The Buffalo Bills have made a flurry of free agent signings and in the process have completely revamped the entire special teams unit.
Most of the offseason attention for the Buffalo Bills has focused on the offensive additions.
How will it impact Josh Allen and LeSean McCoy? Who will start along the offensive line? Do they have enough talent at the skill positions? Yet for all the questions and training camp battles still to go on offense, it’s been special teams where the Bills have made clear and direct upgrades.
Special teams is a unit that the Bills struggled with for all of 2018. The team had poor kick and punt coverage, inconsistent returns, poor penalties and a fired special teams coordinator. This unit is usually addressed with first and second-year players who learn to play it just to make the roster.
This offseason the Bills are addressing the needs at special teams through free agency. Exiting over the past two seasons are key special teams contributors such as Brandon Tate, Taiwan Jones, Andre Holmes and Colton Schmidt. Jones was a captain last season for the Bills, but couldn’t stay healthy a full season to really contribute.
The Bills have decided to completely push reset on the unit. Enter, new special teams coordinator Heath Farwell.
Farwell comes over from Carolina where he was the assistant ST coordinator. He’s most known for wearing cleats to practices and getting involved with the drills. This is a new energy, something eerily reminiscent of how Sean McDermott once ran practices when he was a defensive coordinator. Farwell gets his first shot as a coordinator, and the Bills front office decided to give him one of the best toolsets in the league.
The return game last season featured a lot of trial and error with Micah Hyde, Taiwan Jones, Ray-Ray McCloud, Marcus Murphy, Isaiah McKenzie, Victor Bolden and Jeremy Kerley (just to name a few) all receiving return opportunities. To add stability and improve what was lost with the departure of Brandon Tate a year earlier, the Bills added Pro-Bowler Andre Roberts.
Roberts spent last season with the Jets, where his 1,174 return yards led the NFL in 2018. Roberts provides the Bills sure hands on special teams, but in addition the threat to break any return for a TD. Against the Bills alone in 2018, Roberts ran for 308 return yards. He’ll have to find a new opponent to rack up the yards against, but that’s a good problem for the Bills to work with.
Losing Jones and Holmes leaves the Bills in search for new tacklers on the return units. The Bills addressed this by adding former Dolphin, Senorise Perry. Since being drafted out of the University of Louisville, Perry has made his home in the NFL on special teams. Last year that hard work culminated by leading the Dolphins special teamers in tackles.
To aid in the improvements needed for tackling on special teams the Bills also re-signed Lafayette Pitts, who demonstrated the skill last season, and added S/LB Maurice Alexander from Seattle. Alexander will attempt to provide LB depth behind Matt Milano, but his most immediate path to starting will be do replicate his special teams work here in Buffalo.
Finally, most of the offensive lineman signings get the attention for what they will do for the offense. Yet the improved depth at the positions also means improved blocking on field goals and punts. Getting better protection for Corey Bojorquez and Stephen Hauschka will be critical for improved kicking performances in 2019.
So what does it all mean? Adding veterans to bolster every aspect of the special teams is nice, but it also means there are fewer jobs for first and second-year players trying to make the roster. These additions put even more pressure on the 5th-7th round picks to win jobs outright in camp, and pressure on Ray-Ray McCloud, Marcus Murphy and Isaiah McKenzie to contribute on offense due to their special teams roles being diminished.
Last season, the Bills banked on all their young additions being able to gel and produce a competent unit on special teams, and it didn’t work. This year they are addressing special teams directly, and quietly solidifying one of their biggest weaknesses in 2018.