"We have a long way to go. We really do."
That's the somber assessment from Bills General Manager Brandon Beane this week, as the team enters the offseason. No self-congratulatory sentiment. No 'atta-boys' or pats on the back for coaches or players.
In 2017 the Bills surprised some preseason skeptics and ended a 17-season playoff drought. But they have bigger goals in mind and just about seven months to accomplish those goals before they head to 2018 training camp.
Here's a look at the top seven storylines for the Bills in the offseason months ahead:
1. WHAT DOES YEAR TWO OF "THE PROCESS" LOOK LIKE?
Sean McDermott received universal buy-in from his players on his process for building a team. McDermott raised the standards and norms he demanded from his players in 2017. Now, he'll get to work this offseason building upon that foundation after establishing what his process looks like.
"One of the things we've been able to do is establish some form of standards, some form of culture, and you have to do that," McDermott said this week, in an appearance on The John Murphy Show.
"You have to do that every year. Because it changes, the teams change every year one year to the next. But if you do have some form of culture, some form of player-driven leadership, you're able to expand the window a little bit more, from one year to the next."
2. STAFF DECISIONS
Chronologically, this is the first order of business for the Bills decision makers. On Friday, the team parted ways with offensive coordinator Rick Dennison. McDermott will look to fill the void at this coaching position in the coming weeks.
With the reports that Bills VP of Player Personnel Brian Gaine is in line to become the new general manager of the Houston Texans, the Bills may have an additional hole to plug in the player personnel department as well.
McDermott offered few clues earlier this week on potential coaching changes at the end of the season. But he acknowledged that time is of the essence when it comes to hiring assistants.
"There is a time element to this, and the evaluations around certain parts of it," McDermott told the media Tuesday. "That said we have to make sure they're well thought-through decisions"
3. WHOM TO KEEP?**
The Bills have two months to decide who to re-sign from their long list of players eligible to become unrestricted free agents this spring. The list includes several starters and important reserves including:
DT Kyle Williams, LB Preston Brown, CB E.J. Gaines, CB Shareece Wright, LB Ramon Humber, CB Leonard Johnson, WR Jordan Matthews, WR Brandon Tate, RB Mike Tolbert, WR Deonte Thompson, and T Seantrel Henderson.
There will be some tough calls on some of these players, and considerations go beyond money. Age, fit in the scheme, and projections on future productivity are likely the issues under consideration in the coming months at One Bills Drive.
4. WHOM TO CHASE?
It's Brandon Beane's first crack at free agency as an NFL General Manager, so his style in pursuing free agents is unclear. Given his aggressive approach to building a roster and making trades demonstrated in his first nine months on the job, he just might be ready to roll the dice in free agency as well. But Beane cautions that he won't be spending money wildly.
"I like your word 'responsible' spending," Beane said earlier this week answering to a question about his free agency approach. "That is trying to plug holes where you can. It's kind of a moving puzzle because what happens is, you have your UFA's right now, but those change. Teams re-sign guys. Then you add in teams that make cap moves – the cap casualties."
Beane may be signaling that his most important free agent signings may come deep into free agency, after the market settles down, and not when the bell rings on March 14.
5. THE QUARTERBACK QUESTION**
It's the most important position on the field and the biggest question Beane and Sean McDermott will answer in the weeks and months ahead. Both Tyrod Taylor and Nathan Peterman are under contract for the 2018 season. Will the Bills add another quarterback to the roster in the coming months via free agency or the draft?
There are a couple of mileposts along the way that will provide answers to how Buffalo will proceed in acquiring additional talent for the 2018 roster. One date is March 14 – the start of the 2018 league year. Two days before that, the Bills and other teams can contact the agents for free agents and begin negotiations. So right around that time, the Bills intentions at quarterback might begin to take shape.
The NFL draft runs April 26-28 in Dallas, and the Bills interest in one of the quarterbacks available this year should be known by then.
6. DRAFT LANDSCAPE
Beane was around plenty of NFL drafts in his 19-year tenure with the Carolina Panthers, but this will be his first draft pulling names off the board. Thanks to his deals over the last year, he goes into the April 26 draft with some ammunition.
The Bills have eight picks in the first five rounds of the draft this year, including five picks in the first three rounds. They pick 21st and 22nd in the first round, 53rd and 56th in the second round and Buffalo holds Philadelphia's third round selection.
That's five picks in the first three rounds. Loaded.
7. INJURIES TO MONITOR
As usual, the progress made in offseason injury rehab will play a big role in Buffalo's personnel decisions. And there are some important contributors to the 2017 season who will continue their recovery in the months ahead.
WR Kelvin Benjamin said he will undergo surgery on his knee in the weeks ahead, after fighting through pain and discomfort to the final six games of 2017. Another wide receiver, Jordan Matthews, is recovering from knee surgery and he is an unrestricted free agent. LT Cordy Glenn and DE Shaq Lawson finished the year on injured reserve. And important reserves including WR Andre Holmes, RB Taiwan Jones, and RB Travaris Cadet ended the season on injured reserve and will spend the early portion of 2018 recovering from their injuries.