The Buffalo Bills have plenty of work to do if they want to take the next step towards being a championship contender in 2018 and beyond. Their defense, while looking fundamentally sound and fairly effective for much of the 2017 NFL season, potentially may lose five starters in free agency, and they also are in danger of losing a key sub package player in nickel corner Leonard Johnson.
With this in mind, the Bills have plenty of needs on defense, with some entire position groups in need of a complete overhaul. There may be too much work to do in one offseason, especially with multiple needs on the offensive side of the ball, as well, but the team can begin preparing for the future by acquiring young, controllable talent at a few key positions.
The Bills are set to lose 2 players who started at least half of the team’s games in 2017, with outside linebacker Ramon Humber and middle linebacker Preston Brown both entering unrestricted free agency. Brown recently said that head coach Sean McDermott implied that the team wanted to retain him beyond this season, but that will certainly depend on Brown’s contract demands given Buffalo’s salary cap restraints.
While Humber was replaced by Matt Milano midway through the season, he still was a veteran presence on the defense and special teams, finishing fourth on the team with 83 total tackles. Humber’s lack of coverage ability combined with his age (he’ll turn 31 in August) makes it unlikely that the Bills will retain him, meaning that it’s possible that the Bills will be in the market for two new starting linebackers.
While the team does have veteran leader Lorenzo Alexander under contract for 2018, he struggled to post the same kind of explosive numbers that he did in his breakout 2016 campaign. Alexander is better suited as a pass-rusher and run-stuffer, as he struggles in both zone and man coverages.
The Bills really only have one true three-down linebacker on the roster, and in today’s NFL, that is a recipe for disaster. This is why upgrading the talent at the linebacker position should be the number one priority for Buffalo this offseason with regard to their stop unit. The team will need to find at least one to pair with Milano, preferably someone who can man the middle of the defense.
Defensive Tackle x2
After trading Marcell Dareus for what amounts to peanuts (a fifth round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft), Sean McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane set a precedent about the kind of culture they want, but it came at the cost of having one of the more talented defensive linemen in the NFL at their disposal.
An aging Kyle Williams was paired with Cedric Thornton and Adolphus Washington at defensive tackle, and the results were less than stellar. The team was routinely beat up the middle on the ground, and they lacked any sort of discernible pass rush from the middle, as well. With Thornton set to become a free agent and Williams contemplating retirement, the Bills could be in dire straits along the interior defensive line.
Adding a player at this position through the draft is a must, and signing a free agent would help, as well, especially if Williams retires. Stanford standout Harrison Phillips seems like one of the most “McBeane”-style players in the draft, and after reading the excellent interview our Dan Lavoie and Andrew Griffin did with the 6’4”, 303-pound lineman, I’d be stunned if the Bills aren’t interested in drafting him.
E.J. Gaines is an unrestricted free agent, and Spotrac projects him to make a whole lot of money on the open market after a solid, though injury-plagued, 2017 campaign. Leonard Johnson, the team’s top nickle option, is also a free agent, as is dime corner Shareece Wright. Clearly, the Bills have some decisions to make in the secondary.
Tre’Davious White had a fantastic rookie campaign, but as good as he is, he can’t cover every receiver at once. The Bills will first have to decide which of their free agent corners they will re-sign, if any at all. Then, they will need to add some talent to the group.
My guess is that the team retains Johnson on a relatively inexpensive contract. Gaines is going to make a lot of money, and I don’t think he’ll make that money in Buffalo next year. Look for him to sign a big deal elsewhere fairly early in the free agency period. Wright is someone who should not be retained, as he struggled mightily when pressed into a larger role when Gaines was injured.
The Bills will almost definitely draft a corner, and perhaps they may even draft multiple corners, depending on how many of their draft picks they retain. They also may look to sign some lower-tier free agents to solidify the depth chart.
Rotational Defensive End
On paper, Buffalo’s defensive ends are fine. Jerry Hughes, Shaq Lawson, Eddie Yarbrough, and Ryan Davis are a fine foursome;however, they did not produce much this season in the way of a pass rush. The Bills do not blitz often, and as a result, the front-four needs to generate pressure in order to be effective. The Bills did not do so consistently, so if they can find a situational pass rusher, they should do so.
There are some very intriguing free agent options for the Bills to consider, many of whom could be had at a reasonable price tag. If the Bills sense mutual interest, they should definitely look to improve their stable of pass-rushers heading into 2018. A last-resort option would be to ask Lorenzo Alexander to play some as a down lineman, but the Bills would be better served looking for someone who is an actual defensive end to help rush the passer.
When Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer were injured in Buffalo’s Wildcard loss against the Jacksonville Jaguars, the team was forced to deploy Colt Anderson and Shamarko Thomas at safety. That’s not a duo that inspires much confidence. The Bills would be wise to add another player, probably late in the draft, who can double as a special teams player and a suitable backup for their stud safeties.
What Buffalo Bills’ defensive position/position group is most in need of an upgrade?
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