The Buffalo Bills are at a crossroads. On March 25th, Ralph Wilson Jr., the only owner of ,the Bills died at the age of 95. He was a co-founder of the old American Football League and founder of the Bills in 1959. With his death, there is uncertainty in the Bills organization. Within the next few months, there will be a new owner, and who that owner is, will determine if the Bills stay in Buffalo. Being a former Buffalonian, my gut feeling is the Bills will be there for many years to come. There are several interested investors with ties to Buffalo that may be bidding on the team.
The Bills have an iron-clad lease that will keep them in Buffalo through at least the 2019 season and in the NFL that is an eternity. Many locals and media types feel the Bills will be in Los Angeles 2020, but it is my feeling that if a club is to make a move to the City of Angels, it will be long before 2020. The Oakland Raiders, San Diego Chargers, or St. Louis Rams could make the move before the new owners of Buffalo can attempt to try.
That being said, the Bills need to turn their performance around on the football field. This organization has not seen the playoffs in 14 years. If the current leadership of the Bills, President and CEO Russ Brandon, General Manager Doug Whaley and Head Coach Doug Marrone want to work for the new owner, they have to show, at minimum, drastic improvement this season. Looking at their roster, they might not be able to do it.
There was only one quarterback drafted in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft and that was E.J. Manuel. Manuel had his moments in 2013 and actually played better than I thought he would. Still, there were times he looked like a rookie, and he missed a lot of time including the final two games of the season. He has to take a big step in 2014.
The backup will most likely be Thad Lewis who is undersized but very athletic. He gives the Bills a dimension they don’t have with Manuel, in that he is a consistent threat to make plays with his feet and is a better than average passer.
The Bills have a solid running back corps. The actually have two lead backs in former first round pick C.J. Spiller and veteran Fred Jackson. The two complement each other in that Spiller is the breakaway threat and Jackson can pound inside. Both are accomplished receivers. The third back will be either Bryce Brown who the Bills obtained from Philadelphia on a draft day trade or former 49er Anthony Dixon.
Receivers and Tight Ends
On draft night, the Bills traded up from the ninth spot to number four to draft Clemson’s Sammy Watkins, clearly the best receiver in the draft. While Watkins will be a huge upgrade to the receiver corps, the price they paid to make the trade was very costly. They gave up next year’s first and fourth round picks to make the move. Giving up a 2015 first round pick that, in all probability, will be another top 15 pick is a very costly move. I have yet to talk to a personnel guy in the league who thought it was a good trade.
2013 second round pick Robert Woods will be the other starting wide out for Buffalo. Woods had a strong rookie year with 40 catches. There is plenty of speed in reserve with former Olympian Marquise Goodwin and 2012 draft choice T.J Graham. The Bills also traded for troubled Tampa Bay receiver Mike Williams, who is originally from Buffalo and played for Marrone at Syracuse. While Williams is a very talented player, his off-field issues may be his downfall.
At tight end, the Bills return leading receiver Scott Chandler who had 53 receptions a year ago. His backup will most likely be former Kansas City Chief Tony Moeaki. As a rookie on KC, Moeaki looked like he was going to become a top NFL tight end. Injuries have slowed down his progress, but the Bills hope that is all behind him.
The Bills have the makings of a huge offensive line. At left tackle is 2012 second round pick Cordy Glenn from Georgia who has shown improvement. At left guard will be Chris Williams, who the Bills signed as a free agent this spring. Williams started every game last year for the St. Louis Rams. He is versatile in that he can play either guard or tackle position and be effective.
The center is Eric Wood, who is one of the better centers in the league. There will be a battle at right guard. The incumbent starter is six year vet Kraig Urbik, but he may have to fight off fifth-round pick Cyril Richardson from Baylor. Richardson is a big, powerful man who can run and pass block but got too heavy his final year at Baylor. If he can keep his weight under control, the Bills got a late-round steal.
The right tackle job will go to 2014 second round pick Cyrus Kouandjio. Many thought Kouandjio was a likely first round pick until the combine, when it was discovered he had an arthritic knee. While Kouandjio is very talented, arthritic conditions don’t get better they only get worse. The worry about Kouandjio is not if he can play well, it’s how long he will be able to play. The depth on the line is good with players like Erik Pears who started at right tackle a year ago, Chris Hairston, and Doug Legursky.
The Bills had a very strong defense last year under defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, now the head coach in Cleveland. Pettine ran a 3-4 scheme and had the right personnel to run that scheme. Marrone brought in former Detroit Lions' head coach Jim Schwartz to replace Pettine. While Schwartz is an excellent coordinator, he runs a completely different scheme than Pettine ran. It remains to be seen if the change in scheme hurts the effectiveness of the defense.
The line is anchored by two Pro Bowl inside players in Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus. Both are instinctive, high motor guys who make plays. Dareus has had a few problems with the law this spring, and there is a good chance he may miss some time due to a league suspension.
If Dareus misses time, his most likely replacement will be Alan Branch. A guy to keep an eye on is Canadian Stefan Charles, who is going into his second year.
At the end positions will be Mario Williams, who has 23.5 sacks the last two years, and either Jerry Hughes or Manny Lawson. Both Lawson and Hughes were outside linebackers and pass rushers in Pettine’s scheme. They have to play as defensive ends this year. For added depth, the Bills signed Jarius Wynn from Dallas, who can play both inside and out.
One of the top defensive rookies in the league last year was Kiko Alonso. Alonso played as an inside linebacker last year and will be the Will linebacker this year. He is very instinctive and a big time playmaker. The Mike linebacker will be free agent signee Brandon Spikes. Spikes was an off-and-on starter in New England. He is another highly instinctive player but has questionable speed and range.
The Sam linebacker will be either the Keith Rivers of the Giants and a former first round pick of the Bengals or Nigel Bradham, who has shown steady improvement since coming into the league in 2012. Another player to keep an eye on is rookie Mike ‘backer Preston Brown. If Spikes proves to be too slow, Brown could very well step in. He was highly productive at Louisville.
The Bills lost Pro Bowl Free Safety Jairus Byrd to free agency. He will be replaced by former corner Aaron Williams, now in his fourth year. The strong safety will be last year’s fourth round pick Duke Williams.
The Bills have talent at corner with Stephon Gilmore on one side and Leodis McKelvin on the other. Free agent Corey Graham will challenge McKelvin and, at worst, be the nickel back. Graham played well in Baltimore the last few years. An interesting rookie is Ross Cockrell from Duke, who has great ball skills
The Bills should be an improved team in 2014. Much of that will depend on the expected improvement of quarterback E.J. Manuel. The defense also has to make a successful switch to a 4-3 from a 3-4. That isn’t always easy. As improved as the Bills may be, they are still not a playoff team. While they could get lucky and finish as high as second in the AFC East (Miami and the Jets are weak), they will not be able to overtake New England.
There are clubs in other divisions that are far superior to the Bills and will most likely be the AFC wildcard teams. I can’t see the Bills being any better than 8-8 and more likely 7-9.
Follow Greg on Twitter @greggabe
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