This week, ESPN published a piece looking forward to the next three years of the NFL. While John Clayton's main takeaway for Buffalo was that he thinks Rex Ryan will be parting ways with the team, we wanted to take a look at a broader picture of the important decisions looming ahead of the Bills. What stands out the most for you?
Coaching and scheme
Possibly the biggest potential inflection point that will face the Bills is the fate of Rex Ryan. His first year as head coach was mixed, with the team finding new success at quarterback and in the running game but seeing a regression on defense and in the win column. As a polarizing figure, Ryan is already being placed on the hot seat by reporters who believe that he'll be kicked to the curb if the team fails to make the playoffs this year.
Let's assume Ryan is jettisoned after year two. The Pegulas will have a few decisions to make: do they promote from within, elevating someone like Greg Roman to head coach and keeping the existing scheme in place? Do they try finding a veteran coach and giving him the reins again? Will the head coach be allowed the same decision-making power awarded to Ryan, or would the Pegulas sit him squarely underneath the general manager?
Doug Whaley's fate is also tied to Ryan's, for better or for worse. While he's under contract for the next couple of seasons, reporters such as Vic Carucci of The Buffalo News believe he could also find his way to the curb if the season goes badly.
The choices made with populating the coaching staff and front office (or keeping them the same) will also influence the players on the roster. Colin Kaepernick regressed after leaving Greg Roman's running-friendly offense, but could Tyrod Taylor do the same? How would a new coach want to use Jerry Hughes, Marcell Dareus, and Shaq Lawson? A coaching change could provide a shot in the arm for the team, but it could also just create unnecessary churn.
The Bills are, fortunately, set for the foreseeable future in terms of retaining veterans. Taylor and Stephon Gilmore are the only looming contract expirations, and it's possible that both of them receive an extension this year. Still, there are a few major chips that will force Buffalo's hand in 2018 and 2019.
Eric Wood is one of them. After next season, he'll be a 32-year-old free agent. Wood has had a strong enough career, and will have finished up a four-year, $25 million contract at that point. If he's still playing well, he'd probably seek a contract like Richie Incognito just received, in the neighborhood of six or seven million dollars per year for three years. Will the Bills agree, or will they try to find Wood's replacement? If they drafted one, it would buck a trend. The only centers to be drafted in the last twenty years? Wood, Duke Preston in 2005, and Mike Pucillo in 2002.
Kyle Williams is another aging veteran whose contract expires in 2018. Unlike Wood, it's possible he'll be gone before then. With an $8.3 million cap hit in his final season that drops to $1.5 million if he's cut, a 34-year-old Williams probably wouldn't make much logical sense for Buffalo's roster. The Bills just drafted a defensive tackle in Adolphus Washington, but he doesn't fit the same prototype as Williams. Do they add a replacement? Hope for contributions from someone like Corbin Bryant or Justin Zimmer? Or is Williams not the type of lineman they want in their 3-4 defense?
Sammy Watkins will have his fifth-year option picked up in 2018, likely paying him $13 million. The Bills will then have to choose if they're ready to pay him a massive contract. Assuming he stays healthy and continues keeping away from off-field trouble, Watkins could easily find himself a $100 million contract. Will the Bills pay up, and will Watkins want to keep playing for the team? Continued quarterback success and a playoff trip or two would probably help.
Meanwhile, Russ Brandon is going to be keeping himself busy over the next couple of years negotiating with Roger Goodell and NFL owners, Erie County, and local businesses. The team is being pressured to build a new stadium, even while they say they want to continue making use of Ralph Wilson Stadium. The continued push toward international football, with exhibitions in Mexico, China, and London in the future, also begs the question: will we soon see a return of the Toronto series?