In 2017, the Buffalo Bills exceeded expectations, posting a 9-7 record and returning to the playoffs for the first time in 17 years before bowing out to the Jacksonville Jaguars in the Wild Card round.
In his first year as defensive coordinator, Leslie Frazier’s 4-3 defense experienced its share of ups and downs and finished ranked in the bottom of the league in yards allowed (26th), rushing yards allowed (29th), passing yards (20th), first downs (30th), and sacks per pass attempt (31st).
Buffalo’s historically bad three-game slide vs. the New York Jets, New Orleans Saints, and Los Angeles Chargers, when the Bills were outscored 135-55, is responsible for much of the ugly bottom-line on defense. The Bills surrendered 1,242 total yards during that stretch, accounting for 21.8 percent of the total yardage for the entire season, while the franchise-worst 135 points allowed equaled 37 percent of the season total.
While the stats still counted, if you removed those three games, the Bills allowed 17.2 points and 341.5 yards per game in the other 13 games, which would have ranked fourth and 20th, respectively.
Counting the 10-3 loss to the Jaguars in the playoffs, Buffalo held opponents under 20 points in 10 games. The Bills allowed only three pass plays of 40+ yards, the fewest in the NFL in four years. Buffalo also came away with 18 interceptions, tied for sixth-best in the NFL.
So what are the biggest areas of concern for Frazier and head coach Sean McDermott on the defensive side of the ball?
The Bills lost starting middle linebacker Preston Brown, the NFL leader in tackles, to the Cincinnati Bengals. Cornerback E.J. Gaines, who was productive when he was on the field but suffered through a litany of injuries in 2017, was allowed to walk and signed with the Cleveland Browns.
Buffalo brought back defensive tackle Kyle Williams and signed free agent defensive end Trent Murphy and defensive tackle Star Lotulelei to bolster the defensive line. Buffalo also inked Vontae Davis to seemingly replace Gaines at cornerback.
The most glaring need is linebacker, where 34-year-old fan favorite Lorenzo Alexander and second-year pro Matt Milano are the closest to sure things at the position. Buffalo hosted Will Compton, Karlos Dansby, and Kevin Minter on free-agent visits, but as of today, the Bills have not addressed the linebacker position outside of signing Julian Stanford, who is expected to contribute more on special teams.
The team’s depth at cornerback should be bolstered, too. While Tre’Davious White contributed a Rookie of the Year-caliber performance in 2017 and Vontae Davis is a veteran with something to prove following a tumultuous end to his career in Indianapolis, the depth chart is perilously thin behind those two starters. Phillip Gaines was brought in on a league minimum contract to potentially contribute at slot corner, though his performance in man coverage is lacking.
While Buffalo appears set at defensive tackle (if they so choose), the team could use additional depth at defensive end to complement Murphy, Jerry Hughes, Shaq Lawson, and Eddie Yarbrough. Especially after the release of Ryan Davis in late March.
Whether the Bills use one of their nine draft picks (six in the top 96) or wait until rosters are trimmed down later this summer, Buffalo has work to do on a defense that showed reason for optimism in its first year under McDermott and Frazier.