When Doug Marrone signed on to become the new head coach of the Buffalo Bills, he came with the reputation for having a keen offensive mind. In a lot of ways he was hired because of his prowess as an offensive coach. However, as much as the Bills need to make improvements and get better on offense, their defense is a much bigger problem. Already this offseason, Marrone and the Bills have started a complete makeover of the defense with the hopes of turning things around on that side of the ball.
The first thing the Bills did on defense was cut safety George Wilson, linebacker Nick Barnett, and cornerback Terrence McGee. Barnett was the biggest name cut among those three, as he was a starting linebacker and the team’s leading tackler last year. However, he was the leading tackler on a team that was one of the worst in the NFL against the rush. Meanwhile, Wilson and McGee were two of the weaker spots in a secondary that hung tough last year despite a run defense that couldn’t stop anybody. By parting ways with these three players, the Bills are parting ways with three of the more veteran players on Buffalo’s defense, which indicates that Marrone wants his defense to get younger and more athletic.
The next big move the Bills made on defense this offseason was placing the franchise sag on safety Jairus Byrd. Byrd was a Pro-bowler last year that anchored the Buffalo secondary and likely would have been the most sought after safety on the free agent market. Byrd is a young player that is entering his prime and who Buffalo could not afford to lose, especially after they cut Wilson, their other starting safety from last year. If putting the franchise tag on Byrd can help the Bills lock him up for the long-term it will end up being the right move.
Of course, outside of Byrd, the Bills don’t have too many cornerstone players on defense. Other than Byrd in the secondary, Buffalo has cornerback Stephon Gilmore, last year’s first round pick, who still has a little ways to go to live up to the expectations that come with being a first round pick. On the defensive line, Buffalo has the interior tandem of Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams, who are nice to have, but will have to step up their performance for next year, especially against the run. The Bills also have defensive end Mario Williams under contract and are hopeful that his second year in Buffalo will be better than his first, so he can live up to his big-money contract. This handful of players isn’t a big nucleus for the Bills defense to build around, and it’s also far from a certainty that they’re going to perform at a high enough level to give Buffalo noticeable improvement on defense next year.
So where do the Bills go from here? The draft is obviously important and they’ll need to focus a lot on defense, but Buffalo is also likely to use either their first or second round pick on a quarterback, which could complicate things. If the Bills go defensive in the first round, there should be several quality pass rushers available that the Bills could pair up at defensive end opposite Mario Williams, which could help take some pressure off Williams and help him increase his production next year. However, if they wait until the second round to draft a defensive player, there will be fewer impact players available. As the Bills look to fill out their depth chart in the middle rounds of the draft and in free agency, they’ll need to put a lot of focus on the linebacker position, where they’ll need to add young and athletic run stoppers.
Ironically, with a new offensive minded head coach in place, most of the Bills activity this offseason has been on the defensive side of the ball. Credit goes to Marrone for trying to reshape Buffalo’s defense and making some bold moves to try to make that happen, but right now, there’s a lot of work left to do and a long way to go.