How Much Has Each Buffalo Bills' Positional Unit Improved This Offseason?
Even though the Buffalo Bills have not opened training camp, there is a strong case that could be made that this year's team is much-improved than a season ago. The talent they have brought in outweighs talent lost.
This isn't a guarantee the Bills will make the playoffs or they will even be able to improve on their 6-10 record a season ago. The opportunity is there as the team has improved at a number of positions.
I have rated each position based on who the Bills have on the roster this year, compared to who they had at the end of last season. I gave each position a grade between three and minus-three with a positive score representing an upgrade, a negative one representing a downgrade and a grade of zero representing no change.
One of the few positions that remained unchanged this offseason is the quarterback position. The organization is fully committed to second-year pro EJ Manuel and made that known by not bringing in any quarterbacks.
Behind him will be Thad Lewis and Jeff Tuel, two quarterbacks who saw time as starters last year in replacing Manuel. Both quarterbacks entered the league as undrafted rookies, Lewis back in 2010 when he signed with the St. Louis Rams and Tuel a season ago when he signed with the Bills.
The one positive with the position is this group is still learning and developing. So while it is the same group of players, the hope would be that there would be a much better performance from one or all of its members because of the experience they gained from a season ago.
The running back position was one of the strongest on the Bills roster a season ago, and it only got stronger. In free agency the Bills went out and signed Anthony Dixon, who will primarily contribute on special teams. However at 6'1" and 233 pounds, he has the frame to be an excellent short-yardage/goal-line back.
During the NFL draft, the Bills made another move by trading with the Philadelphia Eagles for running back Bryce Brown. He will be entering his third season in the NFL, and at 23 years of age, he has shown the potential of being an excellent back in this league.
Originally, the thought was the Bills traded for Brown due to the uncertainty of C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson's contract situation following this season. If the Bills want to keep their run-heavy offense from a season ago, Brown should get his fair share of carries this season, even with Spiller and Jackson still on the roster.
The wide receiver position is a great example of addition by subtraction. It is hard to imagine a team being able to get a positive grade when it trades away its No. 1 wide receiver from a season ago (Steve Johnson).
The Bills did just that by being aggressive in the NFL draft and trading up to the fourth spot to select Sammy Watkins. The rookie out of Clemson has the look of a premier wide receiver in this league and hopefully will make life much easier for Manuel in the pocket.
This wasn't the only addition, though, as the Bills also traded for Mike Williams, who is a big wide receiver who can play on the outside. Williams will be looked to in order to help the Bills' red-zone offense and be the player to go up and win jump balls for Manuel when the team approaches the end zone.
The Bills get a grade of one here—with an asterisk—because the team is technically going into this season with the same group from the end of last year. However, the team signed Tony Moeaki so late in the season that it was never able to get him on the field to see what he can do.
This is certainly an interesting position to watch because, even though Scott Chandler led the Bills in receptions last year, there is a lot left to be desired. The team is hoping that Moeaki or second-year pro Chris Gragg can step up and provide some explosiveness to this offense. This would add a whole new dimension to the offense and make it harder for opposing defenses to stop.
The offensive line should be one of the most improved positional groups from a season ago. Entering the offseason, it would not have been a surprise if the Bills looked to improve three starting positions. Cordy Glenn at left tackle and Eric Wood at center were the only two starters who should have felt confident about their spot in the starting lineup.
The first thing the Bills did to bolster the line was sign free agent Chris Williams, who should step in at left guard and hopefully provide stability that was not there last season. The front office knew its work was not done and used three of the Bills' seven draft picks on the offensive line.
The first pick was in the second round when the Bills drafted tackle Cyrus Kouandjio who should eventually win the starting right tackle position. They then added depth in the later rounds with Cyril Richardson in the fifth and Seantrel Henderson in the seventh.
The Bills have quickly put together a mammoth offensive line, one of the biggest in the league, and provided depth across the line to protect against any injuries to a starter.
The Bills really didn't make any moves along the defensive line, but then again they didn't have to. The defense finished second in sacks and had three starters make the Pro Bowl (Mario Williams, Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus).
The only notable new addition to this group is Jarius Wynn, who was added primarily for depth and split time last year between Dallas and San Diego. The defensive line was one of the best in the league last season, and with the main players returning, the hope is it will find just as much success in Jim Schwartz's defense this coming season.
After the season-ending injury to Kiko Alonso, the Bills are almost guaranteed to enter the 2014 season with three new starting linebackers from a season ago. Originally, the plan was for free-agent additions Keith Rivers and Brandon Spikes to line up at the strong side and middle linebacker positions, respectively, with Alonso sliding to the weak side.
Now that Alonso is out, Tim Graham of The Buffalo News believes the Bills could look to rookie Preston Brown to step into the starting role and replace Alonso. The team was impressed with the rookie in OTAs and minicamp this summer, and it hopes he can fill the vacant position.
The linebacker group last year was not anything to be overly impressed with and at times looked outmatched against opposing running backs. The team brought in three linebackers who are excellent run-stoppers and should really improve the defense in this area this coming season.
Last year, the cornerback position started out shaky, as the team faced a number of injures early in the season. The team tried to protect itself from this happening again by adding Corey Graham to any group of players the team was already sold on. This includes outside cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore and Leodis McKelvin and nickel cornerback Nickell Robey.
It remains to be seen exactly where Graham will end up on the depth chart and if he will beat out Robey for the nickel. However, it probably won't matter, as offenses are shifting more to four-wide receiver sets, the top four cornerbacks on the team should see plenty of playing time.
Graham wasn't the only cornerback the Bills added this offseason, as the team drafted Ross Cockrell in the fourth round in the NFL draft. Cockrell is not as polished as some of the other cornerbacks on the roster and may need to make his mark on the special teams unit this year.
It is hard to find a way to say the Bills improved at the safety position when they lost Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd to the New Orleans Saints. To make matters worse, the only safety the Bills brought in was undrafted free agent Kenny Ladler. This group is very inexperienced.
The position is not a complete loss, though, as the Bills do have players such as Da'Norris Searcy and Duke Williams, but neither player has extensive playing experience. This is not a knock on either player, and one of these two could step up and play very well; however, at this point, it remains to be seen exactly who the Bills have to replace Byrd.
The special teams unit was a point of emphasis, with the Bills adding Graham and Dixon in free agency. Both of these players, who have extensive experience on special teams, will join Marcus Easley in hopes of improving the unit from a season ago.
The Bills brought back both Dan Carpenter and Brian Moorman this offseason; however, both are not necessarily guaranteed roster spots, with Dustin Hopkins and Jacob Dombrowski looking to challenge the veterans. I would imagine Carpenter has a little stronger hold on his starting gig than Moorman, but both will need to have strong training camps, regardless.