Why the Buffalo Bills Could Be the NFL's Biggest Surprise Team of 2014

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Why the Buffalo Bills Could Be the NFL's Biggest Surprise Team of 2014
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On Saturday night, former Buffalo Bills wide receiver Andre Reed was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

And while that represented a storybook moment for Bills fans—complete with the requisite "the Bills are staying in Buffalo!" line from Reed, drawing thunderous applausethose pleasant occurrences have been too few and far between over the past 14 years.

That's right: The Bills have missed the playoffs for 14 straight seasons. The great Buffalo fans in Western New York and across the country have endured 14 long, hard years of suffering.

When watching Reed's speech, supporters of the Bills surely yearned for the halcyon days of coach Marv Levy, quarterback Jim Kelly, Reed and the four straight Super Bowl appearances of the early 1990s.

But sunnier days could soon be on the horizon, as this year's Bills possess the franchise's most talented collection of young players since Levy roamed the sidelines. 

This could very well be the year the Bills get back to the postseason and become the NFL's biggest surprise team of 2014.

 

The Defense Could Be Great

Think quickly: Which team finished second in sacks last season with 57?

I can almost guarantee the Bills weren't the first team that popped into your head, but they're the correct answer.

Under former defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, the Bills accumulated 57 sacks in 2013, behind only the Carolina Panthers (60) for most in the NFL.

Bill Wippert/Associated Press

Three players—defensive tackle Kyle Williams (10.5) and defensive ends Mario Williams (13) and Jerry Hughes (10)—finished with double-digit sacks, and defensive tackle Marcell Dareus chipped in 7.5.

The defensive line is absolutely loaded, as the four players listed above are all slated to start, which is a problem for opposing quarterbacks in the AFC East.

The Bills also have an emerging shutdown cornerback in Stephon Gilmore, who is set to break out in a major way. Gilmore really came on strong at the end of last season, allowing only 122 yards passing against him in the team's final four games, per Bret McCormick of The Herald.

On the other side of Gilmore is Leodis McKelvin, the team's first-round selection in 2008. While McKelvin has never ascended to the level many expected of him, he's evolved into a very serviceable player, finishing 2013 ranked as Pro Football Focus' (subscription required) 18th-ranked cornerback.

He and Gilmore have the potential to be a top-notch cover-corner duo. Corey Graham, signed away from the Baltimore Ravens, provides a nickel option at the position.

Yes, the Bills lost Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd in the free-agent period to the New Orleans Saints, but the club has a serviceable pair in Da'Norris Searcy and Aaron Williams, with Duke Williams also battling for playing time.

The front four should once again be terrific. The back four has the potential to be special.

Of course, what hasn't yet been mentioned is the malady that could end up costing the Bills in a major way: the season-ending ACL tear suffered by star second-year linebacker Kiko Alonso.

Alonso was spectacular as a neophyte and surely gave longtime Bills fans flashbacks to players like Cornelius Bennett and Darryl Talley. He represents a significant loss, but the Bills do have talent at the position to mitigate the damage.

Brandon Spikes is one of the league's top run-stuffing linebackers, and he was signed over from the rival New England Patriots. Keith Rivers is also a new addition, and Preston Brown has been ballyhooed as a potential replacement for Alonso.

And while Pettine left to become head coach of the Cleveland Browns, Bills coach Doug Marrone made an outstanding hire in former Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz. Schwartz might have flamed out as a head coach, but he's a damn good coordinator, and the defense shouldn't miss a beat.

Uncredited/Associated Press

Gilmore is really and truly the key. This could be the year where he ascends to the rarefied air occupied by cornerbacks like Darrelle Revis, Richard Sherman and Patrick Peterson. He's that good. 

If the Buffalo pass rush is as ferocious as it was last year and Gilmore becomes a true shutdown corner, look out. The defense might be good enough to lead the Bills to the postseason.

 

Talent at the Skill Positions

Once upon a time, the Bills trotted out players like Hall of Fame running back Thurman Thomas and Hall of Fame receivers James Lofton and Reed.

This current crop might not have the pedigree of the weapons on the '90s teams, but there is major talent and a boatload of potential.

We must start with rookie receiver Sammy Watkins, whom the team traded up to draft with the fourth overall selection this past May. General manager Doug Whaley paid a pretty penny for doing so, parting ways with the ninth overall pick and first- and fourth-round picks in next year's draft for the right to acquire Watkins.

While I panned the trade on draft day, there's no doubting what Watkins brings to the table. He's an electric receiver capable of beating opposing defenses in a variety of ways. He instantly projects as a star at the NFL level and should provide quarterback EJ Manuel with a No. 1 target for years to come.

But Watkins isn't alone in the receiving corps. Joining him is talented second-year man Robert Woods, last year's second-round pick. Woods can play in the slot or on the outside, and he has already developed a rapport with Manuel. Don't be shocked if he leads the Bills in catches.

Other pass-catching options include the speedy Marquise Goodwin, veteran Mike Williams (acquired in a trade from Tampa Bay) and tight end Scott Chandler. In all, Manuel will have a number of options to choose from in the passing attack.

The Bills also possess a formidable three-headed monster at the running back position, with the ageless Fred Jackson (he's 33) joining the dynamic C.J. Spiller and former Eagle Bryce Brown (acquired in a trade from Philadelphia). Those are three talented backs who are all capable of contributing.

Under Marrone and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett, the offense could very well be special.

But it all depends on the quarterback.

 

EJ Manuel in Year 2

The hopes and dreams of a fanbase will live and die on the right arm of Manuel, the Bills' second-year signal-caller.

The weapons are present on offense. The defense has the pieces in place.

If Manuel stays healthy and plays well, the Bills will probably make the postseason. 

Manuel failed to dazzle as a greenhorn, tossing only 11 touchdown passes (against nine interceptions) and missing six games due to injury. Now, it's worth noting that the Bills offensive line couldn't protect him worth a damn (the unit allowed a ridiculous 48 sacks on the season), but Manuel simply must raise his level of play if the team is to return to the playoffs.

Gary Wiepert/Associated Press

As it concerns Manuel's improvement, there is reason for optimism. He is in the midst of a second offseason in Marrone and Hackett's system, and he has the requisite firepower around him. He has all the physical attributes needed to succeed.

But can he stay healthy and truly elevate his play?

Count CBSSports.com's Pat Kirwan as someone who believes Manuel has the mental chops to handle the maturation process.

"There is a lot of pressure on second year QB EJ Manuel, but I never felt any of it after sitting down with him," Kirwan wrote. "Manuel is cool, calm and collected, and I think he has enough weapons to get the passing game -- which ranked 28th last season -- going."

In his report from Bills training camp, Kirwan also referenced the team's no-huddle attack, which could be explosive.

It's on Manuel. If the Bills are to be league's surprise team, he must play well and stay on the field.


While the New England Patriots appear to once again be the class of the AFC East, the rest of the division is wide open. One could intelligently make a case for the Bills, Miami Dolphins or New York Jets to finish in second place and make a playoff run.

For all the reasons discussed, the Bills have a real opportunity to be that club. If Manuel is who the Bills think he is, the team could very well end the 14-year postseason drought.

Plus, compared to the NFC, the AFC is a weak, top-heavy conference. Only three teams (the Patriots, Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos) appear to be postseason locks; every other spot is up for grabs. That bodes well for the Bills and other clubs on the cusp.

The Bills have a solid young roster with the requisite pieces to make an impact as the calendar turns to December. 

It's not outside the realm of possibility that in 20 years, Bills fans will fondly look back on the 2014 iteration, knowing it represented the rebirth of the franchise. 

The suffering and playoff drought could soon be over.

The Bills could very well be the NFL's biggest surprise team of 2014.

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