Buffalo Bills offseason preview 2021: Quarterbacks

The Buffalo Bills finally have an answer in their franchise quarterback role, but adjustments may be coming to their backup situation.

The Position: Quarterback
On the Roster: Josh Allen, Jake Fromm
Free Agents: Matt Barkley
Reserve/Future: Davis Webb

It took 24 years, 18 AFC East titles for the New England Patriots, and countless false prophets…but the Buffalo Bills have finally found the answer to Jim Kelly.

Any doubts about Josh Allen’s NFL future were more or less eliminated with a historic season that likely occupies its own chapter in the Buffalo record books. Allen’s 2020 evolution turned the Bills into bona fide championship contenders, ones that fell just a game short of the Super Bowl. It’s safe to say that the Bills envision Allen riding out the decade with a streaking buffalo on his helmet…and maybe partake in a little of the next one as well. In fact, it may not be too early to start thinking about an extension to ensure he stays in blue and red.

But if any franchise knows that NFL prosperity can be yanked away in the blink of an eye…it’s the Buffalo Bills.

No one in their right football mind is going to deny that Allen has a role to play in the future of not only Western New York but the national gridiron scene as a whole. But the Bills must think about the names behind Allen, just in case the medically unthinkable happens. Allen has started the last 42 Bills games under center, but he did miss four games during his rookie year (2018) with an elbow injury. During that time, Buffalo worked with the backup hydra of Nathan Peterman, Derek Anderson, and Matt Barkley, the latter securing the long-term backup job by earning the lone win in that bunch.

Obviously, Allen is the toast of The Queen City until further notice. But no one in the NFL has ever prepared for an injury, especially one of the season-ending variety that can sink Super Bowl runs entirely. Barkley has proven somewhat reliable when called upon (his 2020-21 ledger consisted of Week 17 mop-up duty in a blowout win over Miami), but the Bills might have plans for rookie Jake Fromm to assume the role. Chosen in the fifth round of last year’s draft, Fromm’s rookie season was an unusual situation where he was kept in relative isolation in case COVID-19-related protocols rendered Allen, Barkley, and practice squad arm Davis Webb inactive.

It may seem irrelevant in the grand scheme of things, but backup quarterback remains one of the most underrated positions in any of the four major sports. The wrong name behind Allen, likely one the Bills hope they never have to see in the weekly box score, could save or derail a championship effort the Bills have steadily built.

Free Agents-to-be

Matt Barkley

Barkley’s football career has never truly recovered since he fell to the fourth round of the 2013 draft and a six-game stint as a starter yielded little in Chicago. But he managed to create some stability in Buffalo after guiding the Bills to a one-sided win over the Jets during the aforementioned 2018 season, having been Allen’s backup ever since. Barkley’s given little reason for the Bills to move on, but it’s possible they could move on to a younger name like Fromm to serve as Allen’s understudy.

Will They Draft? 

Very, very, very unlikely. The Bills just used a draft pick on a quarterback in Fromm, and if they bring in another camp arm. It’ll likely be one of the veteran free agent variety. Longshot options on day three include Ian Book of Notre Dame and Dustin Crum out of Kent State.

Veteran Possibilities

Tyrod Taylor, LA Chargers

One of the most reliable pre-Allen options as Buffalo quarterback was Taylor, who helped the Bills end a playoff drought that nearly became old enough to enjoy a Labatt Blue legally. Since Allen’s takeover, Taylor has been the opening act for rookie sensations in Cleveland and Los Angeles. If Allen were to go down, Taylor would serve as a reliable replacement because he has likewise been a multi-threat; some of the records Allen broke this season, namely the quarterback rushing marks, previously belonged to Taylor.

Jacoby Brissett, Indianapolis 

It’s unfortunate that Brissett likely won’t get an opportunity to win his starting job back in Indianapolis, as he performed admirably when Andrew Luck abruptly retired in 2018. Brissett is another mobile threat who would help Buffalo quickly pick up the pieces if the unthinkable happened to Allen. Despite backing up Phillip Rivers this season, the Colts had Brissett come for quarterback sneak situations on crucial short-yardage situations (scoring three touchdowns last season).

Colt McCoy, NY Giants

If Barkley leaves and the Bills go looking for a more traditional veteran option to compete with Fromm, they could go with McCoy, who was relatively decent in two starts with the Giants, even helping the team earn a win in Seattle.

Outlook

Quarterback remains very low on the Bills’ offseason priority list. If they lose Barkley, it’s likely they’ll attempt to groom Fromm into the backup role, though a competition will ensue if they want someone with more experience behind Allen.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

New York Jets positional preview 2021: Offensive line

New York Jets, Mekhi Becton

No matter who plays quarterback for the New York Jets in 2021, they’re going to need someone blocking for them.

The Position: Offensive Line
On the Roster: Greg Van Roten, Conor McDermott, Connor McGovern, Jimmy Murray, Mekhi Becton, Cameron Clark, Chuma Edoga, George Fant, Alex Lewis
Free Agents: Pat Elflein, Josh Andrews
Reserve/Future: N/A

If Joe Douglas made one thing clear upon taking the New York Jets’ general manager spot, it was that he was going to work on an offensive line that Mike Maccagnan mostly neglected.

Save for choosing Chuma Edoga with what became the final day two pick of his tenure, Maccagan avoided building the line with his early selections. Prior to Maccagan using one of his final picks on Chuma Edoga in 2019’s third round, Brian Winters was the last blocker chosen within the draft’s first three sessions in 2013. The last premiere choices were the legendary D’Brickashaw Ferguson/Nick Mangold haul during the 2006 selections.

Once Douglas got to work in the late stages of summer 2019, he quickly let everyone know that the Jets were under management by getting to work on the line. He sent a late draft pick to Baltimore to bring in Alex Lewis and convinced Carolina mainstay Ryan Kalil to delay his retirement. While the results have been mixed…the Kalil experiment blew up and Lewis has been in and out of the starting lineup…Douglas had a plan to build the offense up.

He kept things up last season, as Connor McGovern, Greg Van Roten, and George Fant joined the team through free agency. During his first draft, Douglas bypassed name-brand receivers like Jerry Jeudy, CeeDee Lamb, and Justin Jefferson to take Louisville tackle Mekhi Becton. The veterans struggled, but Douglas appears to have chosen a keeper in Becton, who served as a rare silver lining during his debut campaign. Douglas didn’t stop there, taking Charlotte football’s longest-tenured player Cameron Clarke with the last of three fourth-round picks.

Becton appears to be a long-term asset in New York, but many of the deals have opt-outs after a single year. In fact, the only free agent in the entire 2020 free agency class with a dedication beyond last season is Connor McGovern. Some cap saving moves…the release of George Fant would save the team over $5 million, for example…may lead the Jets to a complete retooling of their blocking for the second straight season…with the exception of Becton at the blind side, of course.

Questions plague the Jets’ quarterback situation, as many question whether Sam Darnold will get a fourth year in the franchise thrower role. But no matter who’s throwing, the quarterback’s endeavors will be meaningless if he has no protection. There’s a long way to go to finish building the wall.

Free Agents-to-be 

G Josh Andrews

Andrews was a career-long depth man who earned a Super Bowl ring with Douglas while serving on Philadelphia’s practice squad. He was initially part of the final training camp cuts, but he returned to partake in all but one game. He even started four, including the final three when Van Roten went down, the first starts of his career.

G Pat Elflein 

Bid farewell from Minnesota in November, Elflein was a bit of a peace offering for Adam Gase when the departed head coach Adam Gase butted heads. Since Lewis has been a rare consistent prescience in the Jets’ blocking corps, it’s likely that Elflein will likely ship off in search of new opportunities.

Will They Draft?

It’s a very strong possibility. Douglas knows the importance of picking a lineman and likely won’t hesitate to use an early pick to find either an immediate contributor or a depth option that could raise the heat on any returnees. If the Jets resolve their quarterback situation prior to the draft, many have pegged Oregon standout Penei Sewell to at No. 2. Sewell skipped the entire 2020 campaign but his breakthrough sophomore showing a season prior will not be soon forgotten. But with Sewell lining in the same blindspot as Becton, the Jets will likely seek help on the right side. Thus, choosing Texas’ Sam Cosmi or the versatile Rashawn Slater of Northwestern with the Seattle pick at No. 23 or their regularly scheduled second-round choice at No. 34 seems a lot more realistic.

Veteran Possibilities

G Joe Thuney, New England

Lewis has been serviceable at left guard, but if Thuney presents himself, the Jets would likely be in the running. The Jets targeted Thuney during the last free agency period, but the Patriots put the franchise tag on him. It’s likely that Thuney is going to look for some long-term stability this time around, and the Jets certainly have the cap space to afford such a premier blocking talent.

G Brandon Scherff, Washington

Over the past few tumultuous seasons of Washington football, Scherff has been a rare consistent silver lining…when he plays, that is. The four-time Pro Bowler hasn’t played a full season since his sophomore season back in 2016 but has been a dominant prescience in the nation’s capital. Bringing him in would be the true definition of a high-risk/high-reward situation.

T Daryl Williams, Buffalo

Signed to a relatively cheap one-year deal as a depth option, Williams came up big for the Bills when injuries hit their blocking corps, namely Cody Ford. He partook in over 95 percent of Buffalo’s offensive snaps and became a generally reliable piece alongside fellow free agent Jon Feliciano on the right side. A former All-Pro, Williams will likely seek a bigger contract this time around, but he can be looked upon as not only a solid contributor but as a provider of veteran guidance the Jets desperately need.

Outlook

A poor offensive line can sink even the most potent of offenses. Look no further than what happened to the Kansas City Chiefs during Sunday’s Super Bowl festivities. With Eric Fisher out, Patrick Mahomes was left running for his life constantly thanks to a relentless Tampa Bay rush ordered by Todd Bowles. The onslaught undoubtedly played a factor in the Chiefs’ eventual 31-9 defeat. New York, of course, is miles further from returning to the Super Bowl, so far away that the journey is probably going to take several years. The process should with building up the blocking. Draft Becton was a good start, and it certainly seems like the Louisville product is here to stay. But there’s a long, long way to go when it comes to protecting the quarterback on a reliable basis. Not matter who’s under center, the Jets need to bolster the wall in front of him. Douglas has gotten off to a good start in filling this dire need. Further change is undoubtedly coming, but whether it’s through the draft or free agency remains to be seen.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

New York Jets positional preview 2021: Wide receivers

The New York Jets may have found a big-play man in Denzel Mims, but the receiving picture behind him is far murkier.

The Position: Wide Receiver
On the Roster: Braxton Berrios, Lawrence Cager, Jamison Crowder, Denzel Mims,
Free Agents: Breshad Perriman, Jeff Smith, Vyncint Smith
Reserve/Future: Josh Malone, D.J. Montgomery, Jaleel Scott

With the offense at a crossroads of sorts, the New York Jets are looking for playmakers. When it comes to their receivers, they may have uncovered a diamond in the second-round rough in Denzel Mims, but things behind him a lot murkier.

Part of the reason why it’s been so hard for Sam Darnold to develop a true rhythm as the Jets’ franchise quarterback is that his targets have undergone a ridiculous amount of turnover. Upon the departures of Robby Anderson and Quincy Enunwa, no receivers from Darnold’s rookies season of 2018 remained on the roster. In the of the 2020 season, Mims eventually found his NFL footing after missing the early stages due to injury, vindicating general manager Joe Douglas’ decision to pass on first-day talents like Jerry Jeudy, CeeDee Lamb, and Justin Jefferson.

But Douglas’ free agent options didn’t fare as well. Breshad Perriman, for example, failed to recapture the glory of his final Tampa Bay days, earning only 30 receptions over 12 games. New England castaway Chris Hogan failed to make a difference and the injury bug refused to leave the Jets alone. The most consistent part of the unit, slot man Jamison Crowder, led the team in all major receiving categories for the second straight season. Crowder is under contract for one more year, but the Jets would save just over $9 million in cap space if they moved on from him through a release or trade.

Even if Darnold doesn’t return under center, the Jets needs to freshen the receiving situation for the newcomer. The unit’s last 1,000-yard endeavors came through the Brandon Marshall/Eric Decker pairing during the doomed 2015 campaign.

Free Agents-to-be 

Breshad Perriman

Signed to a one-year deal worth $8 million ($6 million guaranteed), Perriman was brought in as the potential top target after ending his single season in Tampa in style (506 yards, five touchdowns in his final five games in 2019). But he never lived up to that billing in New York. He sustained an injury in the early going and never gained any momentum, save for strong performances in the New England games (8 receptions, 185 yards, 2 touchdowns).

With a new regime coming in and Perriman struggling in his lone green season, he is likely destined to hit the market.

Jeff Smith

Undrafted out of Boston College, the former quarterback has turned into a fun project in New York. Injuries have stunted his true potential, but Smith earned 167 yards on 17 receptions last season. That included a strong 81-yard showing when he was called upon to take extended duties when ailments ate up the top of the depth chart. He could potentially return as a depth option under new receivers coach Miles Austin.

Vyncint Smith

After getting some extended playing time when injuries struck in 2019 (joining in-season from the Houston practice squad), Smith himself landed on injured reserve in the early going and was limited to seven games, during which he only earned a single reception and lost his return duties to Braxton Berrios and Corey Ballentine. It’s possible he could get another go at it if the Jets want to create a special teams competition.

Will They Draft?

While there are plenty of names available to the Jets through free agency…and there are plenty of resources to bring in an elite name…the Jets’ receiving corps needs a complete makeover. With an extra pick in two of the first three rounds, it wouldn’t be shocking to see them use one on a receiver. In the event they get Watson…a happening made increasingly remote but the Texans’ apparent stubbornness to hold on to the disgruntled thrower…they likely wouldn’t have the second pick to use on Heisman winner Devonta Smith, but Jaylen Waddle, his Tuscaloosa partner-in-playmaking, might be around if they hold onto the 23rd pick send from Seattle. The speedy Waddle has seen his projections fall after enduring an ankle injury in Alabama’s October tilt against Tennessee.

Day two options open to the Jets could include Kadarius Toney, Rondale Moore, Sage Surratt, and Amon-Ra St. Brown.

Veteran Possibilities

Allen Robinson, Chicago

Unlike Watson, Robinson is set to be a free agent and isn’t held back by stubborn management if he wants to find new opportunities. Fresh off a career-best 102 receptions despite the Bears’ unstable quarterback situation, Robinson could be a game-changer for the Jets no matter who’s throwing to him. Additionally, Robinson hasn’t exactly been subtle about his approval of the Jets’ offseason thus far. Twitter sleuths uncovered that some of Robinson’s recent “likes” involve calling for Watson to go to New York and approval of the Robert Saleh hire.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, Pittsburgh 

If there’s one thing Darnold needs right now, it’s consistency. Bridges are burned with, say, Anderson (who has become a selling point in Carolina’s ongoing rebuild), but Smith-Schuster’s Sothern California collaborations with Darnold earned rave reviews. Smith-Schuster caught some of Darnold’s earliest passes as the two guided USC to a 10-win season in 2016, capped off by the epic 52-49 thriller against Saquon Barkley and Penn State in the Rose Bowl. Smith-Schuster and Darnold united for 133 yards on seven hook-ups in that game, which afforded the Trojans the third slot in the final AP poll from that season. Some will point to Smith-Schuster’s propensity for pregame TikToks as an excuse to stay away, but that’s a small price to pay compared to the comfort and stability Smith-Schuster could provide to a quarterback in desperate need of those feelings…be it Darnold or otherwise.

Chris Godwin, Tampa Bay

For all intents and purposes, Godwin should be one of the biggest household names in football. Through no fault of his own, Godwin often gets lost in the headlines, but that might happen when your catching cohorts are Mike Evans, Antonio Brown, and Rob Gronkowski. Godwin also missed four games with a hip/quad injury but still managed to post 840 yards after a breakout year in 2019. Godwin has played a major role in the Buccaneers’ Super Bowl endeavors as well; he scored a touchdown that put them ahead for good in the Wild Card round against Washington and led the team with 110 yards in the NFC title clinch against the Packers. If Godwin is looking for a place to prove he can be a No. 1 receiver, New York would be a strong place to do it.

Outlook

A makeover is definitely coming to the Jets’ receiving corps. Free agency would certainly be the better way to go, as it would provide Mims a good mentor and give the team so much-needed, experienced stability. Whoever comes into the Jets’ quarterback spot is going to be thrown into a roaring green fire. They need to do whatever they can to make Darnold or the incoming new party to feel as comfortable as possible. Providing him with a strong, elite receiving talent would be the best way to do that.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

New York Jets positional preview 2021: Running backs

How will the New York Jets move on in their rushing situation after Le’Veon Bell? ESM investigates in Part II of its offseason preview.

The Position: Running Back
On the Roster: La’Mical Perine, Ty Johnson
Free Agents: Frank Gore, Josh Adams
Reserve/Future: Pete Guerriero

If you told New York Jets fans this time last year that Le’Veon Bell would be getting ready to play in Super Bowl LV, they would be ecstatic and likely booking their flights and hotels to/in the Tampa area. Alas for the wearers of green, we’re enduring a socially distanced Super Bowl this year that will limit attendance. If Bell plays, he will not represent the Jets, but the Kansas City Chiefs, having been mercifully granted his New York release after 17 games over the last two seasons.

Upon his departure, Bell left behind an aura of uncertainty with the Jets rushing situation…and that can’t be pinned entirely on his release. The Jets had an opportunity to clear up their rushing future with several viable candidates. Fourth-round rookie La’mical Perine was emerging from an early stretch of injuries while the Jets added former Detroit draft pick Ty Johnson off waivers. Joe Douglas’ former Philadelphia disciple Josh Adams was also called up from the practice squad. Alas, New York opted to give most of its rushing opportunities to an aging Frank Gore, who put up a career-low 3.5 yards a carry and never reached the 75-yard plateau.

While Perine (64 carries, 232 yards, 2 scores) struggled to gain traction, missing six games due to injuries and a late positive test for COVID-19, Johnson and Adams took advantage of the little opportunities left. The pair united for 178 yards in a December contest against Las Vegas, with Johnson accounting for the first triple-digit rushing game for a Jets back in over two calendar years.

Free Agents-to-be 

Frank Gore

One can easily respect the brilliant, resilient NFL career of Gore while acknowledging that it’s probably not the best idea to make him your feature back at age 37. But that’s exactly what the Jets tried to do last season, and it didn’t end well. Again, one can’t entirely pin the disaster on Gore, who had a purpose upon his signing. No one was going to quarrel with the veteran Gore coming to New York and serving as a spell option, mentor, and veteran leader, but making him the top back after Bell’s release was ill-advised, especially when the macabre gift of consequence-free football games would’ve allowed the Jets to try something new.

Gore hinted at retirement during the season but left the door open to a 17th season earlier this winter, telling team reporter Jack Bell “I haven’t made a decision yet”. He ended the 2020 campaign as the third-leading rusher in NFL history at exactly 16,000 yards, behind only Emmitt Smith (18,355) and Walter Payton (16,726). Whether he’ll add to that tally remains to be seen, it’s possible additional yardage could be earned in a Jets jersey. Several of Gore’s younger teammates often cited the value of his veteran leadership and the Jets could be getting even younger at some of their most vital positions…i.e. quarterback. Then again, Gore may be better off “ring-chasing” as the Jets seek to make their own luck moving forward.

Josh Adams

After all the drama, someone with the name “J. Adams” actually contributed something positive for the Jets in 2020. Adams previously worked with Douglas as an undrafted rookie during the Eagles’ failed Super Bowl defense in 2018, picking up a team-best 511 yards. One of Douglas’ first moves upon taking the Jets’ GM spot was to pick up Adams after he was a part of Philadelphia’s final camp cuts the following year. Adams played sparingly in his New York debut but led Jets running backs with a 5.4 average carry (albeit on 29 attempts) last season.

Adams’ familiarity with Douglas could potentially work in his favor if he’s interested in a reunion, but he may seek a new destination with more consistent opportunities to avoid getting lost in the fold.

Will They Draft?

Unlikely. The Jets just used a fourth-round choice on Perine last spring. They will likely turn to free agency to find a more established primary option, whether it’s in preparation for someone like Perine or Johnson to take on the role full-time or a longer-term option. It has been a long time since the Jets drafted a running back during the draft’s early portions, their last selection over the first two days coming in 2009 (Shonn Greene), but there are far too many holes to fill to “waste” an early pick on a rusher.

Veteran Possibilities 

Leonard Fournette, Tampa Bay

Another future Super Bowl participant, Fournette could work in the same capacity Gore did: serve as a calming veteran prescience that knows how to win. In addition to his upcoming trip to the Big Game, Fournette was also involved in Jacksonville’s surprising trip to the AFC title game in 2018. The true difference from the Gore era would be that Fournette, 26, has proven he can still handle the workload of a top rusher. He has come up particularly big for the Buccaneers during their title run, putting up 313 total yards and scoring a touchdown in each of the three games. 

Malcolm Brown, LA Rams

It’s possible the Jets could go with a rusher-by-committee approach, though they could use an experienced option to head up the group. Brown will likely seek a new opportunity after sharing duties with Cam Akers and Darrell Henderson in Los Angeles. He and Henderson led the Rams in rushing scores with five each.

Kyle Juszcsyk, San Francisco

It has been a while since the Jets experimented with a fullback, their last legitimate project perhaps being Lex Hilliard in 2012. They briefly toyed with tight end Trevon Wesco in the spot but more or less abandoned it when the sophomore dealt with injuries this season. Adding Juszczyk, who would be familiar with Robert Saleh and Mike LaFleur from his San Francisco days, would give the Jets not only a player with winning experience but a goal-line option to go along with his traditional blocking duties. Juszczy, a five-time Pro Bowler, scored a career-best six touchdowns this season, including two in his first multi-score game against Arizona in December.

Outlook

There is certainly plenty of room to get better when it comes to the Jets’ run game, but, for a team that has so many holes, bolstering the unit may take a backseat while they settle some other affairs. Combine that with a relatively weak free agent class (the top overall options may be Fournette, Kenyan Drake, and Todd Gurley) and the Jets’ still recovering from the Bell debacle, it’s difficult to imagine them making too drastic of a movie. There’s certainly potential from the names on the roster right now, but the Jets’ failure to perform extensive research once Bell left could come back to hurt the team in the near future. An opportunity presented itself to check something off the offseason checklist, but they opted to give that opportunity to a potential Gore retirement tour.

 Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags