Bills lay foundation with rookie QB Josh Allen during uneven season

The Buffalo Bills ended the season with a 42-17 win over the Miami Dolphins to finish the season at 6-10. Here's a recap of the season and what's next:

Season grade: Below average -- Context is important to this grade. Compared to the rest of the NFL, the Bills performed at a below-average level this season. They were outscored by 130 points through Week 16, third-worst in the NFL, and ranked among the league’s worst teams in offensive and special-teams efficiency. However, the Bills were expected to win only about five games in a season that was clearly about making a transition to first-round-pick rookie Josh Allen at quarterback. Given’s Allen’s performance since his Week 12 return from an elbow injury, the Bills accomplished their goal of laying a foundation for long-term success at the position.

Season in review: It was a tale of two seasons for the Bills, who began the season 2-7 while playing the NFL’s most difficult schedule through Week 9. The Bills averaged an NFL-worst 10.7 points a game through their first nine games amid a quarterback carousel with opening-day starter Nathan Peterman, Allen and veteran Derek Anderson. Everything changed in Week 10, when the Bills began the league’s easiest season-ending schedule with a cathartic 41-10 win over the Jets, snapping a four-game losing streak. The return of Allen in Week 12 from an elbow injury continued to inject energy into the team and provide hope for 2019. After ranking 31st in yards per game (248.3) and last in points per game through Week 9, the Bills’ offense made a U-turn to rank in the top half in yards per game and points per game from Week 10 through Week 16. Allen made a similar recovery, jumping from a 32.4 Total QBR (31st in the NFL) before his Week 6 injury to a 58.1 since his return (16th-best) through Week 16.

He said it: “Obviously, we haven’t won as many games as we wanted to win, but the fact remains that we’re building this football team, I feel like, the right way. That means trying to develop a football team that can sustain success over a period of time and compete at a high level over a period of time.” -- Bills coach Sean McDermott

Key offseason questions

Will LeSean McCoy return? Although general manager Brandon Beane and coach Sean McDermott have said they view running back LeSean McCoy as part of the team’s plans in 2019, McCoy’s production has declined steeply since setting a career high with 5.4 yards per carry in 2016. His career-worst season can be attributed partly to problems along the offensive line, but it is fair to question how much McCoy has left at this stage of his career. The Bills could keep McCoy, who will turn 31 before next season, for the final season of his contract in 2019. They also have the option of releasing or trading him, which would save $6.175 million of his $9.05 million salary-cap number. McCoy’s contract allows the Bills to delay their decision until the start of the regular season without committing financially. The expectation is the Bills, who had the NFL’s oldest backfield this season, will add young talent to the position regardless of whether or not they keep McCoy this offseason.

Where will the No. 1 receiver come from? One of the Bills’ top needs is a No. 1 receiver, as Kelvin Benjamin’s audition to fill that role flopped, resulting in his release earlier this month. Buffalo seems to have found some complementary receivers in Zay Jones, Robert Foster and Isaiah McKenzie but still could use a blue-chip prospect to top their depth chart. That player might not be available in free agency this offseason, leaving a trade or the NFL draft as the Bills’ best options. Even so, the top of the draft seems to lack the sort of prospect the Bills need at the position. Trading down in the first round could make wide receiver the pick without overreaching.

How will the Bills spend (or not spend) their salary-cap space? The Bills had more than $60 million in “dead money” against their 2018 salary cap from players who were released, traded or retired. Some of that was the design of Beane, the second-year GM who upon his arrival told ownership it would take at least two seasons to straighten out the team’s salary-cap situation. The result is more than $80 million in salary-cap space in 2019. The danger for Buffalo is going on a spending spree to lure free agents to a cold-weather city, potentially taking on contracts that could weigh down the team again in the future. How the Bills use their glut of cap space will be a test of Beane’s philosophy upon taking the job in May 2017. “I’m going to build through the draft, first and foremost,” he said then. “You have to draft well and sign those guys. If you draft well, you sign them. You’re not going to see big splashes of free agency.”