Part 3 of my Buffalo Bills’ 2015 season review looks at the special teams and the unit that was, by far, the most disappointing facet of the team, the defense. Coach Rex Ryan, a supposed defensive guru, took a top ranked unit and turned it into a dumpster fire that struggled all year. Players openly complained about not understanding Ryan’s complicated scheme, and coordinator Dennis Thurman constantly was late sending in signals from the first game until the finale. Ryan hired his twin brother Rob as Assistant Head Coach/Defense to help clean up the mess in 2016. The special teams were anything but special also. Here’s the position-by-position look at the defense and special teams:
For the past 2 years, this season review has been a carbon copy when it came to rating this unit. I’ve heaped praise on the front four starters especially, since they were the strength of the team. That wasn’t the case in 2015, as none of the four met expectations. Tackle Marcell Dareus and hybrid end Jerry Hughes had average seasons, but neither had the impact they did in previous years, under different coordinators. Kyle Williams, the other tackle, had his season shortened by injury, while end Mario Williams, a prize free agent when he was signed a few years ago, was a complete disappointment. He questioned coach Rex Ryan’s scheme and the way he was being used all season, and had teammates claiming he “totally checked out” and was a bad teammate. He will almost certainly not be back in 2016, due to his declining play and the fact that the team needs to lose his salary to get under the salary cap. It also makes no sense to keep four highly-paid linemen on the roster if Ryan’s base defense is going to use a three man line. Still, it’s a shame that Ryan did such a number, in a negative way, on a defense that was highly rated prior to his arrival. As for depth, a pair of veterans, Alex Carrington and Jarius Wynn, will be coming off injuries and will have to fight for their roster spots next year, against competition from some unproven newcomers who took their spots during the year – T.J. Barnes, Lavar Edwards and Jerel Worthy. Two other vets, Corbin Bryant and Stefan Charles, are solid backups. Bryant did a good job filling in for Kyle Williams while Charles was decent, although he didn’t make as many plays in limited playing time as he had in prior years.
This is going to be a position of great need for the Bills going into the off-season. Whereas the defensive line was the focal point of the club’s defense in previous seasons, Ryan’s scheme calls for playmaking linebackers to dominate play. The Bills currently have none of those on their roster. Inside backer Preston Brown, who relays the defensive signals from the coaches to the unit, was the closest thing the team had to a playmaker, but, like just about every other player on the defense, his play severely declined in 2015. Old reliable vet Manny Lawson was probably the most consistent of the backers (he is technically listed as an end on the roster) but he’s not the type of player you’re going to build a future dominating defense with. Nigel Bradham will be a free agent, and although he could develop into a solid starter, if he seeks a big payday I don’t feel he’s worth it. Sifting through the rest of the linebackers on the roster, there isn’t much to choose from. Of the three players who ended up on the injured reserve list, Ty Powell has the most promise, Tony Steward never got a chance to play much due to injury, and having had injury troubles coming out of college, he’ll need to show some semblance of durability to stick with the team. Randell Johnson wasn’t able to earn any playing time other than special teams despite the need for backers in 2015. Undrafted free agent A.J. Tarpley could have a future. He made some plays late in the year that will at least put him on the coaches’ radar going into 2016. Max Valles was a late signee who was brought in with an eye on next season, because he supposedly is a good fit for Ryan’s defense. The other remaining candidates are IK Enamkpali, who never showed much of anything, and Kevin Reddick.
Instead of the front four, cornerback now appears to be the strength of the Bills’ defense. Stephon Gilmore and second round draft steal Ronald Darby made up a terrific starting tandem. The Bills proved to have quite a bit of depth also, with veterans Ron Brooks, Nickell Robey, Mario Butler and Leodis McKelvin all contributing at points of the season. McKelvin’s contract situation points to his likely release, however, unless he agrees to take a pay cut. The club also has two players promoted from the practice squad late in the year who may get a shot next year – Bud Noel and Sammy Seamster. Safety is a position very much in flux going into the off-season. Aaron Williams has to show he can recover from a neck injury, no certain thing. Corey Graham played admirably but he may be hitting the veteran wall, as his play declined. (Or could he also be a victim of Ryan’s complicated scheme?) Bacarri Rambo got extensive playing time after Williams was hurt and showed playmaking ability, but needs to improve his consistency. Also, he’ll be a free agent. Two players drafted the same year, Duke Williams and Jonathan Meeks, played OK but neither looks like a long term answer to be a starter. There was some talk of moving McKelvin to safety, but he probably lacks the size to make the transition.
Bomb squad coach Danny Crossman is a holdover from Doug Marrone’s staff, and his job security is iffy after his teams suffered a huge decline, almost as bad as the defense. The coverage teams weren’t terrible, but contributed little to any wins. In the past, the Bills always had multiple players who were threats on kick returns, now there’s virtually nobody. McKelvin has too many ball security issues, Marcus Thigpen was so below average that he was cut twice, and Marquise Goodwin can’t stay healthy. By season’s end, Walter Powell, a free agent signed off the street, was handling return duties, and not showing a whole lot of promise. Kicker Dan Carpenter’s season was a forgettable one. He struggled mightily with the new longer extra point distance, and with the team needing to carry an extra kicker (Jordan Gay) just to handle kickoffs, his days could be numbered in Buffalo. The only bright spot among special teamers was punter Colton Schmidt, who was mostly solid all year but did have a couple of late season lapses.