The Buffalo Bills head to St. John Fisher College to kick off training camp for the 2018 NFL season July 27. The team hopes to build upon a wild 2017 season that saw them snap a 17-year postseason drought under first-year head coach Sean McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane. The Bills made splash moves during the offseason in order to build upon the foundation laid last year, but there are some glaring issues that could derail the upcoming season. A lot will happen between now and Week 1, but Buffalo must answer these four glaring questions throughout the preseason if they hope to take another step forward.
Can Josh Allen prove doubters wrong?
Josh Allen certainly may develop into the franchise savior that the Buffalo Bills envisioned when moving up to select him with the No. 7 overall pick in the 2018 NFL draft. The move was bold, considering the vast differences in opinions regarding the potential of the former Wyoming Cowboy. His ceiling is high, thanks to a rocket arm that many state is the strongest in the NFL, to go along with prototypical size (6-foot-5, 232-pounds) and the athleticism to extend plays on the ground.
However, his accuracy will be scrutinized because his 56.2 percent completion rate in two years as a starter raises red flags, especially considering the level of competition that he faced in the Mountain West Conference. Still, the Bills are putting faith in their coaching staff that they can get the most out of the physical specimen that Brandon Beane essentially put his job on the line for.
Buffalo did sign A.J. McCarron, a former sixth-round draft pick who won a National Championship at Alabama before backing up Andy Dalton for four seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals. The 27-year-old has just 133 pass attempts to his name, though, so it’s hard to prop him up as the quote-unquote ‘veteran leader’ that Allen can learn from.
Right now, the starting quarterback role appears to be McCarron’s to lose, as Allen only took a handful of first-team reps in minicamp and OTAs, while coach McDermott was emphatic that the rookie would have to ‘earn’ the job, noting that he wasn’t going to be given special treatment.
Allen will have his bumps and bruises, but if he can secure the starting job by the beginning of the year, that will go a long way in proving many of his pre-draft naysayers wrong.
Will the Bills’ pass rush come to life?
The switch from Rex Ryan’s hybrid 3-4 base defense to Sean McDermott and Leslie Frazier’s 4-3 scheme didn’t bring about the pass rush resurgence many expected. The team combined to accumulate just 27 sacks, tied for fourth-lowest in the NFL.
Kyle Williams agreed to return for another season, and the defensive tackle group is much improved with the additions of Star Lotulelei and Harrison Phillips, who each figure to play significant roles during the upcoming season. Jerry Hughes only tallied four sacks in 2017, but the veteran was among the leaders in total pressures, showing that he still could make life difficult for opposing offensive tackles when given the chance.
The Bills signed Trent Murphy to bring pressure from the opposite side of the line, and the team will also be counting on Shaq Lawson to finally live up to his first-round draft status. Furthermore, Eddie Yarbrough and Owa Odighizuwa should be able to rotate in as wave rushers, keeping the defensive line fresh.
The Buffalo Bills know that they simply cannot afford to rely on the secondary to create turnovers at the rate they did last year as a formula for winning. If Buffalo wants to sniff the playoffs, finding a consistent pass rush is priority No. 1.
Who steps up at wide receiver?
Just one look at the Bills’ wide receiver depth chart is enough to cause unease. Of the 13 pass-catchers Buffalo is taking into training camp, six came to the NFL as undrafted free agents. Kelvin Benjamin and Zay Jones are Buffalo’s only wideouts taken before the fifth-round of their respective drafts.
Buffalo made the decision to acquire Benjamin at the trade deadline last season. Playing in six games while dealing with a meniscus injury, Benjamin recorded 16 catches for 217 yards. Now healthy, he should be able to return to the form that made him Cam Newton’s favorite target in Carolina.
Zay Jones struggled mightily as a rookie. After setting the record for most career receptions during his career at ECU, Jones managed just 27 receptions despite seeing 74 targets, racking up 316 receiving yards and two scores. He dealt with knee and shoulder injuries throughout the season and underwent two offseason surgeries. He’ll certainly need to answer questions about his bizarre offseason arrest, but hopefully, he can put that in the past and work on becoming the high-level receiver he’s shown to be capable of.
Rookie sixth- and seventh-round draft picks Ray-Ray McCloud and Austin Proehl bring intriguing skillsets to the receiver group. McCloud has versatility and athleticism while Proehl is more of a finesse player that projects to the slot. Undrafted rookie Robert Foster is another freak athlete that already turned heads during minicamp and OTAs, while Malachi Dupree, Brandon Reilly, and Cam Phillips had some impressive collegiate careers of their own, and it wouldn’t be a shock to see one crack the Buffalo Bills’ 53-man roster.
How quickly will the revamped OL gel?
Just one season after the Bills fielded the same offensive line combination in consecutive seasons for the first time in 20 years, Buffalo will go into training camp with an open competition at four of the five starting positions. The team traded away left tackle Cordy Glenn after Dion Dawkins’s impressive rookie campaign made him expendable. Long-time center Eric Wood retired and left guard Richie Incognito was released.
The Bills were active in free agency, signing Marshall Newhouse and center Russell Bodine. Newhouse should compete with Jordan Mills for the right tackle job, while Bodine, who started every game for Cincinnati over the previous four seasons, will compete with Ryan Groy for that role. Physically, John Miller looks better than he ever has, and the team’s former third-round draft pick is looking to reclaim his starting job at right guard after being benched for Vlad Ducasse. Rookie Wyatt Teller figures to compete for playing time, as well.
The offensive line will undoubtedly be one of the bigger stories to follow through training camp, considering the caliber of play and experience Glenn, Wood and Incognito brought to the table. Given the quarterback situation, it’s all but certain that the Bills will be leaning heavily on LeSean McCoy, so Buffalo will need to keep their fingers crossed that the competition will bring the best out of the offensive line.