The 2016 NFL season is just around the corner. As such, Sportsnaut will be previewing all 32 teams before the games begin in September. Kicking off the campaign we’ll head to the AFC East and take a look at the Buffalo Bills — a team with high aspirations but with more questions than answers at this point.
Before we look ahead, let’s take a glance at some key developments.
Buffalo Bills 2016 Preview
2015 record: 8-8 (third place in the AFC East, missed playoffs)
Head coach: Rex Ryan (second year)
Key arrivals: LB Zach Brown, G Fernando Velasco, WR Leonard Hankerson
Key departures: LB Nigel Bradham, CB Ron Brooks
1. Can Rex Ryan fix his defense?
Buffalo was a relative hot mess defensively last year in Ryan’s first campaign, ranking 19th in total defense and 15th in scoring defense. In particular, the team’s inability to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks (21 sacks, second-worst in NFL) was a tremendous blow.
Making things more interesting on this front is that the player slated to take over for Mario Williams, rookie Shaq Lawson, could miss the entire season recovering from offseason shoulder surgery.
At this point, it’s looking like the two men with the best shot at filling the void are outside linebacker Manny Lawson and New York Jets cast off IK Enemkpali. Ryan spoke highly of Enemkpali recently and said he’ll challenge for playing time. Being that he’s never started a game and has zero career sacks to his name, this should frighten Bills fans.
Thankfully Buffalo does feature some outstanding secondary players. They’ll likely need to be on their best behavior this season to avoid getting torched, though. Pressure is a huge factor in defending the pass. If the Bills cannot generate any, then they’re not going to improve much on defense.
2. Is Tyrod Taylor the answer going forward?
There is a really good reason the Bills are not pursuing a contract extension for Taylor right now. He is, quite simply, still an unknown quantity as a starting quarterback. Sure, he performed well at times last year and took excellent care of the football, throwing 20 touchdowns compared to just six interceptions.
But he also missed a couple of games due to a knee injury, which should probably be expected from a smaller quarterback who runs as much as Taylor does.
This is the reason the Bills made the surprise decision to select Cardale Jones in the fourth round of the 2016 NFL Draft.
If Taylor can make it through the upcoming season with good health, leading a competent offensive attack and generating wins, then he’ll get his extension. And the Bills will have a bit longer to get Jones ready to take over when Taylor isn’t there any more.
If Taylor fails to accomplish these goals, then not only will the Bills not make the playoffs, but they will also be in a lurch for the immediate future at the quarterback position. After all, EJ Manuel is one of the worst quarterbacks in the NFL.
3. How much gas does LeSean McCoy have left in his tank?
Regardless of how well Taylor plays this year, the Bills will look to feature a strong rushing attack as a focal point. A huge hit to these plans is the early suspension of second-year back Karlos Williams, who was banned for the first four games of the season (details here).
This puts tremendous pressure on McCoy to remain healthy and productive for Buffalo. Last year, he missed four games due to injuries and scored just five touchdowns all year.
You know Buffalo is desperate right now with the news that Reggie Bush is actually being considered to come in and back McCoy up.
When McCoy was healthy last year, he still showed off the same burst that made him one of the NFL’s top running backs in Philly. But after taking big hits the past seven years, it remains to be seen if he can maintain his good health.
Jonathan Williams, running back
First, the caveat: Williams must stay out of trouble, or he won’t have a chance to break out this year, or any year in the future. He’s already been popped with a DWI arrest this summer, and he showed questionable character by telling cops not to arrest him because he was just drafted (video here).
Assuming this was a one-time mistake, Williams has an outstanding chance to make a tremendous impact in Buffalo as a rookie out of Arkansas. Given the four-game suspension of Karlos Williams, the rookie will likely have a shot to see the field early, especially if McCoy’s health fails him.
During his tenure at Arkansas, he showed some outstanding abilities against SEC defenses. Before missing the 2015 season with a foot injury, Williams rushed for 1,190 yards (5.6 yards per carry) and 12 touchdowns on 211 carries during his junior season in 2014, while also bringing in 11 receptions for 65 yards and two touchdowns.
REASON FOR OPTIMISM
The window is cracked for another team not named the New England Patriots to claim the AFC East, thanks to Tom Brady’s four-game suspension — the last of which comes against the Bills in Week 4.
If Ryan’s gang can get off to a hot start, and if Taylor and his offense finds some chemistry, and if the defense can figure out how to generate pressure, then there is a chance this team surprises with playoff berth.
REASON TO PANIC
The Bills haven’t made the playoffs since 1999. The Patriots own the AFC East. There is still so much that must be fixed on both sides of the ball for this team to get good enough to change those two trends.
Prediction: 8-8, tied for third place in AFC East