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Exploring the impact of the two positions hurting the Bills the most: receiver and safety

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How much has Buffalo’s thin receiver group hurt Tyrod Taylor in 2016?

In August, I wrote a column on Doug Whaley’s mastery of pro scouting, and I still believe the Buffalo Bills GM is one of the NFL’s best when it comes to adding pieces via waivers, trades, and free agency.

(See: Jerry Hughes, LeSean McCoy, Tyrod Taylor, Mike Gillislee, Richie Incognito, Zach Brown, Lorenzo Alexander.)

However, Whaley, to my surprise, wasn’t able to add adequate depth at wide receiver and safety — the two positions hurting the Bills the most right now. An avalanche of injuries at those spots certainly haven’t helped either.

Sammy Watkins was said to have surgery sometime in mid-to-late April, right before the draft. We can then assume the Bills were aware of that, but for some reason, they didn’t address the receiver spot until they picked Kolby Listenbee — who was nursing an injury of his own — in Round 6.

And there’s no way anyone could have expected Marquise Goodwin to emerge into a reasonable No. 3 or No. 4 WR after what he showed in his first three seasons in the NFL. The fact he’s contributed in 2016 — albeit minimally — has been a pleasant surprise for Buffalo.

Therefore, the Bills went into training camp with the following group of wide receivers:

  • Sidelined Sammy Watkins
  • Robert Woods
  • Greg Salas
  • Jarrett Boykin
  • Marquise Goodwin
  • Leonard Hankerson
  • Greg Litte
  • Jarrett Boykin
  • Dez Lewis
  • Injured Kolby Listenbee
  • Walt Powell

It’s up to you if you want to label the above list as a representation of a valiant effort by Whaley to bolster the Bills’ receiving group.

Regardless of how you feel about Whaley’s attempt to supplement the passing game with those names, the experiment flopped.

*For the record, I don’t think it was Whaley’s best work but don’t view it as a totally poor effort. Yet he was essentially banking on at least one of Hankerson, Boykin, or Little (all career underachievers) to experience a revitalization in Buffalo, which (clearly) was somewhat of a pipe dream.

Seemingly out of nowhere, outside of Woods, Goodwin proved to be the most consistent of the veteran bunch, but even factoring his strong summer, expectations for him should’ve been (and likely were) relatively low.

Powell — who’s on IR — was actually the most productive receiver in camp and the preseason yet barely saw the field in the first two weeks of the regular season.

I assume Whaley figured Watkins, Woods, Salas, Goodwin, and Powell represented a “good enough” receiving contingent, especially considering Buffalo’s run-heavy offensive philosophy. Heading into Week 1 with that group was undoubtedly risky.

Then, Watkins kinda/sorta re-injured his foot, Salas suffered a serious hamstring injury, and Goodwin was concussed in Week 7 against the Dolphins.

In fairness to Whaley, it would’ve basically been impossible to predict a rash of injuries at one position like what Buffalo has experienced at wide receiver in 2016. He demonstrated his keen pro-scouting ability by signing Brandon Tate and adding Justin Hunter off waivers, both of whom have given as much — if not more — as one can reasonably expect from an in-season signing.

(Tate was signed right before Week 1.)

But the damage had been done, and things got worse when Woods went down early against the Bengals in Week 11.

Heck, even Tate missed time due to a concussion, and the talented Percy Harvin, who decided to un-retire to re-join the Bills, won’t play again this season after his migraine problems flared up.

Luckily for Buffalo, Watkins returned against the Jaguars in Week 12, but not at 100%.

Many believe Kirk Cousins is just the product of an amazing environment, with DeSean Jackson, Jordan Reed, Jamison Crowder, Pierre Garcon, and Vernon Davis formulated his pass-catching options. Using that logic, Taylor should be considered the product of his environment — which at times this season has consisted of Goodwin, Tate, Hunter, and most recently, Lewis.

On that note, Taylor has been significantly better in games he’s had both Watkins and Woods at his disposal, which shouldn’t be very surprising when you think about it.

12 games with Sammy Watkins *and* Robert Woods

  • 206 of 327 (62.9%)
  • 8.25 YPA
  • 21 TDs, 5 INTs
  • 27 sacks

14 games without Sammy Watkins *and* Robert Woods

  • 247 of 401 (61.5%)
  • 6.55 YPA
  • 10 TDs, 6 INTs
  • 43 sacks

Yes, you read that correctly — Taylor has been Buffalo’s quarterback in more games without both Watkins and Woods than games with the two young, polished receivers.

This is not to suggest I’m giving Taylor a pass for his play this season. The statistics indicate he’s regressed slightly. But, when evaluating him, I can’t completely ignore what he’s had at receiver in 2016.

There’s been plenty of chatter about whether or not the Bills should pick up Taylor’s option for 2017. Barring a disaster over the final month of the season, I think Buffalo should do it.

I look at this way — what’s harder: finding an elite quarterback who routinely masks many team flaws *or* finding an average- to- slightly- better- than- average quarterback and creating an environment around him that’s conducive to success?

I tend to side with the latter.

To me, it’s no coincidence Matthew Stafford is enjoying a career year after the Lions added Marvin Jones and Anquan Boldin. It’s also no coincidence Andy Dalton has regressed from the fantastic season he had a season ago now that Jones and Mohamed Sanu are gone, Tyler Eifert missed a large portion of the season, and A.J. Green is out with an injury. A finally healthy DeVante Parker has gone a long way in Ryan Tannehill’s resurgence. Check this year compared to last year for Joe Flacco and his receivers too.

This all brings me back to Whaley — and Rex Ryan.

Without question, the Bills defense was the main issue in 2015, and some positions on that side of the ball needed to be addressed.

But how much did Rex push for those first two draft picks to be on the defensive side? When pondering that, I always remember five of the six first-round picks the Jets made while Rex was in New York were defenders.

I’ve kept a close eye on the Kirk Cousins situation in Washington this year because of the similarity to Taylor’s situation in Buffalo.

Even with Jackson, Crowder, and Garcon returning, along with Vernon Davis added in free agency, the Redskins used their first-round pick on wideout Josh Doctson.

He hasn’t played since Week 2, but that’s not the point. Washington understood (and maybe still understands) Cousins’ limitations — which I don’t think are as widespread as many others do — and made acquiring offensive weapons a top priority.

Redskins’ GM Scot McCloughan was fortunate to inherit Jackson, Reed, and Garcon, however, he deserves credit for hitting on Crowder and buying insurance policies in Davis and Doctson. Also — and this is important — the Football Gods have been kinder to the Redskins’ pass-catchers than they’ve been to the Bills’ pass-catchers regarding injuries. Jackson, Reed, Crowder, Garcon, and Davis have missed a combined four games in 2016.

As staffer Kent Dickerson mentioned to me, as long as Buffalo’s philosophy is to run the ball, play good defense, and limit offensive turnovers, Tyrod Taylor should be the Bills’ quarterback.

But he’s a signal-caller who needs a good- to- impressive receiving corps to occasionally mask his flaws and give him the confidence needed to take more risks as a passer. And there’s nothing unusual or inherently “wrong” about that. In fact, many successful quarterbacks in the NFL have that exact setup.

Remember, at $15.9M in 2017, Taylor’s cap hit would be the 20th-highest among quarterbacks.

The Safety Position

Safety, which is seemingly Rex Ryan’s baby, was another position at which the Bills weren’t super prepared to deal with the impact of an injury to a starter this season. No one was sure — maybe Buffalo’s front office knew more than we did — if Aaron Williams was going to be able to play in 2016, and his safety mate, Corey Graham, turned 31 over the summer.

Yet the Bills only added safety Colt Anderson, who hadn’t been much more than a core special teamer in his career, and box safety Robert Blanton in free agency. Then, they didn’t add a safety in the draft, which was a mistake.

Again, it was far from Whaley’s shrewdest effort, but it wasn’t blatantly negligent. Like receiver, had the injury bug stayed away from the safeties, Buffalo would’ve been fine at that spot. Unfortunately for the Bills, that wasn’t the case. At all.

Also like at receiver, the safety group endured an injury to its best player — you remember it — when Jarvis Landry delivered a dirty block on Aaron Williams. Since then, the safety group hasn’t been the same, with Duke Williams, Jonathan Meeks, Robert Blanton (who’s on IR as well), and James Ihedigbo not possessing the nearly same range and play-recognition skills as Williams.

While the defensive line and linebackers have been good and at times tremendous, the back end of the defense has — clearly — been the most suspect facet of the Dennis Thurman coordinated unit. In my estimation, the secondary issues have been just as prevalent at safety as they’ve been at cornerback this season, especially in the past month and a half after Williams was injured.