Last offseason, I made a bet with Drew and Chris over at the Rockpile Report podcast (@RockpileReport on Twitter – if you don’t know, now you know) that the 2017 Cleveland Browns would have a better record than the Bills. Lucky for me, I only put up a wine mixer because the Bills made the playoffs for the first time in 17 years and the Browns (predictably) selected first overall for the second consecutive season.
The reason I brought up my terrible Seagram’s bet from last season is to show you how blown away I was with what Sean McDermott was able to do in his first season with one of the least talented rosters in the NFL. Prognosticators literally accused the Bills of purposefully trying to lose for the first overall pick, and yet they had their most successful season in almost two decades.
If you fast forward to the 2018 offseason, the first full offseason under Brandon Beane, we all got a sneak peek at how he intends to transform the Bills into a consistent contender. He drafted what he believes will be franchise cornerstones on both sides of the ball in Josh Allen and Tremaine Edmunds, whom they’ll now build around with their entry-level deals, providing them the flexibility to fill out the roster around them while they grow into vital roles.
There’s no question that as we head into Training Camp with how the roster currently stands, the defense is simply light years ahead of the offense. As the defense was able to take what I believe will be a significant step forward from a moderately successful 2017 campaign, the offense took a significant step back.
Not only did they lose Pro Bowl guard Richie Incognito, they also lost their franchise center Eric Wood to a career-ending neck injury and parted ways with their starting quarterback of three years. Add in that as a unit in 2017, they ranked dead last in passing and were middle-of-the-pack in rushing; it wasn’t an offense trending in the right direction even before those losses.
Say what you will about Tyrod Taylor, but the Bills didn’t get any better at the position during the offseason, at least not for the immediate future. Consider Nathan Peterman entering his second season after a disastrous rookie campaign, and AJ McCarron after every other starting-caliber quarterback signed elsewhere, and the room may be the weakest of any position group on the team, and might be the worst in the league.
But I’m here to tell you that everything might actually be OK. What I believe Beane is doing is building around his rookie linebacker rather than Josh Allen. Confusing? I actually think it’s genius.
Look at the Chiefs as an example: they have built an impressive arsenal on the offensive side of the ball after shedding the salary of Alex Smith. They used the entry-level contract of Patrick Mahomes [to their advantage] to put legitimate game changers around him for his first season as a starter. But defensively, they’re still the same below average, aging unit. Not exactly a recipe for success when they’ll need to re-sign Tyreek Hill in the near future and holes on their offensive line and only about $20-million in estimated cap space for 2019.
Eric Berry will be coming off of another season-ending injury as one of the highest-paid defensive players in the league. They lost longtime linebackers Derrick Johnson and Tamba Hali and don’t have any true young building blocks, outside of Bills castoff Reggie Ragland and Kendall Fuller on the defensive side of the ball.
Hopefully, the Bills take the same rebuild approach offensively in good time. But that requires Allen to sit the full first season. Of course, the Chiefs had the benefit of Alex Smith having a career year, which took the spotlight off of Mahomes starting early. The Bills won’t likely have the same fortunes, considering there isn’t a quarterback on the roster capable of producing the type of passing numbers Smith had in 2017.
Edmunds, unlike Allen, is pro-ready. He steps in day one as maybe their best defensive player. I know, I know, Tre’ White will want to have a word, but Edmunds will have the ability to impact every play defensively, and he’s the one that the franchise should build around. It’s easier because the core of that defense was only-as few pieces away from being a top 10 unit, and they only had minimal resources to add to the roster in free agency.
Beane used those limited funds and added a familiar face from Carolina in Star Lotulelei and drafted a Kyle Williams clone in Harrison Phillips to beef up the weakest position group on their defense last season. They also added an under-the-radar signing in Trent Murphy, who could potentially be their best pass rusher in 2018. Take all of that into consideration and you have a solid foundation, and most importantly, you now have strong depth across the entire defensive line to keep Edmunds clean.
Add in what I believe to be the best defensive back group in the league (maybe more realistically a top-five unit), and in one offseason they were able to truly solidify the defensive side of the ball from top to bottom.
With an estimated $58 million in cap space with additional rollover cap from the $15 million still remaining this season, I believe you’ll see a concerted effort to rebuild the offensive side of the ball in 2019. That likely means remaking the lackluster receiver group, adding to the offensive line, finding the successor to Charles Clay and LeSean McCoy, and most importantly, adding more speed.
This will all rest on Josh Allen being ready to take over at a high level in 2019. But while Allen ages like a fine wine, Beane can conceivably rebuild both sides of the ball in only two seasons with cornerstone players in the two most important positions in football.
Most in the national media won’t agree because they hate Josh Allen and still don’t know who Tre’ White is, but that’s okay. If you’ve been around the last 20 years or so, you can finally see the structure and outline of a vision, when before, it felt like two decades of random roster moves to keep season ticket holders happy, with no true vision for the future or sustained success. It was, “how do we put a roster together good enough to get these people to shut up about the drought.”
Yes, the offense will likely stink next season. Am I willing to put a wine cooler on the line? Yes. But I think that’s ok. The pressure of a 17-year playoff drought is behind them now, and they have built a defense that will keep them in low scoring games all season.
But even as bad as everyone thinks the offense will be, Sean McDermott will get the most out of whichever 11 guys line up on the offensive side of the ball. That gives them a fighting chance week in and week out.