Showcasing Buffalo Bills' Biggest Strengths and Draft Needs

Tyler Conway@jtylerconwayFeatured ColumnistJanuary 9, 2013

Showcasing Buffalo Bills' Biggest Strengths and Draft Needs

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    A 6-10 record in 2012 cost Chan Gailey his head coaching job, but the Buffalo Bills are hoping that changing the man at the helm will lead to a different result next season.

    Taking Gailey's place will be Doug Marrone, 48, who was most recently the head coach at Syracuse. Much like his time with the Orange, Marrone will be overtaking a team that's become accustomed to losing.

    The Bills had three straight losing seasons in Gailey's tenure, eight straight overall and have finished no higher than third in the AFC East since 2008. After coming into the 2012 campaign with massive aspirations, Buffalo once again settled into the bottom half of the NFL and in the basement of the AFC East.

    With a ton of talent on defense, the Bills hired Marrone with the expectation that his innovative offensive stylings would carry over to the NFL.

    While that ultimately remains to be seen, Marrone and general manager Buddy Nix have the future of the franchise in their hands this offseason. Most expect a retooling of the roster, but Buffalo could ultimately decide to draft a franchise quarterback at pick No. 8 and hit a team-wide reset button.

    In other words, nobody's safe. With that in mind, let's take a complete look at the Bills' roster and highlight a few strong areas and others they will need to fix on draft day.


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    Coming into the 2012 season, many in the Bills organization were adamant that the jury was still out on Ryan Fitzpatrick's ability to be a franchise quarterback. The argument in Fitzpatrick's defense pointed out that he had played through a rib injury in 2011, which undoubtedly hampered his performance down the stretch, and was great when healthy that season.

    Well, the 2012 season has come and gone, and the jury has come back with a verdict: Fitzpatrick is not a franchise quarterback. He's probably a guy who's best served as a top-shelf backup and may be headed that way this offseason. 

    Of course, that's not to say Fitzpatrick was bad on Mark Sanchezian levels or anything. The former Harvard star threw for 3,400 yards and 24 touchdowns against 16 interceptions—good for an 83.3 quarterback rating. That was actually the second-best in the AFC East and a very respectable 17th in the NFL.

    Where Fitzpatrick truly falls apart is in advanced metrics. He ranked just 23rd in Football Outsiders' DVOA metric, and ESPN's QBR had him even worse at No. 27. For a 30-year-old quarterback who's getting paid quite handsomely, his lack of performance isn't going to cut it.

    According to Mark Gaughan of the Buffalo News, that's likely the reason "it seems obvious" that Fitzpatrick will be a goner this offseason. The Bills have already paid him all of the guaranteed money he's owed, and though he will have a $10 million cap hold even after released, they may just feel it's time to cut the cord. 

    Just one problem with that theory: Who does Buffalo get to replace him? The team could draft a quarterback, but none of the signal-callers on the board at pick No. 8 are guarantees. Does anyone really feel better with Matt Barkley under center than Fitzpatrick? Exactly.

    It ultimately depends on how Marrone wants to start his tenure, but his best opportunity in 2013 may be to keep Fitzpatrick for one more season. 

Running Back

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    Adrian Peterson is not the only running back who came just short of setting records this season. C.J. Spiller came into Week 17 on the precipice of breaking the Bills' and NFL's yards-per-carry marks. But a 24-carry, 59-yard performance against the New York Jets left him short on both marks.

    Nonetheless, Buffalo will walk into 2013 with one of the best running back situations in the NFL. Spiller rushed for 1,244 yards on only 207 carries, still good for a 6.0 YPC, and finished the season No. 3 in running back DVOA (per Football Outsiders).

    Though probably best served to take on a full-time RB2 role next season, Fred Jackson should be able to come back and fill that role at an elite level. His contract situation and health are obviously questions, but there aren't too many teams on the market for a 31-year-old running back coming off knee surgery whose long run was 15 yards last season.

    If Jackson is willing to return at a reduced rate (his cap hold is $3.6 million next season), then there's no reason to part ways.

    Most importantly, Marrone needs to use Spiller far better than his predecessor did. Gailey, for some inane reason, insisted on splitting the carries when both were in the lineup, and the results frustrated Bills fans to no end. 

    As long as Spiller is unquestioned as the No. 1 running back, Buffalo has no reason to worry about the position. 

Wide Receiver and Tight End

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    Throughout the roster, the Bills' biggest problem is that they have secondary options in critical starring roles. We saw it earlier with Fitzpatrick and see the phenomenon once again here with Stevie Johnson.

    There's little questioning that Johnson is a starter-worthy NFL receiver. A player doesn't put up over 75 catches and 1,000 yards three consecutive seasons without some talent. However, one has to wonder whether Johnson's ascent is more to do with circumstance than anything.

    Advanced metrics obviously don't end every argument. But it's at least noteworthy that Johnson has never finished better than 27th in Football Outsiders' DVOA rankings for receivers, nor has he finished any higher than 29th in Pro Football Focus' (subscription required) ratings system.

    Those are two different websites with wholly unbiased databases of statistics, and both rank Johnson as a solid WR2. 

    One could obviously make the "look who's throwing him the ball argument" quite fairly. Still, Johnson has been inside the top 10 in targets in each of the past three seasons, so he's had plenty of opportunities to accumulate value.

    All of that is to say the Bills need to find a top-shelf target for whoever their quarterback is going to be in 2013. They need a guy who's going to create better separation in the secondary down the field while helping take the shackles of bracket coverage off Johnson. 

    Whether or not that guy is available in April remains to be seen. I quite like Tennessee's Justin Hunter, but taking him inside the top 10 is an unnecessary risk. If Buffalo can accumulate picks and draft him midway through the first round, then Hunter is someone worth considering. 

    On the tight end side of things, Scott Chandler is perfectly acceptable replacement-level tight end. Barring an unforeseen opportunity on draft day, there's little need to make a change there. 

Offensive Line

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    The Bills' offensive line is an underrated, young unit where nearly every position could stand pat. Despite battling injuries throughout much of the 2012 campaign, Buffalo finished the regular season eighth in adjusted line yards in the running game and with the 10th-best adjusted sack rate in the NFL, per Football Outsiders.

    Those are pretty solid stats in and of themselves, but the Bills will certainly expect to see improvement from Cordy Glenn in 2013. Buffalo's second-round pick was a bit of a weak spot this season, drawing nine penalties and allowing eight sacks in 13 games played, per the Washington Post

    Outside of improvement from Glenn, the Bills' biggest offseason priority has to be re-signing guard Andy Levitre. Perhaps one of the most underrated linemen in the NFL, Levitre was once again spectacular in 2012. He allowed only .5 sacks this season (h/t Washington Post), committed only four penalties and was once again a bastion of consistency on the line of scrimmage.

    The four-year pro has not missed a start since Buffalo drafted him back in 2009 and has improved every season with the team. However, it seems like the Bills are being awfully slow in trying to resign Levitre. He told the Associated Press (via Yahoo! Sports) that the team had not even made a formal contract offer as of the end of the regular season.

    With safety Jairus Byrd, the Bills may lose one of their key stars if they don't move fast. That wouldn't exactly be the smartest way to start the Marrone era.

    If Levitre comes back to Buffalo, though, the team should be fine on the offensive line. 

Defensive Line

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    Filled to the brim with top-shelf talent, the Bills' defensive line was unquestionably their most disappointing unit this past season.

    Mario Williams, he of the $100 million contract, certainly did not live up to his lofty expectations. Though he finished the 2012 campaign with 46 total tackles and 10.5 sacks, it was clear that Williams was not the same player who dominated with the Houston Texans.

    Per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Williams finished his 2012 season with 56 quarterback pressures. That came in tied for 12th among 4-3 defensive ends, and Williams actually had a negative rating in pass rushing this year. 

    Williams is not the sole reason for blame in Buffalo, though. As a whole, the Bills' defensive line ranked 24th in both adjusted line yards and adjusted sack rate, per Football Outsiders, with everyone not named Kyle Williams having a frustrating campaign. 

    Marcell Dareus is still more otherworldly potential rather than actual production, though he continued to show flashes of greatness in 2012.

    Nevertheless, the Bills should and will try to run it back with the same unit next season. Perhaps it was a schematic flaw that ultimately hampered the line's potential and the team will soar under Mike Pettine. Even if they the line disappoints again, Buffalo simply has too much invested to not try to make it work in 2013. 


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    Nick Barnett continues to be a very solid wrap-up tackler and provider of steadiness in the Buffalo front seven, but it's become clear that linebacker is a gaping hole for the Bills.

    They finished the regular season as arguably the worst run defense in the NFL. Though the disappointing defensive-line play did not help, it was ultimately Buffalo's lack of talent at linebacker that caused the team to finish 31st in total yards against and dead last in rushing touchdowns allowed. 

    In a 4-3 defensive front, where pressure is meant to be created by the defensive line, there is very little reason for safety George Wilson to be the Bills' second-leading tackler (other than him being really good, of course).

    Kelvin Sheppard and Bryan Scott should either be jettisoned this offseason or simply given backup roles in 2013, as Barnett way too often had to atone for their mistakes. 

    Luckily, there is a player in April's draft who (assuming they don't move back) could help solve the team's run defense ills: Manti Te'o. The former Notre Dame star looked admittedly lost at times during the 2013 BCS National Championship Game, but he leaves South Bend as one of the most decorated defenders in college football history for good reason.

    Te'o is a smart, athletic wrap-up tackler who projects well in the middle for either a 4-3 or 3-4 scheme. His draft stock may be very much in question after a lackluster bowl performance, but Te'o is a risk worth taking, especially considering the Bills' desperate need. 


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    Though I suppose anything is possible, it seems incomprehensible that the Bills would allow Jairus Byrd to leave in free agency. He's the fourth-best safety in the NFL in terms of win probability added, is only 26 years old and creates almost a perfect pairing with George Wilson.

    For the sanity of Bills fans everywhere, let's just assume that they're going to franchise Byrd so they can sign him in the long-term. If that's the case, Buffalo has nothing to do at the safety position and should stand pat during the offseason.

    Cornerback, on the other hand, has a few more questions. The Bills aren't going to spend another first-round pick at the position after taking Stephon Gilmore No. 10 in 2012, but they cannot be satisfied with the position either.

    Leodis McKelvin is a free-agent during the offseason, and his return seems in doubt. He struggled with a groin injury throughout the 2012 campaign and has never developed into a top-tier player at the position. Though he's an excellent return man, that doesn't exactly help Buffalo when he's getting burned in coverage.

    Gilmore's first NFL season didn't exactly evoke superstardom either. The former South Carolina star led the team with 16 passes defensed, but he also drew 13 penalties—more than double any other Bills defender. There are enough positive flashes to not hit the panic button yet, but one has to wonder if Buffalo is still searching for its shutdown cornerback.

    For that reason, it probably wouldn't be a bad idea to use a second-day pick on someone at the position if the draft falls correctly. 

Special Teams

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    It's not a league-best unit, but it would be pretty hard for Buffalo to complain about its special teams. Rian Lindell drained 21-of-24 field-goal attempts this season, and he has proved himself capable of handling the tough Buffalo conditions.

    After ridding themselves of longtime punter Brian Moorman after Week 3, the Bills also seemed to find a solid answer in Shawn Powell. Like Lindell, he's not perfect, but he showed an admirable ability to control his punts and pin opposing teams inside the 20-yard-line.

    In the return game, we've already mentioned that McKelvin's potential departure would hurt. However, Brad Smith may be the league's best backup plan, and he once again performed well in McKelvin's absence this season. 

    Where Buffalo could use a massive improvement is on kickoffs. Lindell doesn't have a booming leg, and that's come back to bite the team on multiple occasions. Per Football Outsiders, Bills opponents started an average drive on the 30.21 yard-line, which is the third-worst rate in the NFL.

    If they can find a kickoff specialist on the open market, it would certainly take an already-solid special teams unit and push it to the next level.