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Tyrod Taylor’s supporting cast: Then and now

SB Nation logo SB Nation 6/24/2020 Kenneth Arthur
a person wearing a helmet © Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

In Tyrod Taylor’s first season with the Buffalo Bills, he was named to the Pro Bowl. In his last, he led the NFL in interception rate and went to the playoffs. Repeat: in his last full season as an NFL starter, Tyrod Taylor did some things very well and he was only 28.

The next year, Taylor was in Cleveland and he started three games for the Browns, going a coder’s dream of 1-1-1.

Last season was Taylor’s first with the LA Chargers and his first without an opportunity to start since 2014 with the Baltimore Ravens when he was buried on a depth chart behind an overpaid Joe Flacco. Imagine if the Ravens had simply let Flacco walk after winning the Super Bowl and turned the offense over to Taylor.

How much differently would Baltimore history have gone? They would have certainly had more money to spend on supporting Taylor with offensive and defensive upgrades. Well, the Chargers are going to be the next team to give Taylor an opportunity to start and it seems probable that he’s going to be “the guy” over Justin Herbert next season.

For a quarterback who threw 16 interceptions over 44 games with the Bills, it’s intriguing to compare the differences in situation between his playoff season in Buffalo and the unknown of 2020.

In 2017, the Bills were working under first-time head coach Sean McDermott and veteran offensive coordinator Rick Dennison. Dennison spent 1995-2009 as an assistant on the Denver Broncos, coaching special teams, offensive line, and from 2006-2008 serving as coordinator. He won the Super Bowl as special teams coordinator in 1997 and 1998, then returned to the offensive coordinator position under Gary Kubiak in 2015, winning a third championship.

He had also been the offensive coordinator for Kubiak in Houston from 2010-2013 and spent one season as the quarterbacks coach of the Ravens in 2014, the final year with Taylor on the roster there.

McDermott was coming from a defensive background, serving as defensive coordinator under Andy Reid in Philadelphia for two years, then six years under Ron Rivera in Carolina. The same six years as watching Cam Newton develop and then win MVP honors in 2015, the same year that his defense lost to Denver’s offense (or really, the other way around) in the Super Bowl.

Buffalo’s offensive line in 2017 consisted of rookie left tackle Dion Dawkins, left guard Richie Incognito, center Eric Wood, right guard Vlad Ducasse, and right tackle Jordan Mills. Incognito, Mills, and Wood all started 16 games, whereas Dawkins eventually started 11 and Ducasse started 12 in place of John Miller. The weak spot is Ducasse, but Incognito is one of the best guards of his generation, Dawkins has been surprisingly impressive for the most part, and Wood was a highly regarded center.

PFF ranked the offensive line as the 7th-best that season.

The running back was LeSean McCoy, who made the Pro Bowl after rushing for 1,138 yards and six touchdowns on 287 carries, with 59 receptions for 448 yards and two scores. His season was fine, though McCoy also fumbled three times. Taylor was second on the team, carrying it 84 times for 427 yards and four touchdowns. Former Charger Mike Tolbert had 66 carries for 247 yards and one touchdown.

Tight end was mostly manned by Charles Clay, who had 49 catches for 558 yards and two touchdowns over 13 games, whereas Nick O’Leary had 27 catches for 430 yards and one touchdown.

At this point, Taylor seems to have a pretty good supporting case in Buffalo. An experienced offensive coordinator with a track record of some success, a high quality offensive line that was mostly healthy, a potential Hall of Fame running back, and almost 1,000 yards from the tight end position. Then you get to the receiving corps, which is one of the worst of the decade.

That season, the Bills were led at wide receiver by Deonte Thompson, who caught 27 passes for 430 yards and one touchdown. Clay was first in receiving yards on the team, McCoy was second, and Thompson was third. Next was Zay Jones, who had a historically bad 27 catches on 74 targets. I am refraining from using five exclamation points. I don’t know how much of that blame falls on Taylor, but Jones’ catch rate of 36.5% is simply one of the worst you’ll ever see after 1992, when targets started being recorded.

There but not really there were Jordan Matthews, Kelvin Benjamin, and Andre Holmes. Benjamin started six games, making 16 catches for 217 yards. All told, Jones, Thompson, Matthews, and Benjamin combined to catch five touchdowns.

Taylor went 263-of-420, 62.6%, 2,799 yards, 14 touchdowns, four interceptions, 6.7 Y/A, 60 QBR with this offense. What will he have to work with in LA?

Chargers head coach Anthony Lynn coached Buffalo’s final game of the 2016 season before they decided to hire McDermott. He coached Taylor for his first two seasons with the Bills, first as assistant head coach, then as offensive coordinator. Prior to that, he started as a special teams assistant with the Broncos, as a colleague of Dennison’s, then coached running backs for the Jaguars, Cowboys, Browns, and Jets.

For the last three seasons, he’s been head coach of the Chargers, working with Philip Rivers exclusively. LA finished first in passing yards in 2017, 10th in 2018, and sixth in 2019, so whatever the reason, this has not been a team that features the run nearly as much as the average offense. This despite Lynn’s history as a running backs coach.

But will that change with Rivers gone? What about with Ken Whisenhunt gone?

Whisenhunt spent two and a half years as the offensive coordinator, then was replaced by Shane Steichen midway through 2019. They hired Pep Hamilton to coach quarterbacks back in May. Hamilton has most notably spent a portion of his career coaching and developing Andrew Luck, but he was most recently a head coach in the XFL.

LA’s offensive line is still uncertain, but they’ve traded away tackle Russell Okung (who missed 10 games last season) and signed tackle Bryan Bulaga, a respected veteran who has spent his career with the Green Bay Packers. The Chargers acquired young guard Trai Turner from the Panthers in the Okung deal and even if he’s seemingly gotten a bit worse each year, he has far more potential than what LA was using at guard last season.

Center Mike Pouncey was a Pro Bowler in 2018 but missed 11 games last season and is hopeful to return. If healthy, Bulaga, Turner, and Pouncey could be enough to make this an above average offensive line. Players such as Dan Feeney, Sam Tevi, Forrest Lamp, Trey Pipkins could fill in the rest and being the seventh-best offensive line in the NFL doesn’t seem a huge stretch. But it might be their ceiling, I guess.

That’s what I assume the expectations could be.

The running backs are Austin Ekeler, Justin Jackson, and fourth round rookie Joshua Kelley right now. Though none have the name recognition of McCoy, Ekeler actually had 1,550 yards from scrimmage and 11 touchdowns in 2019, which is basically the same that McCoy could say from 2017. In fact, Ekeler averaged way more yards per touch.

What LA may need is a more solid option between the tackles on the ground and we’ll see if they have that in Jackson, Kelley, or other. It’s too hard to say right now.

Tight end Hunter Henry got the franchise tag after catching 55 passes for 652 yards and five touchdowns over 12 games. He has an extensive injury history but may have a higher ceiling as a receiver than Clay. Veteran Virgil Green is the backup.

But then finally you get to receiver and what a difference.

Though depth is a concern — rookie fifth rounder Joe Reed, Andre Patton, Jason Moore, rookie seventh round K.J. Hill, Darius Jennings, Jalen Guyton, and so on ... — the Chargers have a very good number two receiver and one of the best number ones. For all his flaws, Mike Williams is nowhere near the big play disappointment that Kelvin Benjamin was. He was quite valuable in 2019 and it’ll be interesting to see how he responds to the new QB.

Keenan Allen is one of the best receivers in the NFL.

All told, the Chargers seem to have an offensive line that has potential to match Buffalo’s, a tight end who can probably do more with the football than Clay, a running back who may have had a total package similar to McCoy’s, if not lacking the running ability somewhat, and two receivers exceptionally better than the Bills’ entire group.

It doesn’t mean that Taylor will perform better than he did in 2017, but he may have the tools to do that.

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