The Buffalo Bills have become the butt of many NFL jokes over the past two decades. First it was losing four consecutive Super Bowls, now it’s a 16-year playoff drought. We’re plenty used to a fair amount of shade thrown our way. So much so that none of it really even bothers me anymore. When ESPN released its 2016 NFL Future Power Rankings on Monday, I didn’t feel disrespected. I didn’t feel embarrassed. I felt, well, surprised.
ESPN’s panel of analysts - Louis Riddick, Mike Sando and Field Yates - were asked to grade all 32 teams and see which teams are in the best shape to succeed in the next three years. The trio rated each team on scale of 0-100 in five categories: roster (excluding quarterback), quarterback, draft, coaching and front office. The Bills found themselves ranked 28th on the list with a 59.5 overall rating.
The only teams worse were the Dolphins, Rams, 49ers and Browns. It’s fair to say the Bills aren’t in the top-half of the league quite yet, but come on, bottom five? Here’s how the experts graded each category, as well as my take on each.
ROSTER (not including quarterback)
ESPN Rating: 71.7
My Rating: 71
This is the most surprising category, and not because of a low grade. Only 11 teams had a better roster rating than the Bills. It’s a bit surprising to see the Bills roster so highly regarded, yet the the team itself in the rankings’ basement.
In the Bills’ “high point,” Yates wrote that Buffalo is “ a trendy team to make more noise than its 8-8 record last season, the Bills have premium talent on both sides of the football.”
The Bills have many of the NFL’s important positions locked down. Offensively, Sammy Watkins is dominant No. 1 receiver and can be talked about with the likes of Antonio Brown, Odell Beckham Jr., Julio Jones and DeAndre Hopkins if he can stay healthy.
Charles Clay is a dynamic tight end. LeSean McCoy, although is getting up in age, proved last year that he can still make game changing plays in the backfield. Upfront the Bills are solid too, headlined by a very good left side boasted by Cordy Glenn and Richie Incognito.
Defensively, Jerry Hughes, while it remains to seen just how good he can be, is a quality pass rusher. Marcell Dareus is a dominant interior defensive lineman. Stephon Gilmore and Ronald Darby complement each other nicely at corner.
One of the knocks on the Bills roster is depth. Buffalo just doesn’t have the same depth that many of the top teams in the league have. That was a big reason why the Bills struggled at times last year when the injury bug came.
ESPN Rating: 58.3
My Rating: 65
The big position the Bills don’t have a clear answer on is quarterback. Is Tyrod Taylor a franchise quarterback? Or is he an NFL backup with the ability to win a few games here and there.
“Quarterback is another huge variable as the Bills figure out whether Tyrod Taylor is their long-term starter,” Sando wrote.
In my opinion, everything points to Taylor building on his 2015 season. If he takes a step forward in seeing the whole field, and the offense around him stays healthy, Taylor can become that middle tier quarterback that can lead a team to the playoffs in this league, and even a Super Bowl. A 65 rating would put Buffalo and Taylor behind Jacksonville and Blake Bortles (72.7), Washington and Kirk Cousins (77.3), but ahead of Houston and Brock Osweiler (61.7) and the Chicago Bears and Jay Cutler (62.3).
That’s just looking at it right now, too. Give him one or two more years of game experience in the same system and he can hover around the 70-75 mark. However, ESPN’s rating can justified. When there’s a question mark at quarterback, that’s not a good situation to be in. Taylor’s play in 2015 earned him a shot at playing for a big contract, now he has to prove he’s worth the money.
ESPN Rating: 51.7
My Rating: 63
ESPN certainly wasn’t kind in this category, ranking Rex Ryan and his staff 30th in the league.
“Ever since becoming a head coach in 2009, Ryan has struggled to develop a quality passing attack to complement solid production from the running game and defense (2015 notwithstanding),” Riddick wrote in the “low point.”
That statement seems debatable. You really can’t blame Ryan for not developing a passing game with the Jets, he never had consistent quarterback play. And in his first year in Buffalo, Taylor had the best season by a Bills quarterback since Drew Bledsoe in 2002 (even though that’s not saying too much.) As for the defense, I wouldn’t expect a repeat of 2015. Ryan has proved year after year to be one of the NFL’s best defensive minds, one off year doesn’t change that.
ESPN Rating: 55
My Rating: 65
Another category where the Bills ranked near the bottom of the league. The Bills whiffed on EJ Manuel in 2012. It looks wasting a second rounder on Cyrus Kouandjio in 2013 wasn’t a good idea either. Trading up for Watkins will always be debated, but other than that, the Bills haven’t done too bad in the draft.
General Manager Doug Whaley and Co. made some nice selections in 2015. Second rounder Ronald Darby proved to be capable, borderline shutdown corner. Third rounder John Miller is set to start at right guard again. Despite coming to OTAs overweight, fifth rounder Karlos Williams is figured to have a big role in the backfield after scoring seven touchdowns and averaging 5.6 yards per carry in his rookie year.
The Bills may have drafted three potential starters in 2016 with the additions of defensive end/outside linebacker Shaq Lawson, middle linebacker Reggie Ragland and defensive tackle Adolphus Washington.
A 65 isn’t a great draft grade around the league, but near the middle of the pack.
ESPN Rating: 51.7
My Rating: 65
Tied with Coaching as the Bills worst categories, ESPN ranked the Bills’ front office tied for 30th. Only the Browns (46.7) and the Rams (50) received worse ratings and the Dolphins tied with the Bills. This is another head-scratcher. Whaley scooped up Taylor and Incognito in free agency – when no else seemed interested – and both became starters. He traded Kiko Alonso for McCoy. Whaley then signed Glenn, Incognito and McCoy to long-term deals. All those moves seem to receive passing grades.
Sure, tying up a lot of money in Clay, Aaron Williams, Dareus and McCoy could be debated, with Whaley now having to figure out a way to sign Taylor and Gillmore long-term while managing a tight salary cap. Plus, the Pegula factor can’t be ignored. Terry and Kim Pegula have made winning a clear priority and have said yes to spending money to get better, something that former owner Ralph Wilson Jr. was frequently criticized for.
ESPN’s Rating: 59.5
My Rating: 65.8
A 65.8 rating would put them at No. 18 in ESPN’s rankings. Hear me out, I don’t think the Bills should be considered one of the NFL’s elites. The team has a long way to go to get there. However, with the talent that’s on the roster right now, there’s no reason why the Bills can’t sneak into the playoffs at 10-6 this season, and be in good shape to compete the next three years. But if Taylor doesn’t prove to be the quarterback of the future and the Bills miss the playoffs for the 17th straight season, Ryan and Whaley will be in trouble. So will the Buffalo’s three-year potential.