Opinion: The Buffalo Bills' schedule and loss of talent is being overblown

Buffalo's tough schedule and loss of talent is being exaggerated in Ryan Talbot's opinion.

On Friday, John Clayton of ESPN listed the Buffalo Bills as one of five teams that he expects to regress in 2016.

RELATED: http://www.scout.com/nfl/bills/story/1669633-clayton-bills-one-of-5-team...

When discussing why the Bills would regress, Clayton said:

But the defense underachieved greatly, and the Bills disappointed, finishing 8-8. This year's Bills team isn't as talented, and the schedule is tougher. Harvin retired. Mario Williams was cut. Linebacker Nigel Bradham left in free agency. Cornerback Leodis McKelvin was cut. Because of last year's spending, the Bills didn't sign a player worth more than $1.25 million. Most of the signings were minimum-salary deals.

Ryan now must do more with less. The plan is to start the team's top three draft choices -- linebackers Shaq Lawson and Reggie Ragland, and defensive lineman Adolphus Washington. The pressure is on Ryan to get this team to the playoffs. With less talent, the job will be tougher.

Buffalo Football Report decided to look at what Clayton said to determine if his reasoning for Buffalo’s predicted regression makes sense.

Schedule

On paper, you’d be foolish if you didn’t admit that Buffalo’s schedule looked more difficult. Last year, the Bills played against the AFC South and the NFC East. This year, they’ll go against the AFC North and the NFC West.

Against the AFC South, Buffalo went 3-1 with wins over the Colts, Texans, and Titans. If Tyrod Taylor had been healthy for Buffalo’s matchup in London, Buffalo most likely would have swept the AFC South. In the AFC North, the Bills will go against the Ravens, Bengals, Steelers, and Browns.

The Ravens had a down year in 2015 as injuries took their toll but their Week 1 matchup appears to be pretty even on paper. The Bengals have been a very good regular season team as of late, but they lost some talent in free agency and offensive coordinator Hue Jackson to the Browns. Buffalo plays the Bengals after their bye week so they’ll have extra time to prepare for Cincinnati. The Steelers are a perfect 3-0 against the Bills with Ben Roethlisberger at QB and they appear to be Buffalo’s most difficult matchup in the AFC North. When healthy, the Steelers have an outstanding offense so that game will be a challenge. Last, the Browns seem to be in for a long season as they’re clearly in a rebuild under Hue Jackson.

Going 3-1 against the AFC North, as they did against the AFC South last year, is not out of the question. That said, this year’s AFC North seems to be better than last year’s AFC South.

As for the NFC, Buffalo was not able to take advantage of a down year by NFC East teams. The Bills went 1-3 versus the Giants, Eagles, Redskins, and Cowboys. The NFC West certainly appears to be more talented. The Cardinals and Seahawks are both among the NFC’s best teams, and playing the latter on Monday Night Football may be their most difficult game of the season. Those two games are very difficult matchups but the Rams and 49ers games appear to be winnable. Los Angeles will be starting first overall pick Jared Goff and the 49ers roster appears to be in a rebuild. The NFC West is more talented than last year’s NFC East, but going 2-2 against the division isn’t out of the question and the Bills could even steal another game.

Last year, the Bills pulled off four wins against the AFC South and NFC East. Getting at least four wins is very realistic against the AFC North and NFC West this year on paper.

As for Buffalo’s other AFC matchups outside of their division, the Bills will play the Jaguars and Raiders. Both teams seem to be on the rise and both are being mentioned as dark-horse candidates for the playoffs. These games aren’t any more difficult than Buffalo’s matchups against the Bengals and Chiefs last year.

Last, you have the AFC East. Buffalo went 4-2 within the division and it’s very possible this happens again. The Bills are set to play the Patriots in Week 4 without Tom Brady, the Jets still haven’t re-signed Ryan Fitzpatrick and their current options include Geno Smith, Bryce Petty, and Christian Hackenberg, and the Dolphins are a bit of a mystery under first year coach Adam Gase.

On paper, the schedule is more difficult this year, so Clayton’s initial statement is correct. However, we think Buffalo’s schedule talk is being overblown a bit.

Loss of Talent

Clayton noted that the Bills would be playing without the likes of Percy Harvin, Mario Williams, Percy Harvin, Leodis McKelvin, and Nigel Bradham in 2016. All four players had their moments with Buffalo, but if we’re talking specifically about their 2015 production vs. their replacements in 2016, are the Bills really playing with less talent?

Percy Harvin

Percy Harvin and Tyrod Taylor showed some early season chemistry in 2015, but the wide receiver only played five games due to injury. He finished the season with 19 receptions for 218 yards and one touchdown.

Buffalo didn’t go out and add any premier wide receivers in free agency or the draft, but they’ll be have a healthy Robert Woods in 2016 as well as other options such as Leonard Hankerson, Greg Salas, Kolby Listenbee, Jarrett Boykin, Greg Little, and others. All of these players have something to prove in 2016, but they can definitely make up the loss of 19 receptions, 218 yards, and one touchdown.

Mario Williams

If we were talking about the 2013 or 2014 version of Mario Williams, then there’d be no argument about the Bills losing quite a bit of talent on defense. The 2015 version of Mario Williams is not the same as that version and truthfully he should be very easy to replace.

Williams quit on the Bills and his effort, or lack thereof, was laughable at times. Releasing Williams benefited Buffalo in many ways. They freed up quite a bit of cap space and removed a player who didn’t buy in to Rex Ryan’s defense.

Shaq Lawson was drafted at pick 19 to replace Williams. As a rookie, he won’t put up 2013 or 2014 Mario Williams type numbers, but he’ll certainly surpass Williams’ output from 2015. A Clemson beat writer told Scout that Lawson will go all out every play of a game and even during practice. That alone will be a breath of fresh air after watching Williams last season.

Leodis McKelvin

McKelvin had a long tenure with the Bills, but he never really produced at the level the Bills had hoped when they selected him in the first round of the 2008 NFL draft.

Last year, McKelvin only appeared in nine games (five starts) where he registered 32 total tackles, nine passes defensed, and two interceptions.

In the offseason, Buffalo signed Sterling Moore and they’ll look for Mario Butler to step up as well. Moore is coming off of a season that saw him register 45 tackles, six passes defensed, one interception, and three forced fumbles. Butler appeared in 13 games and registered one start. In limited time, Butler recorded five passes defensed.

Bills fans should be confident about McKelvin’s replacements at cornerback. As a bonus, Bills fans won’t worry about seeing McKelvin handle punt returns, a nerve-racking experience, again.

Nigel Bradham

Bradham is one player that I was very high on entering last season, but he struggled in Ryan’s defense. He is likely to thrive in Philadelphia under Jim Schwartz, but his play in 2015 is certainly replaceable.

In free agency, Buffalo added a very athletic linebacker in Zach Brown. The former Tennessee Titan linebacker alone should be considered a suitable replacement to Bradham. Here’s a look at how each has fared in their respective career.

Player

Games Played (Started)

Total Tackles

Sacks

PD

INTs

TDs

FFs

Bradham

57 (38)

271

3.5

11

1

0

2

Brown

49 (33)

261

10

13

6

2

2

 

Brown missed 15 games in 2014, but he’s appeared in 16 games in three of four seasons. In his career, he’s made a bigger impact than Bradham.

Although Brown is a more athletic match to Bradham, it should also be noted that the Bills drafted Reggie Ragland in the second round of the 2016 NFL draft. Ragland is expected to play a large role for the Bills at inside linebacker and Buffalo’s trio of Preston Brown, Ragland, and Zach Brown certainly doesn’t look any worse than last year’s talent at the position.

John Clayton is certainly entitled to his opinion, but there’s reasons to be optimistic about the Bills in 2016. The offense was a pleasant surprise in 2015 for Bills fans, despite Tyrod Taylor, LeSean McCoy, Karlos Williams, Sammy Watkins, Charles Clay, and Robert Woods missing time. The unit has brought back their offensive line and added depth in multiple areas.

On defense, can it really get any worse than it was last year? Buffalo was a major disappointment and there’s only room for improvement in Rex’s second season at the helm.

Buffalo could regress in 2016, as could any NFL team, but there are also reasons to believe that Buffalo is set to improve this year.

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