The Update: Buffalo Bills 2017 Preview

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The Update: Buffalo Bills 2017 Preview

Justis Mosqueda

In an effort to break the two-paragraph preview trend of national writers, Setting the Edge has dedicated themselves to previewing all 32 teams in the NFL in a series called “The Update”, which will focus on:

  1. Where a team stands from a decision-maker standpoint
  2. Where teams were efficient and inefficient last year by using percentile radar charts
  3. Who the moving parts between the 2016 and 2017 seasons were
  4. Where a team is trending heading into the 2017 regular season

Justis Mosqueda will be writing the team previews while Charles McDonald posts film breakdowns based on the writing. After posts on entire divisions are finished, they will discuss teams on division-specific Setting the Edge podcasts which you can find on SoundCloud and iTunes. Five stars only. Tell a friend.

To be totally honest, I’m not sure what you’re supposed to write about when it comes to the Buffalo Bills’ current direction or their power structure. They have a new head coach and their general manager wasn’t hired until after the draft. Instead of trying to fumble some words out before we get into the Bills’ 2016 numbers and 2017 transactions, let’s just take a look at every major coach on the team’s staff this season.

Of their 11 major coaches, 10 of them were in the NFL last season, though none of them were on the Bills’ roster under Rex Ryan’s run with the team. The exception in their staff is Phil McGeoghan, who was a receivers coach with East Carolina in 2016. Below is a graphic with what each coach’s job is, where he came from, what his previous job was and highlighted are efficiency statistics from 2016 that I believe those positional coaches could have influenced. Run percentage is more of a situational statistic that is a team-wide effort. Since none of the 11 were head coaches at the previous stop, I’m just going to ignore those numbers.

Now let’s average out the highlighted numbers to see what we might expect to be the strengths and weaknesses of the Bills’ coaching staff this season.

There was not one category in which the offensive staff was above average at as a collective in 2016. Clearly, starting with the head coach down, this is a defense-leaning staff. With that in mind, what might we expect to be the most improved statistics in Buffalo this season based on their coaching staff’s previous stops? Good question. Let’s sort the statistics based on the averages of their new coaches coming in and their 2016 numbers.

There we go. The two biggest improvements that one should expect with this coaching staff is yards per carry, where the Buffalo Bills ranked 28th in the league in 2016, and TFL percentage, where the Buffalo Bills ranked 23rd in the league in 2016. Pulling head coach Sean McDermott (formerly the defensive coordinator of Carolina, 9th yards per carry/8th TFL percentage), defensive line coach Mike Waufle (formerly the defensive line coach of Los Angeles, 10th yards per carry, 3rd TFL percentage) and linebacker coach Bob Babich (formerly the linebacker coach of San Diego, 6th yards per cary, 2nd TFL percentage) should lead to some quality development of the team’s front seven.

The Bills drafted three front seven players in the top 80 picks of the 2016 in Clemson defensive end Shaq Lawson, Alabama linebacker Reggie Ragland and Ohio State defensive tackle Adolphus Washington, but they collectively started just 12 games, with 11 coming from Washington. Both Lawson and Ragland were unable to make it out of the summer with a clean bill of health, and making the most of their sophomore developments is going to be pivotal for keeping a stream of quality rookie contracts on the roster, the lifeblood of NFL success.

Offense:

Backs: A few years ago, Tyrod Taylor was the third-string quarterback of the Buffalo Bills around this time of year. Over the last two years, Taylor has taken the reigns over as the team’s top passer, recording 37 passing touchdowns to just 14 interceptions and posting passer ratings of 99.4 and 89.7 to go along with 10 rushing touchdowns.

While he was sat on the bench by the previous coaching staff, which was auditioning for a job that they never received, it appears that Taylor will start 16 games this season. That might not be the case in 2018, as there were plenty of rumors about the Bills potentially adding a top quarterback prospect to the team this past draft, but the only rookie in the room is fifth-round pick Nathan Peterman of Pittsburgh. It’s the second time in two years that the team’s spent a Day 3 pick on a quarterback, as Cardale Jones of Ohio State was a fourth-round pick of the team last season.

Peterman, Jones and free agent signing T.J. Yates, who didn’t throw a pass last season and has six passing touchdowns, eight interceptions and a 72.8 passer rating to show for his six-year career up to this point, are battling for one or two backup roles behind Taylor. Last season, the team finished 9th in interception percentage, 20th in yards per completion, 27th in completion percentage and 31st in sack percentage.

Taylor protects the ball if nothing else. One could guess that the team’s sack percentage may fall on the shoulders of their dual-threat passer, but the fact that the Bills also finished 22nd in TFL percentage in the ground game could lead you to believe that their offensive line had a fair share of blame. Buffalo didn’t have much receiver talent available last season, but had a great run game. A game-manager type could have done them well, and the Taylor-heavy quarterback unit that led them to a 27th-ranked completion percentage last year just didn’t correlate with that.

How the team approaches quarterback, either by demanding a game-manager or giving Taylor enough receiver talent to make use of splashy plays, will be interesting to track over the next year or so. Right now, we simply don’t have the answers.

At running back, we have all the answers. Despite that below average TFL percentage, the Bills backfield was still able to record the best yards per carry mark in the league and ran the second-most (run percentage) of any team in the league. The top ball-carriers on the team were tailback LeSean McCoy (234 attempts, 5.4 yards per carry), Mike Gillislee (101 attempts, 5.7 yards per carry) and Taylor (95 attempts, 6.1 yards per carry). Gillislee left for the rival New England Patriots after the Bills refused to match a two-year, $6.4 million contract that left Buffalo with a fifth-round pick. The only blemish of the backfield was that they fumbles so often, with a 27th-ranked fumble percentage, but that wasn’t totally the fault of those three names.

McCoy, Gillislee and Taylor fumbled eight times over 430 carries (1.8% of their carries). Meanwhile, nine other Bills recorded a carry last year for a total of 62 carries. They had six fumbles over those touches (9.8% of their carries). Context matters a lot in that odd split. Only McCoy returns as a significant back in 2017, but he has two new fullbacks to play with in Patrick DiMarco, coming from Atlanta, and Mike Tolbert, coming from Carolina.

Pass-Catchers: The Buffalo Bills took a pretty big hit at receiver this offseason. Only four players left their team this free agency period and signed a contract worth more than $3 million per year with a new team, and two of those players came from the wide out unit in Robert Woods (signed with the Los Angeles Rams on a five-year, $34 million deal) and Marquise Goodwin (signed with the San Francisco 49ers on a two-year, $6 million deal).

The team’s top returning wide receiver in terms of receptions is Sammy Watkins, a former first-round pick who recorded 28 receptions (15.4 yards per reception). Number two on the list in terms of returning wide receivers is Walt Powell, who had 14 receptions (10.1 yards per reception) in 2016. That’s not great.

Andre Holmes (via Oakland) signed a three-year, $5.15 million deal with the team while Corey Brown (via Carolina) and Jeremy Butler (via Tampa Bay) were brought in as restricted free agents on one-year deals. I don’t think I’m alone in saying I don’t think any of those names really move the needle or should be viewed as more than third or fourth receiver options. The money agrees with me.

The one hope for improvement on the team’s 20th-ranked yards per reception mark from 2016 is the addition of second-round pick Zay Jones, who reunited with his college positional coach in Buffalo. The health of Watkins and the quick adaptation of an NFL playbook from Jones will be the keys in seeing if this receiver unit will be respectable in 2017, which may be a make-or-break season for Taylor at quarterback.

Tight end is a one-man show with Charles Clay (57 receptions, 9.7 yards per reception) leading the way as the team’s returning receptions leader from 2016. If Clay’s knee, which landed him on the injured reserve list at the end of 2016, isn’t in playing shape then the Bills could be in a world of hurt at the tight end position.

Linemen: Buffalo finished 31st in sack percentage and 22nd in TFL percentage last year. There should have been questions about this offensive line overall as a unit. Six linemen played more than 50 percent of the snaps according to Football Outsiders’ snap counts: Richie Incognito, John Miller, Jordan Mills, Cordy Glenn, Eric Wood and Ryan Groy. All six of those players return in 2017 with the only significant addition to the unit being second-round pick Dion Dawkins, a tackle from Temple who projects as a hybrid tackle-guard in the mold of Marshall Newhouse.

The numbers suggest that Dawkins will be a quality player based on his athleticism numbers, but I’m not totally sold on him personally. I’ve been wrong before, but I’m usually less wrong about line of scrimmage players. Either way, look for him to compete for playing time this year. The flexibility of some of these tackle-guard hybrid types is interesting. Buffalo really is in a spot where they can evaluate their linemen all summer and just roll out their best five weekly.

Defense:

Line of Scrimmage: Run defense by far was the weakness of the Buffalo Bills last season. Despite ranking 9th in fumble percentage, the team was 23rd in TFL percentage, 28th in yards per carry and 30th in run percentage last year. They were ran on often and effectively outside of the handful of fumbles that they forced.

If you look at their starting defensive line on paper, that’s a bit surprising. Transitioning to a 4-3 defense, they have two athletic pass-rushers in Jerry Hughes and Lawson and they have two Pro Bowlers at defensive tackle in Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus, with a third-round pick coming off the bench in Washington. That’s now how 2016 played out though.

Lawson missed the majority of the season while recovering from a shoulder injury and surgery. Dareus missed four games due to a PED suspension and had both groin and abdominal issues that held him back in the seven starts he was able to play in last year. Just by staying healthy, this unit can get a lot better in 2017. Despite the setbacks, the team was fourth in sack percentage last season and should only get better as the team moves to a true 4-3 defense where Hughes and Lawson can pin back their ears and get after the quarterback instead of disguising if they’re blitzing or dropping. Lorenzo Alexander, the late-bloomer of 2016, will likely be playing more of an off the ball linebacker role this year than he played last season when he recorded 12.5 of his 21.5 career sacks. Don’t count out the 34-year-old out as a situational pass-rusher though.

Backs: Between Alexander and Ragland possibly playing 16 games as the nickel linebackers for the Bills, the team already improved on the second level in 2017. Gerald Hodges, who had 83 tackles with the San Francisco 49ers last season, signed a post-draft contract with the team on a one-year deal for the undersized linebacker. Zach Brown, the team’s leading tackler in 2016, signed a one-year, $4.65 million deal with the Washington Redskins this offseason, but the squad returns Preston Brown, who had 139 tackles of his own last year.

The four-man battle of Alexander, Ragland, Hodges and Brown for two roles in a nickel-heavy league bodes well for the Buffalo’s running game moving forward. Competition brings the best out of everyone.

Defensive back was a bit of a high-variance unit for the Bills last season. They were 3rd in completion percentage, 15th in interception percentage and 30th in yards per completion last year, all while Buffalo had the 4th sack percentage in the league. They didn’t allow many receptions, but when they did they were big plays. They were also just average in terms of ball skills.

Those numbers could very well take a drop with Stephon Gilmore, who signed a five-year, $65 million deal with the New England Patriots with $14 million more guaranteed than any other defensive back on the free agency market, leaving the team. Buffalo had 10 interceptions in 2016 from defensive backs. Gilmore, Nickell Roby-Coleman and Corey White, who are all gone, recorded 9 of those.

The good news is the team went through a massive overhaul on the back end of their defense this offseason. They signed safeties Jordan Poyer (four-year, $13 million deal via Cleveland) and Micah Hyde (five-year, $30.5 million deal via Green Bay) and drafted cornerback Tre’Davious White of LSU in the first round to pair with 2015 second-round pick Ronald Darby. It gets a bit murky after that, but there’s a clear four-starter defensive back unit in base looks if nothing else. The good news is that White’s workout numbers would suggest that he’s going to be a Pro Bowl-type of cornerback based on his draft status, if you’re looking at the last decade of the NFL.

2017 Prediction: It’s hard to pin down how this team gets worse in 2017 other than at receiver and maybe in the defensive back unit, though the volume of new and improved faces in the secondary may be able to offset the loss of Stephone Gilmore alone.

They should have quality running game and a much better front seven now that everyone is healthy. Their offensive line isn’t going to take any steps back, though most of the optimism there is that the team will take steps forward with players who were in-house last season. Are they really that different from a team like the Baltimore Ravens, outside of Buffalo’s backfield being significantly better?

They need to jump the Miami Dolphins, who were extremely lucky last season, but I could see this team flirting around .500 to wild card status as the second-best team in the AFC East in 2017. I don’t really think that this team can “make some noise” in the playoffs, but getting into the postseason for the first time since 1999 seems fairly significant for this fan base.

Remember, this wasn’t really a bad team to start out with. They went 7-9 last season. This was a team that went 2-6 in close games, but won two more multi-score games than they lost in 2016. Here are the teams who can claim the same in the AFC:

  • the New England Patriots
  • the Pittsburgh Steelers
  • the Kansas City Chiefs
  • the Denver Broncos

That’s it. This team wasn’t really that far away from sneaking into the playoffs last season. If their offensive passing game doesn’t hold them down, they have a fairly good shot at it this year.

Video Breakdown: Bills Run Game by Charles McDonald