The Buffalo Bills entered last season with mixed expectations, as Tyrod Taylor emerged as a legitimate starting option, and he was surrounded with talented players such as Cordy Glenn, Sammy Watkins and LeSean McCoy.
Unfortunately for the Bills, Rex Ryan’s defence was a horrendous fit with their roster which was built for a 4-3 defence with a mix of man and zone coverage. Rex Ryan’s defence uses an odd front with a lot of man coverage, so the Bills ranked near the bottom of the NFL in defensive efficiency. The Bills ended the season with a 7-9 record, and Rex Ryan was fired along with GM Doug Whaley, with Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane both arriving in up-state New York from the Carolina Panthers.
The Bills are heading into a new era, which was made all the more obvious when they made two huge trade deals on Friday, with Sammy Watkins moving to the Los Angeles Rams, and Ronald Darby moving to the Philadelphia Eagles.
Rex Ryan essentially destroyed the Bills defence, and he will likely never get another head coaching job in the NFL. He was slightly unlucky last year as his first two picks- the edge bender Shaq Lawson and the versatile Reggie Ragland were both ruled out with injuries. This meant the Bills lacked pass rush for most of the year, and were hugely reliant on blitzes, which overworked the corners, who were seen as the main strength of the Bills defence.
After an 0-2 start, the Bills fired their offensive coordinator Greg Roman as his vertical offence was clearly not a fit with Tyrod Taylor, and he was replaced by running backs coach Anthony Lynn. The result was a revolutionized offence, which increased the use of outside zone running, and the pass game was changed to one centered around short passes and getting yards after the catch, which was a good fit with the Bills injury-hit receiving corps. LeSean McCoy put up MVP level numbers, and their offence was a playoff offence.
Rex Ryan was fired with two games left in the season, and in a way, the 2016 season has buried the Ryan family in the NFL, as neither Rex or Rob will get another coaching job due to repeated failures.
The Bills were not a bad team last year, but they were mediocre, and this is arguably a worse place to be in. They found themselves picking in the middle of the draft, before trading down due to Andy Reid’s love for Patrick Mahomes.
The Bills decided to blow up their secondary in free agency, as Stephon Gilmore and Nickell Robey-Coleman both departed, and the team also traded Ronald Darby to the Eagles for Jordan Matthews and a third-round pick. Matthews is a clear downgrade for the team and a questionable fit with Tyrod Taylor, and Darby seemed to be a good fit in the hybrid zone-man scheme that Sean McDermott wants to run. It is not surprising that two men who came from the Carolina Panthers do not value expensive corners, but they used a first-round pick on Tre’Davious White, which shows they are committed to spending capital on the position. This makes the Darby trade even more baffling.
The secondary was however boosted by the arrival of Micah Hyde, who is one of the best chess pieces in the NFL. His ability to line up in the slot, as a linebacker, and as a safety adds an heir of unpredictability to what will be a predictable 4-3 defence from Sean McDermott. Expect Hyde to be an every down player for Buffalo, and as someone who could genuinely get five or six sacks as an edge blitzer.
With Sammy Watkins’ departure, the Buffalo Bills went from having a middle of the road receiving corps, to one of the worst. If the Buffalo Bills were to enter a full tank mode, the Watkins move would make sense, but they have now gone from a dark horse for a playoff spot, to a team that is nailed on to win between five and eight games. They have a playoff defence if they commit to the even front, and they would have had a playoff offence if Sammy Watkins was healthy. This is of course a huge if, but committing to the future when the present is hardly terrible, is a strange decision at first glance. They replaced him with Anquan Boldin, who will be a redzone threat, but the Bills do not have a difference maker in the open field unless there is a huge rookie year from Zay Jones.
The best moves for the Bills came in an often overlooked position- the full back position. LeSean McCoy ran well behind Jerome Felton in 2016, so the Bills fully committed to their run game by signing Mike Tolbert and Patrick DiMarco, who are two of the top five full backs in the NFL. They will run the ball a lot, but the departure of Sammy Watkins means that teams can stack the box against them without any real risk.
The Bills front seven should be good as they have a legit blue chip player in Marcel Dareus, and he will be helped on the edge by Shaq Lawson and Jerry Hughes, who I believe to be the most underrated player in the NFL. They have a good mix of run stuffers and coverage players at linebacker, and Micah Hyde’s versatility will help them generate sacks outside of their edge rushers.
The Bills also have the best run game in the League as they have a hall of fame level player in LeSean McCoy, and he will be running behind the likes of Eric Wood and Richie Incognito, who are both devastating run blockers. LeSean McCoy doesn’t need holes made for him, but if they are given to him, he will destroy a defence.
The secondary is full of question marks, as Tre’Davious White is a rookie, and the Bills are starting Shareece Wright across from him. Wright was so bad in Baltimore, that local beat writers nicknamed him ‘char-eece wright’, because of how often he got burned on vertical routes. This won’t be a glaring problem because Sean McDermott can cover him with zone defence, but if the pass rush struggles, these corners will be overwhelmed, and they could potentially give up huge plays.
The receiving corps is also below par in the open field, so they might struggle to generate yards in the passing game. Tyrod Taylor is underrated, but the likes of Corey Brown and Jordan Matthews are not difference makers. If the Bills can get to the red-zone they will be effective as Anquan Boldin and Charles Clay are both reliable targets, but they don’t have enough speed or savvy route running in their wide receivers.
Best Case Scenario-
Before the trades, I had the Bills as a potential dark horse for a wild-card spot with a 10-6 record, but I don’t see that happening anymore, so the best record they can hope for is an 2-14 record, which lands them a generational talent at the top of the 2018 NFL Draft.
Worst Case Scenario-
The worst outcome for the Bills would be to go 8-8 this year, because they would find themselves in NFL purgatory. This is a real possibility as they have a middle of the road defence and a strong running game, with a quarterback who does not lose them games on a regular basis.
Before the Watkins trade I had this team pencilled for a 9-7 season in light of the injury to Ryan Tannehill, but I now have them going 6-10, which would be a complete disaster of a season. At least they have draft picks, although this won’t soften the blows for Bills’ fans when they miss the playoffs yet again.