2016 Record: 7-9; 3rd AFC East
Head coach: Sean McDermott (Bills W/L: 0-0, Career W/L: 0-0)
General manager: Brandon Beane
Key ins: FB Patrick DiMarco Falcons; G Vlad Ducasse Ravens; K Steven Hauschka Seahawks; WR Andre Holmes Raiders; S Micah Hyde Packers; S Jordan Poyer Browns; FB Mike Tolbert Panthers; QB TJ Yates Dolphins
Key outs: S Sergio Brown; LB Zach Brown; RB Reggie Bush; K Dan Carpenter; FB Jerome Felton; CB Stephon Gilmore; RB Mike Gilislee; WR Marquise Goodwin; S Corey Graham; QB EJ Manuel; CB Corey White; WR Robert Woods
Draftees: R1 (27) CB Tre’Davious White, LSU; R2 (37) WR Zay Jones, ECU; R2 (63) T Dion Dawkins, Temple; R5 (163) OLB Matt Milano, Boston College; R5 (171) QB Nathan Peterman, Pittsburgh; R6 (195) OLB Tanner Vallejo, Boise State
That jangling sound you could hear as the Pegulas axed GM Doug Whaley the day after the 2017 Draft was rookie head coach Sean McDermott being handed the keys to the Buffalo Bills. Unless it was just a really jangly axe, in which case I stand corrected. The 43-year-old McDermott represents – as is often the case in the great NFL cycle – the opposite of outgoing braggadocious head coach Rex Ryan.
Terry and Kim Pegula, the Bills owners since 2014, will be hoping their new head coach’s culture of accountability and discipline, chiselled under the likes of Andy Reid and Ron Rivera, proves to be the antidote to the error-prone, underperforming product Ryan put on the field during his 31 games.
McDermott will have a job on his hands to avoid a repeat of last year’s “7-9 bullshit”. On the surface, the Bills have talent (six of their nine 2016 losses were by seven points or less). In five-time Pro Bowl running back LeSean McCoy, mobile passer Tyrod Taylor and oft-injured receiver Sammy Watkins the offense has three genuine game-changers. On the other side of the ball, Marcel Dareus is overdue a return to form alongside the ageless Kyle Williams and newly-minted Lorenzo Alexander will be expected to follow up his 12.5-sack 2016 season.
The offseason saw the team drained of depth in both units, however. No individual loss was perhaps bigger than cover man Stephon Gilmore departing for AFC East rivals New England. With five interceptions and 12 passes defended in his fifth season he translated his first Pro Bowl appearance into a lucrative contract with the Super Bowl champs.
McDermott’s 4-3 scheme doesn’t place the emphasis on man coverage that Ryan’s complex look did but losing a player like Gilmore still makes a dent. The unit will be run by another humble, calming presence in defensive co-ordinator Leslie Frazier, who will have first-round corner Tre’Davious White at his disposal. White lacks flash but follows in the NFL footsteps of solid all-round former LSU DBs Patrick Peterson, Eric Reid and Jalen Collins.
Alongside him in the defensive backfield, White will find an experienced figure in the shape of free agent signing Micah Hyde, entering his fifth NFL season. The former Packer has played corner and at both safety positions as a movable piece in Dom Capers’ Green Bay defense. 2015 second-round pick Ronald Darby will man the other corner spot and hope to rebound to his rookie form.
Life through the air could be made more comfortable for the defensive backs if the front seven can get more of a pass rush than they did under vaunted defensive mind Ryan. Under head coach Doug Marrone in 2014, the Bills led the NFL with 54 sacks. A year later, Ryan’s unit mustered 21 and last year registered 39 takedowns.
Stopping the run is also a priority as Miami’s Jay Ajayi topped 200 yards against them – both times he played Buffalo – and Le’Veon Bell repeated the trick for the Steelers. Hopefully Reggie Ragland will provide some steel at middle linebacker after losing his entire rookie season with a knee problem. Much will depend on what happens in front of him. Dareus signed a six-year $100 million contract extension off the back of a 2014 season in which he racked up 10 sacks and went to his second Pro Bowl. But he didn’t flourish under Ryan and last year a disgruntled Dareus missed half a season through suspension and injury.
On offense, Rick Dennison (who UK fans of a certain age will remember as a Broncos linebacker) replaces Greg Roman/Anthony Lynn as coordinator after two years in Denver as OC. He’ll retain the emphasis on the run – the Bills led the NFL in rushing yards, TDs and average in 2016.
McCoy and his health will be key to that. His 1,267 yards and 13 scores included his longest ever run (a 75-yard TD v Jacksonville in Week 12) and a fourth straight visit to Hawaii-Arizona-Hawaii-Florida as he looked like himself after an injury-slowed 2015. Shady’s running mate Mike Gillislee, who bagged eight TDs and averaged 5.7 yards last year, followed Gilmore to the world champion New England Patriots.
Fifth-rounder Jonathan Williams will be first change but veteran bowling ball Mike Tolbert and versatile fullback Patrick DiMarco will have to contribute in the running game, certainly in short-yardage.
Taylor could be forgiven if he was worried about more than a young and inconsistent receiving corps. The outgoing front office benched him in Week 17 with the intention to keep him healthy so they could move him on in the offseason. The new regime has yet to promise anything more than a shot at starting.
That said, the rookie head coach spoke warmly of the quarterback after recent OTAs: “I’ve been impressed by Tyrod’s leadership. There are qualities important to the quarterback position and he’s doing a nice job at those.”
Dennison, who worked with Taylor in Baltimore in 2014 also praised the QB’s work and study habits as well as his command of the huddle. Just as well because Taylor represents the best shot the Bills have at a successful season in passer terms. Behind him on the depth chart is Cardale Jones with all of 11 NFL passes (and a pick) to his name. Then there’s rookie Nathan Peterman and veteran of Dennison’s system TJ Yates (4-3 as a starter in six seasons).
BILLS IN THE PRO FOOTBALL FOCUS TOP 101 PLAYERS OF 2016 LIST
98 Richie Incognito (2015 RANKING 31)
Vital parts of the offense are working their way back to full fitness. Centre Eric Wood broke his leg in Week 9 against Seattle and receiver Sammy Watkins was limited in his work in OTAs as he battles back from foot surgery. Wood, Richie Incognito and John Miller form a solid interior line with Vlad Ducasse, signed from Baltimore, adding depth. Cordy Glenn will man the left tackle spot with rookie second-rounder Dion Dawkins expected to start opposite him.
At receiver, Zay “What You See” Jones, son of former Cowboys and Rams LB Robert, will be expected to contribute in his first season. The 6ft 2in 200-pounder racked up 1,746 yards on a ridiculous 158 receptions at East Carolina last year. Former Raider Andre Holmes and ex-Panther Corey Brown will also be competing for snaps at receiver, while Charles Clay returns at TE looking to put a disappointing two seasons as a Bill behind him.
The only coach retained from the Ryan regime (Ryan inherited him too) is everyone’s favourite World Bowl ’91 MVP Danny Crossman. He’ll have a new starting kicker (and long snapper) to work with in Steven Hauschka, who replaces Dan Carpenter (if ever a moment summed up a season, it was this).