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Ranking the Buffalo Bills’ positional groups

Which positions are the strongest and weakest so far?

Multiple roster moves this offseason have provided the Buffalo Bills with several new players across many positional groups. Though the current roster will dwindle down to 53 players by Week 1, we’ll take a look at the current make up of each position on both sides of the ball and attempt to rank them from strongest to weakest.

1. Defensive backs

One of the stronger units for Buffalo last season was the secondary, which was a bit of a surprise. It featured all first-year Bills, including rookie standout Tre’Davious White, E.J. Gaines, Jordan Poyer, and Pro-Bowler Micah Hyde. As a unit, the secondary was tied for the fifth-most interceptions in the NFL, and ranked first for the least amount of 40+ yard pass plays, seventh for 20+ yard pass plays, and second in passing touchdowns allowed.

Although cornerback E.J. Gaines left for the Cleveland Browns this off-season, the Bills added depth by signing veteran Vontae Davis from the Indianapolis Colts, Phillip Gaines from the Kansas City Chiefs, and Kelcie McCray from the Seattle Seahawks. The team drafted rookies Taron Johnson and Siran Neal in the fourth and fifth rounds of this year’s draft, respectively.

Vontae Davis was cut by the Colts after reportedly being benched for poor play and needing season-ending groin surgery. Davis was at one point among the league’s best corners, but his performance has deteriorated in recent seasons according to Pro Football Focus’ positional rankings. However, if he can remain healthy and have somewhat of a bounce back year while the reserves are serviceable, the Buffalo secondary should be able to pick up where it left off last year and perhaps even improve.

2: Running backs

Next are the running backs, led by six time Pro-Bowler LeSean McCoy. Obviously, the success of the unit largely depends on McCoy’s ability to stay on the field and remain ageless despite turning 30 this July.

The backfield seems to have been bolstered since last year in terms of depth, which should lighten McCoy’s workload and keep him fresh throughout each game. During 2017, RB Mike Tolbert was the second-string ball carrier; he simply was not a sufficient back up for McCoy. RB Travaris Cadet was acquired by the Bills mid-season after being released by the New York Jets and was an immediate upgrade over Tolbert before suffering a season-ending injury in week 15.

The Bills also added depth with the signing of veteran Chris Ivory from the Jacksonville Jaguars in March. Although Ivory is three seasons removed from his lone Pro Bowl year with the Jets in 2015, he’s shown he can still handle a decent workload as he carried the ball 112 times with an average of 3.4 yards per carry last season behind rookie Leonard Fournette.

The Bills should be concerned by the age of their backfield, however. Their average age right now is about 29, with only Marcus Murphy being younger than 27.

3: Tight ends

The clear-cut starter at tight end is Charles Clay, who had 558 receiving yards, his highest mark as a Bill. He did this despite missing three games due to injury. Clay was one of quarterback Tyrod Taylor’s favorite targets, as he accounted for approximately 18% of all receiving yards and was the overall leading receiver on the team. He ranked 14th and 13th in receptions and yards among tight ends league-wide. Though Clay has had injuries plague him in the past, if he can stay healthy, he should be one of Buffalo’s top receivers again.

Clay is backed up by fellow tight ends Nick O’Leary and Logan Thomas. O’Leary is the more established of the two, as he’s provided consistent production for the Bills in prior years and tacked on another 332 yards and two touchdowns last year. Thomas didn’t see too much action in 2017, but did show he can contribute as he had 7 receptions for 67 yards and a touchdown.

Khari Lee and Jason Croom both have the ability to contribute this season.

4: Defensive line

As of now, Buffalo’s likely starters on the defensive line consist of newly-acquired Trent Murphy and Star Lotulelei, along with veteran holdovers Kyle Williams and Jerry Hughes.

Murphy was a free agent obtained from the Washington Redskins. He had a breakout year in 2016 when he recorded nine sacks, but he sat out all of 2017 with a torn ACL. Had he not suffered the injury, he would have been suspended for the first four games of the season for violating the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs. However, if he can return to his 2016 form, he should be an upgrade at defensive end and strengthen the pass rush, which ranked 29th in sacks last year.

Lotulelei was brought in from Carolina mostly for run support, something that tortured the defense last year. He had just 1.5 sacks and 6 tackles last season, but his job was primarily to clog up space in the middle. Although not flashy, he should provide much needed help for Buffalo’s run defense, a unit that ranked 29th with 125 rushing yards allowed per game.

Former first-round pick Shaq Lawson has been somewhat of a disappointment thus far in his career and will likely need a break out year if he hopes to remain with the Bills. The potential reserves include Eddie Yarbrough, Adolphus Washington, the newly signed Owa Odighuzuwa, and third round draft pick Harrison Phillips.

5: Linebackers

The Bills let Preston Brown head to the Cincinnati Bengals this offseason, but quickly replaced last year’s league-leading tackler with the 19-year-old Tremaine Edmunds in the first round of the draft. The projected starters for Week 1 appear to be Edmunds (who has since turned 20) at MIKE, Matt Milano at WILL, and veteran Lorenzo Alexander at SAM, with Ramon Humber, Deon Lacey, Tanner Vallejo, Julian Stanford, and Xavier Woodson-Luster battling for roster spots.

Milano impressed last year as a rookie, appearing on about 41% of all defensive snaps and adding five starts. He recorded 43 tackles, two interceptions, and one forced fumble on the year, which is not a bad stat line for a fifth-round draft pick. He’ll look to build on last season and play an even bigger role within the linebacker corps this year.

The 35-year-old Alexander will look to be a steady presence for the two other young ‘backers. Alexander has had at least fifty tackles in each of his two seasons with the Bills along with a combined 15.5 sacks and one interception. Age will certainly be a factor, but ideally he’ll mentor both Edmunds and Milano to help strengthen the unit.

Edmunds is clearly the most gifted of the linebackers physically. He was a highly regarded prospect out of Virginia Tech, but his lack of experience on the NFL level will likely necessitate some adjustment time. However, if he’s a quick learner, he has the potential to be one of the top linebackers in the league for years to come.

6: Offensive line

With the exception of left tackle Dion Dawkins, who was picked during the second round of the 2017 draft, myriad questions remain on the offensive line. The Bills lost two Pro Bowlers in Eric Wood and Richie Incognito, along with the talented but injury-prone Cordy Glenn, and therefore have significant holes to fill.

As of now, it looks like Vladimir Ducasse, last year’s starter at right guard, may be Incognito’s replacement at left guard. Sliding into the lineup at his former position is fourth-year man John Miller, who was drafted by the Bills in 2015. He has 32 career starts at right guard, but lost his starting role to Ducasse after four games last season.

Center Russell Bodine was signed in free agency from Cincinnati this off-season, and he will likely battle Ryan Groy for the starting job. Bodine was a four-year starter with the Bengals before coming to Buffalo. Although he has never made a Pro Bowl, he has never missed a game in his career, either.

It will be interesting to see how the offensive line shapes up, as new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll will shift from Rick Dennison’s zone-blocking scheme to a more power-run focused strategy. Dawkins appears to be the only solidified starter, as he impressed during his eleven starts in the 2017 season. Overall, there is not much proven talent in this grouping.

7: Wide receiver

The Buffalo receiving corps appears like it could be problematic for the offense again this year. After finishing near the bottom of the league with just 115 receptions and 1,474 yards as a unit last year, they lost both Deonte Thompson and Jordan Matthews, who were two of their better pass catchers.

WR Kelvin Benjamin says he is as healthy as ever and will be Buffalo’s true number one receiver. Although he lacks the speed to create separation, his 6’5” stature helps make up for this especially with contested passes.

Second-year player Zay Jones appears like he’ll be the number two behind Benjamin, but his lackluster rookie campaign was anything but reassuring for the Bills. Matters worsened this off-season as he had a bizarre incident in a Los Angeles loft, and it was announced he’d need surgery in the spring. His performance will be essential in freeing up Benjamin and the other receivers from opposing defenses during 2018.

The remaining receiving corps is one big question mark, as there is very little proven talent. The Bills drafted Ray-Ray McCloud and Austin Proehl late in this year’s draft, and also added Jeremy Kerley and Kaelin Clay via free agency. They’ll be joined by Andre Holmes, Rod Streator, Brandon Reilly, Robert Foster, Quan Bray, Cam Phillips, and Malachi Dupre in the battle for roster spots.

Of this group, only Kerley, Streator, and Holmes have had any ounce of success on the NFL level, although all three receivers are at least two years removed from their best seasons. It will be interesting to see how this group plays out, but it currently does not seem to be among the more talented groups in the league.

8: Quarterback

The quarterback position is ranked as the weakest position on the team simply because it consists of three candidates who have extremely limited experience. The newly-signed A.J. McCarron has the most NFL exposure in his four career starts with Cincinnati during 2015, which includes one playoff game. Through these games, he had a 62.1% completion percentage and averaged 191 yards per game while throwing five touchdowns and just one interception.

Nathan Peterman was drafted last year and showed some promise during the preseason and then towards the end of the New Orleans blowout game. However, we all know what happened when he started against the Los Angeles Chargers over Tyrod Taylor. Multiple reports said Peterman had a strong performance during last month’s mini camp, but it’s tough to say whether a few practices in June really mean anything for live game action.

Lastly, the Bills drafted the most polarizing figure in this year’s draft in Josh Allen. The rookie has all the prototypical quarterback tools to be successful in the NFL, although his accuracy issues continue to be of concern. He did finish his collegiate career with strong performances in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl and then in the Senior Bowl; however, it remains to be seen whether any of this will carry over to success in the NFL. He currently holds the third-string position on the depth chart.

Overall, the defense rather than the offense will likely take a step forward this year due to last year’s success in the secondary and the new additions across the board. Besides running back, the offense is probably weaker with the departures on the offensive line and at receiver with little proven talent added. The biggest question obviously remains at quarterback, and that position will have the largest impact on the overall performance of Brian Daboll’s offense.