Buffalo Bills: Rushing Attack Is Now a Question Mark in 2017

Aug 26, 2016; Landover, MD, USA; Buffalo Bills running back Jonathan Williams (40) carries the ball against the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
Aug 26, 2016; Landover, MD, USA; Buffalo Bills running back Jonathan Williams (40) carries the ball against the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports /

The departure of Mike Gillislee opens up serious questions on if the Buffalo Bills’ run-game will be as good as last years.

At first glance, the title of this article makes no sense. The Buffalo Bills led the league in rushing for the past two years, largely because of LeSean McCoy and their solid offensive line. Their new head coach Sean McDermott wants this to be a run-first offense.

Not to mention his offensive coordinator Rick Dennison loves to pound the rock. Why can’t they be number one again?

Well, part of that reason won’t be with the team next year. On Monday, the Bills announced they wouldn’t match the New England Patriots’ offer for running back Mike Gillislee. He was coming off his best season (101 attempts for 577 yards and eight touchdowns), but now he’s going to a hated division rival.

Letting a backup running back go might not sound like the worst thing, especially since they can be found elsewhere for cheap. Gillislee himself was a free agent the Bills signed off the street in 2015. He only saw extended action in 2016 after previous back-up Karlos Williams was released due to a suspension and showing up to training camp out-of-shape.

Now that Gillislee left, the Buffalo Bills have four other running backs (McCoy, Jonathan Williams, Cedric O’Neal, Joe Banyard) and two fullbacks (Mike Tolbert, Patrick DiMarco) that can contribute.

But this is where a parallel needs to be drawn to a previous situation where people weren’t supposed to worry. When the Bills’ fourth-ranked defense went from Jim Schwartz to Rex Ryan, it was assumed the transition would be seamless. But the schemes didn’t mesh with the players and two years later the defense needs to be rebuilt again.

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For all his experience, Dennison’s time with the Denver Broncos didn’t inspire a lot of confidence. They won the Super Bowl a year ago in spite of their terrible offense. Their rushing attack ranked 27th in the league last year.

Okay, this won’t be as bad as Rob Ryan taking over the defense. Dennison had setbacks throughout last season. Trevor Siemian couldn’t effectively utilize his Pro Bowl receivers Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders. Their running game took a big step back after C.J. Anderson got injured.

So maybe the Broncos offense poor performance was due to a lack of talent, or shallow roster depth.

The problem is, that kinda describes Buffalo’s offense as well. Tyrod Taylor and Sammy Watkins couldn’t get on the same page for much of last year. The rushing attack without LeSean McCoy was just okay thanks to Gillislee. If they can’t run the football, there isn’t much faith the Bills can throw their way to victory.

Simply put, don’t assume the transition from Anthony Lynn to Rick Dennison will be seamless.

Which brings us back to why letting Gillislee go is so questionable. Yes, paying a back-up running back four million a year is dumb. But he’s proven to be a valuable spot check for an aging McCoy. If number 25 declines in a few years, he could even step in as a bridge starter.

Behind Gillislee, the back-up options are unknown at best. Jonathan Williams only rushed for 94 yards and posted an anemic 3.5 rushing average. He also fumbled twice in his limited playing time. Joe Banyard has yet to reach 100 yards in his entire career. Mike Tolbert is a long-time veteran that is used more for short-yardage situations. Patrick DiMarco can be trusted to catch the ball, not run with it.

Of course, the hope is the Buffalo Bills rarely see these players on their field. They’re paying good money to LeSean McCoy to be their workhorse and it’s paid off up to this point. After an injury-plagued down year in 2015, he bounced back in a big way during the 2016 season. He totaled 1,623 all-purpose yards, while scoring fourteen touchdowns. He should, and I really mean should, continue to produce at a high level this year.

Especially since McCoy is playing for a milestone achievement.

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But McCoy suffered various injuries last year (hamstring, hand) and his body has a lot of mileage on it. If running backs are a car, it’s easy to question if this is the year when he breaks down for good.

Since the Bills got a fifth-round draft pick from New England by not matching Gillislee, they could use it on picking another running back. For all the poor personnel decisions the Bills make, they never have a problem striking gold at that position.

You also can’t write off Jonathan Williams yet either. During his 2014 season at the University of Arkansas, he had 211 carries for 1,190 yards and 12 touchdowns. A foot injury forced him to miss the next year, and didn’t do much in his rookie NFL season.

To use the car analogy again, he’s a fresh vehicle that needs to be tested.

I mentioned the anemic numbers he put up last season, but a comparison is also needed here. Before he was signed by the Bills, Gillislee only rushed for 21 yards on six attempts in his rookie year, just like Williams. Also similarly, he only posted a 3.5 yard average. That coincidence could be nothing, or a sign to give the kid a chance.

The Buffalo Bills will need to do it regardless.

Now that Gillislee is gone, their long list of needs now includes a position that was supposed to be their strength: running back.

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How do YOU think the Buffalo Bills rushing attack will be next year? Leave your comments below!