(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.
Up next we'll take a trip to the offensive side of the ball once again, taking a look at the running backs on the roster:
2018 In Review
*In order of 2018 grade with 200 snaps or more
2018 Season GPA: 2.88 (Snap Count: 302)
2019 Contract Status: $~$2.9 million cap hit, UFA after 2019
Age: 30 (3/22/1988)
- Surprised that Chris Ivory is atop this list and not LeSean McCoy? In 2018, Ivory was the superior running back. He was more decisive, he was the better pass-catching back, and he was better in pass protection than McCoy. Ivory even had a better yards per carry average than McCoy, boasting 3.3 yards per carry to the latter's 3.2. However, what gave Ivory the discernible edge in grades in 2018 was as his ability as a pass catcher -- most notably, when the action breaks down and the quarterback leaves the pocket. Ivory reads the field quite well and possesses excellent timing in deceiving defenders before he leaks out into an open area. Of his 13 receptions, three went for 20 yards or more -- including a 55-yard back-breaking reception early on against Minnesota in Week Three. Having a runner that has a knack for that with a quarterback like Josh Allen is extremely valuable, even if only in a complementary role. He'll be 31 ahead of next season and would save the Bills nearly $2.2 million on the 2019 cap if they were to release him. However, without anyone else to cut him for and already a bevy of cap space, Ivory's place on the roster is relatively harmless. Unless they sign someone younger and of more value in free agency, he'll likely be back in 2019.
2018 Season GPA: 2.74 (Snap Count: 489)
2019 Contract Status: $9.05 million cap hit, UFA after 2019
Age: 30 (8/12/1988)
- Considering how well he played in the 2017 season, LeSean McCoy was a tremendous disappointment in 2018. McCoy was a non-factor in the passing attack and only broke out once all season with his 100-plus yard day against the New York Jets. That game was one of only two that McCoy rushed for over four yards per carry in a game where he had ten attempts or more. While he pined for better offensive linemen on both Twitter and Instagram within the past week, McCoy also needs to take a hard look at his running style from the previous season as to why his season was such a downgrade. There is no question that he needed better blocking up front. While it might not have ever been that bad in front of him before, McCoy has dealt with poor offensive line play in his career -- including during the 2017 season. Still, McCoy found a way to make it work. What troubled me about his season the most was his hesitance in taking what the offensive line gave him. When the offensive line did a good enough job, McCoy often tried to bite off more than he can chew and get to the outside, or to the opposite side of the way the blocks were set up, in the hopes of making someone miss and breaking a big play. It's as though he tried to get all his yards back by busting a big play -- except that big play never came McCoy's way. He also didn't fight through contact, and while still a deceiving runner in open space, McCoy looked a tad slower than he did in 2017. The Bills have committed to McCoy in 2019, but they need him to be much better and play within the offense a lot more if he's going to help get the running game back on track.
Players with less than 200 snaps
2018 Season GPA: 2.61 (Snap Count: 196)
2019 Contract Status: $720,000 cap hit, UFA after 2019
Age: 27 (10/3/1991)
- The Bills loved what Marcus Murphy did during the summer and had high hopes for him coming into the season, but those fell a bit flat as he struggled to establish himself both as a runner and as a receiver. The Bills made him inactive from Weeks Four through Six as a result, but once he returned to the lineup, Murphy evened himself out a bit and turned into a slightly below average player by the end of the season. He turns 28 next season, and will likely be in a battle for a roster spot once again in 2019.
FB Patrick DiMarco
2018 Season GPA: 2.81 (Snap Count: 168)
2019 Contract Status: $2.15 million cap hit, signed through 2020
Age: 29 (4/30/1989)
- In 2018 Patrick DiMarco was much less involved in the Bills offense with Brian Daboll running the show, than how Rick Dennison schemed him into the lineup in 2017. DiMarco only played more than 15 snaps in a single game once the entire season, and that wasn't until Week 17 against Miami. When on the field, DiMarco played well enough to warrant keeping him -- as long as he continues along as the solid special teams player that he is. DiMarco played in 53.08% of special teams snaps for the Bills in 2018.
RB Keith Ford
2018 Season GPA: 2.33 (Snap Count: 71)
2019 Contract Status: $570,000 cap hit, ERFA after 2019
Age: 24 (4/18/1994)
- A late-season call up from the practice squad, the Bills loved Keith Ford's work ethic and practice habits enough to give him a chance when injuries provided one. The undrafted rookie uses his physicality above all else, and that limited his potential yards behind a weak offensive line. Unless Ford develops into a special teams player (played 0 snaps in his two active games for the Bills), he likely has an uphill climb to make the roster in 2019.
**Taiwan Jones took two snaps before the Bills placed him on Injured Reserve in Week Nine. He is an unrestricted free agent this offseason.
Recommendations for 2019
1) Draft a running back as early as Day Two
- If you read my running back review from last season, I advocated that the Bills should have done this last year as well. With a more intense need to bring in a quarterback and middle linebacker above all else -- and trading the picks necessary to get those two key positions, the Bills declined to draft a runner and opted to roll with the McCoy-Ivory duo instead. That strategy cannot persist in 2019. It is essential, given McCoy's step back and the top two runners both being 31 at the time of the season, that the Bills draft a young running back to work into their rotation at the start of his career -- with potentially a heightened role if he earns it starting in 2020. The second round for a running back is still a bit rich for me in this situation, but I still wouldn't rule it out completely. The sweet spot, to me at least, is with a draft pick in the third, fourth, or fifth round. There are examples from drafts every single year of runners that outplay their draft position, and finding one at a low cost and on a rookie deal for four seasons is good football business -- far better than having over $11 million of the team's salary cap invested in running back.
2) If McCoy returns, shift him into a complementary role
- The Bills have stood by McCoy and said that the plan is for him to be back with the team in 2019. Part of the justification with McCoy is that, even though he would save them over $6 million on the 2019 cap with his release, they already have around $85 million in cap space as it is. I'm still not ruling anything out, though it certainly does feel like that the Bills are bought in on the idea of McCoy being a part of their roster in 2019. However, if he does, I believe that with an improved offensive line and with a lessened role, it could help McCoy have a bounce-back season. McCoy will undoubtedly want to be on the field as much as possible, but he's entering the stage of his career where it is most prudent to maximize his snaps on the field by keeping him fresher throughout the game and the season. McCoy can still make players miss, so if he becomes more of a 45-to-50-percent of snaps guy as opposed to the 65-to-70-percent we've grown accustomed to, I think it could stand to benefit all parties. Plus, that would open the door for the young running back the Bills should draft to get some touches, too.
3) Sign a low-to-middle-tier free agent
- If there was another thing missing from the running backs on the Bills roster this season, it was a severe lack of usage on special teams. Taiwan Jones took 42 snaps on special teams in the first three weeks, but that was mostly the end of it -- outside of Marcus Murphy chipping in some snaps as the season went on. However, that's something that needs to change moving forward. The Bills need to find a multi-use running back that can chip in as both a runner when needed and as a core special teams player, to help alleviate day-of-game rosters. In general, the Bills need to find more suitable pieces for their special teams, so adding a running back that has more than one value should be something to look into during the offseason. If it's a lower-tier free agent, there is no guarantee that player would make their team outright. If it's more of a middle-tier guy, that could potentially impact Chris Ivory negatively. No matter what course they take, adding a runner with special teams chops would undoubtedly help the roster build.
**All contract information aggregated from the Buffalo Bills media guide and Spotrac.com