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Buffalo Bills midseason awards: Part one

LeSean McCoy and Stephon Gilmore highlight Buffalo’s first-half award recipients.

While the Buffalo Bills’ Week 10 bye leaves us without a game to critique, that doesn’t mean there are any shortage of talking points when it comes to the Western New York’s beloved football team. With just under half of the season left to play, the Bills’ playoff hopes appear to be fading fast within an ultra-competitive American Football Conference. However, due to the streaky, up-and-down nature of this team, a strong finish to the regular season is far from impossible.

Before we look ahead to Buffalo’s must-win road game against Cincinnati this coming Sunday, let’s take a moment to hand out 10 midseason awards to Bills players that have stood out for reasons both good and bad.

Below are the first five awards, which will crown Buffalo’s most valuable player, least valuable player, most consistent player, defensive player of the year, and the coach of the year.

Most Valuable Player

LeSean McCoy

In his second year as a Buffalo Bill, McCoy has been the most important player on the team in 2016. Although a hamstring injury limited him against the Dolphins in Week 7, and kept him out of the lineup entirely against New England in Week 8, McCoy still ranks among the league leaders in nearly every rushing category. Through eight games played, the 28-year-old back ranks eighth in the NFL in yards (683), tied for third in yards per rush attempt (5.1), fourth in rushing yards per game (85.4), tied for ninth in touchdowns (6), and tied for third in carries over 20 yards (6). When he’s been on the field, McCoy has consistently been electric with his ability to explode to space and make defenders miss.

His value has been demonstrated in the Bills’ successes and failures this season. Through the first two weeks, McCoy was ordinary (160 total yards on 39 total touches and zero touchdowns). However, after Bills head coach Rex Ryan replaced then offensive coordinator Greg Roman with McCoy’s positional coach Anthony Lynn, McCoy found his footing and displayed the form that made him one of the NFL’s best running backs throughout his six-year spell in Philadelphia.

In Week 3, against a tough defense, McCoy ripped off 110 yards and two touchdowns on 17 carries and led the Bills to an upset win over a Cardinals team that was a game away from the Super Bowl in 2015. A week later, McCoy accumulated 108 total yards and a touchdown on 25 touches to help the Bills to a historic 16-0 blanking of the Patriots in Foxboro. In Weeks 5 and 6, McCoy racked up 290 rushing yards and averaged 7.8 yards per carry as the Bills extended their winning streak to four games with victories over the Rams and 49ers. However, after suffering his injury during practice in the buildup to Week 7, McCoy was ineffective (8 carries for 11 yards) before re-injuring himself and departing the game prematurely. Without McCoy involved, the Bills offense struggled to sustain drives and spent most the game watching from the sidelines as their defense was routinely gashed by Dolphins running back Jay Ajayi. In Week 8, while Tom Brady likely would’ve made his presence in the lineup irrelevant, the Bills offense struggled mightily without McCoy. In Buffalo’s Week 9 road defeat to Seattle, McCoy returned and looked like himself again. Against an always-tough Seattle defense, McCoy accumulated 120 total yards on 25 touches, and his presence certainly contributed to Tyrod Taylor’s best game as a starting quarterback.

If the Bills are to make a legitimate run at the playoffs, which likely means a 7-0 or 6-1 finish to the regular season, they will need McCoy healthy and at his best. Fortunately for Buffalo, their remaining schedule is conducive to a big finish for their star running back. In terms of rushing yards allowed per game, the Bills play the 24th, 29th, 21st, 15th, 31st, 30th, and fifth-ranked run defenses in their final seven games.

Least Valuable Player

Stephon Gilmore

According to Buffalo Rumblings EIC Chris Trapasso’s season-long grades, Gilmore has accumulated a 0 grade on 582 defensive snaps through nine weeks. To put that in perspective, of the 16 players to play at least 100 defensive snaps thus far, only Corey White (-0.4) has a worse overall grade. For a player that is reportedly looking to be paid like one of the NFL’s best cornerbacks this offseason, Gilmore’s performance in 2016 isn’t anywhere close to deserving of a significant financial investment from the Bills.

Aside from his two-interception performance against Carson Palmer and the Cardinals in Week 3, opposing quarterbacks have consistently victimized Gilmore in 2016. Gilmore’s nightmare outings against the Jets in Week 2 (seven catches allowed for 129 yards) and the Patriots in Week 8 (four catches for 105 yards and a touchdown) played an integral role in two of the defense’s worst outings of 2016. Although other games haven’t produced such disastrous results, offenses have attacked the 26-year-old without fear this season. Gilmore has been beaten by a wide variety of receivers this season, and perhaps most troubling, the fifth-year pro has been abused for timely receptions against players that previously were thought to have little business shaking Buffalo’s top cornerback. Likewise, Gilmore’s physicality, which was once endearing, is now met with resignation that he’ll likely be penalized for illegal contact at some point during Buffalo’s weekly proceedings.

Ultimately, Gilmore will get paid handsomely this offseason. While his 2016 season has been greatly disappointing, the No. 10 overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft has been one of the NFL’s more consistent cornerbacks in recent years. However, the Bills might be better suited looking for a cheaper alternative opposite Ronald Darby in 2017.

Most Consistent Player

Cordy Glenn

After signing a five-year contract extension in May that could pay him up to $65 million, Glenn’s performance thus far in 2016 has justified the organization’s belief in his abilities. Buffalo’s monstrous left tackle has helped pave the way for one of the NFL’s best rushing attacks and hasn’t been heard from in pass protection. When you don’t hear about an offensive lineman throughout the course of an entire game, or in Glenn’s case throughout most of a season, that means that they’re doing their job. While he’s been listed on the injury report quite a bit this season, and he missed the better part of the season’s first three weeks after aggravating an ankle injury that he first suffered early in camp, Glenn is far from injury prone. The fifth-year tackle has missed only 5 out of 73 potential starts since entering the league in 2012, and Glenn should continue capably protecting Taylor’s blind side for the foreseeable future.

Defensive Player of the Year

Lorenzo Alexander

Although two of his positional peers (Jerry Hughes and Zach Brown) would also be sensible selections here, Alexander’s rise to prominence in 2016 is entirely deserving of this recognition. Upon signing as a free agent in April, Alexander was expected to serve as a core member of Buffalo’s special teams units. However, after injuries to several edge-rushers (Shaq Lawson, Manny Lawson, IK Enemkpali), Alexander was thrust into a starting role on the defense. He has not looked back.

After a hamstring injury sustained against the Patriots left his status for Week 9 in doubt, Alexander played 97.9% of the team’s defensive snaps and had yet another strong performance (three quarterback hits, two hurries, and one sack) against Russell Wilson and the Seahawks. Through nine weeks, Alexander is tied with Chiefs linebacker Dee Ford for the league lead in sacks (10.0), and he’s also tied for fourth in forced fumbles (3). With an extra week to rest his ailing hamstring, Alexander should be primed to challenge for the NFL’s sack title down the stretch.

At 33, Alexander is deserving of a significant raise after playing on a modest, one-year, $885,000 contract ($75,000 guaranteed) this season. While the Bills certainly have a bright future with Hughes and Lawson manning the starting outside linebacker positions, you can never have too many effective edge rushers in the NFL. Bills general manager Doug Whaley would be wise to retain October’s AFC Defensive Player of the Month beyond this season.

Coach of the Year

Anthony Lynn & Bobby April III

Lynn has done an commendable job since taking over as offensive coordinator prior to Week 3, and the offensive players have praised Lynn’s ability to simplify the offensive playbook while also maximizing the talents of Buffalo’s skill position players. Lynn’s best work likely came in Week 9 against the Seahawks. While the Bills were unable to complete the comeback thanks in large part to incompetent officiating, Buffalo’s offense racked up 425 total yards, 30 first downs, and over 40 minutes of possession against one of the NFL’s best defenses. Lynn effectively balanced Buffalo’s ground game (38 carries for 162 yards and two touchdowns) with an improved passing attack (Taylor completed 71.1% of his throws for 289 yards), and just barely missed pulling out what would’ve been a memorable road victory.

Like any other offensive coordinator, some of Lynn’s decision-making remains puzzling. Personally, I still don’t understand the lacking utilization of tight end Charles Clay and backup running back Mike Gillislee. However, Lynn has compensated for the prolonged absence of the club’s best receiver (Sammy Watkins) and injuries to other key contributors (McCoy, Glenn, Robert Woods, and Marquise Goodwin), and he’s managed to keep the Bills offense plenty competitive (ninth in the NFL with 26.3 points per game) despite dire circumstances. If Lynn can continue keeping opposing defenses off balance with creative play designs in the run game, and more importantly he can help Taylor build off his exemplary performance against Seattle, the Bills may have found an answer at offensive coordinator for 2017 and beyond.

April is also deserving of recognition due to the outstanding play of Buffalo’s linebackers. Alexander has gone from defensive afterthought to one of the NFL’s league leaders in sacks. Hughes has remained a disruptive force on a weekly basis. Preston Brown and Zach Brown have combined to form one of the better inside linebacker duos in all of football. Lastly, despite missing all offseason work and the first six weeks of the season, Buffalo’s first-round pick has quickly acclimated himself to life in the NFL with two sacks in his first three games. If April’s effect on his players in 2016 is an indication of his abilities moving forward, I’m very excited to see what 2016 second-round pick Reggie Ragland is capable of when he returns to action in 2017.