After finishing the 2014 NFL season with a 9-7 record, former head coach Doug Marrone exercised an option in his contract allowing him to opt out of his contract. He did so because he thought that he would easily get hired by one of the other clubs looking for a new coach. He guessed wrong, and he is now the offensive line coach in Jacksonville.
To replace Marrone, the Bills hired former New York Jets' coach Rex Ryan, and the hire has rejuvenated the fan base in Buffalo. Love him or hate him, Rex Ryan excites people.
Between Ryan and general manager Doug Whaley, the Bills made some outstanding personnel moves and now hope to challenge for a playoff spot for the first time in years. While playing in the AFC East won’t be easy, on paper, the Bills look like they have a chance. They are strong at just about every position except the most important one: quarterback.
When the Bills open the season in September versus the Indianapolis Colts, it’s just about anyone’s guess who will line up at quarterback. In 2013, they selected E.J. Manuel in the first round with the hope that he would be the quarterback of the future. To date, that hasn’t worked out, and this year may be his last chance to get it right. Manuel has the physical tools, but he lacks top instincts and decision making skills.
The other options are veteran Matt Cassell and journeyman Tyrod Taylor. My guess is that Cassell will win the job, as he has the most experience and success as an NFL quarterback. He hasn’t had a supporting cast like he has in Buffalo since he played with New England.
Taylor is interesting in that he is very athletic and can make plays with his feet. It will be interesting to see how he plays in the preseason.
This may be the strongest and deepest position on the team. During the off season, the acquired LeSean McCoy from the Philadelphia Eagles. McCoy is one of the best all-around backs in the NFL and has run for over 1000 yards in four of his six NFL seasons. Not only is he an outstanding runner, but he is also a threat as a receiver out of the backfield. He gives the Bills a major home run threat at the position.
The Bills not only have McCoy, but they also have Fred Jackson, Bryce Brown, and rookie Karlos Williams in reserve. All complement McCoy very well and give the Bills depth at the position that few NFL teams have.
Wide Receiver and Tight End
The Bills wide receiver corps may be almost as strong as their running back group. The group is headed by last year’s first round pick Sammy Watkins and third year player Robert Woods. Both have size, speed, and excellent run after the catch skills. The third receiver may well be free agent signee Percy Harvin. Harvin is a game breaker with enormous talent, but he has a habit of wearing out his welcome very quickly at every stop he has made.
The fourth receiver will most likely be Chris Hogan who is a physical possession receiver. The remaining wide receivers will come from the group of Marcus Easley, Marquise Goodwin and rookie Dez Lewis. Lewis is a small college player from Central Arkansas who had a strong Senior Bowl week. He is raw but has excellent natural talent.
The tight end will be free agent acquisition Charles Clay from Miami. The depth behind Clay includes MarQueis Gray, Chris Gragg and rookie Nick O’Leary. None of the group is an outstanding blocker, but all have good receiving skills.
The offensive line has some young, talented players, as well as some veteran depth. There will be intense competition in training camp, and the group that lines up as the starters at the beginning of camp may not be, come opening day.
The Bills have three talented young tackles. At left tackle is Cordy Glenn who has been a starter in each of his three previous seasons in the NFL. Last year, rookie Seantrel Henderson lined up at right tackle and played fairly well. He has also gotten a look at left tackle during OTA’s. Last year’s second round pick Cyrus Kouandjio was a disappointment. He came back stronger and in better shape and has been working at both guard and right tackle. If his arthritic knees hold up, he can be a factor.
The staring center is veteran Eric Wood, who is the leader of the line. At the guard spots, there is also very good competition. The Bills signed former Miami Dolphin bad boy Ritchie Incognito, who can be a physical presence. He will line up at right guard. The left guard could be veteran Chris Williams who has a problem staying healthy or rookie John Miller. Miller is an intense road grader who can also provide depth at center. The rest of the depth is second year man Cyril Richardson who can be a load if he gets in shape and Kraig Urbik. Urbik can also line up at center.
Interestingly, the loser of the tackle battle could very well be the starter at left guard. How they all play in the preseason will sort things out.
In 2013, the Bills ran a 3-4, run by Rex Ryan protégé Mike Pettine. When Pettine left to become head coach of the Cleveland Browns, the Bills went to a 4-3 last year under Jim Schwartz. The personnel didn’t really change, just where they lined up. This year they are back to Ryan’s 3-4 and there is plenty of talent.
The Bills will line up two Pro Bowlers on the line, nose tackle Kyle Williams is one of the best nose men in the business. At the end spots will be Pro Bowler Marcell Dareus and either Corbin Bryant, Jarius Wynn or Stefan Charles. All will play, and they have the versatility to play more than one position. Recently, the Bills added Alex Carrington, a former Bill, who is best as a 5-technique.
In a Ryan defense, the linebackers are important, and the Bills are loaded at the outside linebacker position.
The two starting outside linebackers will also play down some in pass rush situations. On one side is Mario Williams who had 14.5 sacks a year ago. The other side is manned by Jerry Hughes who finished 2014 with 9.5 sacks. The main backups will be Manny Lawson, who has started many games during his career and rookie Cedric Reed.
At the inside positions will be second year man Preston Brown, who had 109 tackles as a rookie. He looks to be even better in 2015. The other inside spot will be manned by the athletic Nigel Bradham who finished last year with 104 total tackles. The duo gives the Bills strength up the middle when you figure in nose tackle Kyle Williams.
Just like the rest of the defense, there is quality at every position in the secondary. The starting corners will be former first round pick Stephon Gilmore and Leodis McKelvin. Gilmore is just starting to come in to his own as a shutdown corner. The depth includes second-year man Ross Cockrell, Nickell Robey, and rookie second round pick Ron Darby from Florida State. Don’t be surprised to see Darby as the third corner fairly early in the season.
At safety, Aaron Williams has a lock on the free safety position with Duke Williams the starter at strong safety going into camp. Don’t be surprised to see former corner Corey Graham come out of camp as the starter at strong. Graham is an excellent tackler with outstanding instincts and ball skills.
With the quarterback position unsettled, it is hard to get a real handle on how the Bills will play. They are as strong as any team in the AFC East at every position but quarterback. If they can get steady play from Cassell, Manuel, or Taylor, the Bills will challenge for a playoff spot. They have the playmakers on both offense and defense to get the job done. Just average play from the quarterback position might help them achieve their goal of making the playoffs.
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