Now that most of the dust has settled surrounding the rookie quarterback debate that consumed all Bills related material for months, it’s time to examine the other important subplots that will determine the team’s success next season.
Though the Bills were one of the more active teams during the offseason, many of the same weaknesses from last season exist throughout the roster, particularly on offense. While all eyes will be fixed on the man under center, we outline a few other things to keep an eye on as Sean McDermott’s squad looks to return to the playoffs in his second season at the helm.
Will Lesean McCoy Need to Carry the Offense… Again?
Let’s face it, over the past three seasons, the Bills offense started and finished with Lesean McCoy. With very little efficiency in the passing game since he arrived in Buffalo, he is one of the most heavily utilized offensive weapons in the league. No, that statement was not an attempt to re-ignite another mindless Tyrod Taylor debate, but it’s obvious to anyone who has watched the team that McCoy has been the nucleus of that unit.
Here’s the problem though. When the 2018 season begins, he will be 30-years-old. In the grand scheme of things, he’s far from geriatric, but as far as shelf lives of NFL running backs go, it’s fair to wonder how much he has left in the tank.
That’s not to say he’s showed any signs of slowing down to this point, but can he really handle another season carrying the Bills’ offense? With a distinct lack of both depth and talent at wide receiver and uncertainty under center, it certainly seems that he will be put in that position yet again.
Curiously, Brandon Beane did very little to bolster the offense in the offseason, focusing primarily on reinforcing an already stout defensive unit. Sure, veteran acquisition Chris Ivory should help take a little pressure off of McCoy as a change-of-pace back, but his best days are well behind him.
Fans should prepare themselves for another year of close, low-scoring affairs where we all pray that McCoy gets up after every play. Without him, the Bills attack has very little going for it.
The team’s first two picks of the 2017 NFL draft had very different rookie campaigns. First-round pick Tre’Davious White was a revelation at cornerback. After losing Stephon Gilmore via free agency last season, there were certainly question marks surrounding White’s ability to hold down the top defensive back slot on the roster. Though there were some gaffes early on, he improved with every game, earning him consideration for Defensive-Rookie-of-the-Year.
While the national media has made a habit of snubbing White from their conversations surrounding the top young players in the league, the 23-year-old has formed a massive chip on his shoulder. Time will tell if that added motivation propels him to new heights, or serves as a distraction en route to a sophomore slump in 2018.
Second-round pick, Zay Jones had a very different inaugural season. After a few ill-timed drops to begin the season, Jones had trouble getting open, though, to be fair, his quarterback’s lack of field vision and anticipation certainly didn’t help. As a player who is best known for his footwork on anticipatory routes, he was held back to an extent by Taylor’s inability to hit his receivers in stride.
As if his disappointing rookie campaign wasn’t bad enough, Jones had himself a rough offseason which involved a bizarre incident at a Los Angeles hotel, and knee surgery that will likely keep him out of training camp. With new offensive coordinator, Brian Daboll implementing his scheme this summer, Jones will need to learn on the fly if he expects to start the year firing on all cylinders.
Another under-the-radar second-year player to watch is linebacker, Matt Milano. The fifth-round pick was a pleasant surprise toward the end of last season where he was called into action amid injuries to an already thin linebacking corps. Heading into camp, he will be pencilled in as the starting weak-side linebacker. It will be interesting to see if his elite speed and pursuit ability helps propel him into an every-down role. If he can continue to grow, he will soon become one of the biggest steals of his draft class.
The Bills were very fortunate last season on defense. Not to take away from how well the group performed, but typically defensive units who fail to generate pressure do not fare so well in today’s pass-heavy NFL. Despite finishing near the bottom of the league in sacks, the Bills were bailed out time and time again by their ball-hawking secondary. Without them, Buffalo’s playoff drought would have unquestionably reached 18 years.
Recognizing this problem, Beane made it a priority to bolster the defensive line via free agency, signing five players and acquiring one more in the draft. With Star Lotulelei and Trent Murphy now in the fold, and Kyle Williams returning for what is probably his last NFL season at 34 years old, the group needs to improve on their paltry 1.69 sack-per-game rate from 2017.
With an offense that isn’t built to put up big points, it will once again be up to the Bills’ defense to keep games close. It’s part of the reason Beane worked so hard to add reinforcements to a group that was more opportunistic than good last season. Fortunately, with all of the added skill, a mid-season meltdown like the one fans witnessed in weeks 9-11 last year is pretty unlikely to occur again.
The Bills are shaping up to be a very similar team to the one we saw take the field last season. The offense isn’t likely to start racking up big yardage through the air, and the defense will have to carry the load if the franchise hopes to make back-to-back playoff appearances for the first time since Titanic hit theaters.
Most fans don’t want to hear this, but the Bills were extremely fortunate to make it to the dance in 2017. The “process” boiled down to a lot of timely interceptions and a defensive mishap in Baltimore. They’ll need to be a more consistent team in 2018.
They can’t rely on another Andy Dalton miracle to help seal their fate. Bills fans can only donate so much money to Cincinnati based charities after all.
Editor’s babble: Thanks to Anthony Sciandra for his insightful contributions to our blog. You can find Anthony on Twitter @SciandraSports.