1. The 2017 Bills were a paradox. They went 9-7 and ended the franchise’s 17-year playoff drought, but they also ranked 29th in total offense and 26th in total defense. They were a classic case of overachievement, brought on by first-time head coach Sean McDermott’s fluid in-game coaching, particularly on defense. McDermott must conjure that magic again in 2018; his Bills are still pocked with deficiencies, mainly up front.
Jerry Hughes—who, by the high standards he set in 2014, has been up-and-down the past three years—is the only natural pass rusher. Free agent Trent Murphy was paid like one—$22.5 million over three years—but he’s more of a miscellaneous flex piece in a hybrid scheme. If he could truly bend the edge or penetrate inside, the pass-rush-needy Redskins would have retained him. Defensive end Shaq Lawson was drafted in the first round in 2016 to become a sack artist, but a lack of twitch and burst leave him dependent on mechanics, which, in his case, are better applied inside. Lawson’s long-term future is as a run-stopping end and No. 3 nickel defensive tackle. Lorenzo Alexander had 12.5 sacks in 2016 but is really more of a highly effective utility man. Last season he had traditional linebacker duties much of the time.
2. With a paucity of individual pass rushers, McDermott must again manufacture pressure through scheme. His staple double-A-gap fronts, with both nickel linebackers aligned over the center, present a lot of options for disguised pressures. McDermott is also diverse in his coverages. They’re basic, but ever-changing. On one snap he might play Cover 2. The next could be Cover 4. Then man-to-man, then a man-free blitz, then Tampa 2—and so on. The Bills will also roll into these coverages out of subtle disguises.
3. Three players are key to Buffalo’s coverage changeups: safety Micah Hyde, a sound, opportunistic pass defender who can operate anywhere from the slot to centerfield; safety Jordan Poyer, who can match to tight ends and toggle between different safety alignments, freeing Hyde to be versatile; and rising star Tre’Davious White, who understands zone techniques at left corner and can travel with top receivers in man-to-man.
4. Buffalo’s big free agent signing was McDermott’s former Panthers defensive tackle Star Lotulelei. He pairs with 35-year-old Kyle Williams, perhaps football’s craftiest run-stopping defensive lineman. Such a formidable interior front should help 20-year-old rookie linebacker Tremaine Edmunds adjust to the pro game. The Bills need him to; the rest of their linebacker corps consists of lower drafted youngsters or journeymen.
5. If Vontae Davis can stay healthy (he missed 13 games over the last two years with the Colts), Buffalo’s No. 2 corner spot is settled. Davis is physical, both in man and zone coverage, as well as run support. The concern is slot corner. It’s surprising that last year’s nickelback Leonard Johnson was not retained. His replacement will be either the highly inconsistent ex-Chief Phillip Gaines or mid-round rookie Taron Johnson. Add the uncertainty at linebacker and Buffalo’s interior pass coverage looks shaky.
6. If quarterback A.J. McCarron couldn’t get a look at supplanting a mediocre, mistake-prone Andy Dalton in Cincinnati, it was unlikely, even before his maybe/maybe not shoulder injury, that he would have staved off first-round pick Josh Allen for long. Assume this system is being built for the former Wyoming Cowboy. Allen is big, surprisingly mobile, strong-armed and sometimes wildly inaccurate. That makes him similar to Cam Newton, the QB McDermott and GM Brandon Beane saw every day during their six years together in Carolina. By season’s end, expect a lot of man-blocking, misdirection run plays and downfield power throws in new coordinator Brian Daboll’s offense.
7. It might be next year before Daboll can implement all major aspects of that offense. Not only are the Bills inexperienced at QB, they’re downright futile up front. Last year’s O-line already lacked athleticism, and now its two best players, left guard Richie Incognito and center Eric Wood, have been replaced by men who’d be backups on just about any other squad (Vladimir Ducasse at guard, Russell Bodine or Ryan Groy at center).
8. LeSean McCoy still has a dynamic spring to his step, but if he’s to have any chance this season, Buffalo must have a constructive first- and second-down passing game. Otherwise opponents will load the box and tee-off on the run. It’s especially important to throw the ball out of two-back personnel, where you face less athletic and more predictable defensive packages. You don’t need to throw TO your second back, you just need to throw with him on the field. Fullback Patrick DiMarco played in a 2016 Kyle Shanahan Falcons offense that mastered this. The only complicating factor is, for this to work, the Bills must get better at running from two-back sets. Last season they averaged just 3.9 yards a carry here.
9. Buffalo’s running back depth could be a big asset. Former Saint/Jet/Jaguar Chris Ivory has always been difficult to tackle when he’s fresh, and little-known Travaris Cadet is a capable receiver, particularly when he shifts outside. These two can ease the burden on McCoy and give dimension to the offense.
10. Kelvin Benjamin, with his large frame and catch radius, can be a good stylistic fit for Josh Allen. Benjamin’s aptitude on underneath in-breaking routes boosts a play-action game.
BOTTOM LINE: Top to bottom, this is one of the NFL’s least talented rosters. A second year of overachievement is improbable.
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