In 2016, the Bills had yet another mediocre campaign, scratching out a 7-9 record and missing the playoffs (yet again). Coming into 2017, the Bills look to finally put together a playoff-level season under a new Head Coach in Sean McDermott and a new GM in Brandon Beane. Right away, the Bills began making moves that seemed to suggest new management may be looking into the future rather than focusing on the present. Big losses on the offensive side may impact the 2017 season, but according to both Beane and McDermott, this team is playing to win now. Veteran Center Eric Wood , one of the hearts and souls of the organization, has said that the word “tank” isn’t in the Bills vocabulary. So let’s take a look at what’s in store for the Bills in 2017.
Besides WR Brandon Tate, who mainly returned punts and kicks, the Bills are looking at an entirely new wide receiving core. TE Charles Clay returns after catching for over 500 yards and 4 touchdowns, but he is now featured in a Rick Dennison-led offense that does not feature tight ends. Another question lies in the abilities of rookie WR Zay Jones and newly acquired Jordan Matthews. Jones has #1 receiver ability, but is still a rookie and needs time to develop into the #1 role rather than be thrown into it. Jordan Matthews has stayed consistently healthy, which is something that could not be said about Sammy Watkins. However, Matthews caught the injury bug in training camp and it is unclear whether he will be able to adjust to a new system in time for Week 1.
QB Tyrod Taylor looks to impress management after taking a pay cut to remain in Buffalo. Rookie QB Nathan Peterman seems to be right on his heels for the job and many in Bills Mafia are already calling for Peterman. The pros of Tyrod Taylor lie in his ability to escape pressure, use his legs, and not turn the ball over. Last season, Taylor threw for over 3,000 yards and 17 touchdowns to just 6 interceptions. In addition, he ran for 1,148 yards and 10 touchdowns, while maintaining a top-10 QBR. Taylor’s ability to win games down the stretch has often been a question mark, as his 14-14 career record as a starter would state. A solid Week 1 performance at home would strengthen Taylor’s reputation in Buffalo.
The one constant for the Bills over the past few seasons has been the running game and LeSean McCoy. In 2016, McCoy ran for nearly 1,300 yards and 13 touchdowns, good enough for 6th in the NFL in yards and 4th in touchdowns among running backs. He was also top 5 in yards per carry and yards per game. The Bills also roll out a top 10 ranked offensive line, led by Pro Bowlers Richie Incognito and Eric Wood. Last week, the Bills cut RB Jonathan Williams, who was perceived to be the #2 to McCoy. This move left fans scratching their heads as Mike Tolbert now looks to fill that roll. All in all, the Bills offense won’t be world-beaters, but they should feature one of the best running games in the NFL. The questions lie in the passing game.
After finishing 19th in the NFL in yards allowed the past 2 seasons, the Bills will return to a traditional 4-3 defense under Leslie Frazier, and in my opinion bring out a high-powered, underrated defense. The defensive line has never been in question, as big names like Marcell Dareus, Kyle Williams, Shaq Lawson and Jerry Hughes front a D-line that finished 4th in sacks last season. A 4-3 scheme allows the Bills to get to the quarterback and create pressure to take off some of the burden from the secondary.
A linebacker group led by 2016 standout Lorenzo Alexander (12.5 sacks last season) and Preston Brown give the Bills strength, but questions still remain at weak side linebacker, as Ramon Humber and rookie Matt Milano battle for the starting role.
The key to the Bills defense lies in the secondary. The Bills front 7 hasn’t been a big concern over the past couple seasons. The concerns have always lied in the secondary. The playmaking ability hasn’t been there, as last season the Bills had only 7 interceptions, but first round pick and rookie Tre’Davious White looks to change that. He and newly acquired E.J. Gaines may be the key to the Bills season on defense. If they can step it up taking on top-level wideouts, the Bills are a completely different team. Hard-hitting and playmaking safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer were 2 additions the Bills made that flew under the radar that may prove to be huge. The Bills defense has top 10 potential, but on the flip side could once again be towards to bottom of the league.
Not to dwell on special teams too much, but they of course can win or lose games in the NFL. K Steven Hauschka replaces a sometimes frustrating Dan Carpenter and looks to battle the winter winds at New Era Field. Punter Colton Schmidt averaged 44 yards a punt and downed 19 inside the 20 yard line. The punt and kick return game is led by WR Brandon Tate, but rookie CB Tre’Davious White may see some action as he was a terrific returner at LSU. The Bills kick return game was 3rd in yards last season but did not return any for touchdowns. They also only averaged 7 yards per punt return, so look for improvement there.
As a die-hard Bills fan, it is hard to predict a record realistically, as a diehard fan of any team would know. But, putting on my analyst hat, the Bills are realistically a 6-10 football team. On the bright side, the future looks very optimistic and next year especially the Bills will look to make a run. Now let me throw away my analyst hat for a second and put my Bills hat on once again. If the secondary can put everything together and Tyrod Taylor has a good year throwing the ball to a new receiving core, the Bills have the potential to go 9-7 and make a push for the 2nd Wild Card. All I can guarantee is that once again football is back and it feels like Christmas, and let me tell you something. No one circles the wagons like the Buffalo Bills.
(photo creds: Sportsnet)