EJ Manuel was a bit of a surprise in 2013. Who are some players that could help the Bills moving forward?
The Buffalo Bills are one game away from completing their ninth straight losing season and 14th in a row without making the AFC playoffs. Despite the usual end-of-season doom-and-gloom rumblings, the Bills have plenty to be happy about entering the 2014 offseason.
Last offseason might go down as one of the best in recent Bills lore. The additions by then-general manager Buddy Nix and GM-in-waiting Doug Whaley did not have the high-profile nature of 2012 signee Mario Williams, but the front office plugged many of the team's holes with creative, low-cost alternatives.
Alan Branch and Manny Lawson were two under-the-radar moves after the first week of free agency who had a great impact on the defense improving in 2013. Add in two heady trades for Jerry Hughes and Thad Lewis, and the Bills might have made the best veteran moves that didn't make national headlines.
The early personnel moves plugged temporary holes, but an excellent draft class and subsequent undrafted free-agent signings laid the foundation for future success. The Bills have gotten immediate impact from four of their eight draft picks, and great play by UDFA Nickell Robey has solidified the nickel corner position for the foreseeable future.
The Bills' progress with a young roster is hard to measure by a quick glance at the standings, but the team does in fact look closer to competing than it has in past years. On Sunday, the Bills clinched their first non-losing record in divisional play for the first time since 2007, and if they somehow upset the Patriots on December 29, the Bills will finish with the best in-division record in the AFC East.
Still, the Bills are another year away from a playoff run if they can accomplish similar results in the 2014 offseason as they did this past year. The front office will be wise to focus on the team's own free agents—Jairus Byrd for example—so the draft will once again need to be a source for upgrading several glaring issues on the roster.
The players on the following slides will be available at different points in the draft, but all fit a specific need for building a culture of winning in Orchard Park.
Stanley Jean-Baptiste is a corner who would give the Bills some much needed height.
Cornerback is not a huge need for the Bills, especially with the revelation of Robey as an instant contributor to the Bills' highly touted defense. Stephon Gilmore and Leodis McKelvin will start for the next few seasons, but after those three players, there are enough question marks to warrant spending a mid-round selection on a corner.
Receiver-turned-cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste has plenty to overcome to become a mainstay at corner in the NFL, but the potential is certainly there. Jean-Baptiste did not begin playing the position until his sophomore season at Nebraska, but he immediately flashed a nose for the football. He had three interceptions and 10 passes defensed during his first two seasons on the defensive side of the ball.
Jean-Baptiste saved his best season for last, as the senior has four interceptions and 11 pass breakups heading into the Huskers' Gator Bowl appearances on New Year's Day. Those numbers are good enough for top five in both categories in the Big Ten.
The Husker is a player who might fly up draft boards with a good combine showing, and considering the need for taller corners, Jean-Baptiste's 6'2" frame could earn him a nice payday come May. Jean-Baptiste is far from a polished product and his tape shows that, but it's hard to teach the size and ball skills he possesses.
Nickoe Whitley stripped Bo Wallace to preserve an Egg Bowl victory and his play-making ability could fill a need late.
Life without Byrd is a harsh reality for Bills fans. Ideally the two sides will come to a record-breaking agreement in the offseason, especially considering Byrd's continued excellent play in another new scheme. However, the Pro Bowl safety will certainly receive several high-dollar offers from around the league should the Bills not figure out a way to keep him around on a new deal.
The Bills prepared for Byrd's possible holdout this season by selecting Duke Williams and Jonathan Meeks in the middle of the 2013 draft. Neither player has seen many snaps on defense in their rookie seasons, so it is hard to tell if they could be solutions to their potential safety problem.
Depending on how the offseason plays out, Buffalo could once again be in the market for a young ball-hawk safety come draft time.
Nickoe Whitley started four years for the Mississippi State Bulldogs and hauled in 15 interceptions in the process. The senior safety never finished with less than three interceptions in any season and was at or near the top of the SEC in each of the past two seasons.
Perhaps the most impressive trait of Whitley is his toughness. The Bulldog player tore his ACL in the third week of the season—a game where he picked off Auburn's Nick Marshall twice in a 24-20 loss to the eventual SEC champs. Instead of ending his season following the injury, Whitley played the remainder of the season on the balky knee and intercepted three more passes in the process.
Whitley will miss Mississippi State's bowl game against Oklahoma State in hopes that he will be ready for pre-draft workouts. The injury may scare some teams away, but if Whitley drops to the late rounds, he will provide great value for a team willing to give him a chance.
Tiny Richardson is a road-grader who would be a definite upgrade on the right side.
The offensive line woes for the Buffalo Bills has to be weighing heavily on the mind of Whaley and his staff. C.J. Spiller regressed behind a porous line, and Buffalo's young quarterbacks got hit more than the staff would probably like.
The Bills rely on the run game to set up the run, but too many rush attempts ended in negative yardage during the 2013 campaign. Left guard and right tackle could use the biggest upgrades, although Kraig Urbik and Eric Wood have had very average years at right guard and center, respectively.
A few different tackles have been mocked to the Bills since draft websites began drumming up possibilities in early November. However, guys like Taylor Lewan or Cameron Erving are likely to be drafted highly as left tackles, and Cordy Glenn is holding his own on the blind side for the Bills.
Antonio "Tiny" Richardson is another possible first-round prospect at tackle, but he fits more into the Bills needs for a run-blocking guy. Richardson would be fine on the left side, but sliding his big frame onto the right side would give the Bills powerful blockers on both ends of the line.
Pass-rusher outside of the first round? Yes please.
Khalil Mack to Buffalo has been a popular choice for mockers early in the process, but Buffalo is more than an outside linebacker away from being competitive.
The Bills have shuffled in four players extensively at outside linebacker this year—Manny Lawson, Jerry Hughes, Arthur Moats and Nigel Bradham—but Moats and Bradham are players left over from the previous regime. Outside of Anthony Barr somehow falling to where the Bills select, they would be wise to fill other needs in the first round.
A possible solution in the middle of the draft is SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year Michael Sam. Sam, a talented defensive end for Mizzou, broke onto the scene with 10.5 sacks and 18 tackles for loss during his senior season. His numbers were tops in the SEC in individual statistics for sacks and TFL, which earned him a consensus First-Team All-American nod from the Walter Camp Football Foundation a few weeks ago.
Sam is not as talented as his predecessor on the Tigers line, Aldon Smith, but he does have upside as a situational rusher in the NFL similar to current Bill, Hughes. He is a bit of a tweener who will need to show improved coverage skills during the workout process, but Sam's work ethic will be good enough to be a mid-round pick in May.
If he can use his effort to mask his physical limitations, Sam might be a good fit for the Bills in their hybrid defense under coordinator Mike Pettine.
Mike Evans is getting the love, but Jordan Matthews is a big receiver with big-play potential.
Speed is not an issue for the Buffalo Bills' receiving corps, but size continues to be one. The team took a chance on Da'Rick Rogers as an unrestricted free agent out of Tennessee Tech, but Rogers became a bigger project than it thought and it cut him loose during training camp.
Currently the Bills' biggest receiver is the sparingly used Marcus Easley, who stands at 6'2" and has become more of a special teams ace than playmaking pass-catcher. Stevie Johnson is the next in line, but 2013 has become a season full of inconsistency and turmoil for the sixth-year player.
Texas A&M's Mike Evans has vaulted himself into top 10 consideration, but it is the 6'3" Jordan Matthews who leads the SEC in receiving yards and receptions. Matthews set several SEC records while playing with Jordan Rodgers for three years, including career receptions and receiving yards, but his best season came this year at the hands of Austyn Carta-Samuels. Matthews accounted for nearly half of the Commodores' passing yardage.
A first-round receiver is a nice thought, but Matthews in the second round would be a nice investment for a Bills squad searching for consistency at the position.
Big. Nasty. Interior lineman.
The Bills possess two of the worst left guards in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required for premium stats) with Colin Brown and Doug Legursky. The tandem didn't look good heading into the 2013 season, and they proved worthy of the worry fans had in regard to their run-blocking abilities.
Enter Cyril Richardson next to Cordy Glenn on the left side and you immediately have a punishing attack to combat the big defensive lines in the AFC East. Richardson has blocked for three high-flying offenses during his time in green and gold, which has led to his being named Offensive Lineman of the Year in the Big 12 in back-to-back seasons.
Richardson was named a First-Team All-American at guard alongside David Yankey from Stanford, but Richardson's powerful frame will help Buffalo's run-focused offense at the next level.