ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- The Buffalo Bills were considered one of the NFL's up-and-coming teams of 2017, with first-year coach Sean McDermott appearing to steer the franchise in the right direction to end a 17-year playoff drought.
Optimism is oozing from the walls of One Bills Drive, but it would not be completely accurate to label the Bills a young team poised to make a step forward next season. Instead, they are an aging team that must continue to turn over its roster and reinvent itself, especially on offense.
That might mean taking a step back in the win column in 2018 as a young core of players, likely including a high draft pick at quarterback, begins to grow up together.
"No matter what our record was, whether we won the Super Bowl or whether we didn’t win a game, was we know we have to get younger in a lot of positions," general manager Brandon Beane said Tuesday. "It takes time, but we’re going to look at every avenue from the draft to free agency [to] guys on the street. We’re going to do what we can to get better at each position."
Aside from rookie cornerback Tre'Davious White and rookie left tackle Dion Dawkins, the bulk of the Bills' roster that exceeded expectations by finishing with a 9-7 record this season and making the wild-card round of the AFC playoffs was older and more experienced players.
The Bills entered the season with the ninth-oldest projected starting lineup in the NFL. By season's end, the Bills had players 30 years or older play more offensive and defensive snaps (4,594) in 2017 than all but four other NFL teams.
Buffalo has 18 players currently on its roster who will be 30 or older in 2018. Half of that group is under contract, while the other half is made up of unrestricted free agents.
The nine players who will be 30 or older in 2018 who are under contract are: running back LeSean McCoy (30), wide receivers Andre Holmes (30) and Rod Streater (30), guard Richie Incognito (35), center Eric Wood (32), right guard Vladimir Ducasse (31), defensive end Jerry Hughes (30), linebacker Lorenzo Alexander (35), and kicker Stephen Hauschka (33).
Of that group, the most immediate concerns would be Incognito and Alexander, who both enter the final seasons of their contracts.
Incognito still played at a Pro Bowl level in 2017, but he is under NFL investigation after Jacksonville Jaguars defensive end Yannick Ngakoue accused Incognito of using racial slurs during last Sunday's playoff game. Beane said Tuesday that it is too early to determine if Incognito's standing on the team will be in jeopardy. Alexander was among the most poorly-rated edge defenders this season by Pro Football Focus.
The nine Bills players who are 30 years or older and are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents March 14 are: quarterback/wide receiver Joe Webb (32), running backs Mike Tolbert (33) and Taiwan Jones (30), wide receiver Brandon Tate (31), defensive tackles Kyle Williams (35) and Cedric Thornton (30), linebacker Ramon Humber (31), cornerback Shareece Wright (31) and safety Colt Anderson (33).
The quickest path for the Bills to get younger would be to allow many of their older free agents to sign elsewhere this offseason, but doing so also creates holes the Bills must fill either through the draft or with younger players in free agency.
Two positions, running back and defensive tackle, should be of particular concern for Buffalo because of age.
Even if the Bills do not re-sign Tolbert, Jones or Travaris Cadet (29), they still must get younger at running back because McCoy is likely to decline in the coming years. At defensive tackle, the Bills are down to 2016 third-round pick Adolphus Washington as well as undrafted rookies Marquavius Lewis and Rickey Hatley at the position.
In Webb, Jones, Tate, Humber and Anderson, the Bills also have an aging group of key special-teams players that must also begin to be turned over as soon as this offseason.
The good news for Buffalo is their 2017 rookie class had an immediate impact. Their rookies played the fourth-most snaps of any team this season, a stat McDermott often cited as he discussed his club's room to grow in future years.
"It’s exciting that a lot of young guys played," Beane said Tuesday. "There’s no substitute for playing time in real games. Not only did we get real games, we got a postseason game. You can’t simulate postseason experience. So for these young guys -- and they played significant minutes, not only in the year, but in that game -- that’s huge as we build this thing going forward."
The success of White, a first-round pick last April, so early in his career should give the Bills hope that an influx of young talent from their eight draft picks this spring -- and an exodus of older players -- might actually push the team forward in 2018.
Yet the slower learning curve of 2017 second-round pick Zay Jones to the NFL this season should serve as a reminder that if the Bills replace the oldest layer of their roster this offseason with young players, having everything come together to make the playoffs again in 2018 might be asking too much too soon.