This is sure to be one of the more important offseasons for the Buffalo Bills. Last year saw a lot of change throughout the organization at key positions. Unfortunately, those changes did not lead to immediate results, as the team finished with a 6-10 record for the third year in a row.
The Bills franchise has a number of important decisions to make, ones that could have a major impact on whether the team ends in 2014 the longest playoff drought in the NFL.
These are the five toughest decisions the Bills will have to make this offseason.
One of Buffalo's best moves last year was signing Mike Pettine to run the defense. The team saw a major turnaround in a number of categories including total yards, where it improved from 22nd in 2012 to 10th in 2013, and sacks, where they jumped from 18th in 2012 to second in 2013.
This didn't go unnoticed throughout the NFL, and the Cleveland Browns have considered Pettine as a potential candidate for their head coaching vacancy. He obviously impressed the Browns because ESPN's Chris Mortensen tweeted that Pettine is expected to have a second interview.
If the Bills were to lose Pettine to the Browns, it would raise the question of where to go from here? Mike Rodak of ESPN.com does a good job of explaining the "what ifs" and who may follow Pettine should he depart, including outside linebackers coach Jim O'Neil and defensive line coach Anthony Weaver.
Rodak believes that Buffalo would like to replace Pettine with another experienced defensive coordinator, but it being so late in the offseason, that may be tough to do. One person who fits this category and whom Bills fans knows well is Wade Phillips.
Phillips has had a good track record as defensive coordinator and, from this tweet last week, sounds like he still wants a job. If Pettine was to leave, bringing in a coach like Phillips would not be a bad replacement.
No need to raise your hand Jairus Byrd, the Bills front office is well aware of you.
Before the potential departure of Mike Pettine, deciding what to do with the team's starting free safety was its top priority.
The Bills have three options this offseason when it pertains to Jairus Byrd: let him walk in free agency, use the franchise tag once more or work out a long-term deal. The first option seems highly unlikely, and if the two sides are not able to come to an agreement, the franchise tag may be the only option left.
Before the season, Byrd had made it known that he wanted to be the highest-paid safety in the NFL, and after another Pro Bowl season, those demands probably haven't changed. The Bills may be warming to the idea, as they had already stated they want to re-sign Byrd knowing full well his salary demands.
According to Overthecap.com the highest-paid safety is Troy Polamalu, who has an average salary of just over $9.8 million. If Buffalo decides to go the franchise tag route once more, the team would have to offer him a one-year deal worth 120 percent of his 2013 salary. This means the Bills would have to pay Byrd $8.29 million this coming season and eat up a good chunk of the money they can spend this offseason.
If the Bills are able to work out a long-term deal they could write the contract to spread the salary out over the length and not take such a large hit this offseason. This will be one of the major storylines over the next few months and will play a key role on what the Bills do in free agency and the draft.
The decision on what the Bills should do about Steve Johnson has been one of the more hotly debated issues among the Bills fanbase. After a down year and a costly turnover late against Atlanta, many have wondered if he is a number one wide receiver and if the team should release him.
This by no means an open-and-shut case for the Bills, as a strong argument could be made either way. Joe Buscaglia of WGR 550 made the case back at the beginning of January why the Bills may release him:
Wide receiver Stevie Johnson tops the list not only because his contract takes a giant leap in how much he's owed on the cap (almost a $3 million jump), but because perhaps the Bills have a player that has a similar skill-set to him starting on their roster (Robert Woods).
Releasing Johnson, though, would be a mistake in my opinion. The idea to cut him for financial reasons does not make a lot of sense, because Buffalo is well under the salary cap and Johnson has a very reasonable contract for a wide receiver.
While many will point to the idea that Johnson is not a number one wide receiver, he is not paid like one either.
If Buffalo were to release Johnson, the team would create another need that will have to be addressed this offseason and what the Bills save by releasing him would not be enough to lure a free-agent wide receiver to Buffalo. This means they would need to fill this spot through the draft, and outside of Sammy Watkins, I don't believe there is a true number one wide receiver.
The Bills best option this year would be to keep Johnson on this team, unless they were confident in the idea they could bring in a true number one wideout.
The NFL draft is a little more than three months away, and there is still a lot left unknown that will decide what direction the Bills take.
For example, if Steve Johnson is released, a target for EJ Manuel becomes a bigger need than tightening up the run defense with a linebacker.
With everything coordinator Mike Pettine did for this defense, the one thing he was not able to correct was finding personnel packages and a scheme to effectively stop the run. The Bills finished 28th in NFL against the run and gave up an average of 128.9 yards per game on the ground.
As well as Kiko Alonso played this past season, the Bills do not have a true run-stuffing linebacker who can shed blockers and attack the running back behind the line of scrimmage. This is where a player like Khalil Mack would be able to thrive and really help this defense.
Mack is currently ranked as the ninth overall prospect on CBS Sports and was projected to go to the Bills with their ninth pick in Rob Rang's mock draft. He finished his career with an FBS record of 75 tackles for a loss playing for the University of Buffalo.
Another direction this team could take would be to find a big target for EJ Manuel in the passing game. There are a couple of players who would fit this category in the first round including tight end Eric Ebron from University of North Carolina and wide receiver Mike Evans of Texas A&M. The passing game struggled this year however this was more due to the fact the team had a revolving door at quarterback due to injuries and the offensive line really struggled.
If the Bills do not release Johnson, drafting a wide receiver or tight end early in this draft would be more of a luxury pick and fail to fix some of the bigger problems the team had in 2013.
Marcell Dareus was having a career year but ended the 2013 season on a down note.
As reported by CBS Sports' Jason La Canfora, Dareus was suspended for the first quarter in Buffalo's Week 16 victory over the Miami Dolphins for violating team rules. The suspension did not seem to have an impact as he was suspended for the same reason the following week for the first half against the New England Patriots.
The Bills drafted the defensive tackle with the third overall pick in 2011, and while he has had an up-and-down career, there is no question that he is extremely talented. The question surrounding Dareus, though, is whether he will continue to be a problem for the team in the future.
It is concerning that Dareus is in his third year and struggling with showing up on time for meetings and practices. La Canfora also noted that Dareus has had issues with the new coaching staff. This type of behavior could have the Bills looking to trade Dareus.
Unfortunately for Buffalo they made a sizable commitment by selecting the big DT so high only three years ago. So just releasing him would seem to be a waste. If the Bills are able to get fair value back through a trade it may be worth the move to avoid any headaches in 2014.