In under 24 hours, the Buffalo Bills will conduct their first official practice of the 2017 regular season as they prepare for their Week One matchup. It’s been a long offseason full of different twists and turns, but it appears the Bills have a pretty solid base as to what they want their roster to be in the upcoming season.
However, every year teams head into the regular season with questions that they’ll need to answer if they want to be a successful team in 2017. It seems with all the different changes throughout the past seven-plus months, there are plenty of questions that you can ask about the entirety of the franchise.
However, if we restrict it to just the on-the-field stuff, what are the biggest topics facing the Bills this year?
The seven biggest questions, to me, that will shape the course of the 2017 season:
1) Can Tyrod Taylor be the guy?
- No matter what happens with all the other positions on the team, it all is secondary to what becomes of Tyrod Taylor in the eyes of the Buffalo Bills in 2017. For the past few weeks, anytime rookie Nathan Peterman has come up, the Bills have made it a point to say that Taylor is their starter — and there isn’t any reason to believe they’re lying. In fact, they owe it to themselves to see if Taylor can be the type of quarterback they’re looking for out of a franchise player — and even if he’s someone that they believe can bridge the gap to whatever the future holds at the quarterback position for the Bills. Considering that Taylor’s cap number nearly doubles next year ($9.7 million in 2017, $18.1 million in 2018), he’s going to have to give them a pretty compelling reason to stick around past this season. It really boils down to what Taylor can do as a pocket passer — a facet of his game in which the Bills tried to work on him with throughout the summer. If he does not advance himself in this area and become a more reliable pocket passer, that is going to significantly hinder general manager Brandon Beane’s ability to buy into the fact that Taylor can be their franchise quarterback. Beane has said on numerous occasions that having that aspect of a quarterback is of utmost importance to his search for a franchise quarterback. If Taylor can do that, he’s got a shot. If he doesn’t, and the Bills have a down season with him, that could be the end of the Tyrod Taylor era in Buffalo.
2) Will LeSean McCoy stay healthy for the whole season?
- The evaluation of Tyrod Taylor this season is critical to the season, however, there isn’t any player that’s more important to the short-term success of the Bills than running back LeSean McCoy. Especially now that they’ve released Jonathan Williams — who looked poised to be their second-string running back for a substantial amount of the summer, the Bills just have a committee of running backs that lack the one thing McCoy doesn’t: being the X-factor. As long as he is healthy, the Bills appear as a team that is going to force feed McCoy the ball both through carries and with receptions. He is, far and away, their best playmaker, and every indication is that they’re going to treat him that way. Now, for the hesitation regarding McCoy — and it’s obvious: injuries. Given his age, and the amount of work they’ll be trying to get him throughout the season, that is going to put him at a much higher risk of suffering an injury. The Bills shouldn’t play scared with him by any means, but the possibility exists. And without a strong contingency plan, if something were to happen with McCoy, the entire house of cards could come tumbling down without the most critical part to the base of their structure.
3) Who will Taylor turn to in the passing game the most?
- With Sammy Watkins having been traded away, the Bills have a clear void as to who their top target for Tyrod Taylor will be. Both Jordan Matthews and Zay Jones — the projected starters for 2017 — will be doing something they didn’t do for the majority of their 2016 season: working as an outside receiver. While the Bills will likely switch some things up where everyone gets some reps in the slot, that duo will be looked to as the top receivers. However, I think Taylor’s most dependable target may not have the letters ‘W’ and ‘R’ in front of his name. As long as he stays healthy, based on the offense they play in and the importance placed on tight end in this scheme, I believe Charles Clay has a chance to have his best year as a member of the Bills. He has looked healthy and explosive so far this summer, as he tries to live up to the contract that so many have spoken ill of. I think McCoy will also be one of Taylor’s best friends when dropping back to pass. In fact, I wouldn’t even put it out of the realm of possibilities that McCoy ends up leading the team in catches — based purely on his usage rate if he were to stay healthy all season long.
4) Will the offensive line become a liability?
- This is not a criticism of the play of the left guard and the center, because Richie Incognito is still playing at an incredibly high level, and Eric Wood has been consistent throughout the summer of work. No, it’s more about the other three positions on the offensive line. First, there’s Cordy Glenn — a player that I think quite highly of and what he can do on the field when fully healthy. However, with how much his ankle injury has hobbled him throughout the summer, is Glenn really at full health to the point that he can be as effective as he normally is? Furthermore, how long will this ankle injury continue to plague him through the regular season? If it does, that’s going to push Dion Dawkins on to the field at left tackle — which isn’t the worst scenario — but it also keeps right tackle Jordan Mills on the field. We’ve learned over the past season-and-a-half that Mills is a below-average starter at the position. Now, perhaps he’ll have a little better luck this year in a new blocking scheme, but the early results from his preseason games weren’t promising. At right guard, even though John Miller will get the start, it still sounded like the Bills would continue to have a competition between the third-year player and Vladimir Ducasse. Miller has been the stronger of the two, but each player has had their struggles. If I had to guess, I’d think backup center Ryan Groy gets a look at right guard before too long. However, the offensive line — especially considering their commitment to running the ball this year — can make or break LeSean McCoy’s efficiency in 2017.
5) Has Marcell Dareus bought in?
- I thought it was incredibly telling, after sitting down with GM Brandon Beane for 10 minutes, that he wouldn’t commit to Dareus buying into what they were trying to establish in the locker room. When asked if Dareus was one of the players that weren’t buying in, Beane’s immediate response was, “I don’t know.” And then when I asked him if the defensive tackle’s contract would be any source of hesitation to part ways if he doesn’t buy in, Beane was very clear in the fact that the contract, or any contract of any player, would not be an issue in parting ways with if a player wasn’t fully onboard. So, will Dareus buy in the way the Bills want him to? The worst answer fans could want is the truest: only time will tell. If Dareus starts getting into a pattern of behavior to where he’s constantly rubbing the front office and the coaching staff the wrong way, then we might get another surprise cut on our hands. If he submits and becomes the type of leader by example that they crave of their highest paid players, and performs well on the field, then the ultra-talented Dareus will remain. It’s really all up to him.
6) Do the Bills have starting caliber linebackers?
- Of the six linebackers on the roster, only one of them is a proven commodity as a linebacker in the 4-3 defense. Those honors belong to Preston Brown, who seemed to flourish in Jim Schwartz’s scheme in Buffalo earlier in his career. However, even with Brown, there is some hesitation based on the foot speed that’s necessary to play the middle linebacker position in Sean McDermott’s defense — which then calls into question the entire linebacker group. Lorenzo Alexander was a revelation as a pass rusher last season, but that was as a 3-4 outside linebacker. Now he shifts back as a strongside linebacker in the 4-3 that will occasionally rush the passer — a role that he hasn’t done at the type of volume that the Bills are asking him to this year, and he’s 34 years old. At weakside linebacker, they’ve got a career special teams player in Ramon Humber as the clear starter, but the jury is still out on if he can be a solid player in this scheme. One area that he struggled in during the preseason, at least to my eye, was being slow to react to passes out of the backfield which led to larger gains than what seemed to be there, to begin with. Past that, the Bills have three unproven players in two rookie draft picks — Matt Milano and Tanner Vallejo — and special teams contributor Deon Lacey. The questions about those three starting positions are glaring and are in dire need for someone to step it up.
7) Will the cornerbacks, and a lack of depth, doom the defense?
- Even with the concerns about the linebackers, the Bills are hoping that three — or maybe even four — brand new members of their starting secondary can help bail out their defense on the back end if need be. The starting safeties seem solid at this point in time. But at cornerback, the hopes are high for first-round pick Tre’Davious White, who has been immediately thrown into not just a starting role, but to being the number-one cornerback on the team. Opposite him, it seems like E.J. Gaines is closing in on beginning the season as the starter. Even though the pair had a strong preseason, they remain a question mark as to how effective they will be in the upcoming season. Leonard Johnson seems to have won the job as the nickel corner, which is a concern as he was one of the lowest graded cornerbacks on ProFootballFocus.com last year in the same defensive scheme. The depth, too, is a cause for concern with Shareece Wright still a looming threat to start, and even an undrafted free agent rookie in the conversation to get some time on the field. The Bills could certainly unearth some gems, but there are no sure things at the position, which means the safety play is potentially going to need to be pristine to compensate for the corners on the roster in a zone defense. The best case scenario: White becomes everything they want him to be and Gaines regains the form from his rookie season. If they do, the Bills will have someone to depend on week in and week out at the position.