The Buffalo Bills have done an outstanding job building an extremely talented roster—on paper—over the last several years. Through the utilization of Doug Whaley’s superb drafting skills, and key acquisitions in the trade market, the Bills have finished .500 or better in the last two seasons.
Since 2011, the additions of Marcell Dareus, Stephon Gilmore, Cordy Glenn, Sammy Watkins, and Ronald Darby among others have, so far, proven to be valuable selections for the Bills franchise moving forward. When you include Doug Whaley’s trading history, the subtractions of bust-like players in Kelvin Sheppard and Kiko Alonso for star players via Jerry Hughes and LeSean McCoy, one can identify that Whaley has a knack for finding talent. With these masterful additions through drafting and trading, the Bills are set up to be competitive for years to come.
However, which of these players on the Bills roster stand out the most? Which players give the Bills their best shot at victory? Who are the key players in the long haul? Which players are imperative for the Bills’ success? Who are the Bills’ franchise cornerstones?
Here at Building the Herd, we’ll breakdown the key players that’ll are imperative to the Bills’ long-term success. It’s important to note that age, potential, and proven talent will all be considered in determining who the Bills franchise cornerstones are. Without further adieu, let’s get started!
WR Sammy Watkins
Sammy Watkins has been everything the Bills envisioned when Doug Whaley made the bold trade up with Cleveland for the right to select the dynamic playmaker out of Clemson in the 2014 NFL draft. In his first two seasons, Watkins has played 29 games while racking up 2,029 receiving yards on 125 receptions to go along with 15 touchdowns. He has an impressive average of 17.5 yards-per-reception, which displays his blazing speed and his ability to take the top off defenses.
What’s impressive is Watkins was able to generate this type of production with three factors standing in his way: injuries, inconsistent quarterback play, and a lack of targets. Sammy has dealt with numerous injuries in his two seasons as as pro, leading to the notion if he is injury prone. Whether it was his ribs, groin, ankle, or foot, Watkins has never been fully healthy in his young career. The combination of EJ Manuel and Kyle Orton were also detrimental to Watkins development as a receiver. The combined erratic and inconsistent accuracy of Manuel and Orton failed to deliver the ball into Watkins hands when he was targeted, and in essence, wide open. Therefore, chunks of yardage were lost on Watkins stat total because of the lack of a legitimate quarterback. Finally, the lack of targets and involvement in the game plan has also hindered Watkins. Sammy has not garnered the amount of targets a prototypical No. 1 wide receiver should receive. What’s illogical here is the Bills conceded valuable future assets to trade up for him, and to not let him be the focal point of your offense is puzzling. Moving forward, Greg Roman must look for ways to utilize Sammy Watkins game-breaking ability on a consistent basis.
Nevertheless, Sammy Watkins has certainly lived up to the billing, despite being overshadowed by the media through the likes of Odell Beckham, Mike Evans, and Allen Robinson early in his career. Now that Watkins is supported by one of the league’s best deep ball throwers in Tyrod Taylor, the two are set to become one of the league’s breakout duo’s in 2016. With Sammy Watkins showing his capability of being a star receiver over the last nine weeks of the 2015 season, it’s imperative the Bills begin to treat him like one with plenty of targets and innovative ways to get him involved in the game plan. With that being said, the soon-to-be 23 year old Watkins will be a major cornerstone for the Bills franchise moving forward.
DT Marcell Dareus
The Buffalo Bills No. 3 overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft has certainly lived up to the hype, recording 253 tackles, 30.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and 11 pass breakups while developing into one of the top defensive tackles in the National Football League. He’s a crucial piece to the Bills’ defensive line, playing a variety of positions and being a dominant force against both the run and pass.
He was signed to a six-year, $95.1 million deal last offseason, making him one of the highest-paid defenders in the league. While Dareus didn’t have the statistical impact that many envisioned he would within Rex Ryan’s defense, he consistently engaged and defeated double-teams from the nose tackle position.
This allowed linebackers and safeties to flow to the ball and make plays when he didn’t simply pressure the opposing quarterback himself. Dareus is just 26-years old and the 6’3” 331-pounder should only continue to improve, which is why he’s one of the most important building blocks on the Buffalo Bills’ roster.
CB Ronald Darby
With the presence of Stephon Gilmore and Leodis Mckelvin on the roster heading into 2015, many Bills fans didn’t expect a cornerback to be the Bills first pick in the second round (50th overall). Doug Whaley stayed true to his mentality of the selecting the best player available, and in this case it happened to be Ronald Darby. The cornerback out of Florida State experienced an up and down preseason before registering a splendid regular season.
With McKelvin missing nearly half of the season, Ronald Darby was immediately able to form a shutdown duo with Stephon Gilmore. The emphasis on playing tight man-to-man coverage in Rex Ryan’s system is vital to the success of the defense. Darby was able to hold it down, while playing exceptional as a rookie.
Despite not winning defensive rookie of the year, Darby’s play in 2015 said otherwise. He was arguably the best rookie in the entire league. According to Pro Football Focus, Darby allowed just 660 receiving yards, while being tied for fifth with 13 pass breakups, and finished the year with the ninth-highest coverage grade for corners. Darby displayed his shutdown ability as he only allowed four touchdowns on the entire campaign, and those four touchdowns came in a two-game span against the Kansas City Chiefs and Houston Texans.
Although Darby wasn’t as flashy as Marcus Peters—defensive rookie of the year—there is still plenty of room for Darby to grow. With just two interceptions over the course of the year, and a reception of 20 yards or more allowed in six games in 2015, the 22 year old could improve his ability as a playmaker on the ball. Nevertheless, it was an impressive rookie campaign that has Bills fans eager for the future, and rightfully so. This makes Ronald Darby such an intriguing piece to the Bills roster.
EDGE Jerry Hughes
In one of the most lopsided trades in recent NFL history, the Buffalo Bills were able to acquire a former first-round pick in Jerry Hughes from the Indianapolis Colts in exchange for inside linebacker Kelvin Sheppard.
Labeled a bust after recording just 51 tackles and five sacks in three years with the Colts as a rotational rusher behind Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, Hughes immediately exploded into a dominant speed-to-power rusher under Mike Pettine’s hybrid scheme in 2013 and Jim Schwartz’ more traditional 4-3 front in which he’d align in a “wide-nine” technique that maximized his speed off the edge. In three years with the Bills, Hughes has recorded 152 tackles, 25 sacks, seven forced fumbles and six passes defensed, while earning a five-year, $45 million contract that ensures his role as a cornerstone piece for the Buffalo Bills’ franchise.
RB LeSean McCoy
On March 10, 2015, the Buffalo Bills pulled off a huge one-for-one trade that sent linebacker Kiko Alonso to the Philadelphia Eagles for the all-pro running back, LeSean McCoy. Immediately after the trade, he then signed a new five-year contract worth $40 million.
Although LeSean McCoy missed four games, in the 12 games he played, the soon-to-be 28 year old amassed 895 rushing yards on 203 attempts to average 4.4 yards-per-carry, while adding three rushing touchdowns. LeSean McCoy can do some damage in the passing game, too. McCoy hauled in 32 receptions for 292 receiving yards to go along with two receiving touchdowns. McCoy would go on to record his sixth season with over 1,000 total yards.
With Adrian Peterson leading the league with 1,485 rushing yards in 2015, it can be argued that if LeSean McCoy played a full season he would’ve challenged Peterson for the rushing title. In a run oriented offense lead by Greg Roman, LeSean McCoy will be the engine to the Bills offense in 2016, even with the emergence of Karlos Williams, Mike Gillislee, and the presence of rookie draft pick, Jonathan Williams. McCoy will get ample opportunities to lead the Bills running attack, in which he’ll have the touches to possibly lead the league in rushing, and potentially lead the league in total yards. Therefore, LeSean McCoy is one of the major building blocks on this roster to-date.
G Richie Incognito
In addition to LeSean McCoy and Tyrod Taylor in the 2015 offseason, Richie Incognito was the last piece to the puzzle that resulted in the Bills top ranked rushing attack. To construct a successful ground-and-pound attack, it was vital to add some talent and toughness to the Bills shaky and weak interior offensive line. The addition of Incognito was a bargain on the open market after his bullying scandal incident with Jonathan Martin in 2013 held him out of football for a year. The Bills rolled the dice on Incognito, and it ended up working out for the Bills in the end.
In 2015, Incognito was ranked the second best guard, according to Pro Football Focus. His performances in 2015 were consistently excellent. The combination of Cordy Glenn and Richie Incognito on the left side of the offensive line was the Bills primary strength in the running game. Greg Roman constantly had Incognito pulling out in the run game, in which he utilized his athleticism and power to open holes in the running game for LeSean McCoy, Karlos Williams, and Mike Gillislee. As a result, Incognito finished the year as one of Pro Football Focus highest-graded guards as a run blocker, earning a positive grade every week in that facet of the game with the exception of week 17 against the New York Jets. Incognito was equally impressive in pass protection. His pass blocking efficiency was rated at 97.4, which was good for fifth best among left guards. Pro Football Focus charged Incognito with 19 total pressures in 2015, on two sacks, five hits and 12 quarterback hurries in 562 pass-blocking attempts.
Richie Incognito will be 33 years old by the time the 2016 season rolls around. With last year’s outstanding campaign in the rear view mirror, Incognito’s play tells us that he still has some solid years left in the tank. Incognito signed a three year $15 million dollar deal to stay in Buffalo and keep their top ranked rushing attack intact. Richie Incognito’s presence in the interior has helped bring the Bills offense to new heights, making him one of the most important factors in the Bills offensive success. Expect another solid, if not better, performance next season from Incognito, and the Bills offense, in year two of Greg Roman’s offense.
CB Stephon Gilmore
Selected with the No. 10 overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, Stephon Gilmore has quietly developed into one of the premier cornerbacks in the league. Despite missing time due to various injuries, Gilmore has been one of the better man-to-man corners in the game when he’s on the field. While he doesn’t have gaudy interception totals to flaunt, he’s a young, athletic player that has the talent and ability to match up with just about any receiver that lines up across from him.
Last season, Gilmore allowed just 50 receptions on 92 targets (54.3%) for 666 yards and four touchdowns, with opposing quarterbacks posting an 82.1 passer rating when throwing at him. Over the last three years combined, Gilmore’s allowed a 47.8% completion rate on 257 passes in his direction, intercepting nine and breaking up 38 and allowing just nine scores.
Gilmore is in his final year of his rookie contract as the Bills picked up his fifth-year option that will pay him just over $11 million in 2016, but for a player that’s just beginning to hit his stride and enter his prime, it’s imperative to get a long-term extension finalized as he’s a key player to the team’s defense.
LT Cordy Glenn
Cordy Glenn was selected in the second-round of the 2012 NFL Draft due to questions regarding whether he’d be best suited as a guard or a right tackle in the National Football League. Glenn has put those concerns to rest, starting 61 games for the Buffalo Bills at left tackle.
Glenn has been a reliable bookend throughout his first four years, but really put everything together during the 2015 season in which he surrendered just two sacks (third-fewest among offensive tackles), two QB Hits (second-fewest) and 23 hurries (11th-fewest) with his 24 total pressures allowed ranking sixth-best at the position.
He dominated in the run game as well, as Bills’ running backs gained 602 yards and four touchdowns for a whopping 10.5 yards-per-carry average when rushing behind the 6’5” and 345-pounder. It was this play that led Buffalo’s front office to make Glenn, who’s just 26-years old, one of the highest paid tackles in the league this offseason by awarding him with a five-year, $60 million deal. Glenn is getting better with each year and he’s a cornerstone player at a premium position.
DT Kyle Williams
A long-time veteran and fan-favorite of the Buffalo Bills, Kyle Williams leaves nothing on the field with his blue collar style of play. Kyle Williams is a proven leader and one of the most productive defensive tackle’s in the NFL. His productivity earned him pro bowl honors in 2010, 2012, 2013, and 2014, while also achieving first-team all-pro recognition in 2010.
Kyle Williams signed a six year, $39 million contract extension before the 2011 season, and has recently signed another extension in the 2015 offseason that was worth $10.5 million. This past offseason, Williams did the Bills a solid by restructuring his contract to save approximately $1.75 in cap space. With the additional cap space, the Bills were able to resign Cordy Glenn and Richie Incognito, displaying Williams unselfishness and leadership.
After gathering 16 sacks in a matter of two seasons (2013 and 2014), Kyle Williams unfortunately played only six games in 2015, as he missed the last 10 games of the season due to an injured left knee. Williams absence resulted in the Bills defensive downfall, as his experience, leadership, and talent were sorely missed. Having Kyle back for the 2016 season will help the Bills defense rebound from their miserable 2015 campaign, and hopefully regain the success the Bills defense gathered in 2013 and 2014.
Entering his 11th NFL season, Kyle Williams will be 33 years old. Given his age and injury history, it’s safe to say Williams has a productive year or two left in the tank before he starts to decline. Nevertheless, a healthy Kyle Williams will help bring stability to the Bills defense in 2016, regardless of his age and injury problems. Kyle Williams has always been a major cornerstone in the Bills organization, and he is still viewed upon as a productive player and a serious leader to count on in the Bills locker room till this day.