The Buffalo Bills went through a number of growing pains last year, which is common for an inexperienced team that is trying to learn how to win in the NFL. Fans are hoping those pains will go away next season with the players having a year under their belts. They hope that the team can finally get back to the playoffs in 2014.
The one player whom the Bills need the most to break out next year is quarterback EJ Manuel. Last year when he was at the top of his game, the offense looked effective with a good balance of running and passing.
Here are five players on the Buffalo Bills who should break out next season.
EJ Manuel was put in a tough situation last year. He was the first quarterback taken in last year's draft and wasn't considered the type of passer who could start Week 1. That ended up being the case, even after he missed the majority of training camp due to a knee injury.
He went on to suffer two more knee injuries over the course of the season and was only able to start 10 games. It was a roller-coaster season for Manuel; the highs were really high, particularly the comeback win against Carolina, and the lows were really low, like the four-interception game against Tampa Bay.
This is more the rule than the exception for rookie quarterbacks. The Bills have made it a point to try and give him the support he needs to be successful, including the hiring of quarterback coach Todd Downing.
The plan in free agency and the draft should follow this same train of thought by strengthening the offensive line to give Manuel the time to make plays. If the Bills can do this, the pressure will be on him to deliver.
Like Manuel, Stephon Gilmore is a former first-round pick who has shown glimpses of the type of player he can be. The problem is that he has not shown it with consistency.
General manager Doug Whaley expected Gilmore to have his breakout year last season when he announced Gilmore had "made a leap" last offseason, per Pro Football Talk. A broken wrist suffered in the preseason slowed his progress down this year, but down the stretch he started to regain his form as a top cornerback.
Pro Football Focus (subscription required) gave him an overall rating of minus-2.6 over the course of the season. However, over the final four games of the year, he had an overall rating of 6.7 and didn't record a single negative grade.
Gilmore has the ability to be one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL, and 2014 may finally be the year that he enters that discussion.
Last year, the Bills coaching staff seemed to have trouble finding a place for Nigel Bradham in the defense. The linebacker played in all 16 games but only played more than 20 snaps in five of those games. In four of those five games, his performance on the field earned a positive rating from Pro Football Focus.
That could all change this year, as he looks like a much better fit in Jim Schwartz's defense. ESPN's Matt Williamson talked about Nigel Bradham and how he fits in this defense:
I think he fits this new scheme better than the old scheme. I think he can run and hit well enough to be maybe an OK 4-3 outside linebacker. ... I don't think [Sam and Will] are all the distinguishable in Detroit's system. It think they're more left and right [outside linebackers], run and hit guys. I don't remember them having any 6-3, 245-pound 'Sam' guys. It's more that they're outside linebackers are interchangeable than the old school Bucs, Tampa-2.
Entering his third year and with this new defensive scheme, Bradham could be in line for a breakout season.
The revolving door at quarterback last season had a major impact on the Bills wide receivers, and Robert Woods may have been the most affected. It was night and day when Manuel was under center compared to Thad Lewis or Jeff Tuel.
In the eight games that Manuel and Woods played together, the pass-catcher averaged 3.25 receptions and 50.75 yards per game. Those numbers dropped to 2.3 receptions and 30.2 yards per game in the six games that Manuel was out.
It was clear last year that Woods and Manuel had a good connection on the field. Woods was a bigger part of the offense when Manuel was under center, and a full offseason of practice and training will only improve their chemistry.
This is more of a long shot, given how talented the defensive line already is. Stefan Charles has talent, but he may not receive enough playing time to truly break out.
Last year, he only played 82 snaps but saw his most substantial playing time in Week 17 against the Patriots, showing a lot of potential. With Marcell Dareus serving a suspension in the first half, Charles got the nod to start next to Kyle Williams. He finished the game with five stops and a sack on Tom Brady in only 21 snaps.
Entering his second season in the NFL, Charles provides great depth at the defensive tackle position, and it should come as no surprise to see No. 96 on the field more in 2014.