Part 3 of our annual Buffalo Bills’ season review deals with the defense and special teams. Defense was supposed to be departed coach Rex Ryan’s area of expertise but instead was the main reason for their failure to reach their goal of making the playoffs. Consider these games: 1) at home against the Jets, they allowed Ryan Fitzpatrick, who otherwise had a horrible season, to have one of the best performances of his career, as the Jets cruised to a 37-31 win. 2) at Miami, after the offense built a 17-6 lead, the unit totally melted down, allowing Jay Ajayi to run for over 200 yards as the Dolphins rallied to win. 3) at Seattle, they couldn’t even slow down Russell Wilson and the Seahawks in the first half, forcing the offense to try to play catchup in the second half. 4) at Oakland, the offense took control of the game and built a 24-9 lead, only to watch the defense again inexplicably fall apart and allow the Raiders to score 29 unanswered points and rally to win. 5) at home against Miami, after supposedly preparing to stop Ajayi all week in practice, they again give up over 200 rushing yards to the Dolphin back, including the run in overtime that set up the winning field goal when only 10 Bill defenders were on the field. Here is a position-by-position look at the Bills’ defenders and special teamers:
It’s supposed to be an area of strength on the team. Inside at tackle, there’s Kyle Williams, a team leader who is getting up in age, and Marcell Dareus, who signed a huge contract and then totally let his team down, first getting suspended and then coming back out of shape and suffering minor injuries that kept him out of the lineup. He is a prime example of the type of player that the franchise has to deal with – inconsistent and unreliable. The new head coach has to somehow fix this problem – either develop the players into men who can be counted on, or cut ties with them and move on, regardless of where they were drafted or how big their paychecks are. Rookie Adolphus Washington got benched for the team’s final game for supposedly not practicing hard enough, but for most of the year was as reliable of a player on the defensive line as the team had. The rest of the D-line roster is pretty much veterans who will have to work hard to impress a new coaching staff to keep their jobs – Corbin Bryant, Jerel Worthy and Rex Ryan favorite Leger Douzable. DeAndre Coleman was another of Whaley’s in-season signings who never had much impact.
There are 11 players available on the Bills’ roster who are listed as linebackers, but some of them may be better players on the defensive line, since there isn’t much depth there. Where these players play and whether or not they even make the team will depend on the opinion of a defensive coaching staff which will probably, and should, undergo wholesale changes. Jerry Hughes has played both DE and LB with the Bills, and is most effective as a pass rusher, although his play fell off markedly this season, another example of Bills’ players who got new contracts, then regressed. Shaq Lawson missed half the season due to injury, then showed a few flashes of decent play, but not much consistency. He certainly didn’t make the impact you’d expect from a first round draft pick. Two of Whaley’s free agent signings, Zach Brown and Lorenzo Alexander, had good years but the Bills’ penchant for not stopping the run and giving up big plays leaves them open for scrutiny also. The same could be said for Preston Brown. Rookie Reggie Ragland was a player who the team had high expectations for, but an injury ended his inaugural season before it started. He could be a wild card in a much-needed attitude adjustment for the defense. Ramon Humber and Lerentee McCray were special teams players who were also brought in during the season. They are marginal talents who will likely struggle to make the roster next year. Veteran Brandon Spikes is almost surely gone.
The fall-off in play of Buffalo’s cornerbacks was one of the big disappointments of the 2016 season. Stephon Gilmore was wildly inconsistent, and the Bills would be smart to not hand him a big money contract, or even waste salary cap dollars putting the franchise tag on him. Ronald Darby had a solid rookie season in 2015, but the sophomore jinx hit him badly this year. Nickell Robey-Coleman regressed also, and was consistently burned by bigger receivers while playing the slot corner position. Rookie Kevon Seymour had his ups and downs, but in my opinion showed as much promise as both Gilmore and Darby and would be a good option to start if Gilmore departs. Out of the in-season players that Whaley brought in, Marcus Roberson looked like he could be a guy who should be given an opportunity next year also. Corey White struggled at corner, then made the switch to safety due to injuries there. He had his hills and valleys there also, but the fact that he appears to be a team player says he deserves a look as a depth player again next year. Aaron Williams suffered another neck injury and may have to retire, and he heads a long list of safeties who played, and got hurt, as the season unfolded. Here’s the rest of the list: Colt Anderson, James Ihedigbo, Robert Blanton and Philip Thomas. Corey Graham is the other safety, and he is getting up in age. Jonathan Meeks is strictly a special teamer, and not all that impressive of one. The Bills’ final roster included defensive backs Sergio Brown and Shamiel Gary. Who?
Special teams weren’t that special in 2016. One bright spot was the kick return work of Brandon Tate, a player who should be brought back next season for sure. New coaches usually mean a new punter and placekicker. Punter Colton Schmidt’s play fell off from 2015 and he needs to be challenged in training camp next year. Kicker Dan Carpenter kicked his way out of Buffalo this season. A poor campaign culminated in a dreadful showing in the home finale against Miami that was likely the final nail in his coffin.