Is Tyrod Taylor Worth a Long-Term Commitment for the Buffalo Bills?

The Bills haven't had a quality starter at quarterback for a long time. Is Tyrod Taylor the answer?

It’s been a long time since the Buffalo Bills had a quality starter at quarterback. 

After years of players like Trent Edwards, Ryan Fitzpatrick, J.P. Losman and E.J. Manuel, the Bills found their way into a productive starter in 2015. And even finding that player was more like a lucky stumble. 

Before the 2015 season began, Tyrod Taylor was behind Manuel and Matt Cassel on the depth chart before a spectacular preseason forced the Bills’ hand to name Taylor the starter for the regular season.

Having only 35 regular season pass attempts to his name before the season, Taylor was signed to a three-year, $3.35-million contract last offseason. 

Those 35 passes also weren’t particularly impressive, either, and that’s putting it kindly. Taylor’s five passes in 2013 were the worst we’ve tracked on a per pass basis by our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric for a quarterback with a minimum of five drop backs. NEP, for those unaware, measures the value of each play on the field based on how an average team would be expected to score in each scenario using historical data. Sure, that’s an incredibly small sample, but that was the most recent group of NFL passes on the record for Taylor before signing with the Bills.

But Taylor had that breakout preseason and an efficient regular season, and now that third year of the contract is voidable after Taylor played over 50 percent of the snaps in 2015. 

That makes Taylor an impending free agent after the 2016 season and in line for a significant raise from the $3.13 million cap hit he’s scheduled for in 2016. 

This leaves the Bills with a decision surrounding what to do with Taylor in the future. The team has been noncommittal on the prospect of Taylor as the long-term starter for much of the offseason. The quarterback market is a mystery, so there’s no way of knowing what type of contract Taylor would command after the season, but what we can get a feel for is if Taylor is the type of quarterback the Bills should feel comfortable committing to on a long-term deal.

Instant Improvement

There’s no denying Taylor was one of the most proficient quarterbacks in the league last season -- he was 10th among 43 quarterbacks with at least 100 drop backs in Passing NEP per drop back for the season. As a team, the Bills were 12th in Adjusted (for strength of schedule) NEP per play for the pass, the highest rank the team had since 2002 when they finished 10th with a 30-year-old Drew Bledsoe

In between those two finishes were many years ranked in the 20’s and even 30’s, which could lead one to think the Bills would do anything in their power to hold on to anything that would resemble a passable offense. The unit under Taylor was a clear improvement over the offenses the Bills have put out over the past few seasons:

Year Adj. Off. NEP Per Play   Rank Adj. Pass NEP per Drop Back   Rank
2015 0.10 8 0.14 12
2014 0.00 26 0.09 15
2013 -0.03 24 -0.11 30
2012 0.04 17 0.05 17
2011 0.04 14 0.01 18

The step forward on offense wasn’t all on Taylor, though. The Bills were able to keep Taylor in a high-efficiency, low-volume situation by committing to the run and being quite good at it. Buffalo was the only team last season to have more rushing attempts than passes, and they were the top team in Adjusted NEP per play on the ground, thanks in part to Karlos Williams, who led all running backs in Rushing NEP per attempt. Taylor was also a part of the rushing efficiency, finishing third among all quarterbacks in Rushing NEP and tying Russell Wilson for the second most rushing attempts for a quarterback last season.

Going Deep

The reliance on the running game left Taylor with a favorable situation to play and without the need to drop back 40-plus times per game. Taylor only had to do that once last season -- a 42-pass day against the New York Giants in a 24-10 Week 4 loss. Only four other times did Taylor have to throw 30 or more passes in a game, and he threw fewer than 20 passes in a game four additional times, which all ended up being Buffalo wins. 

While Taylor was efficient with this setup, it wasn’t the type of efficiency many would think of with a low-volume passer. Maybe some would think of Alex Smith in this role, but Taylor was more of the anti-Smith in the way he attacked the field. Taylor rarely targeted the middle, intermediate part of the field and, instead, he relied heavily on deep passes.

Taylor happens to have one of the prettiest deep balls in the league, and this strategy worked pretty well for him and the Bills. Among full-time starters, Taylor had the third highest Air Yards per attempt, behind Carson Palmer and Ben Roethlisberger. And only Roethlisberger and Brian Hoyer had a smaller percentage of total passing yards come after the catch.

The ability and willingness to throw downfield is one thing, but having receivers on the other end who take advantage of those throws is another. Obviously, Sammy Watkins is a receiver who can take advantage of those throws. There was no receiver in the league who was better on a per target basis than Watkins last year, who led all receivers who saw at least 32 passes thrown their way in Reception NEP per target. He was also one of two receivers, along with Seattle’s Doug Baldwin, to be worth over 1.00 Reception NEP per target.

Taylor and Watkins connected for six touchdowns last season, and only one was from fewer than 20 yards away from the end zone. Watkins was able to get behind defenders, and Taylor had no hesitation throwing the ball his way when he did.

Even when Watkins wasn’t open, Taylor was still able to find him downfield and had enough trust to get him the ball.

Taylor was certainly aided by the surrounding aspects of the Bills offense, but he was also uniquely qualified to get the most out of this situation. It’s easy to write off a quarterback who didn’t have to bear the load of carrying an offense, but it might be even harder to imagine another quarterback faring as well as Taylor did with what was given. Had the Bills gone with Cassel at the start of the season, it’s highly unlikely the team would have been eighth in Adjusted NEP, regardless of how well the rushing offense performed.

The Bills may be right to see if Taylor can sustain this type of play for another year before committing any long-term money to the quarterback. But with the offensive line returning and healthy years from Williams and Watkins, it could also be safe to be bullish on Taylor’s 2016 outlook. There’s a mostly nonexistent market for paying mid-tier quarterbacks, a place Taylor probably inhibits right now. Should the Bills feel comfortable enough to get a deal done before Taylor’s contract voids, they could be getting themselves a discount on what a quarterback like this would command on the open market. 

If they play the waiting game while Taylor puts up another season as one of the most efficient passers in the league, then there’s likely going to be a bigger premium to pay.