The Buffalo Bills’ offseason has been quite the ride. Unfortunately, much of that ride has cast a negative light on the upcoming season.
Between Bills head coach Rex Ryan’s misconstrued comments that his team had “won the offseason,” the injuries to the team’s promising rookie class, and the four-game suspension to one of the club’s best players, many fans and pundits began preparing themselves for a 17th consecutive season without postseason football in Buffalo. However, that depressing sentiment is premature.
Even when considering the fact that the Bills will begin the season without three projected starters, the roster that Doug Whaley and his staff have assembled is as talented as any in recent memory. However, that talent will be compromised if the club doesn’t benefit from at least a small dose of good fortune on the injury front.
A season ago, the Bills were decimated by injuries on both sides of the ball. According to Football Outsiders’ adjusted games lost (AGL) metric, the Bills ranked 25th in the league when it came to players missing time through injury. In other words, the Bills were the eighth unluckiest team in the league when it came to injuries to its starters. The entire organization will hope that ranking improves in 2016, especially when it comes to several of the team’s key contributors.
With that in mind, this article will explore the starters that the team can least afford to have miss time through injury. For each starter, two simple criteria will be taken into consideration: the player’s talent level and the depth at that player’s respective position. The list will rank the starters from the most expendable (#22) to the least (#1).
Without further ado, here are the 2016 Buffalo Bills Injury Power Rankings, starting with #22…
The Endangered Species
22. Jerome Felton
Felton’s last-place ranking is merely a reflection of the importance of the fullback in today’s NFL. Despite carrying a reputation as one of the better lead-blockers in the league over the last several years, Felton played in only 26.51% of the offensive snaps for the Bills a season ago despite appearing in all 16 games. While he’s technically listed as starter on the Bills’ official depth chart, Felton plays a bit part within the offense.
Although Felton’s place on the roster doesn’t seem to be in danger at this point, it wouldn’t be entirely surprising to see the veteran released in favor of rookie undrafted free agent Glenn Gronkowski. If “Baby Gronk” manages to impress during the club’s preseason finale against Detroit, the coaching staff could opt for a cheaper option at fullback despite handing Felton the third-richest contract (four-year, $9.2 million) among all NFL fullbacks last March.
The Question Marks
21. Jordan Mills
20. John Miller
Despite the doubt that surrounds the defense heading into the regular season, the two players that represent the biggest question marks among the starters are Miller and Mills. While both players had positive moments a year ago, each are far from sure things when it comes to being reliable NFL starters.
After being selected in the third round of the 2015 draft, Miller was immediately inserted into the lineup and started 12 games as a rookie. Though he occasionally flashed the ability that made coaches confident in his first-year readiness, Miller also dealt with a series of downs that included the loss of his mother, a high ankle sprain, and a firm introduction to the “rookie wall.” Mills, after being plucked off of Detroit’s practice squad midway through the season, started five games for the Bills down the stretch and also had mixed results. Following some initial struggles, Mills played well in the season’s final games and demonstrated the smarts that his offensive line coach has praised him for.
Miller ranks higher on the list for two reasons. First, he’s simply a more talented player and has more room for growth at age 23. Second, the depth on the interior line is more suspect than it is on the outside. While Cyrus Kouandjio and Seantrel Henderson each have their respective question marks, they inspire more hope than Ryan Groy, Cyril Richardson, and Fernando Velasco, who are the current backups inside.
While the Bills will hope Miller and Mills take steps forward while staying healthy in 2016, the club could surely look to invest in an insurance policy if either were to falter instead.
19. Adolphus Washington
18. Reggie Ragland
17. Shaq Lawson
Although all three of the Bills’ top picks in this year’s draft were expected to contribute immediately this season, only one of them will (hopefully) do so.
During a non-contact minicamp practice in May, Lawson re-aggravated a shoulder injury that he played with at Clemson this past year. Though it was rumored that Lawson would play his rookie year at less than 100% and have surgery after the season, the rookie opted for surgery instead. According to Adam Schefter, Lawson is expected back between Week 6 and Week 8.
Months after losing Lawson, Ragland limped off with a non-contact injury during practice on Aug. 5. After days of speculation, the second-round linebacker was diagnosed with a partial ACL tear and underwent season-ending surgery.
Though it’s disappointing that the Bills will line up Week 1 without two projected starters, Lawson and Ragland’s place on this list represent both the unsure nature of rookies and the replacements that will fill their shoes in the interim.
Though offseason hype certainly built regarding Ragland’s ability to be a three-down linebacker in the NFL, there were significant pre-draft doubts as to whether the Alabama product could stay on the field come obvious passing situations. In Ragland’s absence, the Bills will likely turn to a combination of Brandon Spikes and Zach Brown, and while NFL teams have yet to commonly use “platoon” situations like several professional baseball teams, Spikes and Brown could both be employed in advantageous positions that best utilize their talents. Much like a baseball manager could rotate two positional players depending on whether the opposing pitcher is a righty or a lefty, the Bills could use Spikes in situations where the opponent appears likely to run, and then use Brown when the opposing team appears likely to air it out. Ideally you’d like one player that excels in both areas, but the loss of Ragland is certainly lessened by the presence of two capable veterans in Spikes and Brown.
Similarly, despite the disappointment that comes with not seeing your first-round pick for the entirety of camp and the first several weeks of the season, Lawson’s loss is at least somewhat mitigated by the presence of Manny Lawson. Although the highlight reels and the scouting reports indicate that Shaq possesses a skill set that could instantly have him contribute on this defense, Manny did contribute last year as a jack-of-all-trades linebacker. His versatility and intelligence, both against the run and the pass, made him an asset for the Bills a season ago. Although a potential one-game suspension continues to loom, Manny has proved that he’s a serviceable starter when called upon.
As far as Washington goes, the third-round pick has looked promising during preseason action. Upon being drafted, scouts tended to praise the defensive tackle for his pass-rushing potential but expressed doubts regarding his ability to defend the run. However, Washington has excelled against the run during the first three preseason games, and he looks poised to start alongside Kyle Williams and Corbin Bryant come Week 1.
The Role Players
16. Robert Woods
After playing half of the season last year with tears in his groin on the left and right side, Woods has returned to camp this year healthy after offseason surgery and rehab. In doing so, he’s turned heads with his explosiveness by consistently gaining separation away from defenders. Taking that into consideration, along with an increased level of comfort and chemistry with Tyrod Taylor, Woods could post career-best statistics in the final year of his rookie contract.
Woods is a good player, and his low ranking on this list is by no means a reflection of his ability. He’s a great blocker and will provide Taylor with a very solid option opposite Sammy Watkins. Though he’s yet to consistently show an ability to stretch the defense deep, perhaps that changes with more opportunity, better quarterback play, and better health this year. Woods’ ranking is merely a product of the number of quality starters that the Bills have on the roster. Although Woods certainly has value to the offense, the names discussed below have more.
15. Charles Clay
Although there are some national pundits that have prematurely (and laughably) labeled Clay’s contract as “one of the worst in football right now,” those who watched Bills games last year were likely encouraged by the tight end’s first season in Buffalo. While Clay’s end-of-season statistics (51 catches, 528 yards, 3 touchdowns) are underwhelming considering his cap number, he did miss three games while playing in a run-heavy offense with a new offensive coordinator and a first-year quarterback. Clay demonstrated his versatility as a capable blocker and a talented pass-catcher throughout his first year as a Bill, and the coaching staff has reiterated a desire to utilize Clay in the passing game far more than they did last season.
The gap between Clay and his backups is likely as significant as any on the roster. After a season-ending ACL injury to Chris Gragg, the Bills are left with Jim Dray, Blake Annen and Nick O’Leary behind Clay. While Dray will likely stick on the roster due to his abilities as a blocker, Annen and O’Leary, are unknowns that represent fringe NFL players at this point.
With that in mind, an injury to Clay would surely shift the utilization of the tight end in Roman’s offense. Without him, the Bills would likely use their tight ends almost entirely for blocking purposes. Although Clay’s potential absence wouldn’t be as devastating as losing Watkins or McCoy, it would certainly hinder the growth of the passing game.
The Veteran Leadership
14. Corey Graham
After shifting from cornerback to safety in 2015, Graham had an up and down season much like the rest of his teammates. On the plus side, the 31-year-old veteran excelled as a tackler. According to Pro Football Focus, Graham had only three missed tackles in 104 attempts, which was the best rate among all linebackers and safeties. On the negative side, the veteran’s lack of speed was exposed by speedier receivers multiple times down the field. With that knowledge, Ryan will likely be creative with how he utilizes Graham in 2016. Similarly to Manny Lawson, Graham will likely be moved around the formation to utilize his versatility in coverage and his stoutness against the run.
Graham’s value to the team also comes in the form of leadership. As a well-respected voice in the locker room, Graham was quick to throw his support behind Ryan as some of teammates hesitated to buy in to their head coach’s scheme a season ago. This year, Graham has already spoken to the improvements in communication and understanding on the defensive side of the ball. As the season progresses, Graham will likely play a significant role in maintaining the strides the defense has made in that regard.
His absence would prove difficult for the secondary to deal with. While Duke Williams has looked vastly improved from where he was a year ago, he’d be hard pressed to play with the same understanding of the defense that Graham possesses. With that in mind, the Bills would surely love to have Graham available for his ninth consecutive 16-game season.
13. Kyle Williams
In addition to losing Aaron Williams in Week 2 last year, the Buffalo defense was dealt a significant blow when they lost Kyle Williams to a season-ending injury in Week 6. From a production standpoint, the 33-year-old still gets it done. Though the four-time Pro Bowler may not have another 10.5-sack campaign like he did in 2013, the veteran remains a skilled technician that can regularly make offensive linemen whiff at the point of attack.
Like Graham, he’s also valuable from a leadership standpoint. Without him, the Bills were plagued by a disconnect between the coaching staff and players, and a lack of accountability and buy-in from some of the club’s veteran stars. Perhaps Williams’ presence in the lineup could’ve helped salvage the season from becoming a disappointment on that side of the ball.
Although Williams looks set to remain a key contributor for the Bills this season, there are doubts creeping into the discussion surrounding the 11-year veteran. With a series of lower-body injuries and a lot of miles on his legs, it’s fair to wonder how much Williams has left in the tank. If he can rediscover the high level of play that has defined his career in Buffalo, particularly in the first four Dareus-less matchups, then Williams’ name belongs higher on this list. However, if he displays the inevitable wear and tear that one might accumulate during 11 NFL seasons, the Bills might explore other options after the season due to his $8.3 million cap hit in 2017.
12. Eric Wood
11. Richie Incognito
The self-proclaimed “Bash Brothers” line up alongside each other on this list as well, and each greatly benefited from one another’s presence in 2015.
Wood, who is now in his eighth year in the league (all coming in Buffalo), had a rebound year after struggling in 2014. Likewise, Incognito, who missed all of 2014 following the bullying scandal involving ex-teammate Jonathan Martin in Miami, returned to the NFL and played the best football of his career. Incognito ranked as the top left guard (second overall to Baltimore’s Marshal Yanda) in the NFL by Pro Football Focus, and he was elected to his second Pro Bowl. For his efforts, the Bills brought him back with a three-year, $15.75 million extension to keep him in Buffalo.
Both Wood and Incognito are invaluable pieces within Roman’s offense. Taking into account Wood’s experience, intelligence, and leadership, the 30-year-old center helped Taylor in his first year when it came to pre-snap adjustments. Likewise, Incognito’s athleticism and strength was regularly on display, particularly on plays where he was asked to pull and attack defenders at the second level. If both are able to play in all 16 games as they did a season ago, it’s reasonable to expect the offense to maintain its league-best running game while continuing to provide Taylor with room to throw the ball downfield.
As mentioned above, the current interior offensive line depth is worrying. Groy has seen extensive time with the starters following Incognito’s rib injury, but he’s failed to look like a capable regular-season swing guard. Richardson is listed as the backup to Miller, but he was below average when pressed into action in 2014 and spent last season on the practice squad. Lastly, Velasco was signed in the offseason and likely represents the best option if either Wood or Incognito were to get injured. He’s started 38 games over the course of seven seasons with three other teams (Carolina, Pittsburgh, and Tennessee).
Due to the troubling lack of depth, and for the sake of Taylor’s well being, the Bills will hope both Wood and Incognito avoid any extended stays on the sidelines.
The Potential Stars
10. Aaron Williams
Following a scary neck injury in Week 2 of last season that left him contemplating retirement, Williams has returned to the field during training camp looking to resume the promising career that was left in doubt. Unfortunately, despite overcoming the initial concerns relating to his neck, Williams was sidelined for a stretch of camp with a concussion after colliding with Dez Lewis on Aug. 11. However, his recent return to the practice field signals that the sixth-year safety should feature for the Bills come Week 1.
Another serious injury to Williams would leave the Bills without their best safety once again. Although Duke Williams’ improvement thus far has been encouraging, his frequent mental lapses during his first three season offers skepticism as to whether he’d stabilize the position in Williams’ stead. Beyond Duke, free-agent acquisitions Robert Blanton and Colt Anderson, and third-year returnee Jonathan Meeks haven’t had noteworthy performances in camp.
In addition to the questionable depth, losing Williams would also hurt his safety partner Graham. Though Graham thrived against the run last season ago, he struggled against speedier receivers in coverage. Having Williams behind him would free Graham to excel as an in-the-box safety. However, without Williams, Graham and the rest of the safety group would be pressed into larger roles than the coaching staff would prefer.
9. Preston Brown
Heading into his third year in the league, Brown has produced mix results thus far. After jumping straight into a significant role in his rookie season, Brown’s ability in coverage and his efficiency as a tackler had him named one of Pro Football Focus’ “Secret Superstars.” Unfortunately, the 2015 season saw Brown regress. After publicly voicing his concerns with the complexity of Ryan’s defense and the struggles he and his teammates had in communicating with the coaching staff pre-snap, Brown was stripped of his defensive signal-caller responsibilities late in the season.
This offseason, following a public challenge from Ryan, Brown appears to be relishing the opportunity to be a vocal leader on defense. By all accounts, he’s immersed himself in possessing a thorough understanding of the playbook and Rex’s brother believes Brown is set to star for the Bills this season.
After losing Ragland for the season, Brown’s importance to the team has grown. With a defensive group that is very optimistic about a rebound, largely because of improved communication and understanding, losing Brown would leave the Bills without their gameday signal-caller. That potential absence, coupled with Brown’s physical abilities, would be a significant blow to the team.
8. Ronald Darby
While his selection by the Bills in the second round of the 2015 Draft was initially met with hesitation considering the present needs of the team, Darby quickly justified the scouting staff’s faith in him. In 15 starts, Darby had 68 tackles, 21 passes defensed (fifth in the NFL) and 2 interceptions. In doing so, he was named to the Pro Football Writers of America’s All-Rookie team and was named Pro Football Focus’ Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Darby’s presence on the defense provides the Bills with 1A and 1B options on the outside. While Ryan often assigned Darrelle Revis to follow the opponent’s top receiver all over the field, Darby and Gilmore simply split the field in half when they played alongside one another last season. However, if Darby were to miss time, that game plan might change. While rookie Kevon Seymour and free-agent pickup Corey White have played well during the preseason, they both represent significant drop-offs from Darby.
Darby has the potential to move up these rankings in the near future, but his inexperience prevents him from doing so now. Though nothing from Darby’s rookie season seems to indicate the cornerback is in for regression, the 22-year-old needs to continue performing at the same high level of play in his sophomore season to justify the belief that the Bills have a dynamic tandem at cornerback.
The “Core Four”
7. Cordy Glenn
After signing a five-year, $60 million contract extension in May, the Bills will continue having Glenn steadily protect Taylor’s blind side until 2020. The valuation of Glenn, who earned the fifth highest contract among all left tackles after putting pen to paper, indicates the necessity in having a capable blind-side protector.
An injury to Glenn would certainly leave the Bills in a worrisome spot. While Cyrus Kouandjio’s improvement has been a bright spot for the team throughout the preseason, his longstanding knee concerns and his lacking in-game experience through two seasons doesn’t inspire a comforting level of confidence. Likewise, Seantrel Henderson’s ongoing recovery (and recent return) from complications in relation to his Crohn’s disease has made his role on the team an unknown moving forward.
Glenn has been a limited participant during preseason work due to a high-ankle sprain he suffered during the club’s intrasquad scrimmage on Aug. 6. Though he’s expected to miss the rest of the preseason, it appears that’s a precautionary measure taken to ensure Glenn will suit up for the regular season opener against Baltimore.
6. Stephon Gilmore
Despite his looming free agency, Gilmore has kicked off his contract season in admirable fashion. Though other players in his shoes have opted for holdouts, the 25-year-old cornerback has not only reported to training camp, but he’s excelled each time he has taken the field.
Gilmore’s ranking proved a tough decision. On one hand, Gilmore’s abilities as a shutdown corner, and his importance within Ryan’s scheme makes him a foundational piece to the team’s success this season. On the other hand, the cornerback’s injury troubles (11 games missed in his four-year career), and the presence of Darby bump Gilmore down a few spots from where his talent level may stand on the team.
This exact quandary correlates to the decision on whether or not the Bills should re-sign Gilmore after this upcoming season. After seeing Josh Norman and Janoris Jenkins secure sizable contracts this offseason, Gilmore will understandably be seeking a pact that makes him one of the wealthiest cornerbacks in the league. The front office may be hesitant to comply with that demand for two reasons. One, the Bills have committed big money to several players (Dareus, Taylor, Glenn, Hughes, McCoy, Clay) over the last two years and may not possess the cap flexibility to retain Gilmore. Secondly, if Gilmore were to leave, the front office may feel comfortable with a remaining cornerback contingent spearheaded by Darby.
Ultimately, despite the uncertainty surrounding his long-term future in Buffalo, a healthy season for Gilmore is a win-win situation for both teams. If the cornerback stays on the field and continues to make life extremely difficult for opposing receivers on a weekly basis, Gilmore’s bank account and the Bills defense will both be beneficiaries.
5. Marcell Dareus
Out of all the worrying news that has come out of One Bills Drive in the buildup to the regular season, the loss of Dareus to a four-game suspension is likely the most damaging blow to the team’s early-season hopes. Although “Mr. Big Stuff” is coming off a 2015-16 season where he posted a career-low in sacks (2.0), Dareus’ talent is undeniable. Without a discernible weakness to his game, the 26-year-old nose tackle is a nightmare for opposing interior lineman both in the running and passing game.
However, much like a potential injury to LeSean McCoy, Dareus’ actual absence will create playing time for capable role players behind him on the depth chart. Much like last season when he stepped in for an injured Kyle Williams, Corbin Bryant should perform well as a starter once again. In addition to Bryant, Jerel Worthy and Leger Douzable will likely see more snaps as well. Worthy, who has bounced around quite a bit since being selected by Green Bay in the second round of the 2012 Draft, has played well in preseason action. Douzable’s two seasons under Ryan in New York should help him quickly acclimate to a reserve role in Buffalo.
Despite the encouraging depth, the Bills are significantly better off with Dareus than without him. While Bryant, Worthy, and Douzable might not hurt the Bills on Sundays, they won’t have the positive impact that Dareus offers. With four weeks to sort through the issues that have landed him on the sideline, hopefully the two-time Pro Bowler returns in Week 5 itching to make up for lost time.
4. LeSean McCoy
Following an injury-plagued 2015 season, McCoy has looked a determined figure throughout the offseason. Though Ryan has smartly limited the eighth-year veteran during camp and preseason action, McCoy has resembled the explosive, all-purpose running back that was among the best at his position during his time in Philadelphia. Barring further injury woes, “Shady” looks set to have a big year while playing a key role in Greg Roman’s offense.
Though McCoy is arguably as talented as any Bill, he slots in a few spots from the top because of capable players behind him on the depth chart. Even with the release of Karlos Williams, the Bills possess a trio of ball carriers in Mike Gillislee, Reggie Bush and Jonathan Williams that could potentially excel if afforded an opportunity to feature in Roman’s diverse, run-heavy attack. Between Gillislee’s big-play ability, Bush’s versatility, and Williams’ size and strength, the Bills have interesting options at their disposal if McCoy were to miss time.
With that being said, while Roman’s scheme and Buffalo’s talented offensive line make encouraging contributions from a backup more likely, a big season from McCoy would go a long ways toward pushing the Bills toward a postseason berth. If the 28-year-old were to miss time, the offense would greatly struggle to replicate the four-time Pro Bowler’s production.
The Irreplaceable Ones
3. Jerry Hughes
After posting consecutive 10-sack seasons in 2013 and 2014, Hughes’ play fell off last season as he only managed 5.0 sacks in his first year under Ryan. However, that statistical drop didn’t properly reflect the 28-year-old’s contributions. According to Pro Football Focus, Hughes ranked eighth among all defensive ends by registering 59 total pressures (indicates the number of sacks, hits, and hurries combined) last season. Couple that ability with a greater understanding of his role within Ryan’s 3-4 alignment, and Hughes looks poised to consistently wreak havoc on opposing backfields in 2016.
Hughes’ importance to the team is magnified by the lack of pass-rushing talent behind him. With injuries to Shaq Lawson and IK Enemkpali, Hughes will likely initially line up across from some combination of Manny Lawson, Lorenzo Alexander, Kroy Biermann undrafted rookie Bryson Albright, and recent trade acquisition Lerentee McCray. Though those players may present some value to the team, all five fail to even remotely match the threat that Hughes represents on a snap-by-snap basis. Much like Sammy Watkins’ importance to the offense, the defense would have to dramatically adjust its weekly scheme if Hughes were to miss time.
2. Sammy Watkins
After his start to the 2015-16 season was compromised by calf and ankle injuries, Watkins exploded down the stretch with 679 yards on 35 catches (19.4 yards per catch), 6 touchdowns, and four 100-yard receiving games in the final six weeks of the season. In doing so, Watkins displayed the superstar potential that encouraged Whaley to move up and draft him in 2014.
Watkins’ ranking is truly a reflection of both his talent and his role on the team. In two seasons, the 23-year-old looks the part of an elite wide receiver that could join the top performers at his position in his third season.
From a positional depth standpoint, the drop-off between Watkins and the rest of the Bills’ wide receivers is significant. While Robert Woods is a perfectly fine #2 receiver, he’d be ill-suited to produce in a #1 role if Watkins were to be sidelined. Likewise, even though players like Marquise Goodwin, Walter Powell, Greg Salas, and Dez Lewis have all had their moments over the last few months, they all would be better suited to initially take on secondary roles.
Basically, if the Bills, and more specifically Taylor lost a premier talent like Watkins, the team would be forced into drastically adjusting their offensive game plan on a weekly basis.
The Season Killer
1. Tyrod Taylor
Without a doubt, Taylor will be the most important player on the field for the Bills this season. Throughout preseason work, the Bills’ starting quarterback has displayed the same mobility and big-play ability that led the front office to ink him to a lucrative contract extension on Aug. 12. Though time will tell if Taylor’s skill set as a passer has evolved come the regular season, he continues to look the part of the “franchise” quarterback that has eluded the Bills for so long.
Taylor’s play, and his ability to stay healthy, will play a vital role in whether or not the club can break its 16-year playoff drought. If he maintains the same level of play from a season ago, plays all 16 games, and sees the defense improve upon its mediocre performance a season ago, the Bills can reasonably think playoffs. If he improves upon last year, uses the middle of the field as a passer, pieces together some late-game comebacks, and manages to avoid damaging hits when he scrambles, Taylor can help the Bills begin to dream a bit bigger.
His place within these rankings is based on reasoning that separates him from every one of his teammates. Though nothing is ever entirely certain, if Taylor were to miss extensive time due to injury, it’d be absolutely shocking if the Bills were able to clinch a postseason berth. For that reason, until Taylor can begin exhibiting an ability to protect himself a bit better out of the pocket, Bills fans will collectively hold their breath each time Taylor takes a hit.
Ultimately, despite the losses on the defensive side of the ball, the Bills will still field a team this year that’s as talented as any they’ve had during their 16-year playoff drought. When you consider that both the offense and defense are littered with impact players that could potentially draw Pro Bowl consideration, the Bills will have every opportunity to begin making headlines for the right reasons soon enough.