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The offseason begins now

We have a lot to get to over the next few months. There’s no point in waiting for the Bills to mercifully bow out of the playoff chase.

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Matt Warren kicked off the day here at Buffalo Rumblings with the weekly update of the playoff picture, and he illustrated that the Bills are still mathematically alive in the chase for the final Wild Card spot.

Allow me to completely undercut that piece.

For all intents and purposes, the Buffalo Bills offseason kicks off today. There’s a lot we’re going to need to get to, so it’s best to start early. There’s no sense in dawdling over the last three games, because even though it’s entirely possible that the Bills will win them all (the Browns are winless, the Jets aren’t much better, and the Dolphins just lost their starting quarterback), there’s too much that has to happen for the Bills to claim that final spot. When the number of teams in front of you exceeds the number of weeks remaining in the season, that’s time to wrap it up.

Anyway, here’s what the offseason promises to bring to us in the Bills Mafia:

A possible (and very likely) coaching search...

Reports started flying in from every corner of Twitter yesterday regarding the job status of beleaguered head coach Rex Ryan...and that was before the 27-20 stinker against the Steelers that was much more of a mismatch than the final score would indicate.

As this point, right decision or not, it would be a surprise to see Rex Ryan as the head coach of the 2017 Buffalo Bills. If not Rex, though, then who?

Early reports seem to favor current offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn, who has earned some buzz since he took over the offense from Greg Roman in September. There are three current head coaches who were directly promoted from the OC position of the same team, and all three (Jason Garrett in Dallas, Ben McAdoo with the Giants, and Dirk Koetter in Tampa Bay) currently have their teams in line for an NFC playoff spot. Of course, they hall had at least two full seasons of coordinating experience, but Lynn has more experience on an NFL staff than any of them.

Some other names to consider include Patriots OC Josh McDaniels, Patriots DC Matt Patricia (although the likelihood of either of them wanting to stay in Bill Belichick’s division is minimal), current Eagles DC and former Bills DC Jim Schwartz (although the likelihood of him choosing a team that spurned him over the other job offers he’s likely to see is minimal), Lions DC Teryl Austin, Falcons OC Kyle Shanahan, and Michigan Wolverines HC Jim Harbaugh.

...and a possible (but less likely) GM search

Rex isn’t the only one on the hot seat in Buffalo. Joe Buscaglia mused on the future of Doug Whaley in his postgame recap yesterday and struck a more positive tone than he did when discussing Rex’s future with the team. A cursory search of “Doug Whaley” on Twitter reveals a lot of ire, but it comes from the fan perspective as opposed to any insiders speculating on his impending departure.

Whaley has been with the Bills since 2010, and he has been general manager since a few days after the end of the 2013 NFL Draft. Of the 70 players listed on the Bills roster at PFR, only two played a game with the Bills before he joined the team, and only eight did so before he was promoted to the top position. The roster has his fingerprints all over it, and when you’re in charge of roster that is consistently mediocre, your job is going to come under some scrutiny.

That said, Whaley has made several great moves as GM of the Bills. The running back position (undoubtedly the team’s biggest strength)was stocked with a trade acquisition and a practice squad pickup. The trade of Kelvin Sheppard for Jerry Hughes was a steal for the ages. He also brought in two of the best Bills of 2016, Lorenzo Alexander and Zach Brown, on very low-key deals.

There is plenty of room for scrutiny with regards to Whaley, especially by those still angry about the trade-up for oft-injured wideout Sammy Watkins or the beau-coup bucks handed out to largely ineffective tight end Charles Clay. Those two transactions will be front-and-center if he is fired, but that’s nowhere near as much of a certainty as the coaching change will be.

Decision 2017: Tyrod Taylor

Let’s start with the good news. The deadline for the final decision on picking up the remainder of Tyrod’s contract doesn’t come until March 11, 2017. That is 90 days from today, and it’s also after most coaching searches have usually concluded. That means that the off-field structure for the 2017 Bills should be in place, and Taylor’s place in the organization should be clear.

Now, the bad news. Backup quarterback EJ Manuel is slated to be a free agent, and even if he weren’t it’s abundantly clear by this point that he is not a playoff-caliber quarterback. Third-string rookie Cardale Jones is woefully inexperienced, even for a rookie, and still “struggles to run the scout team.” The free agent market is pretty bare, especially if Kirk Cousins remains in Washington, and there are several teams who are going to be competing for the scraps that will be available. The draft doesn’t have any sure-fire options for the position, and even if it did the Bills won’t be in a position to draft one without giving up far more than they can afford to part with in a trade.

Even though Taylor’s contract is on the low end for an NFL starter, it’s still starter money, and it’s very hard for the Bills to get out of prior to 2019. There are still three games left in the season, but even though the decision hasn’t officially been made it’s doubtful that anything will happen to change minds one way or the other.

Decision 2017, Part 2: Everyone Else

Tyrod isn’t the only player the team needs to make a decision on.

The Bills have an inordinate amount of free agents on the horizon, led by Stephon Gilmore and Robert Woods. Gilmore has been painfully inconsistent in 2016; he has a team-high five interceptions and has had several great games, but he’s also been the worst player on the field far too often and seems to be playing for a big contract from another team. Woods has also been stellar at times, but the market for #2 receivers is always hot, and the Bills might be priced out if he decides to leave town.

Another big decision involves Aaron Williams, but that’s one that the team doesn’t get to make. Williams is a very good safety, one the Bills have sorely missed since Jarvis Landry’s cheap shot took him out in Week 7. That said, he’s dealing with his second neck injury in as many years. Nobody would blame him in the slightest if he didn’t want to risk a third, even if it would leave the Bills with a gaping hole in their roster.

Aside from those players, there are a few other important decisions to make. Mike Gillislee is a restricted free agent, but could draw some interest from running back-needy teams and force the Bills to decide if they want to keep him or take compensation (which would depend on the size of the offer he signed). Colton Schmidt is another RFA, and could find himself on the way out after a very up-and-down season. His kicking compatriot, Dan Carpenter, is another possible target for release given his struggles with extra points on top of his unreliability on kickoffs.

Lorenzo Alexander is another impending free agent. He started off the year on fire, cooled down a bit, and then recorded a red zone interception of Ben Roethlisberger in the loss to the Steelers. He’s a definite Pro Bowl candidate, but he’ll also be 34 next year and Shaq Lawson seems ready to be a full-time contributor on defense. The same situation could play out with Zach Brown and Reggie Ragland.

As you can see, things will be very busy at One Bills Drive in the months, weeks, and days leading up to the official start of the offseason in early March.

A probable top-20 (possibly top-15) pick in the 2017 NFL Draft

The Bills currently sit at 13th in the draft order. There’s still plenty of time for things to shift, but missing the playoffs equates to earning one of the first 20 picks in the draft. Dan Lavoie took a look at some possible targets for the Bills a week ago, and in the coming months you can expect us (and everybody else) to deliver an escalating amount of scouting reports, information on trips and visits, and the dreaded slew of mock drafts.

The Bills are missing their fourth-round pick from the trade to move up for Ragland last year. The final piece to the Matt Cassel trade also kicks in for this draft, as the Bills will ship their seventh-round pick to the Cowboys and receive Dallas’ fifth-rounder. They may make some other trades, and they could also receive compensatory picks depending on what happens with their free-agency situation.

The Bills have plenty of holes to fill on both sides of the ball and at all levels of the depth chart. They also have to balance the need for more draft picks with the ability to acquire the best players. It’s a balancing act that Whaley (or whoever the GM is) needs to execute to perfection in order for the Bills to return to the playoffs for the first time since January of 2000.

Strap in, folks. It’s going to be a wild ride.