Examining Buffalo Bills' Offseason and Key Preseason Positional Battles

Justin OnslowContributor IIJuly 22, 2013

Examining Buffalo Bills' Offseason and Key Preseason Positional Battles

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    There’s little room for error in the AFC East, and the Buffalo Bills have been living in that gray area for the better part of the last decade.

    Never one of the league’s worst teams—and certainly not one of its best—the Bills have recorded fewer than six wins just twice since 2002, though winning campaigns haven’t exactly come easily. Since 1999, Buffalo has recorded just one season above the .500 mark, going 9-7 in 2004.   

    Organizational continuity has allowed Buffalo to avoid massive failure in recent seasons, but coming off consecutive 6-10 campaigns, it was time to shake things up.

    The changes started in December with the firing of head coach Chan Gailey, who compiled just 16 wins in three seasons at the helm of the Bills. To replace him, general manager Buddy Nix hired former Syracuse head coach Doug Marrone.

    Nix headed most of the Bills’ offseason agenda (including the draft), but in May, the 73-year-old decided to step down. As quoted in an Associated Press report (via ESPN), Nix admitted it was just his time to move on:

    I think at some point, you've got to step aside and let young guys that are qualified have their shot. I never put a timetable on it. I always felt like I'd know when it was the right time. And I think it's the right time.

    Nix brought in some quality talent in his four years in Buffalo, but his legacy will likely be defined by his final offseason at the reins. From this point forward, Doug Whaley will be tasked with making the most of Nix’s offseason decisions.

    Whaley, formerly the Pro Personnel Coordinator of the Pittsburgh Steelers, was named Buffalo’s general manager following Nix’s resignation. He spent the last three years in various front-office roles in Buffalo, but he still cites his experience in Pittsburgh as the standard for what he hopes to do going forward, as quoted by Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com:

    “They don't accept losing. They set the standard of winning and competing for championships. And I think if we instill that here, we'll be in the right direction.”

    Whaley has the benefit of having a full season ahead of him before being responsible for a full offseason of personnel decisions, so that should give the 40-year-old a little extra breathing room as he transitions to the new role.

    That said, most of Buffalo’s offseason can be credited to Nix—for better or worse. He certainly made plenty of moves to examine.

    In February, Nix chose to release veteran linebacker Nick Barnett and safety George Wilson, as well as longtime cornerback Terrence McGee and starting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick.

    While Barnett and Wilson were critical components to Buffalo’s defense, Fitzpatrick’s release was arguably the biggest of those moves. The 30-year-old signal-caller had some measurable success in his four years with the team (11,654 yards, 80 touchdowns), but Fitzpatrick was far too prone to turning over the football (80 turnovers) and wasn’t the quarterback the Bills needed to continue running their offense.

    To replace Fitzpatrick, Nix signed another embattled signal-caller in Kevin Kolb, fresh off a disappointing stint in Arizona in which he played just 15 games in two years with the Cardinals.

    With the selection of Florida State quarterback EJ Manuel in the 2013 NFL draft, Kolb’s future role with the Bills is still very much up in the air—though he doesn’t seem to think he’ll just be a placeholder at the position, as quoted by Chris Brown of BuffaloBills.com:

    Me personally I’m not even concerned with it. I haven’t even thought about it really and that’s the honest truth because I have so much to address personally as a player coming into a new system. I know EJ probably does as well being a rookie. That’s kind of the way I would feel most guys are approaching it right now. Here we’re both getting reps and we’re all working at it. I wouldn’t say it’s an advantage against EJ, but it’s an advantage for me personally to be able to lean back on those type of things and those type of situations. You don’t have stay up at night worrying about things that I did when I was a young player.

    Kolb spent his first four seasons as a backup with the Philadelphia Eagles, and, after stepping in for Michael Vick in 2010 with a few impressive performances, his value skyrocketed to the point of inking a hefty new contract with the Cardinals.

    In signing with the Bills, Kolb is earning just $1 million in guaranteed money—a sum typically reserved for a quarterback destined for a future as a backup.

    Time will tell if Kolb manages to earn the starting role ahead of Manuel this season, but there’s little chance he proves to be the future of the franchise at the quarterback position. Still, his signing gives the Bills another option at the position should Manuel not meet expectations in his formative years with the team.

    Buffalo made several additional moves this offseason, and we’ll explore many of those in the following slideshow, as well as the team’s 2013 NFL draft class and some positions to keep an eye on as the season draws near. Read on.

2013 NFL Draft

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    Round 1 (Pick 16): QB EJ Manuel, Florida State

    Round 2 (Pick 41): WR Robert Woods, USC

    Round 2 (Pick 46): LB Kiko Alonso, Oregon

    Round 3 (Pick 78): WR Marquise Goodwin, Texas

    Round 4 (Pick 105): S Duke Williams, Nevada

    Round 5 (Pick 143): S Jonathan Meeks, Clemson

    Round 6 (Pick 177): K Dustin Hopkins, Florida State

    Round 7 (Pick 222): TE Chris Gragg, Arkansas

     

    Grade: B

     

    Of all 32 NFL teams, Buffalo is the organization I feel least confident giving a draft grade to.

    Grading a team’s draft is largely an exercise in speculation and projection. It’s easy to grade based on perceived value and positional needs, but the criteria goes out the window when a team selects a quarterback in the first round.   

    Buffalo was the only team that considered any quarterback in the class worthy of a first-round selection, and in fairness to the Bills and Buddy Nix, I’ll hold off either lauding or criticizing them for that selection until he’s given a fair shake in the NFL.

    But give credit to Nix for identifying the player he wanted. General managers are under tremendous pressure to take the safe route on draft day in avoiding high-risk players as raw as Manuel, but Nix was willing to pull the trigger in hopes of capitalizing on a risk every other team was unwilling to take.

    It should also be noted that Whaley played "an integral part" in selecting Manuel, as the new GM acknowledged on NFL Network's "NFL Total Access," via NFL.com's Chris Wesseling.

    Manuel is still very raw—and the mental aspects of the game may take some time to sink in for the Florida State star—but he has all the tools to be a successful NFL quarterback. It also helps that Nix went to work to surround him with additional talent at the wide receiver position.

    Steve Johnson is a consistent producer and solid No. 1 option, but Buffalo hasn’t fielded an impressive receiving corps in recent years. That should change with the additions of Robert Woods, Marquise Goodwin and Da’Rick Rogers.

    Woods and Goodwin were excellent picks on Day 2, both of whom add another element to Buffalo’s passing attack. Woods, despite underwhelming production in 2012, is a big-bodied wideout with strong hands who can be a quality NFL red-zone target. Goodwin impressed at the combine with a blazing 40-yard-dash time and projects well as an NFL slot receiver.

    Rogers, while not technically a member of the draft class, also stands to have a sizable impact on the offense in future years. Buffalo signed the Tennessee Tech product as an undrafted free agent after he fell out of the draft due to some off-field concerns.

    But Rogers also has early-round talent, and if Doug Marrone can keep him out of trouble, Rogers could easily be a productive member of the offense in coming seasons.

    Nix also keyed in on the linebacker and safety positions with the additions of Kiko Alonso, Duke Williams and Jonathan Meeks, all of whom could see considerable playing time this season given the mass exodus of veteran defensive talent this offseason.

    In all, it was a solid draft class for Nix and the Bills, but it’s far too early to label the draft class as a pure hit or miss. The legacy of this draft class will hinge on what Manuel can do at the NFL level, and as such, I’m giving him a few years to define how well the Bills did in the 2013 draft.

A New-Look Offense

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    It’s hard to accurately predict what to expect from Buffalo’s offense this season. With a new coaching staff, new quarterback and several new additions to the receiving corps, the Bills’ passing attack will be a total guessing game.

    And it all starts under center.   

    EJ Manuel and Kevin Kolb are entrenched in a positional battle that isn’t likely to be decided until the start of the season. According to Mark Gaughan of the Buffalo News, the two signal-callers were splitting reps fairly evenly during the team’s minicamp in June:

    Kolb taking first team snaps and splitting reps evenly with Manuel today.

    — Mark Gaughan (@gggaughan) June 11, 2013

    It remains to be seen what Doug Marrone will choose to do with his quarterbacks, but there’s no denying the importance of this particular positional battle. As is often the case in the NFL, Marrone’s fate very well could be tied to the veteran quarterback and rookie addition.

    But regardless of who starts the season under center, this much is clear: The Bills didn’t use a first-round selection on Manuel to let him stand on the sidelines for an extended period of time. He may need a little time to adjust to the speed of the NFL game, but he’s going to get his chance at some point this season.

    Buffalo’s wide receivers will play a huge role in how effective either player can be this season, however. While quarterback is easily the most important position on the field, solid receiver play goes a long way toward improving a team’s passing game, especially for a young signal-caller like Manuel.

    Steve Johnson is a lock to retain his role as the team’s No. 1 target given his solid production the last three seasons (3,123 yards, 23 touchdowns), but beyond Johnson, there’s still a lot of uncertainty on the depth chart.

    New offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett is going to have plenty of options opposite Johnson. Along with second-rounder Robert Woods and third-rounder Marquise Goodwin, the Bills also have to figure out how to work T.J. Graham and Brad Smith into the offense.

    As quoted by Chris Brown of BuffaloBills.com, Hackett doesn’t look at his wide receivers as a unit separate from the rest of the offense. Instead, he’s looking to field his five best skill position players at a given time:

    I think when you look at the wide receivers it’s not just the wideouts. It’s a competition for everybody on the team. The question is who are the five best skill players that we have? It’s my job to take those five best players and put those guys out there a whole bunch and be very multiple with that. If it’s a lot of wide receivers then you might have a lot of wide receivers. If it’s more tight ends, more running backs, whichever one dominates and does a better job out on the field that’s who we want out there. I think it comes down to who excels in training camp. So it could be a lot of wideouts. It could be more tight ends, more fullbacks, more halfbacks. We just want the best players out there so I think the (receiver numbers) will always kind of fluctuate.

    Again, the offense is a massive uncertainty this season.

    With Johnson assured a spot in nearly every offensive set and a couple young talents behind him at the position, playing time could be scarce for Buffalo’s wideouts—especially with the presence of a quality tight end and explosive starting running back.

    At 6’7” and 260 pounds, tight end Scott Chandler will be a tremendous red-zone target for whoever is under center this season. He played well last season in recording 43 catches for 571 yards and six touchdowns before tearing his ACL in December, and if he’s healthy to start the 2013 season, there’s not much reason to worry about the position.

    Chandler isn’t a top-tier pass-catching tight end, but he has the size and versatility to put together another solid season this year, especially if Manuel is under center.

    Rookie quarterbacks often rely on their intermediary targets as check-down options and low-risk targets. If Manuel finds himself at the helm at any point in 2013, he’ll likely look to Chandler early and often.

    But Buffalo’s running game is perhaps the most exciting aspect of the offense this season, and it will go a long way toward making life much easier for Kolb and Manuel.

    The Clemson product had a breakout campaign last season, accounting for 1,703 yards from scrimmage and eight total touchdowns. After seeing limited action in his first two seasons while Fred Jackson carried much of the offensive load, Spiller is prepared to take on the full-time starting role in 2013.

    And for a new head coach and offensive coordinator, Spiller is more than they could have hoped for.

    The 25-year-old speedster is a versatile offensive weapon who can do damage in every facet of the game. He’s not a bruiser (5’11”, 200 pounds), but Spiller has the speed, quickness, vision and short-area burst to do a lot of damage in a fast-paced offense as a featured back.

    At 32, Jackson is likely to see a massive decline in his workload in 2013, especially after suffering multiple knee injuries in 2012. Jackson can still be a solid change-of-pace option and between-the-tackles runner, but the offense appears to now be solely in Spiller’s capable hands.

    While the pieces haven’t all fallen into place yet, Buffalo fans should feel good about the talent the team has to work with. The quarterback position is still up in the air, but each skill position has several quality players on which Buffalo can rely going forward.

Defensive Changes

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    Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine will be implementing a base 3-4 defense this year, but his new scheme shouldn’t be all that different from what Bills fans have seen in past seasons.

    Chan Gailey utilized a hybrid scheme in Buffalo’s previous 4-3 base, and while the base personnel packages in a 3-4 are vastly different, modern NFL defense have gotten away from using base packages on high percentages of defensive snaps.

    As such, the Bills’ defensive line will look very similar to its 2012 incarnation.

    Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams will likely remain next to one another (the former is competing for a starting position this year), but Williams is likely to move to right defensive end in the 3-4 base, opposite 2012 free-agent acquisition Mario Williams. Dareus and Kyle Williams are well-suited for a two-gap scheme, but Mario Williams may face a small adjustment period.

    Williams played most of his career as a one-gap defensive end, tasked with simply getting after opposing passers. He did see some time as an edge-rusher in Houston following the team's switch to a 3-4, but as it stands, Williams is still going to need some time to find a perfect fit.

    The 6’6”, 292-pound defensive end has the length and bulk to play a two-gap role (essentially tying up opposing offensive linemen while linebackers shoot the freed-up gaps), but given Williams’ terrific pass-rushing abilities, it makes sense Buffalo hopes to employ some hybrid looks that can better utilize those abilities.

    If Pettine plans on using a lot of four-linemen looks, he may also look to get Torell Troup and Alan Branch more involved in the defense.

    Troup, a second-round selection in 2010, hasn’t seen much action in his three seasons with the Bills, but he also hasn’t been given much of an opportunity with two quality defensive tackles in front of him and injury issues. He’s 6’3” and 327 pounds, and is much better suited for the two-gap responsibilities of a 3-4 defense.

    Like Troup, Branch is a wide-bodied defensive lineman who can fill multiple roles in a three-man front, and he's likely to see time at both nose tackle and defensive end this season. Should any of Buffalo’s starting defensive linemen end up on the shelf, the Bills should have enough depth to limit the damage.

    Buffalo’s defensive line looks like a strength this season, but the linebacking corps is much more of an uncertainty.

    With the switch to a 3-4 base, Buffalo had to search for a couple linebackers who can fit the attacking style of a two-gap defense. They may have found one in Kiko Alonso.

    The Oregon product was arguably one of the most versatile linebackers in the 2013 draft class, and Pettine appears ready to put that versatility to use, as quoted by Chris Brown:

    I think we’re very pleased with where Kiko is and it’s a solid room. (Inside linebackers ) Coach (Chuck) Dreisbach has done a very good job developing those guys, whether it’s Arthur Moats or Nigel Bradham, Bryan Scott. We’ve been working Marcus Dowtin both inside and outside. We’re pleased with where that group is.

    Doug Marrone also had some positive things to say about Alonso this offseason:

    I see a player that’s very comfortable out there. Sometimes you look at someone and they’re bright-eyed and trying to get of sense of what’s going on around him. I see him coming in with a purpose and a willingness to compete for a starting position. He’s shown he has all the ability to play all three downs within the defense whether it be run, pass, nickel, sub, whatever it may be. We’re excited about seeing how he progresses, but again we’ll see if he can make the same type of growth he’s making now.

    Alonso has been seeing first-team reps this offseason and should be the player to fill the middle linebacker role when Buffalo lines up in three-linebacker sets—or at least it seems that way given Pettine and Marrone’s recent comments. Even in a 3-4 base, Alonso gives the Bills some versatility at the inside linebacker position, as he's capable of producing in every facet of the defense.

    Buffalo also signed rush linebacker Manny Lawson to a four-year deal this offseason, and he is likely to start at right outside linebacker in the team’s base set. Lawson is a quality pass-rusher who is also capable of sliding down to defensive end in pass-rushing situations, and he’ll also provide some versatility for Pettine when he fields nickel and sub-package sets.

    The remaining linebacker positions still appear up for grabs, but Mark Anderson and Nigel Bradham should have the inside track for the starting roles. Behind them, Jerry Hughes (whom Buffalo traded for this offseason) and 2010 sixth-rounder Arthur Moats provide enough depth to suggest the Bills shouldn’t have any problem finding suitable options for their multiple-look defenses.

    Just like on the offensive side of the ball, a new scheme and vastly different personnel group makes predicting success fairly difficult. There’s reason to be hopeful, but Marrone and Pettine will be the biggest factors in how well Buffalo performs on the defensive side of the ball in 2013.

2013 Schedule

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    2013 Buffalo Bills Schedule
    WeekDateOpponentTime (ET)TV
    1Sept. 8vs. New England Patriots1 p.m.CBS
    2Sept. 15vs. Carolina Panthers 1 p.m.FOX
    3Sept. 22at New York Jets 4:25 p.m. CBS
    4Sept. 29vs. Baltimore Ravens1 p.m.CBS
    5Oct. 3at Cleveland Browns 8:25 p.m.NFL Network
    6Oct. 13vs. Cincinnati Bengals 1 p.m.CBS
    7Oct. 20at Miami Dolphins 1 p.m.CBS
    8Oct. 27at New Orleans1 p.m.CBS
    9Nov. 3vs. Kansas City Chiefs 1 p.m.CBS
    10Nov. 10at Pittsburgh Steelers1 p.m.CBS
    11Nov. 17vs. New York Jets 1 p.m.CBS
    12Nov. 24BYE WEEK
    13Dec. 1vs. Atlanta Falcons 4:05 p.m.FOX
    14Dec. 8at Tampa Bay Buccaneers 1 p.m.CBS
    15Dec. 15at Jacksonville Jaguars 1 p.m.CBS
    16Dec. 22vs. Miami Dolphins 1 p.m.CBS
    17Dec. 29vs. New England Patriots 1 p.m.CBS

     

    *For a complete look at Buffalo's 2013 schedule, check out NFL.com.  

Season Outlook

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    One thing is certain: There’s reason to be very hopeful for a successful season in 2013.

    But changes at every level of the team mean nothing is guaranteed for the Bills this season. Success will hinge on how well Doug Marrone can transition to the NFL level, just as EJ Manuel will be doing at the quarterback position.

    Provided Marrone and Nathaniel Hackett utilize C.J. Spiller this season, the offense shouldn’t perform any less effectively than it did in 2012. Given the upside Manuel, Woods and Goodwin offer, there’s certainly room for improvement this year as well.

    The same holds true for the defensive side of the ball, but a big question mark still remains at the back end of the secondary.

    As noted by ESPN, free safety Jairus Byrd—arguably the best in the league—didn’t receive a long-term contract extension this offseason after being slapped with the franchise tag. As a result, Byrd is holding out and could continue to do so well into the preseason.

    It’s easy to focus on the uncertainty Buffalo faces this season, but there’s also a lot to look forward to. The Bills put together a successful draft and already have some key pieces in place. As it stands, they could be poised for a breakout campaign in 2013.

     

    Prediction: 8-8, Third in AFC East

    I won’t even pretend to suggest I know what to expect from the Bills at this point in the year, but given the talent on their roster and the addition of a young, innovative head coach like Doug Marrone, the 2013 season could be a turning point for the organization.

    Realistically, Buffalo could win anywhere from six to 12 games this year. In erring on the side of caution, eight seems to be a reasonable number.

    But the AFC East won’t exactly be a cakewalk this season, either, and Buffalo’s 2013 schedule won’t be the easiest to traverse.

    Along with two matchups against the New England Patriots, the Bills also face some tough non-divisional competition in the Pittsburgh Steelers, Atlanta Falcons, New Orleans Saints, Cincinnati Bengals and Baltimore Ravens. There really aren’t too many games that look like easy wins this season for the Bills.

    If Buffalo manages to go 8-8 with a new general manager and coaching staff in place—and either Kolb or Manuel under center—the 2013 season should be considered a successful campaign and a springboard for much bigger things in the coming years.