With Rex Ryan and Doug Whaley out as coach and General Manager, respectively, there’s no question that this is a transitional year in Buffalo.
What is a question is how big that transition will wind up being. Quarterback Tyrod Taylor got a new contract this offseason, but the Bills can back out of it after this season if coach Sean McDermott and General Manager Brandon Beane decide he’s not the right guy for the job over the long haul.
Taylor’s two years as a starter have featured many positives, but he’ll likely need to be even better and more consistent this year to secure his place in Buffalo. The same is true of wide receiver Sammy Watkins, who didn’t have his 2018 option exercised and could head elsewhere if things don’t break the right way in the coming months.
Those decisions will provide a big sign about the direction the Bills will take under McDermott and Beane and let us know if this year is a building block or a prelude to a bigger rebuilding effort.
Biggest positive change: There was a lot of excitement when Ryan got to Buffalo, but it didn’t take long for trouble signs to emerge. The biggest were on defense where Ryan scrapped a successful 4-3 scheme in favor of the 3-4 base defense he’s run all over the league. Players found it too complex and weren’t shy about sharing those feelings as the team struggled on the field, leaving a dark cloud over the team that appears to be clearing now that McDermott has moved things back in the other direction.
Biggest negative change: The Bills would miss cornerback Stephon Gilmore and running back Mike Gillislee regardless of where they wound up signing as free agents. The fact that both players moved to the Patriots makes things even worse because their success will make it even harder for the team to make headway in the AFC East.
Coaching thermometer: Any feeling that McDermott might be in for a tenure as short as Ryan’s dropped considerably when the Bills fired Whaley and hired Beane, who worked with McDermott in Carolina. The hunger for a playoff return isn’t going to go away, but McDermott should have ample time to try to put it together.
We’d like to crack a beer with … Jerry Hughes. Hughes has gone from a first-round disappointment with the Colts to getting 20 sacks in his first two years in Buffalo to a less successful stint in Ryan’s defense. That’s given him a lot of experiences to draw on as he embarks on his eighth NFL season and, we imagine, a lot of insight into how talent, scheme fit and coaching styles combine to shape a career.
How they can prove us wrong: Having running back LeSean McCoy and Watkins healthy for an entire season is a must because they are lacking other proven talent at skill positions without them. If they get that, a step forward from Taylor and a resurgent performance on defense, the Bills could find themselves in the playoff hunt in the AFC.