The 2017 season, while ending in disappointment, was an unequivocal success for the Buffalo Bills. Under first-year Head Coach Sean McDermott, the team, which made multiple deals to suggest that they did not intend on competing in 2017, exceeded expectations and made the playoffs for the first time since 1999. However, this team needs to upgrade at several spots in the coming months in order to compete in 2018 and beyond. General Manager Brandon Beane and the front office have important decisions to make in order to fill these holes. With nearly $30 million in salary cap space (before cutting any unfavorable contracts) and eight picks in the first five rounds of the draft, there is ample opportunity to improve. Both sides of the ball need upgrades at some significant positions: here are some spots that the Bills could benefit to improve upon in 2018.
Quarterback: Buffalo seems to have already moved on from Tyrod Taylor- this was all but solidified with McDermott’s head-scratching decision to bench him in favor of rookie Nathan Peterman against the LA Chargers on November 19. Peterman infamously went on to throw five interceptions, but the damage was irreparable. Now, the Bills, stuck in quarterback purgatory since the end of the Jim Kelly era, desperately need to find a way to solve such an integral need. There are many options on the table. In the free agent market, while Washington Redskins’ quarterback Kirk Cousins will probably be implausible due to market demand, the team could make a run at long-time Cincinnati Bengal AJ McCarron, or any of the Minnesota Vikings’ three available signal-callers (Sam Bradford, Case Keenum, and Teddy Bridgewater). Additionally, with either the 21st or 22nd selection in the upcoming draft, the Bills can select a potential franchise QB and let him develop under the direction of new Offensive Coordinator Brian Daboll. Some options in that range include Louisville’s Lamar Jackson, the Heisman Trophy playmaker who has a cannon of an arm and has drawn comparisons to a rich-man’s Tyrod Taylor; Wyoming’s Josh Allen, whose inaccuracy has raised concerns but whose physical tools are reminiscent of the prototypical NFL stud; and Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph, who has been adulated by many NFL scouts who view him as underrated. Finally, the Bills have enough assets to string together a package to move up to a top-5 draft spot and select the quarterback of their choice, likely either USC’s Sam Darnold or UCLA’s Josh Rosen.
Wide Receiver: In 2016, Buffalo’s wide receivers had an uncanny ability to stretch the field and take the top off the defense. The speed of Sammy Watkins, Robert Woods, and Marquise Goodwin offered Taylor the ability to take chances downfield; but, their lack of size made short-range throws a challenge. In 2017, one-dimensionality played a negative role, but this time in reverse. Receivers Kelvin Benjamin, Zay Jones, and Andre Holmes have games predicated on physicality, but all three lack the ability to create meaningful separation. Heading into 2018, Beane needs to find a way to combine the two skillsets into one impressive wide receiver’s room. Worth noting is that the approach taken may largely depend on which direction they head in at the QB spot- if a gunslinger arrives in Orchard Park, expect to see some vertical, quick route-runners join the squad. This could come from either free agency (i.e., Seattle Seahawks’ Paul Richardson, Arizona Cardinals’ John Brown, and/or Atlanta Falcons’ Taylor Gabriel) or the draft (i.e., Memphis’ Anthony Miller, Texas Tech’s Keke Coutee, and/or Oklahoma State’s James Washington).
Center: Unfortunately, this is only an issue because of the impromptu retirement of longtime center and Captain, Eric Wood. While his impact on the locker room is irreplaceable, there are options outside of the organization that can solve the concern. In free agency, LA Rams’ Center John Sullivan will probably come on the cheap given his age (33), as will the talented, oft-injured Travis Swanson of the Detroit Lions. In the draft, the Bills could use one of their top two picks on one of college football’s most dominant centers of the past decade, Ohio State’s Billy Price. Interior linemen, however, are a hot commodity, so the Bills might want to upgrade the position later in the draft as well. LSU’s Will Clapp, Nevada’s Austin Corbett, and Alabama’s Bradley Bozeman are names to watch on Days 2 and 3 of the late-April draft.
Right Tackle: This position, more than the others, has a greater likelihood of being addressed within the team, as there are two excellent tackle options in Cordy Glenn and Dion Dawkins on roster. Dawkins, the more athletic of the two, would be more likely to shift to the right side and replace Jordan Mills. However, if this plan goes awry, look for Buffalo to turn towards New England Patriots’ tackles Nate Solder and Cameron Fleming, as one is bound to leave via free agency. From the collegiate side, given that the hole at the position isn’t as pressing, deep scouting might be more beneficial, allowing them to select an OT with their final pick in the fifth round selection: think smaller school prospects like Humboldt State’s Alex Cappa or Maine’s Jamil Demby.
Linebacker: Arguably the most pressing issue outside of the signal-caller, two of the Bills’ three starters from 2017, Preston Brown and Ramon Humber, are set to become free agents. While the team could work to resign them, doing so will not come cheap, especially for Brown, who led the NFL in tackles in 2017. Expect Brown to vie for a contract in the neighborhood of $9-10 million annually, as this has been the standard for linebacker stalwarts in the past (i.e. Cleveland Browns’ Christian Kirksey, who inked a 4/$38.5 million last offseason). If the team seeks a more cost-effective option, there are candidates on the open market that will receive contracts at a much more affordable price, including ex-Bill and current Philadelphia Eagle Nigel Bradham, as well as New York Jets’ ILB Demario Davis. The Bills could also use a first-round selection to replace Brown. One very attractive name is Georgia’s Roquan Smith, who played remarkably well in the College Football Playoff. Other options for early picks include Alabama’s Rashaan Evans and Virginia Tech’s Tremaine Edwards. As for Humber, while the cap hit to resign him would not be nearly as drastic as that of Brown, the Bills have a viable in-house replacement in Matt Milano.
Defensive Tackle: After trading Pro Bowler Marcell Dareus to the Jacksonville Jaguars, Beane created a need for interior defensive linemen. Now, with aging veteran Kyle Williams’ future uncertain, the Bills must improve the position in order to help keep the run defense afloat. The top of the free agent market (Dallas Cowboys’ David Irving, Seattle Seahawks’ Sheldon Richardson, and Atlanta Falcons’ Dontari Poe) all will command pricey, long-term deals. The Bills may elect to fork over some top dollars, but if they remain thrifty at the position, some economical options include Kansas City Chiefs’ Bennie Logan, Philadelphia Eagles’ Beau Allen, and Carolina Panthers’ Star Lotulelei. The new regime also continues to seek production from former third round pick Adolphus Washington, who was a favorite of ex-GM Doug Whaley’s but has seemingly not lived up to his potential. In the draft, many experts are projecting them to take a look at Michigan’s Maurice Hurst, an explosive big man who can both stuff the run and pressure the quarterback. In the third and fourth, Buffalo can also look at USC’s Rasheem Green, Stanford’s Harrison Phillips, and Virginia’s Andrew Brown.
Cornerback: First-round selection Tre’Davious White looks like an ingenious pick, and could transform himself into one of the games’ top shutdown corners in the coming years. However, he is the only corner currently under contract for 2018, as E.J. Gaines, another staple of the 2017 defense, is also a free agent. Acquired in the Sammy Watkins trade, Gaines missed 5 games due to injury, but when active, recorded 59 tackles, three forced fumbles, nine deflections, and an INT. Gaines is only 25, so resigning him would solidify youth at the two starting corner spots for several seasons. However, youth is ubiquitous throughout the deep cornerback free agent market: Chicago Bears’ Prince Amukamara, Cincinnati Bengals’ Darqueze Dennard, and New York Giants’ Ross Cockrell all will come at a discounted value. The draft, too, is deep at the corner slot. Buffalo could select one early, with either Ohio State’s Joshua Jackson, Central Florida’s Mike Hughes, or LSU’s Donte Jackson, or late, with either Kansas State’s DJ Reed, Southern’s Danny Johnson, or Weber State’s Taron Johnson.