Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to officially welcome you to the offseason. The first big event of the offseason calendar is this week in Mobile, Alabama, where the entire NFL converges for the annual Senior Bowl at Ladd-Peebles Stadium.
And coming off of a year where the Bills made the playoffs for the first time since the 1999 regular season, have five draft picks in the first three rounds, and seem to be very much in the quarterback market for the upcoming few months, there is little doubt that the intrigue from fans about the team in the offseason is as high as its been in recent memory.
So with the Senior Bowl starting up this week, what can we expect to learn from a Bills perspective? Five things to watch:
1) QB Watch… duh
- This one was easy because it’s going to be on everybody’s minds until the Bills provide us with an answer. The key difference between this week and every other offseason week besides the NFL Combine is that we actually get to see these prospects perform and make impressions under the microscope of these decision makers in a very high-pressure environment. Even on the plane ride down, there was a big group of players, and you could tell there was a lot of nervous energy even a day before the practice gets started. A lot of money can be made in Mobile. On to the quarterbacks… there are two big draws now that Mason Rudolph will not participate due to an injury: Wyoming’s Josh Allen and Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield — and both are on the same team, and the same practice field all week long. They are on the North squad, which means they’ll be practicing at 4:30 pm on Tuesday, 1:30 pm on Wednesday, and 1:30 pm again on Thursday. The best way to see where they are in this setting is how well they acclimate to foreign wide receivers through the week, if their accuracy is on point, and if they throw the ball with anticipation rather than waiting until after the break. Of course, there’s a lot more technical analysis to be done, but those are the major measures for a week like this. Allen can do a lot for his bid to be the top overall selection if he is able to have a great week in Mobile. The same goes for Mayfield, who could make sure that he doesn’t get out of the first 10-to-15 picks with a big week of work. Outside of those two, the next trio to keep an eye on will be Western Kentucky’s Mike White, Virginia’s Kurt Benkert, and Richmond’s Kyle Lauletta — three players with fascinatingly good arms. All three will be on the South roster. Curious as to where they stack up and why? You can read up on them with my rankings of all nine quarterbacks in Mobile this week.
2) Beane in his first offseason
- This is a very underrated quality of the coming months. Last year, while everything was shiny and new — it was done basically with head coach Sean McDermott doing what he believed was in his team’s best interest. Doug Whaley was still employed by the Bills — and in fact, the Senior Bowl was the last time he participated in a public interview as a member of the organization. There was no Brandon Beane, only murmurs that McDermott and Beane could be paired up by the end of it all. The free agency period passed, the draft passed, Whaley was fired, and after all that Beane was brought to Buffalo. Now we get a chance to see what he’s all about. We saw quite a bit of his wheeling and dealing style in the summer, and even at the trade deadline — but we haven’t seen him go through free agency and the draft just yet as the head man in Buffalo. Now, one area that the Bills need to improve on from where they were last year is keeping compensatory selections in mind. Beane admitted in the summer that he “wouldn’t be doing [his] job” if he wasn’t thinking about that, and I believe that formula was a bit of an oversight with McDermott leading free agency in the offseason last year. With prospective free agents like E.J. Gaines and Jordan Matthews due up, if the Bills choose to move on, they could be in line for picks — as long as they don’t fill up on mid-to-lower tier free agents like they did last offseason. Also, when he speaks, he’s a little bit more free-wheeling than the normally tight-lipped McDermott. The expectation is that Beane will speak to the media here in Mobile, so we’re likely to get little hints of insight as to what they might do this offseason in multiple areas.
3) Knowing McDermott’s type
- This time last year, with a new head coach, you don’t really get a feel for the type of player they like until you see a pattern on a current roster to work from. Now, in 2018, there are clear positional values that McDermott likes in his players — specifically on the defensive side of the ball so that they can get where he wants them to be. And really, whatever position you name on the Bills roster, there is a legitimate case for them to address it with a substantial resource in the upcoming offseason. They’ve only just begun the roster overhaul, and we’re likely to see a much different roster by the time we get to the 2018 regular season. That’s what makes knowing McDermott’s type so important. So during these practices, you can look for defensive tackles that specialize in generating pressure from the interior, linebackers that have speed and coverage ability, long-limbed cornerbacks that can easily catch up in a zone defense with that genetic advantage, pass rushers that have a bevy of moves to generate pressure from the outside to help the line bring down the quarterback, and safeties that have a nose for the football and the tracking abilities that he saw in Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer. McDermott, just like all of us, will be on the hunt to see which players here at the Senior Bowl possess those baseline traits — and from there, that’s what brings on an effort to study the players more, and to figure out if that’s the player they want to be a building block for success. The defense could use quite a bit, and the middle (middle linebacker, defensive tackle) might be at the top of the list.
4) Impending free agency
- It’s a side-story because of all the different draft prospects in front of our eyes all week, but now that the Bills have been eliminated for a couple of weeks, it makes for the first time the public gets to hear from decision makers in the organization after a lengthy period of analysis and reflection on the season that was with the players they had. And the most pressing topics are the ones that will be resolved by mid-March: the impending free agents, and even more so, whether Tyrod Taylor will be on the team next year. Now, Beane or McDermott likely aren’t going to come out and say they’re moving on or that they're trying to bring back a specific player for every single one of them… but verbal hints within their language can paint a better picture as to what we might see in the offseason. In addition to Taylor, the free agent status of Kyle Williams, Jordan Matthews, E.J. Gaines, and Preston Brown among others are the starkest of the upcoming decisions. You can also add potential trades — like with Cordy Glenn and maybe even Shaq Lawson into the mix as well. It all makes for a very compelling week.
5) Finding gems at the Senior Bowl
- Last but not least, the best part of the Senior Bowl is seeing prospects that maybe you either didn’t think much of or didn’t know at all coming into the week, perform so well that they become names to store for the remainder of the offseason leading up to late April. Last year, non-first-round picks like Zay Jones, Dion Dawkins, Nathan Peterman, and Conor McDermott all ended up on the Bills roster right through the end of the season — and all of them participated in the Senior Bowl. McDermott is probably the best example here. He had a really nice week in Mobile, ended up getting picked in the sixth round by New England — and even after getting cut, was instantly claimed by the Bills. Now, I’m sure much more went into than just the week of practice at the Senior Bowl — but that’s a starting point for a lot of these guys. And with how heavy the Bills went in last year’s draft with Senior Bowl players (Tre’Davious White was there, too), it would be wise to take notice of the under-the-radar guys that perform well in Mobile.