Things were never likely to be easy for new head coach Doug Marrone upon his arrival in Buffalo in 2013, with the New England Patriots perennial division winners, and a rookie quarterback at the helm, just showing improvement would be a success.
Hampered at times by E.J. Manuel suffering from niggling injuries, which caused him to miss some time and mess with his development, they did indeed show signs of improvement at times — including the young quarterback making a couple of big throws in a win over the Baltimore Ravens.
They still have a lot of work to do however, and with defensive co-ordinator Mike Pettine leaving to become the new head coach of the Cleveland Browns, they have former Detroit Lions head coach Jim Schwartz taking over the running of that side of the ball. The most important thing if they are to mount a serious playoff challenge in 2014, is that they get the right players on the field so, with that in mind, here’s our look at their biggest needs.
Potential Cap Casualties
With $22.6m in available cap space this offseason (per overthecap.com), just 11 teams are in better shape than the Bills. However, if they are looking to save some extra money, there is one player that would free up a little extra.
– Veteran quarterback Kevin Kolb suffered a concussion in August last year and there’s a realistic chance that he might wind up calling time on his career at this stage. If he does retire, or the Bills decide to cut him, it would free up an additional $3.1m which would help them address needs elsewhere.
– There aren’t a lot of other big time savings to be made, with any significant money tied up in players who are important enough that parting ways would be counterproductive. They may feel they could do better than Erik Pears at right tackle though, and would free up $2.9m by letting him go.
With Jarius Byrd out of contract, the Bills would currently have to slot in either Aaron Williams or Da’Norris Searcy at free safety, which isn’t ideal. Byrd is one of the best free safeties in the game, with his range on display in Buffalo these past few years and, despite missing the start of this season, he still finished as our eighth highest graded safety. He allowed just 83 yards in coverage throughout the 2013 season, adding four interceptions and two pass breakups.
Free agent fix: Bringing Byrd back is the most logical suggestion, and there has even been rumblings that they are prepared to use the franchise tag again to do so. Already part of the team chemistry for the Bills, they know exactly what they are getting with him on the field. If they can’t re-sign him, or they simply don’t want to pay as much as it will take to get him signed long term, they may look to a guy like Chris Clemons in Miami who, while not at the same level as Byrd, has shown himself to be a productive player.
Even if they do bring back soon to be free agent Scott Chandler, tight end is definitely a position that the Bills could, and probably should, look to upgrade. Chandler wasn’t a terrible player last season, but put up just 655 yards as a receiver, while grading negatively as a blocker. If they don’t re-sign him, it would be Lee Smith who would project as the current starter and, while he was a solid blocker in 2013, he saw just nine passes thrown his way all season.
Free agent fix: It’s likely that Jimmy Graham and Dennis Pitta never hit the open market, with their respective teams ready to apply the franchise tag to ensure they go nowhere this offseason. Assuming that is the case, it might be smart for the Bills to take a gamble, even on a one year, “prove it” deal on former Miami Dolphins and New York Jets tight end Dustin Keller. After suffering a horrific knee injury in preseason, teams might be scared away from him, but keep in mind that during his last full season in 2011, he was sixth among tight ends in Yards Per Route Run. He comes with a risk, but definitely has some upside that makes it worthwhile.
As we highlighted earlier, Pears is currently the starter at right tackle but, with a decent sized cap hit, the team might feel they can do better by going elsewhere. Just our 55th highest graded offensive tackle last year, Pears struggled as a run blocker, where only Michael Oher and Bradley Sowell had a lower grade.
Free agent fix: There isn’t a lot to get excited about in the right tackle market this offseason but there are two intriguing, but very different options. Zach Strief has been a very good player over the last few years for the Saints and would seem to resemble the safe choice for a team needing a stable force at the position. There’s going to be a general manager somewhere this offseason who believes that his team can get the most out of Oher however. The position changes in Baltimore seemed to derail his career after a very good rookie season, to the point where he was very poor in 2013. There is part of me that wonders though, if at 28 years old when the new season begins, there’s still time to get his career back on trick. That would be a big gamble though.
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