The Buffalo Bills have undergone a major face-lift since their wild card playoff exit. Josh Allen is the new face of the team following a well-applauded draft that will alter the franchise’s future for the next decade or more. As is usually the case following the draft; in the spring, a young fan’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of winning football come autumn. Do we dare dream, or should be prepared for “fall” instead of “autumn?”
Notable additions: Star Lotulelei, Trent Murphy, Vontae Davis, Tremaine Edmunds
Notable departures: Preston Brown, E.J. Gaines, Leonard Johnson
There’s a lot of ways to measure a defense, and I’m partial to points allowed. The Bills’ defense was ranked 18th per Pro Football Reference, giving up 22.4 points per game. A three-game skid of historically bad proportions impacted things and that’s where we’ll begin our story.
During that stretch, the Bills couldn’t stop anything. A major factor was the release of Marcell Dareus and having less talented players fill the void. The Bills were able to right the ship thanks to heavy usage of nickel packages, but the trenches were never quite right. The Bills added Lotulelei and Murphy early during free agency. In the process, they upgraded from Dareus and Lawson. From a talent perspective, Dareus should easily trump Lotulelei. But convincing me that Dareus hadn’t mentally checked out in Buffalo would be an uphill battle that would make Sisyphus’ seem like no big deal.
Preston Brown has led the defensive communications for Buffalo for years, and that’s the single biggest loss. Last year’s Bills played with coherence, some of which was likely due to Brown. The coaching staff can’t be ignored either, and it’s possible this loss won’t sting much in the end. The team has upgraded (drastically) in athleticism with Edmunds. Incumbents Matt Milano, Ramon Humber, and Lorenzo Alexander are all solid and will look better with an improved line to help them out.
On the back end, Davis should make up for the departed Gaines, and he could be an upgrade if fully healthy. Leonard Johnson was a good fit in the scheme and helped bail the team out when they went nickel-heavy later in year. The Bills might have solid replacements in the mix (Phillip Gaines, Taron Johnson). It’s possible improvements in the front seven mean this position is a little less critical.
Verdict: There’s no reason to think there’s another historically bad stretch coming out of this group, which should help all on its own. There’s a good case that turnovers won’t be as plentiful due to their fluky nature, which helped spur early success last year. Still, it’s very hard to come away with any conclusion other than that the defense is a lot stronger in a few key spots.
Notable additions: AJ McCarron, Josh Allen, Jeremy Kerley, Russell Bodine, Brian Daboll
Notable departures: Tyrod Taylor, Eric Wood, Cordy Glenn, Richie Incognito, Jordan Matthews
You’ve probably heard by now that were was a mass exodus of quality offensive linemen this year. Dion Dawkins was good playing for the injured Glenn last year, and this is technically a wash as a result of Glenn’s missed time. Make no mistake though, Dawkins isn’t Glenn, and this compounds the total issues surrounding the line. The retirements of Wood and Incognito were unexpected. Ryan Groy and Bodine will likely battle for the job at center, and it’s possible there won’t be a major drop-off. There’s a question mark at every single position at the moment. That’s not a good place to be.
Despite some shuffling on the depth players, running back and tight end remained static. The only change to note comes courtesy of Father Time, which would suggest LeSean McCoy will be worse this year than last. I’d expect he’ll still be great, however.
Last year’s wide receiver group was pretty bad. The lack of a true deep threat made things tougher for the position. The loss of Jordan Matthews made a bad group downright awful. Adding Jeremy Kerley negated that loss. However, both players have significant overlap to what Zay Jones brings to the table. With Kelvin Benjamin as the number one, the top trio will struggle to set things up for each other.
Just so it’s on the record, I consider Tyrod Taylor and AJ McCarron to be in the same tier of QBs. Specifically, there’s some things to like and they’ll do alright if a coach knows how to play to their strengths. With that out of the way and based on the above team weakness, McCarron is probably the better QB for the Bills. Better pre-snap reads and more confidence trying timing passes should allow McCarron to get the ball out faster than Tyrod showed in his time here. That’s a huge plus with an unsettled line in front of him. Don’t expect a massive improvement, though. Teams will cheat up to spy a lot less, which means extra defenders to stop an uninspiring set of receivers. The safest bet of all this year will be an increase in turnovers. If Josh Allen sees time this year, it’s hopefully because they’ve added a legitimate deep threat. A shorter field will narrow throwing lanes. Combine that with a rookie QB needing to make really fast plays to mitigate a poor line and things could be ugly.
Verdict: All told, I think the offense is a wash. This includes some blind faith in Brian Daboll, for the record. A major factor last year was the unfortunate Rick Dennison experiment. If Daboll can make a scheme that isn’t the exact opposite of what his players do well, it should lead to a decent improvement in QB play. That improvement will sadly be negated by the rest of the offense (Shady excluded of course). There’s some potential for this side of the ball to wildly exceed my expectations, to be fair. To be even more fair, there’s also the potential to crumble completely.
I won’t go so far as to say it’ll be reflected in the win/loss record, but I think the Bills are a little better than they were to close the 2017 season. On paper, the defense has an excellent foundation that could ultimately land in the realm of elite if they continue to build. The offense should benefit more from Daboll’s addition this year than anything else. They also added their cornerstone piece in Josh Allen and can start shaping the rest of the team around him. There’s still time to tweak the roster, too. While a player swap or two probably won’t mean much on defense, one or two hits on offense could be significant.