For the Buffalo Bills to contend for the playoffs this season, here are the five players who can help make that happen:
AJ McCarron, QB: General manager Brandon Beane said he took a patient approach toward the better-than-usual free-agent quarterback market this offseason and allowed McCarron to fall to him, but Beane resisted the "bridge" quarterback label that some have given McCarron. If McCarron can turn his relatively brief résumé as an NFL starter into something more than a placeholder at quarterback, the Bills have a chance to contend for the playoffs again this season. With four career starts (regular season and playoffs), McCarron is the most experienced quarterback on the Bills' depth chart and seems to have the inside track on the starting job.
Josh Allen, QB: If McCarron wins the starting gig in the preseason but the Bills' grueling first-half schedule -- including five of their first seven games on the road -- proves too much for him to handle, turning to Allen could be the Bills' only hope at the postseason. Making the playoffs under those circumstances would be asking a lot of a rookie, especially one coming from a lower level of college competition at Wyoming and considered as raw of a prospect as Allen. Regardless, there is not a player more important to the Bills' next five seasons than Allen.
LeSean McCoy, RB: Unless the Bills can catch lightning in a bottle at quarterback with McCarron or Allen -- or possibly Nathan Peterman -- their offense will run through McCoy. At age 30 by the time training camp starts, he is old by modern standards at his position but has shown few signs of his age in his past three seasons in Buffalo. The two key areas to watch with McCoy this season will be how new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll handles the workload between McCoy and his elder backup, Chris Ivory, and whether McCoy begins to look less explosive or elusive as a runner. If the Bills can get a fourth consecutive season with over 1,000 yards from scrimmage from McCoy, they have a chance at the playoffs.
Kelvin Benjamin, WR: The Bills' trades last year sending Sammy Watkins to the Los Angeles Rams and acquiring Benjamin from the Panthers involved other players and draft picks, but effectively the Bills swapped out one oft-injured but promising No. 1 receiver for another. Benjamin has seen his availability and playing time decline since setting career highs as a rookie in 2014, and could have much to prove this season if he wants a contract on par with his accomplished peers in that draft class, including Watkins. Having an uncertain quarterback outlook will not help Benjamin, but staying healthy will.
Jerry Hughes, DE: Now the Bills' second-longest-tenured player behind defensive tackle Kyle Williams, Hughes could use a rebound season that would turn around what was an anemic Buffalo pass rush in 2017. Availability has never been a problem for Hughes -- he has played in 99 consecutive games, including all 80 since joining the Bills in 2013 -- but his sack production has declined since his best season (10 sacks, three forced fumbles) in 2014. Pass rush was a glaring weakness for coach Sean McDermott and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier last season, when Buffalo ranked 31st in percentage of opponents' plays in which the quarterback was sacked, under duress or hit, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. Beane tried to address the problem by signing defensive end Trent Murphy to a three-year, $22.5 million deal this offseason, but part of the solution will also be getting more from Hughes.