Projecting the Buffalo Bills Depth Chart After Peak of Free Agency
The Buffalo Bills have arguably endured their toughest week in franchise history, which has temporarily marred the product slowly being built to the front office's liking after three weeks of free agency. While the focus remains on the passing of their franchise patriarch, Ralph Wilson Jr., and the instability suddenly surrounding their future in Buffalo, the Bills continue to bring new pieces to the table.
As expected, there were no big waves made during the early stages of free agency despite the team possessing one of the best cap numbers in the league. Losing Jairus Byrd to the New Orleans Saints early in the week put fans in a sullen mood, but the unheralded moves made after the frenzy had settled make the Bills more well-rounded in the short-term.
With another six weeks of static until the NFL draft pulls into full gear, let's take a look at how the depth chart is shaping up after the peak of free-agent signings.
- EJ Manuel
- Thad Lewis
- Jeff Tuel
Not much will change between now and the summer for the Bills' quarterback situation. With Kevin Kolb's career being threatened by yet another concussion last preseason, his release was not much of a surprise before the start of free agency.
The starting gig is still Manuel's to lose for two reasons. First, he was a first-round pick only 11 months ago and played in only 10 games because of injury. The team will need to see what Manuel can do while being healthy before it chooses to move on or not.
Second, Manuel showed enough flashes of talent to deserve the spot over backup Lewis. Lewis was a little above average in spot duty last season, but his negative plays outweighed the positives by the end of the season. There is no question Lewis can aptly fill in if needed, but the Bills will be in trouble if they have to rely on him as much as they did last season.
Tuel is still a developmental project for the Bills' coaching staff, but the NFL is a competitive business. If the Bills have a chance to draft a mid-round quarterback who could project as a future backup, Tuel might have some competition come July.
- C.J. Spiller
- Fred Jackson
- Anthony Dixon
The top two running backs will remain unchanged for the fourth consecutive season, as the Bills will once again look to be one of the best rush offenses in the league. A mix of Spiller's speed and Jackson's tough running in between the tackles makes them one of the best one-two punches in the NFL. However, that proclamation is only true if the duo can stay healthy.
Spiller fought through a bad ankle sprain for the better part of the 2013 season and fell well short of expectations after a dominant 2012 season. The former Clemson back hasn't lost any of the speed that made him a top-10 selection only a few years ago, but staying healthy is a huge concern for the team moving forward.
Jackson is what he is at this stage in his career. While most running backs his age have been sitting on the couch for a few seasons, Jackson continues to churn out production for the only NFL team he has ever known.
Dixon was an interesting bargain signing for the Bills, as he doesn't fit the mold of a traditional third-down back who's an asset in the run and pass game. What Dixon does do well is get tough yardage in short-to-go situations—something the Bills have struggled with in the past. Jackson has filled that role at certain times during his career, but a younger power option in Dixon completes the depth chart at the position.
- Stevie Johnson
- Robert Woods
- Marquise Goodwin
- TJ Graham
- Chris Hogan
- Marcus Easley
The only move the Bills made in the wide receiver market was adding former New York Giants receiver Ramses Barden, which means Johnson and Woods will once again be the top targets for Manuel.
Johnson had his worst season as a starting receiver in the NFL while dealing with inconsistent quarterback play and personal issues off the field. A bad season doesn't change Johnson's spot as the top receiver on the depth chart unless the Bills elect to draft a receiver high in May.
Woods showed why he was a second-round pick with 40 catches and nearly 600 yards during his rookie season. As with all of the receivers, his production took a hit with poor quarterback play for a majority of the season, but he is the type of receiver who should make Manuel better in his sophomore season.
Speedsters Goodwin and Graham will both see time in the slot trying to stretch the field. Graham has been a disappointment after two seasons, but Goodwin made several big plays over the course of his rookie season. The second-year player should have the inside track on the third-receiver spot entering the preseason.
Hogan and Easley are roster fillers for the time being. Hogan is a nice story and a good route-runner, but another drafted receiver could push him off the roster. Time has essentially ran out for Easley to become a part of the Bills offense, but his special teams prowess makes him a valuable asset.
- Scott Chandler
- Lee Smith
- Chris Gragg
- Tony Moeaki
The Bills made two smart moves in dealing with Chandler during free agency. Buffalo allowed its starting tight end to test the market initially before signing him to a bargain two-year deal. Chandler probably didn't like the interest he was receiving from other teams—or lack thereof—and the Bills were able to re-sign him.
Chandler will never be an elite tight end in the NFL, but he fills the need of a big red-zone target. Smith is second on the depth chart because of his value as a blocking tight end in tough-yardage sets, but he offers very little in passing-game production.
Gragg and Moeaki will likely battle for one roster spot as the team looks to improve the position in the draft.
- Cordy Glenn
- Chris Hairston
- Chris Williams
- Doug Legursky
- Eric Wood
- Kraig Urbik
- Joe Unga
- Antoine McClain
- Erik Pears
The Bills' first order of business during free agency was addressing a guard positional unit which ranked among the worst in the league last season. Left guard was a turnstile with Doug Legursky and Colin Brown splitting duties.
Chris Williams started all 16 games at guard for the St. Louis Rams last season but actually graded out worse than Legursky according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). The ranking is far from the end-all, be-all, and Williams was probably added because of his size—6'6" and 330 pounds.
The former first-round pick has been a disappointment for both the Rams and the Chicago Bears, but maybe offensive line specialist Doug Marrone can fix his issues.
Glenn and Wood will be mainstays at their respective positions for the foreseeable future barring injuries. The right side of the line still needs work with Urbik and Pears slotted next to Wood, and fans expect the team to add a starting-caliber upgrade over Pears by the end of the draft.
- Mario Williams
- Alan Branch
- Jerry Hughes
- Manny Lawson
The "switch" to a more conventional 4-3 defense under Jim Schwartz means Williams and Hughes will be spending more time with their hands in the dirt compared to last season. If the new Bills defensive coordinator wants as much production out of the pair, he will have to move them around like Mike Pettine did so well.
All four guys on the depth chart will see plenty of playing time under Schwartz. Williams is the only true three-down end of the group and won't come off the field much, but Branch and Hughes serve specific roles well for the Bills.
Branch is a huge asset in obvious running situations, and Hughes' confidence has to be sky high after a breakout season in his first with the Bills. Lawson has a good chance at splitting time between linebacker and end, but the addition of Keith Rivers makes a switch back to end a smart decision.
Losing Alex Carrington might hurt more than people realize because his positional ambiguity gave the defense flexibility where to place him based on situation.
- Kyle Williams
- Marcell Dareus
- Stefan Charles
- Corbin Bryant
Defensive tackle is another position which will see no major alterations from last season. Kyle Williams and Dareus are cemented into the starting spots, which is bad news for the rest of the AFC East. Schwartz is used to having defensive tackles, and a lot of his game-planned pressures come from the middle of the line—as evidenced by Ndamukong Suh's 27.5 sacks in four seasons with Detroit.
Dareus had a breakout season in his third year, and both the Bills' starting defensive tackles made the Pro Bowl, which is no small feat for the franchise.
Charles is a player who could see a dramatic increase in playing time under Schwartz, after being signed off the Titans practice squad in the middle of last season. He was a highly touted player coming out of Canada last offseason, and a strong offseason will surely make him the team's third tackle in the rotation.
- Kiko Alonso
- Keith Rivers
- Ty Powell
- Nigel Bradham
Alonso's rookie season on the inside was nothing short of remarkable, but a change in defensive philosophy has kicked him outside for Year 2. His speed and coverage abilities will work just as well on the outside, while giving the Bills more reliability in sideline-to-sideline coverage.
Buffalo's low-risk signing of Rivers gives it a linebacker who can play inside or outside in the 4-3, but expectations are that he will begin the preseason on the outside. Rivers is another former first-round selection who hasn't lived up to expectations, and that formula has seemed to work for the team in recent years.
Powell was a practice squad addition last year after being cut by the Seahawks and was considered a possible candidate for a starting spot before Rivers was signed. Bradham might be a member of the roster bubble after playing himself out of a starting spot last year.
- Brandon Spikes
- Keith Rivers
It may take some getting used to seeing former New England Patriot linebacker Spikes in royal blue and red come August. Spikes was often the recipient of tongue-lashing from Bills fans for his rough style of play, most notably a 2012 hit on Ryan Fitzpatrick in Week 4.
The Bills have needed a run-stuffing inside linebacker since London Fletcher left the team for the Washington Redskins. Alonso was good at times, but Spikes is a more traditional downhill run-stuffer. His liabilities in the passing game are well-documented, but the team can mask those issues with good coverage guys in Alonso and Lawson.
- Stephon Gilmore
- Leodis McKelvin
- Corey Graham
- Nickell Robey
- Ron Brooks
The Bills pass defense struggled at times in 2013, but the unit showed a glimpse of its potential once it was fully healthy at the end of the year. Gilmore was a completely different player after the club protecting his broken wrist came off, and McKelvin had one of his best seasons in his first following an extension.
New signee, Graham, has a very good chance a supplanting McKelvin as a starter on the outside at some point during the season, but McKelvin's familiarity with the team gives him the nod for now. The Bills did well to add Graham in an oversaturated cornerback market and gives them plenty of depth should injuries continue to be an issue.
Robey had a very good year as an undrafted rookie but is better suited to cover an opponent's fourth or fifth receiver due to his size. Brooks is another good nickel corner but needs to stay on the field if he wants to make the team.
- Aaron Williams
- Da'Norris Searcy
- Duke Williams
- Jonathan Meeks
The biggest story of the offseason in terms of personnel has been the loss of Jairus Byrd to the Saints and what the Bills' plan is to fill his All-Pro production.
Aaron Williams' move from corner to safety last offseason was a major boost for the unit, as the switch allowed Williams to focus more on what was developing in front of him. His size (6'0", 199 lbs) and speed give him the potential to mimic Byrd's style of play, but the question remains whether he can produce as the top dog on the depth chart.
Searcy steps in as the second safety for the time being, but a rookie might also be a solution here by May. The Bills did spend two draft picks on safeties last year, but neither guy saw much time on defense during their rookie seasons.
- Dan Carpenter
- Dustin Hopkins
- Brian Moorman
Signing Carpenter after a career year made plenty of sense for the Bills, but it doesn't solve how sixth-round pick Hopkins fits into the equation. Hopkins was and probably still is the future of the position for the Bills, but Carpenter's new contract complicates that original plan. It is hard to ignore how good Carpenter was in a Bills uniform, and Hopkins is still unproven as a professional, despite being the best kicker in the history of the ACC.
Moorman's comeback to Buffalo was one of the best stories of the 2013 season. He will have a place on the Bills' Wall of Fame someday, but how much does he have left in the tank? The Bills will bring in some type of camp competition, and Moorman could have one of the shortest leashes on the team if he doesn't do well early in the season.
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