In case you didn’t hear, the Baltimore Ravens mauled the Buffalo Bills 47-3 on Sunday to kick off the 2018 NFL season. Hopes were high for this year’s Bills squad after they broke a 17-year playoff drought a year ago, but things crashed down to Earth with every three-and-out for Buffalo’s offense. The team was dominated and physically outmatched on both sides of the ball, and it was obvious from the opening seconds of the game. And regardless of whether Nathan Peterman remains the starter or Sean McDermott and the coaching staff opts to roll with Josh Allen, it’s difficult to argue that this will be the last time we see the Buffalo Bills get manhandled like that this season. And that’s okay.
Sports fans tend to look at the “micro” view of things rather than the big picture outlook. It’s normal to have a “glass half full” mentality and be optimistic about your favorite team. I get it. But I’m a data person. That doesn’t mean for one second that I root against Buffalo or wish them bad luck, as many of my entertaining Twitter followers may believe.
But after losing several key veteran starters in quarterback Tyrod Taylor, offensive linemen Cordy Glenn, Richie Incognito and Eric Wood, along with linebacker Preston Brown and cornerbacks Leonard Johnson and E.J. Gaines on defense, I found it difficult to see how the team would match the success they enjoyed in 2017.
Also, not many people want to admit that the 2017 Bills were unfathomably lucky. Ten of their games were decided by 10 or fewer points, and of their nine wins, just three were by a margin larger than eight points. Their defense forced 19 turnovers in those wins. Long story short, the offense was atrocious. Sure, they were a top-five team in the run game, but they couldn’t score points (22nd), didn’t move the ball consistently (29th in total yards, 31st in passing yards). They didn’t threaten opponents and needed a perfect game script to win. The run game had to be electric, the offense couldn’t turn over the ball, and the defense needed to be excellent in the red zone and create one or two turnovers per game. That just isn’t sustainable.
Talent and development grow into stability, which is paramount in the NFL.
Sure, linebacker Tremaine Edmunds looks like a future superstar. Josh Allen has all of the potential in the world. Last year’s draft class is already looking to be a home run, thanks to the play of Tre’Davious White, Dion Dawkins and Matt Milano. The jury may still be out on Zay Jones, but he’s a talented player himself. Those six players are looked at as the future core of the Buffalo Bills’ roster, and their average age is just 22.5 years old.
Look at last year’s Super Bowl teams. The impact players at those positions — Carson Wentz, Alshon Jeffery, Nigel Bradham, Jordan Hicks and Ronald Darby — average 26.6 years old. The Patriots at those positions averaged 31.6 years old. Even without 40-year-old Tom Brady included, they still matched the Eagles’ 26.6.
The Bills were bludgeoned by Baltimore, make no doubt about it. But this year’s team isn’t getting beat simply due to a lack of talent, as we have seen far too often over the last decade or so. It’s a lack of overall experience that will hurt the Bills in the short-term, but in the long run, losses like those against the Ravens can be invaluable.
[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””] “The path to success is never a clean one. It takes ups and downs and takes you on a journey sometimes. We’re not where we wanted to be yesterday, but we have to continue to grow and develop this football team,” Head coach Sean McDermott told the media during his Monday press conference.
[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]“It really wasn’t eye-opening for me. I’ve been in this league a long time. You go through highs and lows. That’s part of the journey on the way to success, the way I like to see it and call it. It’s never a straight line,” McDermott continued. “It’s never as clean as people think it is, and it’s something we have to continue to work through.” [/perfectpullquote][/perfectpullquote]
Personally, I agree wholeheartedly with McDermott and believe that in the current state of the NFL, teams have to operate a certain way to be successful while being mindful of the salary cap. Either you have a star quarterback that can mask the deficiencies on the roster that result from a yearly $20+ million salary cap hit, or you need to have a young passer playing on a rookie contract that allows a team to surround him with talent. The Seahawks-Broncos matchup in Super Bowl 48 was the perfect example of those two models. Seattle, like Buffalo, was, for the most part, a home-grown team. Their nucleus was made up of players they drafted, not free agent additions – who typically receive more than market value.
Now, you look at how the NFL values certain positions. According to OverTheCap.com there are 19 quarterbacks who earn an average of at least $18 million per season. Von Miller, Khalil Mack, and Aaron Donald are the only non-QBs that can say the same. Of the 50 players to average salary cap hits of $15 million, you can see what teams put a premium on when valuing contracts. 17 edge rushers or interior defenders make up the 28 non-QBs in the $15 million-per-year club. That is followed by seven wide receivers, three left tackles, and one cornerback. See a trend?
Here’s how positions are valued if you look at NFL salaries.
- Be a QB
- Line up as close as possible to QB to sack him or disrupt the pocket
- A stud that catches passes from QB
- Block for QB
- Defend the stud that catches passes from QB
- Be a ridiculous athlete that plays a hybrid role with the freedom to freelance and jump routes, defend run well
Outside of Todd Gurley and Le’Veon Bell, this holds true all the way down to the 86th-highest paid player in the NFL: Luke Kuechly and his $12.359 million APY (86th APY in NFL). To get paid, you need to be a QB or directly affect him.
Outside of the wide receiver position, the Buffalo Bills have all of those covered: Josh Allen, Harrison Phillips, Dion Dawkins, Tre’Davious White are all players that are not only talented, but ridiculously inexpensive compared to market rate.
There are 15 offensive tackles earning $10+ million per year. Dawkins counts just over $1 million on the 2018 salary cap, while his four-year deal is for $4.8 million. He’s under contract for 47 more games at left tackle. Allen has a four-year contract worth $21 million – a number that 14 passers will make this season alone. Tre’Davious White is the 60th-highest-paid cornerback in the NFL and already one of the best at his position. Like Dawkins, Buffalo has him under contract for 47 more games, as he’s locked into a four-year deal worth roughly $10 million.
So not only do the Buffalo Bills have a quality crop of young players, but those players fill into positions that typically cost a boatload of money. The Bills may deal with bumps in the road, and they’ll fall down and accumulate scrapes throughout 2018, but those will hopefully turn to calluses and the experience to grow for the future. McDermott made a similar comment in his Monday press conference, referring to ‘fertile ground’ being needed to foster growth.
[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]”We’ve got a lot of first and second-year players out there getting meaningful moments, meaningful reps and experience. We have to continue to create fertile ground around here so they continue to develop. And we’ll learn from that tape, I’m convinced of that. You saw what we did with some of those moments last year, and we learned from those. I’m convinced and confident that our team will continue to learn from these experiences.”[/perfectpullquote]
Buffalo Bills on same path as one of NFL’s hottest teams
If you went back three years and told somebody that the Buffalo Bills and Jacksonville Jaguars would be playing in a playoff game, you’d likely have been laughed at. But the Buffalo Bills are on a similar path to the one that made the Jaguars such a ferocious team last season. In 2014, the first year of the Jaguars’ rebuild, Jacksonville drafted quarterback Blake Bortles along with Marqise Lee, Allen Robinson, Branden Linder, and Telvin Smith. The next year they signed Julius Thomas, Stephen Wisniewski, Jared Odrick, and drafted T.J. Yeldon, Dante Fowler with more role players.
They entered the 2016 offseason with $72 million in salary cap space that allowed them to load up with stars like Malik Jackson, Prince Amukamara, Tashaun Gipson, and more. Then, they struck gold, landing Jalen Ramsey, Myles Jack, and Yannick Ngakoue in the draft. That team went 3-13. But the momentum carried into the following offseason, and they went wild, landing Calais Campbell, A.J. Bouye, Barry Church, and Branden Albert. They drafted Leonard Fournette and Cam Robinson, along with several promising players. Now this team was ready to go.
A laughingstock just three seasons prior, the Jaguars bulldozed their way to a 10-6 record and knocked off the Bills in the Wild Card round of the NFL Playoffs.
Buffalo will enter the 2019 offseason with an absurd $76 million in cap space and zero pending free agents that will require big contracts. The Bills are on a bright path after two quality drafts. So while unexpected losses on the offensive line, along with a lack of real talent at the wide receiver position, coupled with a young, bright-eyed quarterback developing with an equally young and inexperienced team around him may result in some regression by this year’s Bills squad, there is a lot to look forward to.
For once, I see a plan of action where I haven’t in the past. I saw rosters put together in what seemed like nothing more than a dart throwing contest. This isn’t a Buffalo Bills team whipped up by adding Brandon Spikes, Mike Williams, Bryce Brown and Jerome Felton. This is a methodical, long-term roster being built with sustainability in mind. It isn’t the quick-fix that many desperately desire, but that is precisely the reason Sean McDermott has been emphatic that becoming a contender is a “process” that the team and organization must trust.
“Like I told you before, I knew it wasn’t going to be easy,” McDermott said after the 2017 Bills’ lost 47-10 to the New Orleans Saints. “Right now, we had two games back-to-back that wasn’t up to our standard, and sometimes that happens as you’re going through this process. There’s pain in the process also, that doesn’t make it easy, it just means you have to work through it.”