Free Agents, Draft Picks Who Could Fill Buffalo's Biggest Needs
The Buffalo Bills entered their bye week in Week 12 after a dominating performance over the New York Jets and a favorable schedule after the break. The Bills responded to the potential playoff talk with a heart-breaking loss to the Atlanta Falcons in Toronto in Week 13 before laying an egg in Tampa on Sunday afternoon.
Within two weeks, a season full of promise and intrigue has fallen into the same category of so many Bills' seasons of recent years. Sunday's loss to the Buccaneers ensured that the Bills would finish with a losing record for the ninth straight season and a playoff-less season for the 14th year in a row.
Different players. Different coaches. Same results.
Expectations were not incredibly high in year one of the Doug Marrone era in Buffalo, but it was not as if the Bills had not enough talent to compete. They boast one of the best one-two running back combos in the league and an equally impressive pass rush to boot. The team took the persona of their fiery head coach early on—barely losing to the AFC elite New England, Kansas City and Cincinnati—but the results all had the same look in the standings on Monday morning.
Buffalo has had plenty of close losses, but not nearly enough gutty wins. Hence the never-ending cloud of losing that tends to hang over the heads of Bills players at the end of every season for the last decade and a half.
Despite all of their faults, the Buffalo coaching staff and front office cashed in on one of the best offseasons in recent memory earlier in the year. Kiko Alonso might be a Pro Bowl player in his first season as a pro and the team's offensive picks in the draft have shown enough promise to have hope for improvement in the near future. Add in the additions of Manny Lawson and the trade for Jerry Hughes--Buffalo had an offseason that might begin to change the culture of losing.
The additions in Marrone's first year have been good, but the recent streak of inconsistent play has revealed a few of the Bills biggest flaws. Talent on the roster abounds, but they are clearly still a few pieces away from making a real run at their first playoff appearance since 1999.
Over the next few slides, we will take a look at a few players the Bills would be wise to take a look at to shore up the biggest holes on the roster for the 2014 season and beyond.
8. Cyril Richardson, Guard, Baylor University
The Bills wisely let Andy Levitre take big money in Tennessee during this past free agency period, when the Titans made him one of the highest-paid guards in the league. As good as Levitre was during his four years in Buffalo, the Bills were aware of the impending contract situations with guys like Jairus Byrd and Eric Wood.
Bills fans were disappointed with Levitre's departure as it was, but the decision to replace a Pro Bowl-level talent with Doug Legursky and Colin Brown was set up to fail from the start. The offense has suffered with consistency because of the shortcomings at the left guard spot, and while left tackle Cordy Glenn has come into his own in his second season, he is not good enough to mask the deficiencies of the guy standing to his right.
It was a curious decision not to draft an interior lineman this past April, and the guard position will remain one of the highest priorities going forward.
Cyril Richardson was Robert Griffin III's left tackle before swinging inside to left guard for his final two seasons in Baylor. The Bears have been consistently good on offense even after RG3's departure, and Richardson's power-blocking attack is a big reason why.
At 340 pounds, Richardson would add some more meat to the Buffalo interior between Glenn and Wood. His athleticism for such a big man is what could make him a late first-round pick, but if he slips, Buffalo would be a good landing spot in Round 2.
7. Captain Munnerlyn, Cornerback, Carolina Panthers
Cornerback is not going to be listed on many football forecasting websites as a major need for Buffalo, but an upgrade in depth wouldn't be the worst thing.
Leodis McKelvin has been the best cornerback for the Bills in 2013 after he signed a cap-friendly four-year deal last March. While McKelvin has had an up-and-down career in Orchard Park, his skills translated well to the pressure defense run by defensive coordinator Mike Pettine.
Stephon Gilmore played the best game of his season in Week 14 against the Bucs, but the former first-round pick has been a disappointment in year two. His wrist injury—which cost him the first five games of the year—didn't help his progress in his sophomore season. If Gilmore can return to the level of play he displayed at the end of last season, the unit will be in much better shape moving forward.
Still, Nickell Robey is the only other corner playing at a serviceable level. Ron Brooks has not been able to stay healthy and Justin Rogers was booted after an unbelievably bad start to the year while filling in for the injured Gilmore.
Buffalo won't be in the market for some of the pricier names—Tim Jennings, Brent Grimes or Sam Shields—due to be available in free agency in 2014, but a second-tier corner is a distinct possibility
Captain Munnerlyn may not be a name everyone is familiar with, but the fifth-year corner is quietly having an outstanding year for the Carolina Panthers' stout defense. A former seventh-round selection out of South Carolina, Munnerlyn currently ranks 17th on Pro Football Focus' rankings with three games to play—only one spot behind studs Richard Sherman and Joe Haden (subscription required).
Carolina will probably re-sign Munnerlyn if the price is right, but he is at least worth a look on the open market.
6. Khalil Mack, Outside Linebacker, University of Buffalo
Every year about this time, once the Bills are out of contention, the murmurs about the Bills taking the top Buffalo Bulls player in the draft begin to surface on the message boards for the team. The connection tends to make sense, as long as the player fits a position of need, because the scouting department doesn't need to travel far to form their assessments.
The cupboard at the University of Buffalo has not been bare in recent years either. Josh Thomas, Trevor Scott and James Starks have all carved out decent careers for themselves after coming from the mid-level program. And Khalil Mack lends credence to the UB-to-Orchard Park rumors, because his talent slots him in the area the Bills will be picking in the 2014 first round.
Mack is a popular pick for draft mockers at this point in the year...and not without reason. As good as the pass rush has been for the Bills this year, neither Arthur Moats nor Nigel Bradham look like full-time players at outside linebacker. Jerry Hughes has eight sacks for the Bills after registering only five total during his three years in Indianapolis.
However, Hughes is a liability in coverage, so mixing him in with Manny Lawson makes a good deal of sense in the short term. Adding Mack in the first round has the potential to turn Buffalo's good defense into a great one without making drastic changes to other positions. He registered 94 tackles and 10.5 sacks as a senior this season and finished second in the Butkus Award voting to Alabama's C.J. Mosley.
If quarterbacks creep into the top 10 in bunches next April, defensive players like Mack would give the Bills an interesting decision when their pick comes around.
5. Vance Walker, Defensive Tackle, Oakland Raiders
Buffalo is poised to lose two of their best role players on the defensive line with Alex Carrington and Alan Branch set to become unrestricted free agents in the offseason. Carrington was a third-round selection out of Arkansas State back in 2010, while Branch signed a one-year deal with the Bills this past offseason.
Carrington began the year as a starter in the Bills' hybrid scheme at defensive end, but he was hurt in the third game of the year and was subsequently placed on injured reserve. The fourth-year player was pegged this past offseason by Pro Football Focus as a "Secret Superstar" after showing promising signs at the tail end of last season. His injury might allow the Bills to buy low, but he was drafted by the previous regime and has not been a high-level producer to this point.
Branch was signed to fill in behind Marcell Dareus as a run-stuffer up the middle. He served his purpose for a season, but the Bills could use more stability behind Dareus and Kyle Williams.
Vance Walker signed a one-year deal with the Oakland Raiders in the offseason after four solid seasons with the Atlanta Falcons. Walker was mainly a run defender in Atlanta, but he has graded out well as a more complete player with the Raiders in 2013. According to PFF, his stats against the run are down (plus-1.9 versus plus-4.8 in 2012), but a career high three sacks should make him a valuable dual-threat asset on the open market.
Walker performed well on a "prove it" contract with the Raiders and he would be a nice rotational player for a struggling Bills run defense.
4. Eric Ebron, Tight End, North Carolina
Tight end hasn't been much of a hub for production for the Buffalo Bills. While a majority of the rest of the league has moved to tight end-focused offenses, the Bills have refused to take the position seriously.
Scott Chandler has been the best player at the position since Pete Metzelaars last donned a Bills jersey in 1994. Chandler was a waiver claim from Dallas in 2010 and has developed nice rapport with Ryan Fitzpatrick and now EJ Manuel. The former Iowa Hawkeye has turned in back-to-back seasons with at least 40 catches and 500 yards, although his touchdown numbers are down during Manuel's rookie season.
There is nothing wrong with Chandler per say, as his numbers are better than half of the starting tight ends in the NFL, but an ultra-athletic playmaker in the mold of Jimmy Graham would transform the offense.
The first time I saw Eric Ebron catch a pass last season, I knew nothing about his talent level or potential NFL prospects, but he won a jump ball over a defender and got his toes just inside the back line of the end zone for a touchdown.
I was instantly hooked.
Ebron's does not have that combination of sound blocking technique and elite physical ability like Rob Gronkowski, but the UNC junior is a matchup nightmare for opposing linebackers. He is big enough (6'4") and strong enough to snatch balls in traffic. And if you lose Ebron in the open field, there is a good chance he will find paydirt at the end of the play.
3. Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Tight End, University of Washington
The reasons for needing an upgrade at tight were mentioned on the previous slide, but Austin Seferian-Jenkins provides a different set of intangibles compared to Ebron. Seferian-Jenkins is more in line with an Antonio Gates or Rob Gronkowski type of tight end because of his build. At 6'6" and 265 pounds, the Washington junior packs a punch wherever he lines up.
Like Gronkowski, Seferian-Jenkins is a unique blend of size and quickness. He will never be blazing fast in a 40-yard dash, but he is always open because of his catch radius. Buffalo has seen first hand how Gronk when healthy changes the complexion of the Patriots' offense; there is not a linebacker in the NFL who can shut him down for an entire game.
Unlike Gronkowski, Seferian-Jenkins has a separate set of question marks coming into the draft. The Huskies' tight end was arrested for DUI in March of this year, raising potential red flags about his character. Seferian-Jenkins has since taken full responsibility for his actions and has responded by talking to Seattle-area high schoolers about the dangers of drinking and driving.
There will still be questions about his decision-making and drinking during the pre-draft process, but if that checks out, he could be looking at a big payday come April.
2. Mike Evans, Wide Receiver, Texas A&M University
Are you seeing a trend yet?
Big, strong and fast has to be the name of the game for Buffalo next offseason. The Bills have a great possession receiver in Stevie Johnson and a handful of great speed guys on the outside.
But what about a big target?
A redshirt sophomore, Evans has had a meteoric rise this season catching passes from defending Heisman winner Johnny Manziel. The 6'5" receiver has caught 65 passes for 1,322 yards and 12 touchdowns, while averaging an eye-popping 20 yards per catch. Like Seferian-Jenkins listed on the slide previous, Evans does not have elite straight-line speed, but his yards after the catch leaves NFL fans licking their chops as a potential addition to their favorite squad.
1. Jairus Byrd, Free Safety, Buffalo Bills
If Buffalo really had any questions about Jairus Byrd's place among the elite safeties in the NFL, it should have its answer after another outstanding season by the five-year vet.
Byrd missed five games at the start the year due to plantar fasciitis, and there was a presumption that Byrd was pouting after getting slapped with the franchise tag in the offseason.
Playing on a one-year tender, Byrd has played at a Pro Bowl level since coming back from injury and is tied for the team lead with four interceptions. There is a distinct difference in the level of play in the secondary when Byrd is on the field, so the Bills would be wise to keep him around for the long term.
Keeping Byrd will not be cheap, but investing in a homegrown Pro Bowler and fan favorite is a no-brainer decision for a franchise struggling to get out of a vicious cycle of mediocrity.
Time to pay up Buffalo.