ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (AP) — Bills coach Sean McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane stressed it would require time when outlining their extensive plan to rebuild the team to owners Terry and Kim Pegula some 2 1-2 years ago.
Grateful for the patience the Pegulas have shown, McDermott and Beane aren't yet ready to suggest the Bills have arrived. They will acknowledge this team is closer to matching their vision of sustaining long-term success from the one they inherited, which had been in the midst of a 17-season playoff drought.
"Where we are now versus where we were then, I'd like to believe we've taken significant steps ahead," McDermott said. "We will only know when we start playing."
Beane, hired five months after McDermott in 2017, said the biggest challenge was not veering from their plan to stockpile draft picks, purge the roster of overpriced and underachieving stars, and create salary cap space to have the flexibility to plug various needs and add competitive depth through free agency.
"We didn't want to build it to make a playoff," Beane said, referring to the Bills sneaking into the postseason in 2017 and only after all the tiebreakers fell Buffalo's way. "We're trying to build something so that we're contending every year."
If last year's 6-10 record was a reflection of the Bills completing the process of shedding salaries and developing their youth by closing the year with as many as seven rookie starters, then this season is much different.
With only five holdovers from 2016 or earlier, Buffalo is a team transformed in preparing to open 2019 with back-to-back games at the Meadowlands against the Jets and Giants.
Buffalo's roster features a collection of draft picks, including quarterback Josh Allen and middle linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, each entering their second seasons. And the foundation has been supported by this past offseason's haul of about 20 free agents — a majority brought in to improve a patchwork offense and spur Allen's development.
Receivers Cole Beasley and John Brown were signed to boost a popgun passing attack that topped 250 yards just once. Veteran Frank Gore was signed and rookie Devin Singletary was drafted to support a ground game that stalled behind LeSean McCoy.
Buffalo also overhauled an offensive line which will likely feature as many as four new starters.
"We're on track. We're still trending," Beane said, assessing how far the Bills have come under his plan. "But we've got a lot of work to do."
NO JOSH-ING AROUND
Allen has followed his coaches' advice this offseason by staying patient in the pocket and running less a year after setting the franchise record for quarterbacks with a team-leading 631 yards rushing. After being part of a three-way competition a year ago, Allen has also taken on a larger leadership role.
"This is his team," Beane said. "That's the biggest thing I see from a year ago. It wasn't his team at that point. He was fighting for a spot. Now the other 90 guys know that this is Josh Allen's team as a quarterback."
The defense, which allowed the second-fewest yards in the NFL last season, returns mostly intact. Rookie first-round pick Ed Oliver is starting at defensive tackle following Kyle Williams' retirement. Returning starter Levi Wallace and free agent addition Kevin Johnson are competing for the starting cornerback job opposite Tre'Davious White.
Center Mitch Morse was Buffalo's most expensive offseason addition, but has missed much of the offseason due to injuries. He missed a majority of spring practices recovering from core muscle surgery. And he's missed three-plus weeks of training camp recovering from a concussion.
Jon Feliciano and Spencer Long have split the duties at center. Rookie Cody Ford has shifted between right tackle and right guard, while Ty Nsekhe has worked at right tackle. The only two constants have been returning starter Dion Dawkins at left tackle and Quinton Spain at left guard.
Tight end Lee Smith can see a significant difference in returning to Buffalo after spending the past three seasons in Oakland. Noting how much more depth this year's team has, Smith reflected on his rookie season in 2011, when quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick helped the Bills to a 5-2 start before the team collapsed by losing eight of its final nine games.
"I tell people all the time when I was here the first time, Fitz was a great player, and we had the right kind of men. But there just wasn't enough talent," Smith said. "There were plenty of games we lost and, when you look back, we just weren't good enough."
With Beasley listed at 5-foot-8 and Brown 5-11, joining a group of receivers that could include Isaiah McKenzie (5-8) and Ray-Ray McCloud (5-9), McDermott began calling them "Smurfs."
"They work in a small village, so they can separate into small spaces, and all of our receivers are like this tall," McDermott said, holding his arm up to his shoulder.
At 6-2, returning starter Zay Jones is among the few receivers topping 6-0.