The offseason is almost over with the first practice of training camp less than three weeks away. All the work that the front office has put in over the past six months will finally go from predictions to tangible results, and hopefully they are positive.
It was evident the Buffalo Bills struggled in three areas last year and played a deciding factor in their 6-10 record. Doug Whaley and the rest of the Bills' front office made it a point to correct these areas with the players they brought in and because of these moves should be greatly improved.
The three things the Bills should be better at in 2014 will be their play along the offensive line, their run defense and, finally, their special teams unit.
In 2012, the Buffalo Bills offensive line was viewed as a strength of this team. The running game was effective, and Ryan Fitzpatrick wasn't really under pressure with the Bills finishing 10th in the NFL in sacks allowed (30).
Many expected much of the same in 2013 with the only change in the starting five being the loss of Andy Levitre. Needless to say, this was not the case as the offensive line struggled both in pass protection as well as opening up effective running lanes for Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller.
The Bills gave up 18 more sacks, giving up 48 and finishing fourth worst in the NFL. While the run game did finish second in the NFL in terms of yards, this was because of quantity and not quality. The Bills finished first last year in rushing attempts but only 14th in yards per attempt (4.2 yards/attempt).
The front office understood that the offensive line needed some help and following Doug Marrone's wishes the team got bigger, much bigger. Entering this coming season, the Bills will have the biggest offensive line group with their average weight over 325 pounds, according to ESPN.com's Mike Rodak.
This offseason, the Bills brought in four new linemen (one in free agency and three in the draft), and the belief is that two of them will be starting as early as Week 1. The first move made happened in the first week of free agency when the Bills signed Rams' guard Chris Williams to step in as the team's starting left guard.
Last year, this spot was clearly the weak point on the offensive line with Colin Brown and Doug Legursky both struggling to fill the hole left by Levitre. Williams is a former first-round pick who was drafted by the Chicago Bears as the left tackle of the future. He struggled in this role and eventually slid inside to guard where he has found a little bit more success.
After the NFL draft was over it was even clearer that the Bills were focused on the offensive line, with three of their seven picks being dedicated to offensive linemen. It started early in the second round when the Bills selected tackle Cyrus Kouandjio, who is expected to compete for the starting right tackle position with Erik Pears.
Later in the draft the Bills selected Cyril Richardson (fifth round) and Seantrel Henderson (seventh round), who is extremely talented but who had off-the-field issues that raised red flags.
All these new additions should certainly help the Bills running backs find more room to work, but there is concern in terms of pass protection. As Rodak mentions in his article, "Size and brute strength work well in the running game, especially in power blocking schemes, but technique and athleticism come more into play in the passing game."
There is going to be a learning period for the starting five offensive line, with potentially three new starting linemen, but as the season progresses, I expect this unit to jell together and be much improved by the end of 2014 than they were a season ago.
According to Football Outsiders' special teams rankings, which takes into account field goals/extra points, kickoffs, kick returns, punts and punt returns, the Bills finished 30th in the league last season. This was a significant drop from ninth in 2012.
The team knew this was an area that needed to be fixed and had this in mind with the moves made this offseason. The first thing the Bills did was to make sure they re-signed Dan Carpenter, who had an excellent year last year, to a long-term deal. This was the only area that finished with a positive rating (5.6) in the Football Outsiders' rankings.
Next, the front office needed to find players who were versatile and could contribute on offense or defense as well as special teams. In free agency, the Bills targeted cornerback Corey Graham and running back Anthony Dixon, both who have had significant time on special teams and should have a major impact next season.
Graham has really embraced the new emphasis on special teams and was quoted after an OTA back in June, via Chris Brown of BuffaloBills.com:
It’s great. I started my career off as a special teamer. I enjoy it. It’s something that I really pride myself on. So to have the opportunity to go out there and lead guys and show guys how to do it the right way it’s special. I’m glad that he put that responsibility on me and I look forward to having the opportunity to do that.
The new additions should really help special teams and hopefully shorten the field for the team's offense with improved returns and lengthen the field for opposing offenses with improved coverage.
The defense made great strides last year under Mike Pettine in a number of areas. The one thing the Bills were not able to improve on, though, was their run defense, which finished 28th in the NFL giving up 128.9 yards per game.
There is no better way to improve in this area than going out and signing the best inside linebacker against the run in Brandon Spikes, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). That wasn't the only move, though, as the Bills brought in outside linebacker Keith Rivers, who finished 11th against the run among 4-3 OLB a season ago.
The loss of Kiko Alonso was certainly a huge blow to this defense, but rookie Preston Brown could be next in line, according to Tim Graham of The Buffalo News. The third-round pick out of Louisville is an excellent tackler and should be a great contributor in the run defense playing the weak-side position.
The other reason the Bills run defense should be better is the hire of Jim Schwartz as the replacement for the departed Pettine. In Schwartz's 13 seasons coaching in the NFL, his run defense has finished sixth or better six times, and while in Detroit, he improved in this area every season.
This is the area of the three mentioned in this article that could see the greatest improvement in 2014. The defense will be starting three new linebackers who are strong against the run, but more importantly, they will be playing in a defensive scheme led by a coach who has demonstrated for over a decade he knows how to stop the run.