Now that the 2016 season has reached its end and the New England Patriots have been crowned champions once again, the offseason comes clear into focus for the Buffalo Bills and the rest of the National Football League. Inevitably, the Bills will have to measure themselves up to what was just successful in the league.
While the Broncos bucked the trend of the top-level quarterback winning the title in 2015, the Patriots returned the league's winner to a team that has a top-level quarterback. And based on the way the Bills -- most notably GM Doug Whaley -- have talked in the offseason, there's been a big premium put on finding the long-term answer at the position.
Quarterback remains a huge question mark for the Bills, but what else do the Bills need to answer this offseason?
The five most pressing questions heading into the next phase of the NFL year:
1) Will Tyrod Taylor be back?
- Not only will Bills fans keep a close eye on the Tyrod Taylor situation as it continues along, but the same likely goes for multiple teams in the league that is in need of a starting quarterback in the 2017 season. As of Monday, February 6, the Bills can officially release Tyrod Taylor from his contract. If they were to do so, the Bills would prevent themselves from having to pay him a guaranteed sum of $30.75 million, and they would also avoid a cap hit of just under $16 million. In the event that happens, all the Bills would owe is roughly $2.9 million in dead money on their salary cap. The financial benefit is obvious, but it would also take the only starting caliber quarterback on the roster and immediately make him a free agent. I expect the Bills to continue to try and work with Taylor on a potentially restructured deal, but the question remains about how much motivation the quarterback would have to sign a restructured deal. Given the complexity of the situation and the fact that the quarterback market hasn't even been set for the start of free agency, I would expect the wheels to really start to get in motion near the time of the NFL Combine. That's when every agent and NFL decision maker is in one place, and potential free agents can gauge how highly coveted they would be on the open market. If Taylor's agent likes what he hears from other teams, then that only strengthens their case to stand pat with the deal as it was signed last year. The number one question I get from fans is: "Who will be the quarterback next year?" And I don't think they really know just yet, either.
2) What is the long-term plan at quarterback?
- Taylor or no Taylor, one thing that was abundantly clear was the tone from Bills GM Doug Whaley about the quarterback position. After Sean McDermott was hired as the new head coach, Whaley stressed that finding a long-term answer at quarterback in a quarterback-driven league was of the utmost importance. While that doesn't necessarily rule out the notion that Taylor can be that player, logic would seem to indicate that the Bills GM -- who is presumably on softer footing than McDermott -- would want to take a swing on a different quarterback, especially considering how it was the GM's call to bench Taylor in Week 17 of the regular season. Is it in the form of the 10th overall pick this year, or maybe even a 2nd round selection in the upcoming draft while Taylor stays on as a stop-gap solution? Even if it's choosing Taylor as the franchise quarterback, the Bills need to show they have a plan at the position at some point in the offseason.
3) Retirement for Williams and Williams?
- With the Bills and the upcoming season, the defense will need to improve dramatically for the team to make any noise. While they could still technically improve without defensive tackle Kyle Williams and safety Aaron Williams, but it would certainly make it a lot more challenging. Both players, as of the locker room cleanout in early January, were mulling the idea of retiring from the NFL. For Kyle Williams, he's had a long career in the league and he's trying to decide when the right time is to walk away, while for Aaron Williams it's a matter of if he's willing to play after yet another season-ending neck injury. The two would take care of starting spots immediately -- though, the Bills should still have a legitimate backup plan for the safety just in case -- and make it so the team has two less big holes to fill in a changing defensive scheme. The sooner the Bills know from those two players, we'll start to see just how the team's offseason needs shift following their decisions.
4) Who doesn't fit Sean McDermott's defensive scheme?
- Outside of the two men that were just mentioned, the Bills also need to figure out where the rest of the defensive starters fit in McDermott's 4-3, zone-based defensive scheme. Marcell Dareus, Jerry Hughes, and Shaq Lawson should all be fine along the defensive line. The question remains with the back-seven. Can Ronald Darby flourish as a zone cover cornerback? Can Preston Brown be the middle linebacker in McDermott's scheme even though he lacks the desired athleticism? Where does Reggie Ragland fit in at linebacker? And, can Corey Graham be of any use in the upcoming defensive switch? Now, this doesn't even bring up the fact that both Stephon Gilmore and Zach Brown are unrestricted free agents, and based on what Gilmore could command on the open market, we could have seen the last of the cornerback with the Bills. Even with both Kyle Williams and Aaron Williams returning, the Bills still have a question mark in regards to six of the 11 defensive starters.
5) Is the team's window still open?
- This is the underlying question that the Bills, quite frankly, must be honest with themselves about in every decision they make in the offseason. While the Bills still have players like Sammy Watkins, Cordy Glenn, and Marcell Dareus to build on as extremely talented young players, many of the players the Bills are depending on for the 2017 season are right in the area where you have to wonder when the end of the prime of their careers will begin. Players like running back LeSean McCoy (turns 29 in July), right guard Richie Incognito (turns 34 in July), center Eric Wood (turns 31 in March), defensive end Jerry Hughes (turns 29 in August), and defensive tackle Kyle Williams (turns 34 in June) may not have much bigger of a window, which begs an honest answer to one question: Do the Bills need to rebuild, and will GM Doug Whaley have the time to treat it as a true rebuild if that is what is needed? It's a compelling answer that can have long-term implications if not handled properly.