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2018 NFL Preview: The Bills ended that playoff drought, but they're still rebuilding

Yahoo Sports 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 2018 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 1, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

(Yahoo Sports graphics by Amber Matsumoto)

We want improvement to be linear. A rookie quarterback bursts on the scene with a great season, and we believe he’ll be an MVP candidate the next year. It often does not go that way.

And when a team breaks through and unexpectedly makes the playoffs, as the Buffalo Bills did for the first time since the 1999 season, we imagine the next step being forward, not back.

The Bills are realistic. Breaking the longest playoff drought in the NFL was a great accomplishment in the 2017 campaign, but building a winner is a long process. The Bills went from seven wins in 2016 to nine last season. That doesn’t mean an 11-win season is next.

“We had nine wins this year, [and] we’re trying to get more, but it doesn’t always happen for various reasons,” Bills general manager Brandon Beane said, according to the team’s transcripts. “It’s a competitive league.”

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The Bills were a weak playoff team. They were outscored by 57 points, the fifth-worst point differential for a playoff team in NFL history. They ranked 21st among 32 NFL teams in Football Outsiders’ DVOA per-play metric, and 20th in Jeff Sagarin’s analytics rankings for USA Today. The Bills were outgained by minus-0.6 yards per play, one of the worst marks in football, significantly behind the 0-16 Cleveland Browns’ mark of minus-0.2. The Bills benefitted from a 5-2 record in games decided by seven points or less, a plus-9 turnover margin and a light schedule. Oh, and a miracle Andy Dalton-to-Tyler Boyd touchdown that was a highlight for the ages.

The Bills didn’t proceed like they had arrived. In fact, the roster got turned over a little more.

The Bills traded quarterback Tyrod Taylor, who the new regime seemed eager to dump from Day 1. In came free agent AJ McCarron as the temporary starter. A couple major trades put them in position to draft Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen, a risk that will define the Sean McDermott era.

The offensive line was decimated. Tackle Cordy Glenn was traded, center Eric Wood retired and Pro Bowl guard Richie Incognito retired, un-retired, and then was cut loose before a weird public meltdown. That’s a lot to lose from one unit.

The skill positions are still surprisingly thin — if LeSean McCoy misses any time, it’ll be ugly — and the defense is good but not great. If you looked at the depth chart, you wouldn’t guess this was a playoff team last season.

Like many clubs near the bottom of these rankings, the quarterback question looms over everything. Buffalo is smitten with Allen, one of the most divisive prospects in recent draft history — either you love his otherworldly physical talent or you don’t see how he can succeed in the NFL after being average in the Mountain West Conference. And he wasn’t cheap: The Bills traded Glenn to move up nine spots and then sent that pick, their second-round selection and another second-round pick acquired in last year’s Sammy Watkins trade to move up to No. 7 for Allen.

“You’ve got to have a franchise quarterback,” Beane said before the draft. “That’s one of the main jobs of a GM is to find a franchise quarterback, it’s a quarterback league, I’ll say it every single time. You have to have one.”

The hope in Buffalo is that Allen’s amazing physical gifts lead to NFL success. If you built a quarterback on “Madden,” you’d build Allen. But he needs a ton of work. In a perfect world he’d sit and develop for a year, but that seems unlikely when McCarron is the only quarterback ahead of him. Allen is the biggest piece of the Bills’ rebuilding project.

And make no mistake: Even with last season’s success, it’s still a rebuild.

Buffalo Bills first-round pick Josh Allen poses with his jersey after the draft. (AP)

The grade mostly depends on your opinion of Josh Allen, and there are extreme views on both sides. I don’t love the price Buffalo paid for him or the situation he finds himself in, which we’ll talk about in a moment. I did love the Tremaine Edmunds pick, the second of Buffalo’s two first-round selections. The incredibly athletic Virginia Tech linebacker has a chance to transform the Bills’ defense, and perhaps do that soon. Star Lotulelei was the big-ticket free-agent addition, and he fills a role as a big and active defensive tackle. Pass rusher Trent Murphy, signed from the Washington Redskins, could pay off. I’m not an AJ McCarron fan, but the Bills didn’t pay much for him. The losses on the offensive line will be tough to overcome. The offseason moves were fine, though there’s a better chance Allen is a bust than a superstar.

GRADE: C-

While Sean McDermott’s first season also included the impossibly bad Nathan Peterman-for-Tyrod Taylor switch, you can’t argue with the overall results. Before last season people wondered if the Bills might be tanking, and McDermott took them to the playoffs. McDermott maximized his roster. We’ll see if that carries over, but it’s a nice start for the new coach.

The Bills rely heavily on LeSean McCoy. They need to because who else is there? Kelvin Benjamin doesn’t get enough separation to be a legit No. 1 receiver, Zay Jones was a disappointment as a rookie and presumed third receiver Jeremy Kerley doesn’t scare anyone. Tight end Charles Clay is fine, but he can’t carry an offense. If McCoy goes down the backup is Chris Ivory, who is 30 and fading fast. Buffalo’s quarterbacks are unproven at best, and the offensive line lost its three best players. Aside from McCoy, there likely won’t be one above-average starter on offense. It wouldn’t be a surprise if the Bills finish near the bottom of the league in many offensive categories.

Even if you didn’t like Josh Allen, who couldn’t even make first- or second-team all-Mountain West last season, you probably agreed that his best scenario for him was to sit and learn, then be surrounded by a good supporting cast when the time was right. Buffalo doesn’t check either of those boxes. AJ McCarron could hold the starting job all year, but pressure will be intense to put Allen in the lineup. And if Allen starts at some point this season – it’s a great bet he will, and we probably can’t rule out Allen for Week 1 – he’ll be surrounded by an offensive supporting cast that is as thin as you’ll find in the NFL. Allen is an intriguing prospect. He’s big, athletic and has amazing arm strength. But there has to be a fear that all of his deficiencies will be magnified in a less-than-ideal situation.

It’s LeSean McCoy in a landslide. Recall the rundown of offensive skill position talent above. Now imagine that offense without McCoy. He is still a great player, but he turns 30 this season and has a lot of mileage on his tires. And the Bills can’t decrease his workload. McCoy’s 59 receptions were 10 more than any other Bills player last season. He had 287 carries last year, 203 more than any teammate. One of these years McCoy is going to start hitting the wall, and the Bills aren’t prepared for that day. The Bills have some very good players on defense, like Tre’Davious White, Micah Hyde, Jerry Hughes, Lorenzo Alexander and even Vontae Davis, a reclamation signing, at cornerback. But McCoy is all the Bills have on offense.

From Yahoo’s Andy Behrens: Writing a Buffalo fantasy blurb just feels wrong. That fact that we’re presenting any level of fantasy spin on this flaming mess of an offense is, frankly, irresponsible. This team has conveniently paired the league’s worst receiving corps with a dreadful collection of young QBs. It’s an offense to avoid. Here’s hoping LeSean McCoy can escape from Buffalo while he’s still a productive, dynamic runner. Shady’s yards per carry dipped last season (from 5.4 to 4.0), but that wasn’t entirely on him. McCoy finished third among all backs in evaded tackles (97), which tells you there’s still life in his soon-to-be 30-year-old legs.

Unfortunately, it looks as if McCoy will be the featured runner for a team that averages 14-16 points per game. Guys like that don’t generally deliver RB1-level stats.

[Juggernaut Index: Fantasy outlook on the Bills.]

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The Bills were the only team in the NFL last season that didn’t have one player record more than four sacks. Jerry Hughes and Shaq Lawson tied for the team lead with four each. The Bills need a lot more from them (or someone) this season, especially 2016 first-round pick Lawson, who has been a disappointment. There have been reports his roster spot could be in jeopardy. Rookie Tremaine Edmunds was seen as a possible situational pass rusher before the draft, but the Bills have him at middle linebacker. If the Bills’ pass rush improves, it’s probably because Hughes bounced back or Lawson emerged.

CAN ZAY JONES BE THE PLAYMAKER THE OFFENSE NEEDS?

I’m hesitant to bury any second-year player, especially one that set an FBS record for career catches. But Jones showed nothing last season, then he had a terrible offseason. The low point was a bizarre incident in which he was bloody, walking around a Los Angeles-area apartment building naked and had to reportedly be restrained from jumping out a window. Then, in May, Jones had knee surgery that knocked him out of the rest of the Bills’ offseason program. He also had shoulder surgery in January. Jones had just 316 yards last season. Buffalo needs him to take a huge step in Year 2, but that doesn’t look like a great bet.

Nobody saw a playoff berth coming last season, so maybe it’s best to not rule that out. The defense was good at creating turnovers, and McCoy is a do-it-all offensive star. It’s hard to imagine AJ McCarron or Josh Allen being a top-10 quarterback this season, but both have their positive attributes. Many of the players who took Buffalo to the postseason are back, and another playoff berth has to be possible.

I don’t want to rain on the Bills’ parade, but the worst-case scenario is really bad. The quarterback situation is not set up for success this season, and Josh Allen probably will play before he’s ready. If LeSean McCoy isn’t a superhero again, who else makes plays? If McCoy misses time, it might be one of the worst skill-position groups we’ve seen in a while. The offensive line is one of the worst in the league. The Bills don’t rush the passer well. I like the secondary, but creating turnovers isn’t necessarily a repeatable skill. It would stink for Bills fans to see their team follow up a playoff berth with a huge step back, but a huge step back could happen.

Maybe I’m not seeing the positives with this roster, the same that earned the Bills a wild-card spot. But I can see how it can all go sour. I envision a punch-less offense being led by Josh Allen before Thanksgiving (or much sooner), and him struggling because he’s not ready. The defense is solid but not good enough to overcome an offense that’s a LeSean McCoy injury away from Kelvin Benjamin being its best player. With a few bad breaks, the Bills could end up in play for a top-five pick. That might not be the worst thing in the long term. This is still a team that’s in the middle of a long build.

32. Cleveland Browns
31. Indianapolis Colts
30. New York Jets
29. Arizona Cardinals

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Frank Schwab is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!