Summer is the time of hope for Bills fans. While the Buffalo faithful are still waiting for their first playoff berth since the turn of the century, there’s legitimate reason for optimism in 2014. They have a talented defense with depth at every level, and a young offense that added playmaking potential this offseason. Whether or not Doug Marrone’s squad makes the leap to playoff contender will likely come down to how much improvement they see from their second-year quarterback. Let’s explore that and more by looking at reasons to be confident and concerned about the 2014 Bills.
Five Reasons To Be Confident
1. Dominant D-Line
When looking at the Bills depth chart, what immediately stands out is the defensive line. Kyle Williams may ultimately go down as the most underrated player of the PFF era. He consistently finishes with a Top 5 grade at his position and earned our Defensive Player of the Year award in 2010, but he is still waiting for a First-Team All-Pro selection. Marcell Dareus has always been a powerful pass rusher, but last season he finally came into his own as a run defender. His 36 run stops were tied for the most of any defensive tackle.
Mario Williams’ +7.0 grade in 2013 may not have been as lofty as his 14 sacks would suggest, but he was still a playmaking chess piece in Mike Pettine’s defense. Williams has always been best when he’s allowed to move around the defensive formation, so we hope Jim Schwartz doesn’t limit his role to just a left defensive end. The biggest revelation of the 2013 Bills season came from an unheralded trade addition, Jerry Hughes. The former Colt came off the bench to post a 15.4 Pass Rushing Productivity mark, the highest of any edge defender in the NFL. Schwartz anchors his defense with his front four, and he may have inherited the NFL’s best this year.
2. Stacked Backfield
Last year, I bullishly declared that C.J. Spiller could become the best running back in the NFL. He was coming off a season where he averaged 6.0 yds per carry with a ludicrous, PFF-record-shattering 94.6 Elusive Rating. He earned our second-highest RB grade behind league MVP Adrian Peterson, and looked primed for a breakout. Unfortunately, early season injuries sapped him of almost all his shiftiness, and he finally had to sit out a Week 8 game to get healthy. Once he returned however, he finally started to look like the Spiller of old:
|C.J. Spiller 2013||Yds Per Carry||Yds After Contact Per Carry||Yds After Catch Per Reception||Missed Tackles||Elusive Rating|
He still didn’t put up his video game-like numbers of 2012, but Spiller’s promising second half foreshadows a bounce-back season if he can stay healthy.
In Spiller’s absence, Fred Jackson showed that he has far more left in the tank than the average 32 year old back. He earned our 11th highest RB run grade last season, and his 528 rushing yards after contact were the 13th most in the league. Add in big play threat Bryce Brown, who has posted a Top 10 Breakaway Percentage mark in his two NFL seasons, and the Bills should run the ball early, often, and very successfully.
3. Revamped Receiving Corps
Determined to give Manuel some weapons to throw to, the Bills gave a facelift to their receiving corps this offseason. Stevie Johnson impressed us with his slick & unique route-running style, but Buffalo traded in his inconsistent productivity for new blood in Sammy Watkins and Mike Williams. It’s always tough to project a rookie’s impact, but Watkins’ heralded after the catch skills seem tailor-made for a Bills offense that wants to get the ball underneath to their receivers in space. Williams has had an up-and-down career, but the Bills are hoping for the 2012 version that was sixth in the NFL in yards on Deep Passes. There’s also hope that Robert Woods, who has had a good start to the preseason, or Marquise Goodwin, who was a promising deep threat last year in his own right, both take a step forward in their second years. For all its question marks, this group’s potential should give the Bills more playmakers than they’ve had in a while.
4. Run-Stopping Linebackers
Death, taxes, and poor run defense have been the three constants in Buffalo over the past half-decade. Across multiple coaches and coordinators, the Bills haves been in the bottom five in rushing defense for five years running. General Manager Doug Whaley may have finally rectified that this offseason. Former Patriot Brandon Spikes may lack coverage skills, but he’s earned the highest run defense grade of any NFL inside linebacker in each of the past two seasons. Keith Rivers has never lived up to his Top 10 draft pick, but has always been a strong two-down run-stuffer. Nigel Bradham earned a Top-10 ILB grade last season, along with our Secret Superstar honors, thanks to his great run defense off the bench. While the Bills will certainly miss Kiko Alonso (more on him in a bit), his biggest impact didn’t come as a run stopper. Even without him, this is the type of linebacking corps that could finally lift Buffalo’s run defense out of the doldrums.
5. Cornerback Depth
When Stephon Gilmore was lost for the first half of last season, the Bills’ lack of depth at cornerback was exposed. Backup Justin Rogers allowed 462 yards and five touchdowns in five games before being benched and released midseason. To avoid that same fate this year, the Bills signed Corey Graham, a good veteran slot cornerback who was an integral part of the Ravens 2012 Super Bowl run. Graham will have stiff competition to be the team’s primary nickel back, as Nickell Robey is coming off a great rookie season. The undrafted free agent allowed just 0.87 Yards Per Coverage Snap in the slot, the sixth-lowest rate of any cornerback with 200 coverage snaps. On the outside, Leodis McKelvin quietly finished with the seventh-highest coverage grade of any cornerback in 2013. Even though Gilmore still struggled when he returned from injury, he finished the season well by allowing just a 42.1 opposing QB rating in five games after the bye. Unlike last year, Buffalo has the depth to match up with the multiple receiver offenses of today’s NFL.
Five Reasons To Be Concerned
1. E.J. Manuel
For all the talent listed above, Buffalo is unfortunately weakest at the game’s most important position: quarterback. The team is all in on E.J. Manuel, but he didn’t inspire confidence his rookie season. Despite missing 6 games, he earned the second-worst overall grade of any passer last season. Buffalo’s coaches did not ask a lot of him; he was above the league average in designed rollouts, short passes, and dump-offs to running backs. Yet he still didn’t stand out in any particular area. His 68.4% Accuracy Percentage was down among the likes of Terrelle Pryor and Brandon Weeden. He earned a -9.8 grade on deep passes. He also took a sack on 23.7% of the dropbacks he was pressured on. Manuel certainly isn’t the first rookie passer to be overwhelmed, but he’ll need to take a huge leap this season to become even an average quarterback.
2. Left Guard
One of our concerns heading into last season was how Buffalo was going to replace departed free agent left guard Andy Levitre. As it turned out, they didn’t. Veteran backup Colin Brown earned a woeful -29.7 grade in just six starts, and likely would have broken a PFF record low if the Bills hadn’t benched him. Doug Legursky took over and steadied their pass protection, but still was a massive liability in the run game. The Bills immediately addressed the position this offseason, signing former first round pick Chris Williams to a four-year contract with $5.5 million guaranteed. The intentions were good; the strategy was not. Williams has a career -37.0 grade as a guard, including the fifth-worst mark of any left guard last season. We said at the time that it was a very poor signing, and Williams’ -4.1 grade in two preseason games doesn’t hint that he will prove us wrong. The Bills are committed to him, but they’ll probably regret it by season’s end.
3. Cordy Glenn
If this preview had been posted last week, this would have fallen under the “Reasons To Be Confident” header. After seeing young left tackles like Trent Williams and Tyron Smith rise to the ranks of the NFL’s best, Cordy Glenn looked like a great bet to join them this season. After a promising rookie season where he posted a +3.8 grade, he improved to a +19.6 mark in 2013, good for 11th among left tackles. Joe Thomas is the gold standard for blindside protectors, and Glenn’s 96.2 Pass Blocking Efficiency tied Thomas for fifth-best of any tackle with 400 pass blocks. Glenn was also one of the most balanced tackles in the league, grading just as well as a run blocker as he did in pass protection. Unfortunately, a mysterious medical issue may keep Glenn off the field indefinitely, and the Bills would likely have to start a rookie in his place. Without one of the NFL’s best young tackles, the left side of the Bills offensive line could be a huge problem this year.
4. Life Without Kiko
Kiko Alonso got plenty of praise last year for his high tackle totals, as only two other players finished better in the ranks of the NFL’s unofficial stat. Though those numbers may have been inflated by overzealous scorers, what wasn’t exaggerated was Alonso’s outstanding coverage. He picked off four passes in his first four games, and carried that momentum to the second-highest coverage grade of any inside linebacker in 2013. Only five players at his position played more coverage snaps, and yet Alonso’s 0.43 Yards Per Coverage Snap allowed was the lowest mark of any starting ILB in the league. Rookie Preston Brown has impressed coaches and looked solid in coverage so far this preseason, but he’ll have to be spectacular to match Alonso’s rookie campaign. The underneath zones of the Bills defense may look a bit more open without Alonso there to patrol them.
5. Life Without Byrd
In addition to the Bills being without their best cover linebacker this season, they also have to replace an All-Pro caliber safety in Jairus Byrd. Simply put, no safety outside of Earl Thomas is more reliable in the deep middle. In five seasons in Buffalo, Byrd snagged 22 interceptions while allowing just seven touchdowns and a 53.0 QB rating on throws into his coverage. Even after missing five games to start last season, he still finished tied for the seventh-best coverage grade of any safety. With just 22 missed tackles in his career, he was a reliable last line of defense. The Bills rewarded Aaron Williams with a contract extension, but he spent his only season at safety as more of a box player and extra nickel back. Da’Norris Searcy hasn’t looked bad in his handful of starts at free safety, but he’s a far cry from Byrd’s level. Bills fans can expect more deep passes completed against their defense without Byrd there to prevent them.
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