Nothing has ever been given to Bills starting quarterback Tyrod Taylor. He’s had to earn everything in the NFL from the start. A sixth-round pick in the 2011 draft out of Virginia Tech, Taylor frequently impressed for the Ravens in the preseason but was stuck behind Joe Flacco on the depth chart. Over four seasons in Baltimore, Taylor completed 19 of 35 passes for 199 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions, adding 27 rushes for 136 yards and a touchdown—far from earth-shattering totals, which limited his options in free agency during the 2015 off-season.
He signed a three-year, $3.35 million contract with the Bills, a deal that would void in the final year if he played more than 50% of the snaps in the 2015 or 2016 seasons. To do that, he would have to win a three-headed quarterback competition with EJ Manuel and Matt Cassel, administered by head coach Rex Ryan and offensive coordinator Greg Roman.
That’s just what he did, and last year for the first time in his pro career, Taylor entered the season as a starter. He got off to a rocky start, with modest numbers in a victorious season opener against the Colts and a three-interception game the next week against the Patriots, but he settled in nicely. After Week 2, Taylor threw 16 touchdowns and three interceptions, electrifying Buffalo’s long-dormant passing offense with several excellent, accurate deep throws, connection especially well with receiver Sammy Watkins. He finished 2015 with 18.2% of his 380 attempts traveling 20 yards or more in the air (per Pro Football Focus), the highest percentage of deep throws among all starting quarterbacks in the league. On those deep passes, he totaled 1,014 yards and 12 touchdowns—both top-five numbers—with a completion rate just over 44%.
When under pressure, Taylor showed an excellent understanding of how to extend a play with his legs and when to use them: He gained 568 yards and scored four touchdowns on 104 rushes. With very little regular season experience against first-string NFL defenses and their advanced schemes, Taylor proved to be the perfect quarterback for the Bills to establish a relatively steady passing game and a league-leading rushing attack.
Of course, now he has to do it again—with the pressure of the starter’s role on his back from the start. Taylor must prove to Buffalo’s coaching staff and general manager Doug Whaley that he is the long-term solution for a team that hasn’t seen the postseason in this millennium. Buffalo’s 8–8 record and Taylor’s status as an alternate Pro Bowler were steps in the right direction, but it’s clear that as much as he’s shown, the Bills need to see more from Taylor before they give him the lucrative contract extension he desires.
“He’s warranted enough for us to continue down the road to see if he can be the franchise guy of the future,” Whaley said in January. “I mean, if you think about it ... if I told you a former sixth-round pick in his first year starting went 8–6, and with his stats and his quarterback rating and what he’s brought to the team, I think it warrants him a chance to prove it. Absolutely. And the thing that we like the most about him is the locker room believes in him, we believe in him, and hopefully the fans believe in him.”
No offense designed by Roman and overseen by Ryan is ever going to lead the NFL in passing attempts, and Taylor seems to know that. However, a repeat performance may be difficult in 2016. Watkins recently suffered a fractured foot, and his timetable for return could sideline him for part of training camp. In addition, there’s no guarantee that running back LeSean McCoy won’t face league discipline from his alleged role in a February nightclub brawl, though charges have not been filed. There’s also the matter of Taylor’s injury history. He played through shoulder and knee injuries in 2015, but his relatively slight build (6' 0", 221 pounds) and playing style puts him at risk for more serious issues.
Last year, the Bills got an unexpected bargain by putting their faith in a former backup, who generated starter’s numbers for an $833,333 cap hit. This season, Taylor will either prove his worth as a long-term starter and raise his price accordingly or fall back to the middle and struggle to gain a foothold as anything more than a reliable reserve. The tape indicates that Taylor is more than a one-year wonder, but the circumstances surrounding 2016 undoubtedly make it the most important season of his career.
Stay tuned all week as other SI.com NFL analysts make their respective cases for the quarterback with the most to prove in 2016.