PITTSFORD, NY — Sean McDermott is a man who prides himself on working the details, and of leaving no stone unturned in the pursuit of information that will help his team win a football game, or that will help him become a better coach.
He arrives at his One Bills Drive office early in the morning and he leaves late at night because you never know when that moment will come when you pick up on something that may be the difference between a victory and a defeat.
But every once in a while during those long days, he turns his brain off and allows himself to daydream about what it would be like to deliver a championship to a starving Buffalo fan base.
“I've got my office that overlooks the driveway coming in here,” McDermott said. “I just envision the fans mobbing the cars that are trying to leave, the players, that day when we get there. That's what gets me out of bed. That's where we're going, the moment I signed on that dotted line. You get those moments, time to think up there (in his office) ... Sometimes I stand up there and stare off into space and just think, ‘This will be awesome.’ ”
It would be awesome, but he acknowledged there is an awful lot of work to be done before that ever becomes a possibility. The journey began in the spring as he sorted out the roster and began establishing the culture, but now it gets serious as the Bills come to St. John Fisher College for the start of training camp.
As always when they pull into Pittsford, they have an extended list of questions that need answering before they can start dreaming about playoffs and, dare we say, a championship. Here are 10 of them:
1. Tyrod Taylor has another chance to prove he’s a franchise quarterback, but can he do it?
Taylor is 15-14 as the Bills’ starter, as mundane as it gets, though he’s actually done better than most Bills quarterbacks throughout their history. However, he still makes more plays with his legs than he does his arm which is not what you want from your quarterback. And there are too many throws that he doesn’t make, or doesn’t make well enough, robbing the Bills of potential big plays. And yet, despite his deficiencies, he guided a Buffalo offense that scored 399 points in 2016, most in a season since 1998, a total that ranked them tied for 10th in the NFL. Their 46 offensive touchdowns were the fourth-most in team history, and the 12 turnovers set a new franchise low. Maybe new offensive coordinator Rick Dennison, who Taylor worked with briefly in Baltimore in 2014, can get more out of him this season. If not, his time in Buffalo will likely end.
2. How much tread is left on LeSean McCoy’s tires?
Buffalo Bills running back LeSean McCoy slips a tackleBuy Photo
Buffalo Bills running back LeSean McCoy slips a tackle by Pittsburgh's William Gay (22). McCoy was held to 27 yards on 12 carries in a 27-20 loss on Dec. 11, 2016. (Photo: Jamie Germano/@jgermano1/Staff Photographer)
McCoy has been the Bills’ most vital offensive weapon and has been the primary reason why Buffalo has led the NFL in rushing two years running. He’s coming off a tremendous season when he rushed for 1,257 yards, averaged 5.4 yards per carry, and scored 14 total touchdowns. However, he just turned 29, an age where running backs start to slow down. He already has eight taxing NFL years on his body, during which he has rushed 1,898 times and caught 382 passes. To his credit, he still looks fast and shifty, but he has missed five full games and parts of several others for Buffalo due to nagging injuries, and you have to wonder when he’ll hit the wall.
3. Is this the year Sammy Watkins stays healthy and breaks through?
The Bills declined to pick up the fifth-year option on Watkins’ original contract, a telling sign that they question whether he’ll ever play to his draft status. To date, he hasn’t been worth the price Buffalo paid to pick him No. 4 overall in 2014 as he’s endured three injury-plagued seasons and produced middling results. Clearly, the explosive talent is there, but it has to start manifesting itself because the passing game goes as Watkins goes and in the last two years it has been 28th and 30th in the NFL. He needs to stay on the field and become a full-time weapon that impacts games.
4. Can rookie Dion Dawkins beat out Jordan Mills at right tackle?
Since guards Richie Incognito and John Miller arrived in 2015 to join forces with center Eric Wood and left tackle Cordy Glenn, the Bills have been solid up front. The one weak spot has been right tackle where Mills has under-performed. The Bills traded up into the second round to pick Dawkins with the expectation that he can win the right tackle spot and upgrade the position.
5. Who will emerge as the key backups?
Depth is an issue up and down this roster, and while no team can afford injuries, the Bills really can’t. This training camp, several positions need players to step up and win jobs, either as starters or backups. Start with the offense. Mike Gillislee is gone so the Bills need someone to be McCoy’s reliever, maybe Jonathan Williams or Cedric O’Neal. At receiver, who knows how available Watkins will be, or whether rookie second-round pick Zay Jones can win a starting job. Behind them, there’s not much. On defense, there are no ends behind Shaq Lawson and Jerry Hughes. The Bills aren’t sure they have three productive starters at linebacker, let alone worrying about reserves. And safety is another area to be leery of, especially if Jordan Poyer doesn’t pan out as a starter.
6. Will Shaq Lawson blossom after the switch to a 4-3 defense?
This will be an interesting season for the 2016 first-round pick. Last year he was completely miscast as a 3-4 linebacker in Rex Ryan’s scheme, and the fact that he missed nearly half the season due to shoulder surgery basically ruined any chance of him being productive. Now, Lawson is in a 4-3 that is better-suited to his skill set and he needs to become a difference-maker and prove that he was worthy of being a first-round pick. If not, he may eventually wind up lumped together with some of Doug Whaley’s other swings and misses in the draft.
7. Is Reggie Ragland ready to become the leader of the linebackers?
The second-round pick in 2016 lost his entire rookie season to a knee injury, and he’s still working his way back. Throughout the spring it looked like he’d be ready to go full-bore in camp, and like Lawson, he has to prove that he was worthy of his draft slot. This is a weak position group and Ragland has to come through for the Bills as a three-down middle linebacker.
8. Which rookie will have the biggest impact?
The top three picks will all have a chance to start and become key contributors. First-round cornerback Tre’Davious White is being counted on to replace Stephon Gilmore, and that won’t be easy in a pass-happy league where he’ll be tested early and often. Jones is expected to take Robert Woods’ spot and upgrade the production. And Dawkins will go head-to-head with Mills and should prove to be the deserving starter.
9. Who will handle punt and kickoff returns?
These days, it really isn’t that big of a deal who handles returns. Kickoff returns have been nearly extinguished by big-leg kickers booting the ball through the end zone, and punt returns have been nullified by big-leg punters with five-second hang times. Still, you want someone back there who’s capable, and Brandon Tate probably fits the mold in both endeavors. Last year, Tate averaged 11.6 yards on 26 punt returns, and 22.8 yards on 29 kick returns. He was re-signed, one would assume, to perform both duties.
10. Will the Bills be a more disciplined, refined team under McDermott?
In Rex Ryan’s first season, the Bills tied Tampa Bay for the most accepted penalties with 143. Last year, they were better with 112 which was 12th-most in the league. Beyond the penalties, though, the Bills just seemed to make a tremendous amount of mental mistakes (like having 10 men on the field against Miami in overtime when Jay Ajayi ripped off a game-deciding 57-yard run). McDermott certainly runs a tighter ship than Ryan, so it’s reasonable to believe that there will be fewer brain cramps, which should result in sharper play.