In anticipation of the upcoming NFL season, Head & Heart Sports will feature one division each week until the season begins and preview each team’s 2016 outlook. This week we take a look at the AFC East, continuing with the Buffalo Bills today.
Recap of 2015: In the first year of the Rex Ryan era, the Bills managed an 8-8 record and continued their impressive 16th straight season without a playoff appearance, the current longest such active streak in professional sports. Aside from the new head coach, Buffalo also saw QB Tyrod Taylor, formerly of the Baltimore Ravens, step into the starting role over EJ Manuel, the loss of star linebacker Kiko Alonso in a trade with the Eagles, and longtime running back C.J. Spiller leave for New Orleans. Perhaps as a result of the upheaval, the team suffered close losses to the likes of the Jaguars, Redskins and Eagles, while also failing to win either matchup with the division rival Patriots. Despite that, Taylor was fairly impressive in his starting role, throwing for more than 3,000 yards and 20 touchdowns against 6 interceptions and 9 fumbles. The Bills saw enough to give him a six year contract, although basically everything after the $9.5 million in the first year is to be given on a prove-it basis. Star receiver Sammy Watkins was hampered by injuries early in the season, but came on strong down the stretch. The defense, a Ryan specialty, was mostly average in points allowed and interceptions, while only managing 21 sacks. There was a lot of perceived consternation (particularly with Mario Williams) on defense and with Ryan in his first year at the helm. All in all, it was a transition year for the Bills, but with plenty of positives to build upon.
Significant Additions: TE Jim Dray, RB Reggie Bush, LB Zach Brown, LB Lorenzo Alexander, CB Sterling Moore
Significant Subtractions: DT Stefan Charles, WR Chris Hogan, DE Mario Williams, LB Nigel Bradham, S Bacarri Rambo
Potential Impact Rookies: DE Shaq Lawson, LB Reggie Ragland, DT Adolphus Washington, QB Cardale Jones
Team Strengths: This should be a better year for the Buffalo defense, with Ryan having had an offseason to bring in a couple of guys who fit better and shedding Williams. In addition, the Ryan power doubled with the addition of Rex’s brother, Rob, joining to take charge of the defense as well as my favorite former Raven Ed Reed to look after the defensive backs. If two Ryans and one of the best safeties ever aren’t able to whip the defense into shape, this will be a short coaching stop for Rex. This group ought to be able to reach the previous heights of Rex’s defenses in New York. On offense, if Taylor can carry on his statistical performance through sixteen games with a healthy Sammy Watkins, they should be very competitive. The Bills also have the benefit of both LeSean McCoy and Karlos Williams in the backfield. All around, not a bad outfit on either side of the ball.
Team Weaknesses: If you look too close at the offense, you’ll notice that after Watkins there isn’t much for Taylor to throw at, with Robert Woods presumably lining up on the opposite side and tight end Charles Clay as a third, frequently injured option. That will not make Taylor’s job any easier as corners look to lock down Watkins and dare Taylor to find another target. Also, it has to said that health can be a huge advantage for teams and one the Bills have not really enjoyed on offense with McCoy, Taylor, and Watkins all experiencing injuries this past season. It looks like the rookie class may continue that trend with Ragland already out for the season injured and Lawson recovering from offseason surgery. If that continues, it will be difficult for Buffalo to compete.
Fantasy Players to Watch: Shady McCoy is a safe bet to be a low end RB1 in almost any league, especially with Karlos Williams sitting the first four games of the season due to suspension. That does make Williams perhaps a bit of a sleeper pick who can be had very late or for cheap, especially if McCoy is bit by the injury bug again. Taylor is a legitimate option as a QB1 and Watkins should be good to go for the season opener as one of the best in his phenomenal class of receivers. Lastly, look for one of the receivers on the depth chart to break out, whether that be Woods or Dezmin Lewis, because if Watkins draws tight coverage Taylor is going to have to throw somewhere.
2016 Outlook: This season could really set up for the Bills to break the playoff absence streak, or just as easily could end with more sadness for the fans in upstate New York. If Ryan can get the defense playing at a level commensurate with his reputation, that will ease the burden on the offense and set up the team for real success this year. It might also keep Ryan’s key players healthy and not force any appearances by EJ Manuel under center. Overall, there is a generally positive, hopeful vibe entering 2016 for the Bills and one they would do well not to crush in depressing fashion.
Record Prediction: The Bills will not have an easy schedule in 2016, with the whole AFC East competitive and out of conference games against the NFC West and AFC North. They do get a nice break early on in getting to face the Brady-less Patriots at New England. If they can hold serve at home, steal two games on the road in some combination against the Patriots, Raiders, Bengals, Rams, Dolphins, or Jets, they can safely end the season 10-6 and hope that will be enough to see them into the playoffs. If ever there was a year to make the playoffs with that record, it would be the one where New England potentially starts the season 0-4. Here’s hoping.
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