Breaking Down the Buffalo Bills Roster After the 2014 Draft
The Buffalo Bills’ official roster stood at 80 players as of 6 a.m. Tuesday, but the team is also reportedly set to sign former University of Minnesota cornerback Mike Carter (who went undrafted in 2013 and has not played an NFL game), according to Aaron Wilson of The Baltimore Sun.
Should all nine of those undrafted free agents sign contracts with the team, the Bills will reach the 90-man roster limit. There could be more veteran releases in store, however, while some of those undrafted rookies, as their signings have not yet been announced by the team, might only be coming to Buffalo on a tryout basis during rookie minicamp.
Nonetheless, most if not all of Buffalo's 2014 depth chart will be made up of players who were either already on the roster, drafted by the team or signed as a free agent. So although the start of training camp remains more than two months away, we can start to take a look at who will comprise the Bills’ roster for the upcoming season.
Note: All players whose signings remain unconfirmed by the team are denoted by an asterisk (*).
UPDATE, 1:30 p.m. ET Tuesday: The Bills officially announced the additions of nine undrafted free agents Tuesday afternoon. Those players are no longer denoted by an asterisk.
Projected Depth Chart:
1. EJ Manuel
2. Thad Lewis
3. Jeff Tuel/Dennis Dixon/Kenny Guiton*
The Bills made it clear all offseason, both verbally and through their lack of any major additions at the position, that they are fully committed to starting EJ Manuel, who's going into his second NFL season, as the quarterback.
Manuel had a rough rookie year in which he missed six regular-season games due to knee injuries and completed just 58.8 percent of his passes, but the 2013 first-round pick remains the key to the franchise’s success, at least for 2014. The team is banking on the potential for the big, athletic, strong-armed passer to improve in his sophomore campaign.
Behind him, Thad Lewis should be solidly entrenched as the No. 2 quarterback on Buffalo's depth chart. Lewis was initially released by the Bills after a late trade to the team last preseason, but he ended up being elevated from the practice squad and becoming the fill-in starter for Buffalo when Manuel went down with injuries.
When Lewis got opportunities to play, including five starts, he performed admirably. While his 59.2 completion percentage shouldn't be viewed as anything special, he proved he can step in quickly when called upon and was able to lead the Bills to two victories.
There should be a legitimate competition in training camp for the third-string quarterback job. Jeff Tuel showed potential last preseason as an undrafted rookie, but the results were disastrous when he was called upon to play in two regular-season games. In those contests, including one start, Tuel completed just 44.1 percent of his passes and threw three interceptions to just one touchdown.
One potential challenger could be Kenny Guiton, an undrafted rookie from Ohio State who has not been signed yet as an undrafted free agent but has received a camp invitation from the Bills, according to WBNS-TV's David Wilkinson. Guiton was a backup for the Buckeyes but performed well when he was called into duty. He has enough arm strength and athleticism that he could win the third-string job if he is able to earn a roster spot after rookie minicamp.
Dennis Dixon, who spent most of last season on the Bills’ practice squad, is a long shot who has not been on an NFL regular-season roster since 2011.
Projected Depth Chart:
1. C.J. Spiller
2. Fred Jackson
3. Bryce Brown
4. Anthony Dixon
FB: Frank Summers
Long Shots to Make Roster: FB Evan Rodriguez, RB Ronnie Wingo
The one-two punch of C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson could evolve into a three-headed monster with Buffalo's draft-weekend acquisition of Bryce Brown from the Philadelphia Eagles in exchange for a 2015 conditional fourth-round pick.
Despite a tweet from Eagles running back LeSean McCoy that declared Brown would be a "starter day 1" for the Bills (which led to a playful exchange with Jackson on Twitter), Brown is likely to be the third-string running back on Buffalo's depth chart. While Spiller and Jackson have combined for 4,752 yards and 24 touchdowns from scrimmage over the past two seasons, Brown has totaled 1,018 yards and six touchdowns.
That said, it's evident the Bills are looking to put pressure on Spiller and Jackson, who could both become free agents in 2015. Spiller suffered from a disappointing drop-off in production this past season, while the 33-year-old Jackson is at a point in his career where he could face an uphill battle to sustain his starting-caliber level of performance.
Brown did not receive a great deal of carries as McCoy's backup in Philadelphia, and he likely won't in Buffalo, at least for 2014, but he is a big, explosive runner with big-play potential. Considering the Bills also attempted to trade up for Ohio State running back Carlos Hyde in the 2014 NFL draft before trading for Brown, according to Chris Brown of BuffaloBills.com, it seems the Bills might be ready for a changing of the guard in their backfield.
Regardless of how the depth chart ultimately stacks up, the Bills should do their best to be creative and find ways to get the ball in all three of the top backs' hands. Veteran free agent addition Anthony Dixon, a big power back who played his first four NFL seasons with the San Francisco 49ers, could also be an asset as a goal-line and short-yardage runner.
Frank Summers demonstrated some value as a lead blocker and receiver out of the backfield last season, and he should be retained as the team's fullback. Evan Rodriguez was a midseason pickup at fullback last season, but he did not see much playing time or show any real value. The deck looks stacked against Ronnie Wingo, who appeared in two games last season, but he will need injuries in front of him to have a real shot to make the 53-man regular-season team.
Projected Depth Chart:
1. Sammy Watkins
2/3. Robert Woods/Mike Williams
4. Marquise Goodwin
5/6. T.J. Graham/Chris Hogan/Marcus Easley
Long Shots to Make Roster: Ramses Barden, Kevin Elliott, Brandon Kaufman, Cordell Roberson, Chris Summers
The Buffalo Bills drastically changed the dynamic of their wide receiver corps during the draft by trading up in the first round to select Clemson’s Sammy Watkins, then trading away six-year veteran Stevie Johnson to the San Francisco 49ers for a 2015 conditional fourth-round pick.
Johnson had been the Bills' leading receiver for the past four seasons. Watkins, the No. 4 overall pick, should immediately become the go-to weapon for Buffalo's passing game in 2014.
An explosive wideout who can beat defenders deep with his speed but also make defenders miss and run through contact to extend plays in the open field, Watkins gives the Bills a level of playmaker they did not previously have at the position. A skilled route runner with adequate size, Watkins has all the traits NFL teams look for in a No. 1 receiver.
Another key move to reshape the receiving corps this offseason came in April, when the Bills traded a sixth-round pick to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for veteran wideout Mike Williams. Injuries limited Williams to six games last season, and he has had some concerning off-field issues, but he is a talented wideout who caught 193 passes for 2,731 yards and 23 touchdowns in his first three NFL seasons (2010-12).
Add Watkins and Williams to 2013 second-round pick Robert Woods and third-round pick Marquise Goodwin, and the Bills' receiving corps could emerge into one of the NFL's most dynamic groups in 2014.
Watkins should be a mainstay on the field for the Buffalo offense, but with his athletic traits and versatility, he is a player the Bills should be able to use creatively to move all over the formation. The other starting receiver spot will likely come down to a battle between Williams and Woods, but both should see the field in three-receiver sets, with Watkins and Woods both having the flexibility to line up both outside and inside.
Goodwin, an Olympic-level speedster who started to make more plays as a receiver down the stretch in his rookie season, could be a very dangerous No. 4 wideout, as he is a player opposing defenses must account for every time he is on the field.
That should leave the other three receivers from last year's roster—T.J. Graham, Chris Hogan and Marcus Easley—in a battle for one or two spots.
Graham could be the favorite for the fifth spot on the depth chart, as he was a starter for part of last season, but he has been a major disappointment since he was a 2012 third-round pick. Sure-handed slot receiver Hogan will have to make a big impression in training camp to save his job. Easley doesn't bring much to the table as a wideout, but he was a core special teams player last season.
The rest of the wideouts are unlikely to make the team’s final roster, but one to watch could be Kaufman, a big wideout who told BuffaloBills.com's The John Murphy Show in April that he could move to tight end.
Projected Depth Chart:
1. Scott Chandler
2. Lee Smith
3. Chris Gragg/Tony Moeaki/Mike Caussin
After the team re-signed Scott Chandler and Mike Caussin this offseason, the Bills' tight end roster looks about exactly as it did last year. Considering that, don't expect many changes with how the tight ends are rolled out on the field this year.
Chandler, who led the Bills with 53 receptions and 655 yards, should continue to be the team’s starter at the position. His role as a receiver might diminish somewhat due to the team’s improvements at wide receiver, but he remains one of the team's most reliable receiving options over the middle and is also a solid blocker.
Lee Smith doesn't add much as a receiver, but he's a solid blocking tight end who is typically used in two-tight end rushing formations.
The player with the most potential to break out in this group is Chris Gragg. The 2013 seventh-round pick didn't play much last season, but he has the athleticism and receiving ability to line up all over the field and potentially give the team a legitimate No. 2 receiving option at the position.
Gragg is also an undersized player who doesn't add much as a blocker, and he will have to prove himself worthy of greater contributions to even secure a roster spot if the Bills are to only keep three tight ends. But while Gragg has legitimate competition for his spot, it isn't formidable.
Some Bills fans have high hopes for Tony Moeaki, but while he had some impressive moments as a receiver for the Kansas City Chiefs, he hasn't been able to stay healthy. Caussin saw some playing time for Buffalo in 2011, but he has not appeared in a regular season game since.
Projected Depth Chart:
LT: Cordy Glenn
LG: Cyril Richardson/Chris Williams/Doug Legursky
C: Eric Wood
RG: Kraig Urbik
RT: Cyrus Kouandjio/Erik Pears/Chris Hairston/Seantrel Henderson
Long Shots to Make Roster: J.J. Unga, Mark Asper, Randy Colling, Edawn Coughman, Antoine McClain
Another area the Bills made necessary revamping to this offseason was the offensive line. They signed a potential starter in veteran free agent guard Chris Williams, then selected Cyrus Kouandjio in Round 2, Cyril Richardson in Round 5 and Seantrel Henderson in Round 7.
The Bills have three solid starters up front in left tackle Cordy Glenn, center Eric Wood and right guard Kraig Urbik, but the left guard and right tackle spots should be wide open for competition. That’s where the team’s new additions could factor in immediately.
Doug Legursky was an upgrade when he took over for Colin Brown at left guard five games into last season, but that’s not saying much. A versatile veteran who can also play center, Legursky fights hard on the interior line but would be better suited for a backup role.
Williams might be considered the favorite to win the left guard job after signing a four-year contract this offseason, but Richardson, from Baylor, shouldn't be overlooked.
Williams has the advantage of experience (69 games, 54 starts), but he has performed underwhelmingly in his NFL career. Asked about whether Richardson, a powerful 2013 first-team All-American, could start, Bills director of player personnel Jim Monos responded by saying "we don’t draft guys to be backups," according to a tweet from the Bills’ official Twitter account.
The Bills didn't draft Kouandjio to be a backup either, and he should be considered the favorite to start at right tackle. While Chris Hairston missed the entire 2013 season with an undisclosed medical issue, Erik Pears struggled in both pass protection and run blocking. Kouandjio might have some growing pains in pass protection himself, especially against outside speed rushers, but he is a strong run blocker who can dominate with his size and length.
Pears and Hairston will likely have to fight for their roster spots, too, as seventh-round pick Henderson, out of the University of Miami, has the talent to top both of them on the depth chart.
Henderson, however, will be on the hot seat, too. With a history of marijuana-related issues, including a failed test at this year’s combine, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, he has been told by Bills general manager Doug Whaley, according to ESPN’s Mike Rodak, that he has “one shot.”
With up to seven players battling for position at two spots on the offensive line, that doesn't leave much room for any other linemen on the roster unless injuries strike. Among the other five blockers on the roster, J.J. Unga—who saw some playing time in place of Urbik late last season—likely has the best chance of keeping his spot for the regular-season team.
As a whole, the Bills have clearly placed emphasis on size and power in building their offensive line. Of the 15 blockers currently on their roster, 11 of them weigh at least 320 pounds.
Projected Depth Chart:
LDE: Mario Williams
RDE: Jerry Hughes
DT: Kyle Williams
NT: Marcell Dareus
DE3: Manny Lawson
DT3: Alan Branch
DT4: Corbin Bryant
DT5: Stefan Charles
DE4: Jarius Wynn/Ikponmwosa Igbinosun
Long Shots to Make Roster: DT Damien Jacobs, DT Colby Way
Even as the Buffalo Bills shift back from a 3-4-based defense to a 4-3 alignment, their starting defensive line remains the strongest unit of their team.
Defensive end Mario Williams, penetrating defensive tackle Kyle Williams and nose tackle Marcell Dareus are all Pro Bowlers who rank among the NFL's best players at their positions. Hughes, though better suited to be a 3-4 outside linebacker, is coming off a breakout year in which he proved himself as a pass-rusher off the edge with 10 sacks.
Manny Lawson, who Bills director of player personnel Jim Monos confirmed Friday is also moving to defensive end, can provide solid rotational depth behind Williams and Hughes. Alan Branch is a strong interior run-stopper who can do the same at defensive tackle.
Still, depth at the back end of the roster is a lingering concern for the Bills defensive line, especially at defensive end. The Bills could have benefited from selecting a defensive end in the draft, especially someone who could be an upgrade over undersized rushers Hughes and Lawson in run-defending situations.
Corbin Bryant and Stefan Charles are solid interior defensive linemen who performed well in limited action last season, but the fourth defensive end spot is one where the Bills might want to look for a veteran left on the market. Jarius Wynn has just 45 total tackles and 8.5 sacks in six NFL seasons, while Ikponmwosa Igbinosun has yet to play in a regular-season game since going undrafted in 2012.
Undrafted free agent additions Damien Jacobs (Florida) and Colby Way (Buffalo) are both undersized, athletically limited defensive tackles who are unlikely to be more than camp bodies.
WLB: Kiko Alonso
MLB: Brandon Spikes
SLB: Keith Rivers
MLB2: Preston Brown
5. Ty Powell
6/7. Nigel Bradham/Randell Johnson
Long Shots to Make Roster: Nathan Williams, Jacquies Smith, Darrin Kitchens, Jimmy Gaines, Bryan Johnson
The Bills new-look defense will have a new and improved linebacker corps for the 2014 season. Kiko Alonso, the breakout star of Buffalo's 2013 rookie class, will move from inside to weakside linebacker, while veteran free-agent signings Brandon Spikes and Keith Rivers are expected to be the starters alongside him in 4-3 defensive sets.
Alonso, who played every single defensive snap of the season last year, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), is the undisputed star of the unit and will play in every defensive package. Spikes and Rivers, however, might not be cut out to take on coverage responsibilities in subpackages.
Preston Brown, a third-round pick this year out of Louisville, should be the priority backup to Spikes at middle linebacker, but like Spikes, he is best as an in-the-box run stopper and might see the majority of his playing time on special teams in his rookie year.
The player who might actually be in line for a significantly increased role as a coverage linebacker is Ty Powell. Though Powell did not see much playing time on defense after the rookie was added midseason last year, he is a good athlete and former defensive back who projects well to a coverage linebacker role alongside Alonso in nickel defensive formations.
Nigel Bradham could also fill that role off the bench, but after two underwhelming seasons to start his career, the rotational linebacker is also no lock to make Buffalo's 53-man roster.
The Bills used a seventh-round pick to select Randell Johnson out of Florida Atlantic, but depending on how many linebackers Buffalo decides to keep, he might have to beat Powell or Bradham to earn a spot on the 53-man roster. Johnson has intriguing developmental measurables, but the team is unlikely to save a roster spot for him if he cannot prove he can make an immediate impact on defense and special teams.
Among the other linebackers, the most likely sleeper to break out would be Nathan Williams, who has the athleticism and versatility to make plays at strongside linebacker but has battled injuries and was not on an NFL roster after going undrafted in 2013. Jacquies Smith, who has been in the NFL since 2012, has also never played in an NFL regular-season game and is more of a ‘tweener who would fit better as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme.
Projected Depth Chart:
1. Stephon Gilmore
2. Leodis McKelvin
3. Nickell Robey
4. Corey Graham
5. Ross Cockrell
6. Ron Brooks
Long Shots to Make Roster: Mario Butler, Brandon Smith, Darius Robinson, Mike Carter*
There shouldn’t be much reason for the Bills to want to change the top of their cornerback depth chart.
Though Stephon Gilmore missed five games and never quite looked to be himself after suffering a wrist injury last season, the 2012 first-round pick has the potential to be an excellent No. 1 cornerback. Opposite him, Leodis McKelvin is coming off one of the best seasons of his career, which included 19 passes defensed, tied for the fourth-most in the NFL.
Nickell Robey, meanwhile, was another breakout star of the Bills’ 2013 season. Despite being an undrafted free agent, Robey quickly emerged as the team’s slot cornerback in nickel defensive packages, and he excelled in that role in both covering slot receivers and at aggressively making plays around the line of scrimmage.
A strong top trio at the position, however, didn't stop the Bills from bringing in competition this offseason.
Veteran free agent Corey Graham presents the biggest threat to the starters’ roles, especially to Robey. Assuming Robey performs as well in the preseason as he did in his rookie season, however, he should be able to hold down that job. Graham gives the team more versatility, however, as he could start out as the sixth defensive back in dime packages but have the ability to fill in outside, in the slot and even at free safety.
Buffalo’s fourth-round pick, Ross Cockrell from Duke, will most likely be worked into the equation slowly and see most of his playing time on special teams. That said, he is a skilled, technically sound player who could project both outside and inside and should be able to step up if injuries force the team to call upon him.
With five cornerbacks who are all seemingly roster locks, 2012 fourth-round pick Ron Brooks is firmly on the hot seat after starting his career with two unproductive seasons.
If the Bills decide to carry six cornerbacks on their roster, Brooks should still have a significant advantage over the other cornerbacks on the roster. Mario Butler, Brandon Smith and Mike Carter have all done nothing of note in the NFL, while Darius Robinson was a one-year starter at Clemson who is very much a long shot to make the roster.
Projected Depth Chart:
FS: Aaron Williams
SS: Da’Norris Searcy/Duke Williams/Jonathan Meeks
5. Jajuan Harley, Kenny Ladler*, Deon Broomfield*, Derek Brim*
While the change to the Bills’ roster has been mostly positive this offseason, safety is the one position that is likely to be significantly affected by a free-agent departure. When Jairus Byrd signed with the New Orleans Saints as a free agent this offseason, Buffalo lost a Pro Bowler who was the best playmaker in their secondary.
That said, Buffalo apparently feels comfortable with the talent it already had on the roster. Its only additions at the position have been Jajuan Harley, who has yet to play in an NFL game after going undrafted out of Middle Tennessee State in 2013, and three undrafted rookies from this year’s class: Vanderbilt’s Kenny Ladler, Iowa State’s Deon Broomfield and Buffalo’s Derek Brim.
Aaron Williams, who had his best season with the Bills to date after moving from cornerback to safety last season, is likely to shift from strong safety to free safety, which he played well in the first five games of last season while Byrd was out with plantar fasciitis.
Regardless of which position the Bills ultimately decide to play Williams, he will be one of the two starters. The competition will come alongside him, with Da’Norris Searcy battling 2013 fourth-round pick Duke Williams and fifth-round pick Jonathan Meeks for a starting job.
Searcy, who filled in at strong safety during those first five games of last season, continued to be a key player all season long and might be the early favorite to win the starting job. But while Searcy is an aggressive playmaker who is active in run support, he has some issues with deep coverage and is best suited to remain in a situational role.
That leaves the door open for Williams and Meeks, who played mostly on special teams as rookies but should have much greater opportunities to compete for defensive playing time in their second NFL seasons. Williams, who has the versatility to play both safety spots and even some cornerback, is a more promising talent than Meeks, who is probably best suited for a situational/special teams role.
The aforementioned Corey Graham could also factor into the competition at safety, especially if Buffalo’s cornerbacks remain healthy and the safeties trying to win the starting job fail to stand out.
Regardless of who starts where and who doesn't start, Williams, Searcy and Meeks should all end up playing a role for the Bills in the upcoming season. The team's three undrafted free agent signings indicate that there is likely to be another roster spot at the position for depth.
Among the UDFAs, the favorite to win that job should be Ladler. A productive tackler and playmaker at Vanderbilt, Ladler was considered a likely Day 3 draft pick until a 4.70-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine, according to NFL.com, hurt his draft stock.
Projected Depth Chart:
K: Dan Carpenter/Dustin Hopkins
P: Brian Moorman/Jacob Dombrowski
LS: Garrison Sanborn
There will be no shortage of competition on special teams heading into the 2014 season with long snapper Garrison Sanborn looking to be the only Buffalo Bills specialist with a safe roster spot for the upcoming year.
At kicker, the only bad part of the competition could be the need to make a tough cut prior to the start of the season.
The Bills selected strong-legged Dustin Hopkins in the sixth round of the 2013 draft to be their new kicker, but when he suffered a groin injury just prior to the start of the season, Buffalo signed Dan Carpenter. Carpenter went on to have a surprisingly fantastic season, making 33-of-36 field-goal attempts, which prompted Buffalo to re-sign him to a four-year contract this offseason.
That contract certainly makes Carpenter the favorite to win the job, but Hopkins deserves a fair shot to compete. While the Bills will not be inclined to cut Carpenter after giving him a $2.15 million signing bonus, according to Spotrac, Hopkins is a younger kicker with a bigger leg and therefore could outperform Carpenter in training camp, in which case the team would make a mistake not to retain the second-year player.
But while the Bills have two strong options at kicker, they have two weak options at punter. At 38 years old, Brian Moorman looked well past his prime last season, averaging just 41.2 yards per punt, the second-worst average among NFL players with at least 40 punts last season. The team's only other option is Jacob Dombrowski, who did not play for any NFL team last season after going undrafted in 2013.
Dombrowski could be a pleasant surprise for the Bills, but it’s a bit surprising that the team hasn’t brought in an undrafted rookie or another option for the competition. That indicates, however, that the Bills are prepared to give Dombrowski the first crack at unseating Moorman. If he struggles, that could prompt the team to look for another punter on the free agent market.
Early 53-Man Roster Projection
Quarterbacks (3): EJ Manuel, Thad Lewis, Jeff Tuel
Running Backs (4): C.J. Spiller, Fred Jackson, Bryce Brown, Anthony Dixon
Fullback (1): Frank Summers
Wide Receivers (5): Sammy Watkins, Mike Williams, Robert Woods, Marquise Goodwin, Marcus Easley
Tight Ends (3): Scott Chandler, Lee Smith, Chris Gragg
Offensive Line (9): Cordy Glenn, Eric Wood, Kraig Urbik, Cyril Richardson, Chris Williams, Doug Legursky, Cyrus Kouandjio, Erik Pears, Seantrel Henderson
Defensive Line (9): Mario Williams, Jerry Hughes, Kyle Williams, Marcell Dareus, Manny Lawson, Alan Branch, Corbin Bryant, Stefan Charles, Jarius Wynn
Linebackers (6): Kiko Alonso, Brandon Spikes, Keith Rivers, Preston Brown, Ty Powell, Nigel Bradham
Cornerbacks (5): Stephon Gilmore, Leodis McKelvin, Nickell Robey, Corey Graham, Ross Cockrell
Safeties (5): Aaron Williams, Da’Norris Searcy, Duke Williams, Jonathan Meeks, Kenny Ladler
Specialists (3): Dan Carpenter, Jacob Dombrowski, Garrison Sanborn
Practice Squad (8): Kenny Guiton, Ronnie Wingo, Brandon Kaufman, J.J. Unga, Randell Johnson, Nathan Williams, Darrin Kitchens, Darius Robinson
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL Draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.