2017 NFL Preview: Bills betting big on new coach Sean McDermott

Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per weekday in reverse order of our initial 2017 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 2, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

Nobody should have to state out loud why it’s risky to give Sean McDermott so much power over the Buffalo Bills.

McDermott, hired from the Carolina Panthers to replace Rex Ryan, has never been a head coach before. That’s a big enough job. He has never run a front office either, but once general manager Doug Whaley was fired right after the draft, it was clear he had a major say in the personnel side too.

Brandon Beane was hired from the Panthers to be the official GM, and it’s hard to believe McDermott had nothing to do with hiring his old pal from Carolina. There’s some ambiguity on exactly how much power McDermott wields. A quote from owner Terry Pegula about how Beane is “gonna have the 53” could be seen as Beane having final say. Beane talked in generalities about every decision being a collaboration, but the Buffalo News reported the Bills’ setup will be similar to the Kansas City Chiefs’ structure the past few years. In Kansas City, recently fired GM John Dorsey did most of the personnel work but coach Andy Reid had the final say. It would make sense for McDermott to have similar power, considering how the Bills put McDermott front and center all offseason in a conspicuous “one voice” approach as the face of the franchise.

Maybe McDermott will be a great hire, and can handle all that has been given to him before his coaching debut. We shouldn’t base that on the hype from the first few months. How many head coaching hires aren’t lauded right away? The McDermott hire followed the same playbook. He’s a 180 from the boisterous Ryan, so that signals change. There has been the voluminous and predictable talk about changing the culture (always, changing the culture … seriously, if you haven’t heard, they want to change the culture there). When McDermott took out the pool table and video games from the Bills’ locker room, it was another sign of Improved Player Accountability (and, of culture change, obviously). There was the “earn the right to win” sticky catchphrase too. Change a detail here or there, but we’ve all seen this play out dozens of times with new NFL coaches. Heck, it was pretty much the same with Ryan two years ago.

The difference in this story might be how quickly Pegula fell head over heels for his new coach.

“I feel like Pegula would have hired McDermott to coach the Sabres too if he wanted the job,” Jay Skurski of the Buffalo News wrote. “It’s very clear the Bills’ new head coach has won over ownership.”

If you want to be optimistic, you figure that Pegula got around McDermott, recognized his brilliance and it’s clear to him McDermott is the man to lift the franchise to new heights. So he turned over the team to his new coach. And Pegula might be right. McDermott is well respected. And after an NFL-worst 17 straight years without a playoff berth, doing something different isn’t a bad thing.

The wagon is clearly hitched to McDermott, and if we’re all being honest, we have no idea if he can do the job(s) given to him. Buffalo can only hope.

McDermott takes over a team that was OK under Ryan, but never good enough. The problem is, the Bills probably need to fully rebuild, but it’s tough to go full New York Jets because the fan base is desperate to get back to the playoffs. So McDermott made some changes to be competitive this season and some that indicate there’s an eye on the future (and whatever the power structure really is now, it’s clear McDermott controlled this offseason before Whaley was fired).

The Bills are still a run-based team in a pass-first league. It’s a defense that underperformed under Ryan, who has always led good defenses, and lost its top cornerback Stephon Gilmore to the New England Patriots. The Bills have a shoddy set of pass catchers and a quarterback in Tyrod Taylor who they seem oddly cool about after bringing him back on a restructured contract. The Bills are seemingly always up against the salary cap too (a reason they’ve lost restricted free agents Chris Hogan and Mike Gillislee to the New England Patriots in consecutive years), which is embarrassing for a team with no playoff appearances since 1999 and a quarterback who is good but not a superstar. The constant cap problem is another mess that will need to be cleaned up.

Bills fans just want a winning team. It has been too long since Buffalo was truly relevant in the NFL. The hope of a revival now rides on McDermott’s shoulders, to an almost scary extent.

Sean McDermott was hired to be the Bills’ next coach. (AP)

The Bills didn’t make many huge signings, which isn’t a bad thing. They focused on finding players who are solid fits. Safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer were the biggest additions, and both are 26 years old and still have prime years left. The team doubled down on its run-heavy mentality by signing fullbacks Patrick DiMarco and Mike Tolbert. A lot of good players, some who got huge contracts, left in free agency: cornerback Stephon Gilmore, running back Mike Gillislee, receiver Robert Woods and linebacker Zach Brown. The draft seemed to go well though. The trade down with the Kansas City Chiefs in the Patrick Mahomes deal was smart and the Bills ended up with cornerback Tre’Davious White, who was impressive in OTAs. Other draftees, like receiver Zay Jones, are expected to contribute right away. Grade: C-minus

Let’s just pretend the 2016 draft class is added onto this year’s draft class, because last year’s draftees didn’t do much. That could change. Pass rusher and 2016 first-round pick Shaq Lawson had shoulder surgery last offseason and that set him back. He played 10 games and had just two sacks. He should be a much better fit in Sean McDermott’s 4-3 scheme than Rex Ryan’s 3-4. Inside linebacker Reggie Ragland missed all season after tearing his ACL. If he wins a starting spot, he was an exciting prospect out of college, then running back Jonathan Williams should replace Mike Gillislee as LeSean McCoy’s backup. If everything goes well for them in year two, it’s a nice infusion of young talent.

If Sammy Watkins is still slowed from foot surgery in January, or gets hurt again, what else do the Bills have? Zay Jones might be a good receiver down the line, but it’s tough to depend on a rookie second-round pick. Andre Holmes? Philly Brown? Rod Streater? Charles Clay has been mostly a non-factor since signing a big deal two years ago. If Watkins – who has missed 11 games the past two seasons and was rarely effective when he played last year – isn’t right, things might get bad for the Bills’ passing game.

There has been this weird vibe this offseason as the Bills refuse to just say Tyrod Taylor is their starting quarterback. Now, that’s the time-honored and goofy “everyone earns a job” part of Changing The Culture, but nobody is going around saying Aaron Rodgers or even Carson Wentz has to earn a job. It’s a good reminder that this regime is inexperienced and will make some minor missteps like that. Taylor obviously will be the starter (for this year at least) but the problem is what happens if he gets hurt. T.J. Yates, rookie Nathan Peterman and especially Cardale Jones haven’t gotten positive reviews from the Buffalo media out of OTAs. Jones has been fourth string, and the 2016 draft pick might be in danger of getting cut. When you look at what’s behind Taylor, LeSean McCoy and Sammy Watkins, you realize depth is not one of Buffalo’s strengths.

LeSean McCoy keeps playing at a high level, and he’s a critical part of Buffalo’s run-heavy offense. McCoy had 1,623 yards from scrimmage and 14 total touchdowns last season, and he’ll get even more touches with Gillislee off to New England. Jonathan Williams was an interesting late-round prospect last year, and he could be good in his second season, but he has 94 career yards. Uncertainty after McCoy and the Bills’ reliance on the run – we can assume that remains with the new staff that signed two fullbacks – means McCoy will have a huge workload at 29 years old.

Yahoo Sports’ Scott Pianowski: “If you like to play the value game at quarterback, Tyrod Taylor could be for you. Although he finished as the No. 8 fantasy QB in basic scoring last year, he’s barely inside the Top 20 at the position as the early ADPs settle in. There are some snags in Taylor’s game; despite Buffalo being the most run-heavy team in the league last year, Taylor led the league in sacks taken. But new offensive coordinator Rick Dennison has been successful with quarterback movement in the past, and perhaps Taylor will get a break with Sammy Watkins’s health, for once. Even if you don’t feel comfortable selecting Taylor as a no-doubt QB1, he has as much upside as any quarterback in the 13-20 range.”

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In Lorenzo Alexander’s first 127 NFL games, he had nine sacks. Last season, at age 33 years old, he had 12.5 sacks. The only players with more last season were Vic Beasley and Von Miller. It’s incredibly rare to see a breakout like that, and it was a fantastic story. It’s also worth wondering if Alexander can come close to repeating that. Buffalo retained him with a modest two-year, $5.95 million deal in the offseason. If Alexander has another year or two at this level (and a scheme change is bound to affect his production), it would be great for the Bills defense.

IS THERE ANY CHANCE THE BILLS FINALLY BREAK THIS PLAYOFF DROUGHT?

Odds are the streak, which dates back to the Music City Miracle at the end of the 1999 season, probably won’t end this season. According to Warren Sharp’s superior strength of schedule, smartly based on Las Vegas over/under projections, the Bills have the third toughest schedule in the NFL. Sharp said after a date against the Jets in Week 1, the Bills have the NFL’s hardest schedule. Even if everything comes together, the road to a postseason berth is tough. The most plausible path to the playoffs is if Sean McDermott lifts the defense from being below average to somewhere near the top 10, the run game stays strong and Tyrod Taylor takes a step from efficient dual threat to a little more. All of those things could happen. Then the Bills just have to navigate that schedule.

The Bills are 24-24 the past three seasons. They haven’t been that far off. We’ve seen teams experience a positive bounce with a first-year coach before. The offense was fairly good and the defense held the Bills back in the Rex Ryan era, and Sean McDermott could fix the defense. It’s still hard to see Buffalo being a playoff team when we all know the New England Patriots are winning the division, but a team coming off 7-9 with a new coach should feel like it can compete for a wild-card spot.

The Bills had two players on NFL Network’s “Top 100 Players” list: Lorenzo Alexander and LeSean McCoy. Alexander is 34 coming off a crazy breakout season and McCoy will be 29 this season with almost 2,300 career touches. Even if you don’t take that list as gospel, it shows that this is a roster in need of some real high-end talent. And the depth is really poor for a team that has been in salary-cap hell. A first-year coach, with a lot of front-office responsibility, is taking over a roster that seems like it it’s doing a high-wire act. There are real reasons for concern.

It wouldn’t surprise me if Sean McDermott turns things around in Buffalo, because there are a lot of things to like about that hire. But even if he’s the one to finally lead the Bills back to the postseason, it won’t be this year. Too many things can go wrong. The Bills are a couple injuries away from having a “Week 4 of the preseason” type of offense. The schedule is really tough. McDermott might be the right hire, and it still doesn’t mean year one will be successful.

32. New York Jets
31. Cleveland Browns
30. San Francisco 49ers
29. Chicago Bears
28. Los Angeles Rams
27. Jacksonville Jaguars
26. Detroit Lions
25. Houston Texans

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!