1. There’s something to be said for having 10 of 11 starters back on offense. That’s uncommon at any level of football. Having 10 returning starters and one of the craftiest offensive architects in the league, coordinator Greg Roman, is a real plus. Roman doesn’t have great weapons at his disposal, but he has distinct ones that he can build around, including a dynamic running back (LeSean McCoy), explosive wide receiver (Sammy Watkins) and versatile H-back/tight end (Charles Clay).
2. The question, of course, is the quarterback. Here’s the book on Tyrod Taylor: he’s a plus-athlete who can make improvisational plays with his legs, but he’s not Russell Wilson. Perhaps the biggest difference between Taylor and Wilson is that Wilson has a stout build and a natural sense for protecting himself on the move. Taylor has a lighter frame and is brimming with courage, which makes coaches scared to use him on designed runs. As a passer, Taylor is raw. His arm is decent. So is his precision accuracy, when he’s comfortable. His touch on deep balls is among the best in the league. The problem is that Taylor doesn’t show these traits when the pocket starts to muddy (most athletic quarterbacks don’t). His instinct is to break down and run. Too often last season, that instinct kicked in before it needed to. Also—and for Roman’s purposes this is the most important part—Taylor is not an anticipation passer. He has to see a receiver break open before unleashing the ball. It’s very difficult to play this way if your arm is not special.
3. Because he doesn’t anticipate throwing windows, it’s more challenging to call specific coverage-beating route concepts for Taylor. Roman had to really simplify his passing game by filling it with pure progression reads. The quarterback would essentially look to one side of the field and work his way across until he found an open man (like how you play in the schoolyard.) Maybe things can change in Taylor’s second year as the starter. They say anticipation can’t be taught, but reading coverages can. Taylor, not unexpectedly given his lack of experience, has been a little slow processing coverages. If he can hasten here, Roman will feel more comfortable installing a larger supply of specific coverage-beating route combinations.
4. Roman’s forte, of course, is the running game. He’s one of the best gap-scheme designers out there. On gap-scheme runs, you often see pull blockers. The Bills have a really good one in left guard Richie Incognito.
5. Will we see more two running back sets from Buffalo? A lot of success came when LeSean McCoy and Karlos Williams were on the field together last year, especially when they were flanking Taylor in shotgun. Williams was derailed by his immaturity this summer and is no longer on the team. You figure this is where late addition Reggie Bush can be a factor. Bush, however, is essentially the same player as McCoy, only older and slower (relatively speaking). The beauty of Williams was that his 229 pounds and downhill running style nicely complemented McCoy’s zigzagging. Maybe the Bills split the difference and pair McCoy with Mike Gillislee, who finished strong in 2015.
6. The best one-two NFL cornerback tandem outside the one in Denver is Stephon Gilmore and Ronald Darby. Both offer sensational physicality and short-area change of direction, which is why the Bills are so good out of matchup-zone Cover 4 (Quarters coverage).
7. It’s no accident that starting safeties Corey Graham and Aaron Williams both have NFL cornerbacking experience. Buffalo’s foundational Cover 4 requires those guys to convert zone coverage into man against inside routes downfield. And, in straight man coverage, the safeties are the ones who take the tight ends. In a division with Rob Gronkowski, Martellus Bennett and Jordan Cameron, you want safeties who at least have a prayer of matching up. What will be interesting to see is how often these guys are used as blitzers. Third-level blitzers are crucial in Rex Ryan’s pressure packages, which tend to repeat tactics but with different guys carrying them out. On one play, an outside linebacker or defensive end might rush the A gap. Later, out of that same blitz concept, it might be a defensive back. That can make the blitz more imposing simply because the safety naturally comes in faster than a linebacker or defensive end. That’s how you get a quarterback rushing his throws, which is what Ryan’s pressure designs aim to do first and foremost.
8. In terms of a player and team’s style marrying up to one another, you can’t do much better in the draft than Reggie Ragland and the Buffalo Bills. It’s a shame the second-round rookie suffered a season-ending ACL tear in camp. For one, this defense simply needed better linebacking. It ranked 25th in yards allowed per rush last season. In more games than not, the linebackers simply blended in with the action. Ragland is an old-school thumper. Rex relies on that because his defensive line is taught to crumble gaps, not plug them. The idea is to penetrate, make the back adjust, and in doing so create enough time for linebackers to react after reading the action. Not surprisingly, to fill Ragland’s place, the Bills signed former Patriot Brandon Spikes, who is as physical a run-stopper as any linebacker in football.
9. One guy who needs to get more penetration in 2016: Marcell Dareus. He was often as unnoticeable as the linebackers last season. He’s too talented for that to be the case. Dareus won’t be able to right his ship until October (at the earliest), as he is suspended for substance abuse and in rehab.
10. Edge rusher Jerry Hughes has the best inside redirect move in football. Offensive tackles must be on high alert for that.
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