With an active 13-year playoff drought, can you really fault us? Despite an easy schedule to finish the season, it remains highly unlikely that the Bills will end that horrific streak.
This brings us to the annual question: "What can we do to make the playoffs next year?"
Well, as the Bills showed in 2013, the NFL draft is how franchises are turned around. With the influx of youngsters EJ Manuel, Kiko Alonso, Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin—among other lesser-known contributors—the wagons may be circling at One Bills Drive sooner than most pundits are willing to predict.
Though their 4-7 record indicates a team that is not there yet, it's difficult to say that the Bills have many glaring holes. Going into the 2014 NFL draft, the Bills should simply be looking to add more talent and depth to their young core.
In this article, I'll be using statistics to evaluate weaknesses in the roster, and I'll present some names of college prospects to keep in mind come draft time in May.
What Do the Bills Need?
As I mentioned before, there aren't too many spots on the Bills' roster that scream, "we need an upgrade." Still, everything is not perfect. Let's take a look at this table below to key in on areas which need improvement.
|Category||NFL Rank (Yards Per Game)||NFL Rank (Yards Per Attempt/Carry)|
|Pass Offense||28th (197.0 YPG)||30th (6.2 YPA)|
|Rush Offense||7th (134.1 YPG)||18th (4.1 YPC)|
|Pass Defense||12th (229.0 YPG)||13th (7.0 YPA)|
|Rush Defense||23rd (118.8 YPG)||T15th (4.1 YPC)|
After a quick glance, it's easy to see that there are some areas requiring a boost in talent. Specifically, one might point to the pass offense and rush defense.
The disparity between yards allowed per carry and total rushing yards allowed indicates that other teams are running the ball often against Buffalo—not necessarily with great success.
On the other side of the coin, the pass offense looks pretty poor as a whole; the Bills rank in the bottom five in passing yards per game and passing yards per attempt. With a rookie quarterback at the helm and a number of injuries to the offensive unit, this probably isn't unexpected. Still, to become a playoff team, Buffalo will need to be much better through the air.
At wide receiver, the Bills seem to be pretty happy with what they have. Though they do not have a big, physical receiver who knows how to get open, they do have players who can create mismatches.
As you can see in the video below (apologies for the poor quality), Stevie Johnson remains one of the top route-runners in the NFL.
On the other side, rookie Robert Woods provides solid hands and veteran-like savviness, while Marquise Goodwin and T.J. Graham have speed to burn almost any corner in the business. Ask Antonio Cromartie about Goodwin.
So that leaves us with two questions: what's wrong and how do we fix it?
For me, Scott Chandler is a fine football player, but he doesn't provide much more than a size mismatch at tight end. At 6'7", he remains a valuable red-zone target, but he lacks the explosiveness to stretch the field and keep defenses on their heels.
If you look at the elite quarterbacks in the league, you'll almost always find an above average or elite tight end to complement them (See: Brady, Brees, P. Manning). If the Bills can add that extra weapon to help out Manuel, then we may be looking at a much scarier offensive attack.
In addition to tight end, it's clear that the Bills were not even close to replacing guard Andy Levitre, as the rushing attack has suffered. It should be paramount to add a guard in the second round or in free agency—anything will be better than the Doug Legursky/Colin Brown nightmare tandem.
On defense, a lot rests with the fate of Jairus Byrd. His departure could leave a giant void at free safety, making getting his replacement the biggest priority. If he stays, however, the Bills would be well-positioned to add another linebacker to an already vastly improved front seven and another cornerback to an injury-prone secondary.
Now that we've identified some areas to improve, let's take a look at some prospects to fill those positions.
Players to Keep an Eye On
Lucky for the Bills, the 2014 draft provides some serious playmakers at the tight end position. For my money (and draftniks Mel Kiper and Todd McShay, if that reassures you), Eric Ebron of the University of North Carolina is the best prospect. Though not as tall as Chandler, the 6'4" and 245 pounds, Ebron has the talent to create mismatches downfield.
Kiper offers this scouting report on the junior who recently declared for the draft:
[He has] the size to overwhelm cornerbacks and most safeties, but shows off a good burst and above-average straight-line speed. He can go up and get the ball, and does a good job of catching it with his hands away from his body. Great body control allows him to haul in errant throws.
Other options include Jace Amaro (Texas Tech) and Austin Seferian-Jenkins (Washington). Though tight end is not usually a position that is highly sought after in the first round, I think it's time for the Bills to get with the times and acquire a real game-breaker.
At guard, Cyril Richardson (Baylor) would provide a massive upgrade to the team's current ineffective play at the position. He will likely go in the second round, but if he is gone, the Bills can look to the likes of David Yankey (Stanford) or Gabe Jackson (Mississippi State).
Though I've clearly stated my opinion on the direction the Bills should go, they may decide that they want to go with defense in the early rounds. Khalil Mack (Buffalo) and C.J. Mosley (Alabama) both provide a well-rounded game at the linebacker position and would offer a great amount of versatility in defensive coordinator Mike Pettine's system.
Meanwhile, HaHa Clinton-Dix (Alabama) could be a plug-and-play first-round pick at safety if Jairus Byrd walks. However, the top of this year's draft class is not very strong at any of the defensive backfield positions, so it's more likely that they'll address other needs in the first few rounds and look to free agency for veteran replacements in the secondary.
The Bills' season is far from over. At 4-7, they remain in the hunt for the playoffs. Still, it's probably wise to expect another year on the outside looking in.
However, if general manager Doug Whaley and company can add through the draft a couple more key contributors to their ever-improving roster, then we may just be singing a different tune in the 2014.