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.
After selecting the MVP (Most Valuable Player), LVP (Least Valuable Player), most consistent player, DPOY (Defensive Player of the Year) and the coach of the year yesterday, below are the picks for the most scrutinized player, the rookie of the year, the comeback player of the year, the most improved player, and the most underappreciated player.
Most Scrutinized Player
This selection might be the most straightforward of the bunch. Taylor is playing the single most scrutinized position in all of professional sports, and his performance this season has led to a healthy debate as to whether the Bills would be wise to commit to him moving forward. His detractors certainly have reasonable arguments. Taylor has failed to consistently show an ability to use the middle of the field, his accuracy on intermediate routes has waned at times, and he has yet to display an ability to bring the Bills back into the game when trailing. His supporters also have sentiments that make sense. Taylor’s electric mobility and his ability to create on the run produces highlight-reel worthy plays every week, he continues to throw one of the best deep balls in all of football, and he continues to protect the football by limiting turnovers. Through nine games in 2016, and through 23 games as Buffalo’s starting quarterback over the past two seasons, doubt still exists as to whether Taylor represents the caliber of quarterback that could lead the Bills to a playoff run.
While I’ll share more of my thoughts on Buffalo’s quarterback in the near future, I will say that I’m already of the mind that the Bills would be wise to retain Taylor. His expected cap hit in 2017, which would be $15.913 million, would rank as the 20th highest salary among quarterbacks. Even with frequent injuries to his supporting cast and unsettling mediocrity from his defensive teammates, Taylor has kept the Bills competitive during his time as a starter. If he ends this season with more performances similar to his night in Seattle, Taylor will surely cut into the number of fans who continue to question his future here in Buffalo.
Rookie of the Year
Following his strong introduction to the NFL over the last three weeks, it was very tempting to nominate Shaq Lawson in this spot. The No. 19 overall pick in this year’s draft has already registered a pair of sacks despite playing just 64 snaps against Miami, New England, and Seattle. While his role has been limited thus far, he’s already demonstrated an ability to rush the passer and I’m excited to see what Lawson looks like with more experience under his belt.
With that being said, Washington is the obvious choice here. After being selected in third round (No. 80 overall), the former Ohio State Buckeye has been an effective rotational piece along the defensive line. Through nine games, Washington has 13 total tackles while playing just over 34% of the defensive snaps. According to Buffalo Rumblings EIC Chris Trapasso’s weekly grades, Washington has accumulated the second best grade (+4.6) among Buffalo’s defensive linemen.
Comeback Player of the Year
After a season-ending knee injury cut his 2015 season short after just six games, it might have been fair to wonder if Buffalo’s 11-year veteran would be able to continue playing at a high level. However, the 33-year-old defensive tackle has erased any doubts that he might be slowing down. Even without Marcell Dareus alongside him for almost the entire season, Williams has racked up 33 total tackles and 3.5 sacks through nine games. If Williams keeps producing at that pace, he would be projected to finish the season with 59 total tackles and seven sacks. That potential output would be Williams’ best season since he finished with 68 tackles and 10.5 sacks (and made his third Pro Bowl) in 2013.
Similarly to former Bills running back Fred Jackson’s relationship with Buffalo’s offense, Williams has been the heart and soul of the Bills defense while spending the entirety of his career in Buffalo. Although he’s far from a household name around the league, Williams has quietly been one of the NFL’s most consistently disruptive defensive linemen over the past decade. While his play this year might suggest he has a few more years left in the tank, it’d be nice to see Williams’ teammates hold up their end of the bargain and give their veteran leader a taste of postseason football.
Most Improved Player
Following his arrival to Buffalo in early April, Brown seemed like a shrewd signing by Bills general manager Doug Whaley. Although the fifth-year linebacker became a part-time contributor for a lowly Tennessee Titans team in 2015, the former second-round pick had an abundance of athleticism and demonstrated an ability to effectively cover opposing tight ends and running backs. However, Whaley couldn’t have predicted that Brown would play as well as he has for the Bills in 2016.
Through nine weeks, Brown ranks third in the NFL in total tackles (89) and he’s also produced splash plays (three sacks and two force fumbles) to complement his steady ability to wrap up opposing ball carriers. While Brown has yet to record an interception in 2016, the 27-year-old’s penchant for picking off opposing quarterbacks (six interceptions in 49 games with Tennessee) would seem to suggest that the inside linebacker might have a few big plays left in his bag this season.
Brown’s performance presents an interesting dynamic for the front office. While second-round pick Reggie Ragland was quickly becoming a favorite of the coaching staff prior to his season-ending knee injury in training camp, Brown has certainly demonstrated an ability to handle both the workload and the responsibilities associated with a starter in Rex Ryan’s defense. If Brown has one or two more performances like he did against New England in Week 4 (17 total tackles, two forced fumbles, two tackles for loss, two quarterback hurries, and one sack) over the last seven weeks, he will likely price himself out of a return to Buffalo.
Most Underappreciated Player
Mike Gillislee & Charles Clay
Though I realize it may be counter-intuitive on my end to label Gillislee and Clay as underappreciated one day after I nominated offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn as “Coach of the Year,” I believe that Lynn can better utilize available talent while also being commended for the work that he’s done since Week 3.
While LeSean McCoy will deservedly receive the majority of the backfield touches when he’s healthy, Gillislee has developed into an ideal complementary back to McCoy during his time in Buffalo. The third-year running back runs with a recklessness and fearlessness that stands in sharp contrast to McCoy’s shiftiness and elusiveness. Though Gillislee has the burst and breakaway speed to rip off long runs (six carries of over 20 yards the last two seasons), the 26-year-old also appears to enjoy punishing would-be tacklers when given the opportunity to do so. Rather than involving and targeting other tertiary options like Reggie Bush and Justin Hunter, I hope Lynn makes a concerted effort to keep Buffalo’s battering ram of a back involved down the stretch.
Likewise, the Bills need to find a way to maximize Clay’s effectiveness. On a weekly basis it seems that All-22 footage reveals Clay running free at least a few times each game. However, whether it’s Taylor’s lacking vision of the middle of the field, or play design that encourages Buffalo’s quarterback to look initially look elsewhere, Clay fails to punish defenses as much as he should. Clay is a difficult matchup for opposing defenders. He’s a good route runner with consistent hands, and he’s too fast for linebackers and too physical for defensive backs. Unfortunately, those abilities haven’t translated to the type of production that his skill set would seem to suggest is possible. Along with Robert Woods, Clay is the best receiving option for Buffalo’s quarterback. Lynn and Taylor need to prioritize getting the ball to their talented tight end far more than they have so far in 2016.