Rookie Shaq Lawson will be expected to shoulder a heavy load for the Bills defense this season
Even for the casual NFL plan it's hard not to miss Buffalo Bills news, when braggadocious head coach Rex Ryan takes pleasure in pontificating and overselling his team's achievements. Mind you, despite his many ridiculous claims, the most famous of which was "We've won the offseason," the team made several changes in the offseason through free agency and the draft in hopes that the can compete with the Patriots IN SEASON when it counts rather than in the press room where it means diddly.
Through several financial moves the team was able to free up nearly $9 million in salary cap space in order to put themselves in a better position short term. The team restructured several contracts leading to $10.1 million in cap space (source: buffalorumbings.com), most notably the deals for TE Charles Clay ($7.5 million in cap savings) and DT Kyle Williams ($1.75 million) The team also either outright released or non-tendered several players leading to additional savings. However, the release of Mario Williams ($7 million hit) and CB Leodis McKelvin ($1 million hit) increased their dead-cap-money liability to over $13.5 million (source: overthecap.com). But with a league leading 16 years and counting of no playoff appearances, there is no better time than the present since the past is ugly and the future is uncertain. Another notable cut was starting safety Baccari Rambo, who was a non-tendered RFA and was an effective presence in the team's vast defensive improvement in Foxborough when they held Rob Gronkowski to 2 catches for 37 yards on 7 targets, with no TD's allowed.
While the Bills' financial situation improved, on the defensive side of the ball, the team is expecting to fill the voids left by the likes of Williams, McKelvin, Rambo, and LB Nigel Bradham (UFA signed by the Eagles) largely with rookies and unimpressive free agent signings. First round pick Shaq Lawson was heralded as a great pick by many and he will likely compete for the starting job at DE. Safety Aaron Williams returns to the field after going down for the season vs. the Patriots in week 2 of last season with a neck injury. The plan for replacing Bradham was also implemented as well when the team moved up in the 2nd round to select ILB Reggie Ragland from Alabama. The team also bolstered their interior line presence with their third selection in Adolphus Washington out of Ohio State. However, after he was suspended for the team's Fiesta Bowl appearance after he was arrested for solicitation.
Statistically, Buffalo had an average defense last defense last year, but more is expected out of the self-proclaimed best defensive mind in the NFL. The addition of his longer-haired and burlier twin brother Rob may not lead to anything outside of media entertainment since Rob's stints in Dallas and New Orleans did not end well. Not only does the defense have to stop New England twice per year, but they also have to contain the Jets' bevy of skill position players for two divisional games. While the team went 8-8 last season, they surprisingly went 4-2 in the division. It is not a given they will do the same this coming season.
On the offensive side of the ball, the team selected Ohio State's QB Cardale Jones to backup starter Tyrod Taylor. The jury is out whether Jones will every be an effective NFL QB or will he be yet another footnote in the team's instability at the position as the 5th QB drafted since Jim Kelly retired (source: ESPN.com). Is there any wonder why the team hasn't made the playoffs since 1999? Speaking of Taylor, much of the success or failure the team will derive in the upcoming season depends on whether he continues to develop as a player. For the most part Taylor had a solid season with 20 TD's, 3035 yds, and only 6 INT's in 14 games. The speedy Taylor also added 568 yards rushing and 4 TD's to add to Buffalo's NFL best rushing game. Taylor will have to do a better job in 3rd and long situations if he hopes to project this team to the next level. He was below average on 3rd and 4th down passing while he was above average on the first two downs. The difference between elite quarterbacks and everyone else (meaning, non-playoff teams generally) is when the quarterback can move the chains in pressure situations on late downs and late in the game. Against the Patriots, Taylor too often either didn't make an accurate throw or held the ball too long leading to a broken play or a sack (10 sacks in the 2 games combined).
If Buffalo hopes to improve its win lot by enough to get into the tournament, they really need to improve on the offensive side of the ball since the defense was "good enough" and their special teams are typically stout. The team lacks WR talent, outside of the volatile Sammy Watkins. They likely will continue to run the ball effectively since they kept their offensive line intact by resigning several lineman, including notables G Richie Incognito and T Cordy Glenn. However, on July 15th the NFL suspended bruising RB Karlos Williams for 4 games for violating the league's substance abuse problem, which will hurt their short yardage and goal line situations.
Perhaps the biggest problem the Bills have to improve offensively is in red zone efficiency, where they converted only 50% of their possessions. For a team that ran the ball well and didn't turn it over very often, this was a glaring weakness. The lack of an end zone target, as well as Taylor's inexperience were contributing factors to this issue.
While we are still a month and a half from the beginning of the season, the Bills have all of training camp to craft their game and perhaps improve their roster when some expensive veterans from other teams get cut. However, given what we know today there is no reason to believe that Buffalo will compete for the division. At best look at them to go 9-7 and extend their playoff drought to 17 years.