Next season’s playoff race begins this spring as all 32 teams retool their rosters, so it’s time to take a look at what each franchise must do for a better season in 2016. Next up: the Bills, who should enter the spring with some urgency to get things right after falling short of expectations in Rex Ryan’s first year in town. Check back for our other 31 off-season outlooks, which we will be rolling out in reverse order of finish over the coming weeks leading up to free agency and the draft.
Key free agents
LT Cordy Glenn, WR Percy Harvin, OG Richie Incognito, OLB Nigel Bradham, SS Bacarri Rambo.
Players that must be re-signed
Glenn, Incognito: Glenn was the mainstay of Buffalo’s vastly improved offensive line, allowing just two sacks, two hits and 23 hurries in 1,079 snaps all season. And for all the trouble he’s caused in other spots throughout his collegiate and NFL career, Incognito was a model citizen in Buffalo, helping the Bills lead the league with 2,432 rushing yards.
If the Bills cannot retain both of them, things could get bad pretty quickly. Eric Wood is a really good center, but the right guard and right tackle positions are undefined at this point. And according to Football Outsiders’ opponent-adjusted metrics, Buffalo’s excellence on the ground was more about its backs than its blockers. It’s a tough spot, because the Bills are going to have to part with some veterans just to make it under the cap (they’re at about $167 million right now), and Glenn and Incognito will likely earn lucrative contracts somewhere—especially Glenn, who has no off-field baggage to explain.
Most important position to improve
Linebacker: After Kiko Alonso’s 2014 injury and ’15 trade to Philadelphia, it was thought that Nigel Bradham could replace Alonso with aplomb as he did under the direction of defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz in ’14. But Bradham regressed in Rex Ryan’s defense and suffered his own injuries. Second-year middle linebacker Preston Brown had his own disappointing season after a solid rookie campaign, and he was one of several Bills defenders who called out the coaching staff during the season—a highly unusual occurrence. It’s not that the Bills need new personnel here as much as it is that the coaching staff needs to find ways to put good players in the right positions.
Other positions to improve
Offensive line, defensive line, receiver: Most likely, the Bills will lose either Glenn or Incognito, unless general manager Doug Whaley does a ton of creative cap-managing. The departure of one or both would raise problems along that line that are not easily solved.
The defensive line is one of the league’s best in theory, but a closer look shows some potential damage. Mario Williams had a disappointing season overall, and he is due a $19.9 million cap hit in 2016. His release seems a fait accompli. The team can save $12.9 million in cap space by releasing him. Tackle Kyle Williams, who generally plays at an All-Pro level when healthy, wasn’t in ’15. He missed 10 games, and the knee injury that put him on injured reserve in early December could keep him out of all off-season activities. Losing Kyle Williams was a big reason the Bills’ run defense regressed so much. Tackle Marcell Dareus and edge rusher Jerry Hughes are the stalwarts, but after that, things get a bit iffy. Corbin Bryant and Alex Carrington filled in ably—Bryant was especially good—but the Bills will have to solve a lot of problems on both lines, most likely through the draft.
Sammy Watkins is the ideal No. 1 receiver the Bills wanted, and he proved that as quarterback Tyrod Taylor grew into a breakout season. But after that? Percy Harvin was an afterthought, Robert Woods and Chris Hogan were pretty productive, and tight end Charles Clay had a good season, though maybe not in line with the five-year, $38 million deal the Bills gave him last March. To fill out that passing game and help Taylor take it to the next level, Buffalo needs another receiver who can mix it up with more aggressive cornerbacks and create yards after the catch.
Overall priority this off-season
Get Rex Ryan and the defense on the same page. Ryan has been one of football’s best defensive minds for a good long time, and no matter what you think of his attendant personality quirks, the football side has never been in question. Which made the schism between Ryan and his defensive players so odd last year. No, Ryan didn’t actually run the defense—he delegated that responsibility to defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman—but the disconnect between the coaching staff and the players was highly unusual, to say the least. The Bills dropped from second to 24th in Defensive DVOA last year, and no defense had ever fallen that far in the efficiency rankings in the year after Ryan took over.
After a loss to the Bengals last October, Mario Williams expressed frustration with schemes that had him dropping into coverage more than ever, and the front wasn’t always aggressive. That was the game in which the Bills lost Kyle Williams to injury, as well. Hughes and Dareus have also said things, and in December, Ryan fell on the grenade, shouldering the blame for a disappointing first year.
Adding brother Rob to the coaching staff may help, but something has to change. Rex is too good a coach, and the Bills are too stocked with quality personnel, for this slump to go on.