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New-look Bills have a ways to go
Rex Ryan, a man known for making outlandish statements, uttered one exactly one year ago when he was still head coach in Buffalo. Based on the 2016 draft, a couple free agent acquisitions the team made, and what he perceived as a great OTA/mini-camp portion of the calendar, Ryan said the Bills "won the offseason."
Quite frankly, it was a ludicrous thing to say because the Bills were beset with a number of issues both on the field and off that cast great doubt on the 2016 season. Ultimately, those doubts proved founded and their playoff drought reached an epic 17 years, with Ryan fired a week before the misery ended.
New coach Sean McDermott had a vastly different mindset as the Bills wrapped up their offseason with a final mini-camp workout Thursday. When asked to reflect on the last three months of massive organizational re-shaping and almost perfect attendance workout sessions, McDermott said, "I don't know if we won the offseason. I'm not into that. I'm into the process. I'm into where we are in our process and focused intently and only right now on that. That's what I'm focused on."
Here is where the Bills are: They still aren't good enough to compete with New England for the AFC East title, and unless several things fall into place, coupled with a few healthy doses of luck and good fortune, they probably won't make a serious run at a wild-card berth in the AFC.
Like every first-time NFL head coach, McDermott is fired up about the coming season. He loves his team and loves how it worked in the offseason program, but through his rose-colored glasses he can't see, or at least can't acknowledge publicly, that this is a flawed team in several areas. The Bills seem headed in the right direction under the stewardship of McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane, but it's unlikely the playoff drought is going to end in 2017.
McDermott and Beane recognized that changes were in order. Almost the entire coaching and scouting staff is new, and among the 90 men on the current roster, only 39 were here a year ago either on the active roster, injured list, or the practice squad. With so many new faces, the Bills spent the spring getting to know each other, but they have a long way to go to build familiarity with each other, let alone becoming proficient in new offensive and defensive schemes.
At the most critical position, the Bills remained status quo as they brought back Tyrod Taylor on a restructured contract because they had no choice. They had no one in their system, they didn't see the merit of picking one in the first round of the draft, and there were no viable options in free agency. Taylor is a maddeningly inconsistent passer who would have to make huge strides if the Bills hope to get their dormant passing game revived. Couple that with Sammy Watkins' ongoing injury woes, and the fact that the depth chart at wide receiver is painfully lacking in talent, and there's no reason to think the Bills will be able to have a balanced attack.
LeSean McCoy and Taylor running behind a fairly solid offensive line has worked well the last two years as the Bills have led the NFL in rushing. But what did that get them? A 15-17 record. They have to be better in the air.
Throughout the offseason, all eyes were on Taylor and the receivers, and it wasn't a pretty picture. Rookie second-round pick Zay Jones offers some hope as a possible sidekick to Watkins, provided Watkins can get on the field, and stay there. He worked minimally all spring before taking a few reps in team drills each of the last three days. The wide receiver battle will be the most interesting one when training camp begins July 27.
On defense, the Bills used their first-round pick on cornerback Tre'Davious White and he looked impressive in shorts, standing out on most days in team drills. However, that might have been because there's so little depth at cornerback to compare him to, and the Bills' quarterbacks weren't exactly firing pinpoint passes which made it easier to break them up or intercept them. Based on the spring, if White stays healthy, he'll likely start on opening day in departed Stephon Gilmore's spot opposite Ronald Darby.
The other area of dire concern is linebacker. The Bills have a hodge-podge group that consists of Lorenzo Alexander, Preston Brown, Reggie Ragland, Ramon Humber and Gerald Hodges. Alexander is nothing more than a one-trick 34-year-old pass rusher; Ragland is essentially a rookie after missing all of 2016 with a knee injury; Brown has been a three-year mediocrity; and Hodges and Humber are run-of-the-mill players.
If nothing else, at least the Bills are in a 4-3 scheme that on the surface seems to fit their defensive line personnel. It allows Jerry Hughes and Shaq Lawson to be true defensive ends, and puts Marcel Dareus and Kyle Williams back into the middle as tackles, forming the best position group on the roster.
"You guys have heard me say this before - there's open competition for every spot," said McDermott. "We all have to earn our spots on this roster and that's something that's been addressed, and it's going to be addressed again and again and again. I just believe in that. We all have to earn our spot."