For the second straight year, the Buffalo Bills have built their roster up to the point where it looks well enough to compete for a playoff spot. The Bills added three rookies that will figure to make a big impact on the defensive side of the ball.
Outside of the rookies, though, the Bills will need a handful of their returning starters to have a bigger impact on games throughout the season. If those bigger impacts, combined with similar performances to the ones they saw last year from all their other starters, making the playoffs in 2016 could become a reality.
There’s a lot of reason for optimism at One Bills Drive, and it just comes down to execution. A list of five players that, if they get more from than what they did a year ago, can help change the year for the better:
1) LB Preston Brown
- Serving as the team’s ‘MIKE’ linebacker in Rex Ryan’s hybrid 3-4 during the 2015 season, Preston Brown really struggled to find the success that he had through the better part of his rookie season in 2014. Former defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz kept it quite simple for Brown and the rest of his teammates back in 2014 and they flourished. In 2015, Rex Ryan’s scheme brought on more complexity, and it seemed like Brown was swimming upstream a bit. Now that the hybrid looks have been basically left with last season, and the team is now switching to a more standard 3-4 scheme, Brown has a clear opportunity to get back to the player he was. He’ll have a good running mate in rookie Reggie Ragland at inside linebacker, and will need to do a better job at stacking and shedding blockers to put a stop to potential big gains on the ground for opposing teams. He has the talent, he’s shown the ability, and now he just needs to get over that sophomore slump from 2015.
2) TE Charles Clay
- For the first time in a long time, the Bills addressed the tight end position in a legitimate way during the 2015 offseason. They signed Charles Clay away from the Miami Dolphins, hoping that he could be the super athletic, dynamic tight end that they’ve been missing as the position has evolved in the NFL over time. While there were definite signs of life of Clay being a potential game breaker (the first game against Miami, the game-winning touchdown versus Houston), too often the tight end blended in with everyone else. He’s a hard-working player that shows an ability in run blocking as well, but the Bills will need more of an impact as a receiver after a season that only yielded 51 receptions, 528 yards, and three touchdowns. Part of it is about Tyrod Taylor, who coaches believe needs to take advantage of the middle of the field more often than he did in 2015 — and it just so happens that Clay would be the biggest beneficiary of that. If Clay can make that first Miami game a bit more of a regular occurrence, it could help take the offense to an even higher level than what they played last season.
3) S Corey Graham
- Armed with three cornerbacks that they felt comfortable enough with starting in the 2015 season, the Bills decided to move Graham to safety. In his first season as a full-time safety, Graham won the job outright in training camp over the much younger Duke Williams and for the most part, Graham’s performances were right around an average level. Though, to his credit, he showed flashes of brilliance — especially when it came to using his instincts on wide runs and short passes. Graham will once again have to win the starting job in training camp — this time over Robert Blanton and some others, but there is some reason for optimism. First, he’s no longer in his initial full-time season as a safety, which helps just from an experience standpoint. Second, he’s working with his NFL mentor and now Bills assistant defensive backs coach Ed Reed. The two played together in Baltimore, and Graham picked the No. 20 that he wears in Buffalo as an ode to Reed. If he can start to use his instincts and recognition skills more to his advantage, he can solidify a genuine question with the defense this year.
4) RG John Miller
- The Bills believe firmly in how good of a player John Miller can become. Right out of the gate at training camp in 2015, Miller was quite impressive during one-on-one battles at the first padded practice — and that culminated with two straight reps in which he stood up strongly against Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams. During the season, though, Miller hit a fair bit of adversity. He suffered an ankle injury, had a personal tragedy occur in the middle of the season, and some parts of his game suffered as a result. The Bills were quite good running to the left side, and if Miller progresses how they believe that he can, the team’s run offense can become that much more explosive in 2016.
5) WR Robert Woods
- Now that the big offseason moves are already out of the way, it’s clear that Robert Woods will once again resume his role as the number-two wide receiver in the offense. While he’s not a particularly explosive athlete, Woods has grown to become a dependable option over time. Through his three years, he’s averaged over 50 receptions, 600 yards, nearly four touchdowns per season, and did it last year with a groin injury that hobbled him all year. There were plenty of times last season where Woods was running wide open thanks to a Sammy Watkins double team, and it wasn’t taken advantage of. Like Clay, this will be Tyrod Taylor’s job to progress and find Woods when all the defensive focus is placed on Watkins, and in turn, take some heat of Watkins at the same time by utilizing Woods more. Woods is entering a contract year, and due to receiving not a great deal of attention from opposing defenses, he could flourish now that he’s fully healthy for the 2016 season.