4 Bold (and 4 Slightly Less Bold) Predictions for the 2014 Buffalo Bills
The Buffalo Bills have made a number of moves this offseason to generate a buzz heading into the 2014 season. There is a growing belief that they are all-in on this coming season, particularly due to the fact they traded their 2015 first-round pick to draft Sammy Watkins.
It appears the Bills have the pieces in place and could be ready to take that next step this coming season. I have come up with four bold and four slightly less bold predictions that will have an impact on how the 2014 season will play out.
Slightly Less Bold: Stephon Gilmore Develops into a Top Cornerback
Last season was supposed to be Stephon Gilmore's breakout year. A broken wrist suffered in the preseason, however, kept him out for the first five weeks. It wasn't until the last month or so that he looked to be back to his shutdown self.
The team hopes that he can start healthy and stay the way over a full season to see if he can become a shutdown corner.
Toward the end of the season, it was clear that this defense was better when he was on the field. The passing defense finished third in the NFL, and Gilmore played a big part in this ranking.
CBS Sports' Pete Prisco recently put together a list of 25 players who are poised to break out in 2014 and included Gilmore. Prisco wrote: "I thought he would be a breakout player last season, but he missed time with a [wrist] injury. When he played, he still flashed big-time ability. I think this is his year to make a big step toward being on the league's better corners."
Bold: EJ Manuel Will Start a Full Season
EJ Manuel battled knee injuries, three to be exact, throughout his rookie season, and the troubles had started almost immediately in preseason. First, he had to have minor surgery in training camp to reduce swelling in his knee, which forced him to miss the final two weeks of preseason.
The first-round pick was able to make it back for Week 1 and looked healthy before suffering his second knee injury in the matchup with the Browns. The last one came after the win over Jacksonville, which ended Manuel's season.
So why will 2014 be different?
Entering this season, he is going to be healthier than he was at any point last year. This offseason he has been working with quarterback guru Steve Calhoun, who recently told FoxSports.com that he believed Manuel was "never 100 percent" last season: "When you have an injury, you start to compensate on other body parts so you don’t have to feel as much pain. I think that had a lot to do with it. Now he’s coming in completely healthy, I think he’ll see the results."
The Bills are going to need Manuel to stay healthy the entire season for this offense to flourish. The offseason work that he has done to this point should help him to shed the label of "injury-prone."
Slightly Less Bold: Cyrus Kouandjio Will Start Week 1
This is a prediction that could have been made before Cyrus Kouandjio even made it up to the stage at Radio City Music Hall after the Bills selected him in the second round. If the rookie is named the starting right tackle at the beginning of the season, it won't be too much of a surprise.
It seemed as soon as last season ended, Erik Pears' name kept popping up as a potential cap casualty because of his sizable salary in 2014 and his poor play from a year ago. The coaching staff did not waste any time getting Kouandjio work with the first team, as he split reps with Pears at the first OTA practice.
This trend should continue right into training camp, with the rookie eventually winning the starting spot.
Bold: Sammy Watkins Will Win Offensive Rookie of the Year
The chances of Sammy Watkins winning the Offensive Rookie of the Year award (ROTY) will take a major hit if the first bold prediction (Manuel will start all 16 games) does not come true. The two players are going to need each other to succeed; Watkins needs EJ Manuel to improve in his second season, while Manuel needs Watkins to take that next step.
It is rare that wide receivers win the Offensive ROTY, with only four wideouts winning the award since 1992: Percy Harvin (2009), Anquan Boldin (2003), Randy Moss (1998) and Carl Pickens (1992). Watkins has an elite skill set, and the Bills would be wise to make him a major part of the offense.
If Watkins is going to be showcased like offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett says he will, Watkins should have a strong case to be the fifth wide receiver to win the award in the past 22 years.
Slightly Less Bold: C.J. Spiller Rushes for 1,000 Yards
C.J. Spiller entered the 2013 season ready to build off his breakout season in 2012. Last season didn't go as he hoped, primarily due to a lingering ankle injury that he battled for most of the season.
At OTAs last week, he talked about the 2012 season, which was the first time he broke the 1,000 rushing yards mark when he ran for 1,244 yards. The 2014 season potentially could be similar as long as he stays healthy.
The team supersized the offensive line this offseason with the additions of Kouandjio and Chris Williams, which should make Spiller's job easier in finding running lanes. The threat of a better passing attack with the additions of Sammy Watkins and Mike Williams should benefit Spiller as well, since defenses can no longer stack the line of scrimmage.
The additions on offense, plus the fact he is entering a contract year at 27 years of age, should add up to a big season for Spiller.
Bold: Nigel Bradham Will Start at Least Eight Games in 2014
Nigel Bradham has been a member of the Bills since they took him in the fourth round of the 2012 NFL draft. He has not played more than a reserve linebacker role on this defense, but that should change in 2014.
The Bills signed Keith Rivers this offseason, thinking he would start at the strong-side linebacker position with Brandon Spikes in the middle and Kiko Alonso sliding to the weak side. By the time the end of the 2014 season rolls around, Bradham should be the guy starting at the strong side over Rivers.
Pro Football Focus also believes that Bradham could be in store for a breakout season in 2014 when it named him the Bills' Secret Superstar. PFF points out his run-stuffing ability in the article, and that is one of the reasons I believe the third-year player is ready to contribute to this defense.
Slightly Less Bold: Run Defense Finishes in the Top 10
The defense as a whole made great strides in a number of areas last year, except the ability to stop the run. The Bills finished the year 28th in the NFL in rushing yards against, which was one of the reasons why they acquired Brandon Spikes and defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz.
In his first four seasons with the New England Patriots, Spikes earned a reputation as a very good run-stuffer. Pro Football Focus (subscription required) agreed with this, awarding Spikes the best rating against the run among inside linebackers this past season.
The addition of Schwartz as the defensive coordinator may be the biggest reason for the team's potential success against the run in 2014. Before he was named the head coach of the Lions, he was the defensive coordinator for the Tennessee Titans from 2001 to 2008. In those eight seasons, the Titans defense finished sixth or better in six of them.
If Nigel Bradham is able to emerge like I believe he will, coupled with the additions of Spikes and Schwartz, a top-10 finish against the run is attainable for this defense.
Bold: Bills Will Make the Playoffs This Season
Now would probably be a good time to cue Jim Mora. It seems a little ludicrous to make a prediction like this with the start of the season still more than two months away, but these predictions are supposed to be bold.
The Bills have the longest playoff drought in the NFL, and saying that the streak ends this year is probably the boldest prediction possible. But with the way the roster is currently constructed, a playoff berth is attainable. Brandon Spikes has even recently stated that this team is "gonna shock the world" on Twitter.
Any team that has a long postseason drought has to answer a number of questions before it is taken seriously as a playoff contender.
Some of those questions surround the younger players—like EJ Manuel and Stephon Gilmore—and if they are ready to take that next step in their careers. I believe those players will break out this year, and with the expected improvements on defense, 2014 will be a special season for the Buffalo Bills.