(WKBW) — As the sting from the end of the 2018 season starts to lessen for the Buffalo Bills, the reality of the offseason begins for the front office and coaching staff. And in doing so, they're putting together a strategy of how to navigate the offseason -- from free agency to the 2019 NFL Draft.
As the weeks pass by teams, get closer and closer to the annual offseason deadlines. In preparation, 7ABC will take an in-depth look at the current roster while evaluating what happened in 2018, what it could tell us as to the team's plans for 2019, and some author recommendations of how to march forward. The grades attached to each player is the result of an in-depth film study done by 7ABC every week through the 2018 season.
To kick off the series, we’ll start with the offensive line:
2018 In Review
*In order of 2018 grade with 200 snaps or more
2018 Season GPA: 2.50 (Snap Count: 1,057)
2019 Contract Status: ~$1.14 million cap hit, signed through 2020
Age: 24 (4/26/1994)
- Of all the team's second-year players, starting left tackle Dion Dawkins had the biggest sophomore slump in 2018. What makes it most disappointing for the Bills and their fans, was that they depended on Dawkins to take a step forward in his development as opposed to the minor step back he wound up taking. The former second-round pick of the 2017 NFL Draft, and specifically how well he played at left tackle as a rookie, was part of the reason the Bills felt so comfortable in trading away Cordy Glenn. However, Dawkins play, and overall consistency took a dive from his rookie season to 2018, dropping from a 2.68 GPA to 2.50 -- and in the scope of my grades, that equates to Dawkins dipping from an average level of play as a rookie to now being a below average starter. It's not to say it was all bad, however. He was still the top graded starting offensive lineman in 2018 and showed flashes of the type of player the Bills thought they would see more of in his first full season of starting. However, Dawkins was caught flat-footed on several occasions, developed a bad habit of taking penalties, and too often for the team's liking was the reason for the demise of a play. Now, there are some other factors involved here, too. You must factor in who was playing next to him because it went from a Pro Bowl level guard in Richie Incognito in 2017 to a combination of veteran Vladimir Ducasse and rookie Wyatt Teller making his first starts in the NFL. Plus, it takes some offensive linemen a bit longer than other positions for the game to slow down and to be in control week in, week out. Considering all of it, Dawkins and the Bills will both agree that the player needs to be much better in 2019 and to start to live up to both his potential and with where they selected him. Next season is a crucial one for Dion Dawkins.
2018 Season GPA: 2.12 (Snap Count: 1,011)
2019 Contract Status: Unrestricted free agent
Age: 28 (12/24/1990)
- For the fourth straight season, the Buffalo Bills offensive line has featured Jordan Mills as their starting right tackle, even through multiple attempts to try and replace him. Whether it was competition from Dion Dawkins, Marshall Newhouse, Jeremiah Sirles, or Conor McDermott, Mills has remained with the starting five. In 2017, Mills played as well as he has since arriving in Buffalo in 2015. However, this season, Mills took a step back into the form that he displayed in each of his two starting seasons for the team and was a liability at times in the 2018 season. Mills wound up on the ground far more often than an offensive lineman should and also struggled against twists and stunts from the defensive line as the season went along. Now a well-established NFL player with six starting seasons under his belt and at 28 years old, it's safe to expect that his form from three of his four seasons in Buffalo is what to expect from him moving forward. And though he's a good locker room guy by many accounts, that shouldn't be good enough to hold on to a starting job as long as he has.
Players with less than 200 snaps
2018 Season GPA: 1.34 (Snap Count: 138)
2019 Contract Status: Unrestricted free agent
Age: 27 (8/8/1991)
- Injured ahead of the start of the 2018 season, the Bills brought in Jeremiah Sirles to serve as a depth utility player with experience at both tackle and guard. As the season went on, the Bills even gave thought to get Sirles more time on the field -- specifically at right tackle for Jordan Mills -- when they gave Sirles 27 snaps against Chicago in Week Nine. The Bills quickly went away from that due to poor play, and Sirles remained on the bench until Week 13 at Miami when he had to make a spot start at right guard in place of the injured John Miller. That start, like the chance against the Bears, did not go well. Sirles received a grade of 'F' for his performance against Miami due to being a constant source of weakness in the close game. Sirles continued to be active for the rest of the season serving as the primary backup at center if Ryan Groy suffered an injury. An unrestricted free agent, it would be a slight surprise if the Bills re-signed Sirles ahead of the NFL Draft.
2018 Season GPA: 2.85 (Snap Count: 22)
2019 Contract Status: $645,000 cap hit, signed through 2020
Age: 26 (10/19/1992)
- For the second straight season, the Bills mostly kept Conor McDermott in the shadows as they continued his development. After a strong start to training camp in 2018, McDermott fell behind and wound up working with the third-team offensive line for the majority of the preseason. Still a proponent of his potential, the Bills hung on to McDermott and made him inactive for 11 out of the 16 games. It wasn't until the final week of the season and Jordan Mills' ejection for McDermott to get some time, to which I thought he did fairly well -- though it was in the second half during an out-of-hand contest against a team that seemed like they didn't want to be there in the second half. Regardless, McDermott will likely get another training camp to show his progress -- but this could be his last chance. The obvious, the Bills are setting themselves up to add substantially to the offensive line. The less obvious, McDermott's top proponent was offensive line coach Juan Castillo, and Castillo was fired by the team last week.
**Marshall Newhouse took 14 snaps for the Bills before being traded in Week Four.
Recommendations for 2019
1) Don't let Dion Dawkins stand in the way of offseason opportunities
- The day after the season ended, head coach Sean McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane each took their turn addressing the media in regards to the state of their team heading into the 2019 offseason. When asked of Dawkins, neither of them committed to the former second-round pick being the starting left tackle in 2019. So as the power duo goes through the offseason, they must operate with only one thing holding them back -- that Dawkins is a starting offensive lineman for them in 2019, but his exact place along the line has yet to be defined. Should the Bills have the opportunity to get an upgrade at left tackle to help immediately, the Bills should not shy away and then consider moving Dawkins to right tackle. If they sign a tackle in free agency, and then a stud of an offensive tackle falls into their laps on draft day, pushing Dawkins inside to a starting guard position shouldn't be ruled out, either. The Bills need to overhaul the offensive line completely, and Dawkins' status as a former second-round pick shouldn't stand in the way of any opportunities to improve based on his play in the first two seasons.
2) Sign a free agent offensive tackle and/or draft a tackle
- Addressing the offensive tackle with at least one substantial resource needs to be a priority for the Buffalo Bills. It doesn't matter if it's by way of offering a big, Star Lotulelei-like contract to a potential starting right tackle in free agency, or if it's drafting one in the first two rounds of the 2019 NFL Draft -- something needs to happen this offseason. The play of the offensive line, on the whole, was horrid, and the Bills are in desperate need of a dramatic upgrade at right tackle at least in the offseason to allow quarterback Josh Allen and offensive coordinator Brian Daboll to do the things that can help them to consistent success on the offensive end. As I mentioned above with Dawkins, I don't think you can rule out the idea of the Bills signing an offensive tackle to a substantial contract and drafting another in the first two rounds if a player they love is available. However, even if Dawkins remains at either left or right tackle, the Bills should still give thought to using a Day Three selection on another offensive tackle to help improve the depth behind Dawkins and a potential free agent signing.
3) Move on from Jordan Mills
- Somehow, through multiple attempts to find a replacement for him in the starting lineup, right tackle Jordan Mills has withstood any challenges. Along the way, Mills became the longest-tenured starter along the offensive line and tried to take on a leadership role in 2018. Considering all of it, with Mills set to become an unrestricted free agent, I think the Bills should allow him to hit free agency and start fresh at the right tackle position. The team will have a new offensive line coach, and likely an entirely different room by the time the 90-man roster gets formulated for the spring and summer. And while Mills has done enough at times to help the offense, there were way too many times where he was the reason that a play unraveled. It's best for the two parties to move on with the natural break of his contract ending, and for Mills to try and earn a starting role elsewhere in 2019.
**All contract information aggregated from the Buffalo Bills media guide and Spotrac.com