Buffalo Bills fans know as well as anybody that constructing a team featuring quality depth is a difficult task and an underrated aspect of roster building. Over the course of the team’s 17-year playoff drought, the Bills fielded what appeared to be talented rosters, only to see a string of untimely injuries to a key starter or two derail a season.
Pat Kirwan of SiriusXM NFL Radio, formerly CBS Sports, believes that teams that not only make the playoffs, but also are capable of making a deep push, have one common trait between them: depth to overcome injuries.
Kirwan compiled a series of questions regarding roster depth that he believes teams must answer if they are truly built to be contenders.
The Buffalo Bills begin training camp July 27 and are coming off of their first postseason appearance since 1999. Following an offseason in which the team made drastic personnel changes, I decided to answer Kirwan’s questions in order to determine whether Buffalo remains on the right track. Obviously, training camp will provide more concrete answers, but for now, this is an interesting exercise that will allow for an alternative look at the Bills’ roster as a whole.
Let’s dive into the questions to see if Buffalo’s current roster has what it takes.
Do the Buffalo Bills have a real swing offensive tackle, a guy that can play left or right tackle and has experience?
The Buffalo Bills’ offensive line will be one of the biggest storylines to follow throughout training camp. Left tackle Cordy Glenn appeared in just five games last season while dealing with a foot injury, forcing rookie second-round draft pick Dion Dawkins to step up.
He shined, allowing just three sacks, three quarterback hits, and 23 hurries, and his play was enough for the Bills to deem Glenn expendable. Now, Dawkins will start at left tackle while Jordan Mills should hold onto his job as the starting right tackle.
Mills is a replacement level player, but Buffalo doesn’t have much behind him. Conor McDermott was a sixth-round draft pick by the Patriots last season, but the Bills signed him after he was released during final cutdowns. The 6-foot-8, 305-pounder is intriguing, but hardly someone that instills confidence at the moment. The team signed veteran Marshall Newhouse, a journeyman who has played for four teams since entering the league in 2010.
Newhouse got snaps at guard during OTAs, and while he’s struggled to hold down a job, he has experience and versatility.
Does your team have a solid inside offensive lineman that can play guard or center?
The interior offensive line is another major question that will need to be solved in camp. The Bills lost Richie Incognito and long-time center Eric Wood, two established veterans and important pieces to Buffalo’s roster during the offseason. Vlad Ducasse moved from right guard to left guard in OTAs, and John Miller will compete to reclaim his role as the right guard.
The Bills signed former Bengals center Russell Bodine, who started four years in Cincinnati during free agency. He’ll compete with Ryan Groy for the starting gig. Groy is an interesting player to watch here, as he’s performed well over the years in various spots but hasn’t been given the chance to earn a starting job. He does provide talent and versatility, though.
Is there a quality second running back that can deliver a 100-yard rushing day if he had to start?
Behind LeSean McCoy, the Bills’ running back depth chart is pretty ugly. Chris Ivory was signed to be the team’s backup, but the 30-year-old has been one of the least effective ball-carriers in the NFL over the last two years, rushing for just 821 yards and four touchdowns on 229 carries (3.6 yards-per-carry).
After Ivory, 29-year-old Travaris Cadet, 30-year-old Taiwan Jones, 27-year-old Marcus Murphy, and 24-year-old undrafted rookie Keith Ford round out Buffalo’s running back stable. Cadet suffered a gruesome leg injury at the end of the 2017 season, and Jones was a non-factor. Ford is an interesting player who profiles as a short-yardage/power back that could potentially turn heads in the preseason.
That said, the Bills need to fix the position group, because it isn’t threatening.
Is there a good second tight end on the Buffalo Bills’ roster?
Buffalo backup tight end Nick O’Leary was a sixth-round pick in the 2015 NFL draft after a productive career at Florida State. O’Leary didn’t do much during his first two seasons with the Bills, catching just 10 passes while filling in primarily as an extra blocking tight end. However, in 2017 he took a step forward, catching 22 passes for 322 receiving yards and two touchdowns.
Charles Clay is clearly the starter and a quality tight end that presents a mismatch for opposing defenses, but O’Leary has improved in each of his three years as a pro, and in a contract season, it’s hard to imagine that he doesn’t continue that trend.
Can the third wide receiver step up and start in the two-WR packages if a starter goes down?
The Buffalo Bills have arguably the NFL’s worst wide receiver corps. Kelvin Benjamin and Zay Jones are slotted in as the team’s No. 1 and No. 2 pass-catchers. The team signed Jeremy Kerley in free agency, but the veteran is hardly a game-changer that should be counted on to make a significant impact. Behind those three is a cluster of unproven players with a variety of skill sets.
Kerley is best suited for the slot and, at 29-year-old, has never eclipsed three receiving touchdowns in a season. It’s hard to see that change if he were to take on a larger role.
Buffalo added rookies Ray-Ray McCloud, Austin Proehl, Robert Foster, and Cam Phillips to compete for roster spots, and it’s more likely that one of those four is more capable of producing in a pinch than Kerley.
Do the Bills have a designated pass-rush specialist who could play the early downs if need be?
Getting after the quarterback was something the Bills struggled mightily with during the 2017 NFL season. The defense managed just 27 sacks, and the lack of depth across the defensive line was obvious. Buffalo made a concerted effort to bolster their pass rush during free agency with the addition of former Washington edge rusher Trent Murphy. The team signed nose tackle Star Lotulelei, who offers essentially nothing in terms of pass rush, but his ability to eat up double teams and control the line of scrimmage should free up those around him to make plays.
Jerry Hughes is the top dog when it comes to the Bills’ pass rushers, but former first-round draft pick Shaq Lawson is looking to finally emerge as the player Buffalo believed they were getting in 2016. Lorenzo Alexander transitioned from a 3-4 edge rusher under Rex Ryan to more of a hybrid role last season, in which he did a little bit of everything. From dropping into coverage, setting the edge or rushing the passer as a ‘SAM’ linebacker, Alexander will likely see his role decrease to a situational rusher following the addition of Tremaine Edmunds. Eddie Yarbrough was the surprise of training camp last year and earned a starting job. This year, Owa Odighizuwa could have similar success after underwhelming early in his career despite an impressive collegiate career at UCLA.
Is there a fourth cornerback on the Buffalo Bills’ depth chart for dime packages?
Tre’Davious White established himself as a premier cornerback as a rookie last season, and Buffalo added another proven veteran to play opposite him in Vontae Davis. The Bills continued tinkering with their talented secondary, signing Phillip Gaines, a third-round draft pick of the Kansas City Chiefs in 2014. He’s played 41 games, primarily in the slot.
Buffalo didn’t stop there, using a fourth-round draft pick on Taron Johnson, an undersized but physical cornerback out of Weber State. He’s raw, but a strong, aggressive and willing tackler with solid read-react ability to break on passes. He projects to the slot and should push Gaines for playing time, while at the very least serving as a dime corner.
Is there a third safety for big nickel defenses?
Sean McDermott values versatility in his defenders, so much so that he has developed the “Buffalo Nickel” position for a unique athlete that is a hybrid safety/linebacker. The Bills selected Siran Neal, an impressive athlete that gained experience playing cornerback, safety, and linebacker during his career at Jacksonville State. He tallied 191 tackles, 12 pass breakups, and three forced fumbles. The 6-foot, 203-pounder has range and physicality to make an impact in sub-packages and should be a player to keep an eye on.
Is there a return specialist that can either handle both punt and kick returns or contribute as a real position player?
Jeremy Kerley has been a punt returner for most of his career, but rookie Ray-Ray McCloud is an interesting candidate for the role, as well. The former Clemson receiver averaged 9.7 yards-per-punt return and 29.4 yards on kickoffs during college. He also caught 127 passes for 1,226 yards and scored four receiving touchdowns.
Do the Buffalo Bills have a special teams linebacker that leads the specials and can play inside linebacker in a pinch?
Lorenzo Alexander may be 35 years old, but he’s made a career out of being a force on multiple special teams units. Alexander has played several positions throughout his career, including all three linebacker spots. With Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano expected to see the majority of defensive snaps in the Bills’ nickel defense, Alexander should find most of his contributions coming on kick or punt coverage.
Is there a third defensive tackle that not only plays in a rotation but could also play the whole game if need be?
A lot of Buffalo’s defensive struggles in 2017 stemmed from a lack of talent at depth at the defensive tackle position. Following the Dareus trade, Kyle Williams was singled out by opposing offenses, as neither Adolphus Washington nor Cedric Thornton proved capable of consistently winning their matchups. The Bills added Star Lotulelei to free Williams up, but they also used a third-round draft pick on Harrison Phillips, a talented defensive tackle out of Stanford that many believe is the steal of the draft.
The Bills are in the midst of a drastic roster overhaul, and on paper, there is a lot of unproven talent. However, there will be a lot of competition not only for starting jobs, but also for significant playing time with the reserves. Due to the abundance of youth, a lot of these questions will have to be answered over the next several weeks during training camp as the players strive to separate themselves from the pack.
While the Buffalo Bills’ roster depth may be concerning at the moment, the team faced the same questions last year and eventually found themselves in the NFL playoffs.