever, I’ll nerd out on my own time), acquiring five new contributors. After claiming that the Bills wouldn’t be a splashy spender in free agency under his watch, he sure did land himself a couple of big fish, signing Star Lotulelei and Trent Murphy to expensive contracts. Last year, the Bills were bottom-five in the NFL in sacks with 27. It would be a complete and utter shock if they didn’t experience a vast improvement in that regard.
Leading up to the draft, the linebacking corps was still a major concern, however in an unexpected turn of events, Beane traded up in the first round for a second time, selecting Tremaine Edmunds with the 16th overall pick. The Virginia Tech product is the odds-on favorite to win the starting middle linebacker job out of camp. If he can reach his seemingly limitless potential, he will represent a massive upgrade over Preston Brown. On the outside, if agless wonder, Lorenzo Alexander can squeeze out one more productive season, and Matt Milano can improve upon his impressive rookie campaign, the Bills could have a daunting front-seven.
Though we’ve already touched on how great the secondary was last year, there were certainly depth concerns as injuries piled up throughout the season. With the talented yet injury-prone E.J. Gaines signing with Cleveland as a free agent, Beane acquired Vonte Davis to fill his shoes opposite TreDavious White at corner. After that, the team came to terms with project slot corner, Philip Gaines and suddenly depth was no longer an issue on the back-end.
To recap, the Bills did an excellent job of addressing their glaring holes on defense while ultimately ignoring their problems on offense. That being said, there is no reason that the team cannot repeat and qualify for the playoffs in year two under McDermott. No, they likely won’t be a Super Bowl contender, but a record of 10-6 isn’t out of the question. Then again, neither is 6-10.
In 2017, the Bills won six games by a single score (in five of which the team was held under 25 points). While that isn’t exactly rare in the NFL, it indicates just how much the defense bailed them out of games that could have easily gone the other way. Conversely, of the team’s seven losses, four of them were by 20 points or more. Ouch.
Either way, excitement is at an all-time high, and the franchise has the most competent coach and GM combo since the Levy era. They have a plan, and you can bet your bottom dollar that it isn’t to regress in year two.
Editor’s babble: In addition to Anthony’s excellent points about a questionable set of WRs, unknowns at QB, and a new OL configuration, Brian Daboll’s new offensive scheme seems to be a better kept secret than anything going on at the Pentagon. Thanks to Anthony Sciandra for his terrific contributions to our blog. We’re grateful having him share his expertise. Have a great Memorial Day Weekend!