32 Teams in 32 Days: Buffalo Bills
We’re witnessing the dawn of a new regime in the NFL. The head coach hails from the college ranks and promises a fast-tempo offense. His defensive coordinator is installing a new defensive scheme. Despite the pleas of fans and beat writers, the new head coach has yet to name his starting quarterback. With all due respect to the Philadelphia Eagles, I find myself captivated by the Buffalo Bills this August.
Enthusiasm in Western New York is tempered from this time last year, when fans were still high off the Mario Williams signing. Now after a slow start and a 13th straight non-playoff season, the Bills took their medicine this offseason and dove headfirst into rebuilding mode. With fresh faces at general manager, head coach, and QB, there’s a lot to explore on Buffalo’s roster.
Five Reasons to be Confident
1. Moving On From ‘Fitzmagic’
For all that the Bills added this offseason, their biggest improvement may come from what they subtracted. Back in 2008, Buffalo unwisely rewarded Dick Jauron with an extension for a 5-1 start. He lost 14 of the next 19 games, along with his job. Two years later, the Bills decided to extend Ryan Fitzpatrick’s contract after a 4-2 start. Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice… you know the rest.
The problem wasn’t the money as much as the fact that it incentivized Buffalo to commit to a player who has never finished a season with an overall PFF grade better than -5.3. Fitzpatrick earned a disastrous –62.1 grade and 39.9 QB Rating in Buffalo when under pressure, and his 27.5% accuracy on Deep Passes last season was second-worst in the NFL. It’s no wonder he consistently had one of the quickest releases and shortest average depth of targets in the league. Throw in his chronic interceptions, and Fitzpatrick’s effect on Buffalo’s offense was sometimes crippling and often limiting. By mercifully closing the curtain on the ‘Fitzmagic’ show, the Bills have already improved their prospects at the most important position on the field.
2. The Best Back in the League?
Adrian Peterson may have taken home the MVP award, but the most exciting player in the NFL last season was often found in Orchard Park. A mainstay at the top of our Breakaway Percentage rankings since his rookie season, C.J. Spiller was often slowed only by the resiliency of Fred Jackson. However, Jackson’s injuries cracked the door for Spiller in 2012, and the third-year back busted it open.
Along with Peterson, Spiller became one of only seven running backs in NFL history to average 6.0 yards per carry in a season with 200 attempts. Spiller’s 3.6 yards after contact per attempt were second only to the MVP, thanks to a ridiculous 94.6 Elusive Rating (a PFF record for a running back with more than 60 touches). Even as his volume has increased, he has maintained the same remarkable efficiency. If that trend continues, don’t be shocked if Doug Marrone’s fast-paced offense soon makes Spiller the best running back in the NFL.
3. Moving Mario
After signing the richest deal ever for a defensive player, Mario Williams was always going to face unrealistically high expectations in 2012. After three sacks and a -3.1 overall grade in the Bills’ first seven games, most wrote off the defensive end as just the latest high-priced free agent bust. That’s a shame, because those who watched him in the second half were treated to a very impressive rebound. From Week 9 to 17, Williams’ +13.1 grade was the fifth-highest of any 4-3 defensive end, and only one player at his position collected more defensive stops.
Some will thank Williams’ bye week wrist surgery, but a look our player position data reveals something further. Prior to Week 8, the Bills played Williams as a down lineman on 96.4% of his snaps, almost exclusively on the left side. But after the bye they moved him around to take advantage of different matchups, as he did with great success as a Houston Texan. From Week 9 on Williams played 20.9% of his snaps as a linebacker and 14.6% on the right side. Now with defensive coordinator Mike Pettine installing a “hybrid” defense, Williams will be moved around more often as a “joker”. If that’s the case, he’ll come closer to replicating his second half of 2012 than his first.
4. Depth Up Front
After the Williams and Mark Anderson signings didn’t have the expected impact, there was a lot of talk about the Bills’ disappointing defensive line. Unfortunately, that does a disservice to a defensive tackle group that was one of the best in the league. With a combined 105 QB pressures, only the Detroit Lions’ group of DTs harassed the opposing passer more than the Bills’.
Long-time readers already know about the greatness of Kyle Williams — the man known as “Meatball” landed at No. 22 in our Top 101 Players of 2012 list. Though Marcell Dareus needs to improve against the run to live up to his high draft pick status, he finished as a Top 10 DT in our pass rush grades for the second straight season. In a further display of the Bills’ depth at the position, Secret Superstar Alex Carrington finished with the 10th-highest Pass Rushing Productivity for any DT. By signing Alan Branch this offseason Buffalo adds a player who is just one year removed from the third-highest run defense grade at his position. Falling in with Pettine’s plans, each of these players also have the ability or experience to fit in a 3-man line, giving the Bills even more opportunity to get their best players on the field.
5. Free As a Byrd
Bills fans are eager to see Jairus Byrd get to training camp, and for good reason — over the past four seasons, he’s steadily developed into the best cover safety in the NFL. Byrd was a bit overrated as a rookie, earning a Pro Bowl berth with nine interceptions despite being a non-factor in run defense.
Flash forward to 2012, and Byrd is now near the top of his position in every facet of the game. With just four missed tackles on 79 attempts, Byrd had the highest Combined Tackle Efficiency for any safety who took more than 50% of his team’s snaps. Playing downhill more frequently, his 9.8 Run Stop Percentage when lined-up in the box was one of the best rates for a safety, and his 24 defensive stops were more than 10 times the amount from his rookie year. None of this came at the expense of Byrd’s deep responsibilities, as he earned the highest coverage grade of any safety in 2012 and didn’t allow a single touchdown all season. And with five interceptions and four forced fumbles, he clearly has sacrificed none of his playmaking. Byrd’s future in Buffalo is uncertain, but, for this season at least, he gives the Bills a powerful weapon in the secondary.
Five Reasons to be Concerned
1. Suspect Secondary
Byrd’s holdout can eventually turn confidence into concern, as the rest of Buffalo’s secondary was already suspect even with him on the field. Although the Bills needed to make changes on defense, we scratched our heads when they released veteran George Wilson. Our eighth-highest graded safety in 2012, Wilson had the 10th-most defensive stops at his position and allowed a reception just once every 36.8 coverage snaps. Replacement Da’Norris Searcy has only three NFL starts under his belt and Aaron Williams is being converted to safety after surrendering five touchdowns in each of his first two seasons as a cornerback. Veteran corner Leodis McKelvin provides a steady, if unspectacular, presence, but Stephon Gilmore’s 13 penalties were the most of any cornerback in 2012. Nickelback Justin Rogers surrendered the third-most yards in slot coverage of any corner, and the most slot yards after the catch. There’s a lot of talent here that the Bills hope will develop, but they’d certainly feel better if Byrd was back there to bail their youngsters out.
2. New Cast of Linebackers
A disciple of Rex Ryan, Pettine wants to install an aggressive, flexible defense that thrives on getting to the passer, and Buffalo found a group of linebackers to fit his hybrid front. Free agent Manny Lawson has played outside linebacker in both a 3-4 and 4-3. Second-round draft pick Kiko Alonso has been touted as both an inside ‘backer in a 3-4 or outside in a 4-3. You can also add in Jerry Hughes, who has flipped between a 3-4 outside linebacker and 4-3 defensive end last year with the Indianapolis Colts.
However, the Bills’ perennially porous run defense finished in the bottom five of the NFL for the past four seasons, and it’s uncertain what these new additions will do to change that. Lawson’s 3.1 Run Stop Percentage last season was one of the worst marks by an outside linebacker. Though scouts loved Alsonso’s speed, they saw him get lost at times near the line of scrimmage. And Hughes has struggled when given a bigger role, as he’s compiled a -10.8 overall grade in games where he took more than 50% of the defensive snaps. Nick Barnett had the highest grade and most run stops of any Bills linebacker in 2012, but Buffalo cut him back in February. As our founder Neil Hornsby touched on in his visit to Bills camp, Pettine may have sacrificed too much personnel for scheme with this group.
3. Who’s Helping Stevie?
Despite having to work with the shaky Fitzpatrick, Stevie Johnson has used his impressive style of route-running to break the 1,000-yard mark in three straight seasons. Unfortunately, no other Bills wide receiver has topped 700 yards in that span, and it will take an unexpected leap to change that trend in 2013. In an uninspiring rookie season, T.J. Graham’s -15.2 grade placed him dead last at his position. Both his Drop Rate and Yards Per Route Run were the second-lowest mark by a wideout with over 50 targets. After moving on from David Nelson and Donald Jones, Buffalo is pinning their hopes on a trio of rookies in Robert Woods, Marquise Goodwin, and Da’Rick Rogers. Barring a huge turnaround from Graham, or a big splash by a youngster, opposing secondaries can continue to focus on Johnson
4. Replacing Levitre
Despite our past support for Andy Levitre, we were surprised to see him go for such a high price tag in free agency. Though the Bills were smart not to match the Tennessee Titans’ offer, they still have to replace their highest-graded lineman from the past two seasons. Levitre’s run-blocking was never much to write home about, but last season he did have the highest Pass Blocking Efficiency (PBE) of any guard with over 100 pass block snaps. He was a versatile stopgap for a group often plagued by injuries, as he earned a +19.2 overall grade in 2011 while splitting time at left tackle, left guard, and center.
Levitre’s successor will be decided in a training camp battle between Colin Brown and Doug Legursky, neither of whom inspire much confidence. Brown has taken just 155 snaps over his four NFL seasons, and Legursky has a ghastly -36.4 grade in part-time duty over the past three seasons. The Bills finished fourth in our PBE rankings last season, but Buffalo’s next quarterback may not be able to rely on such good protection this season without Levitre.
5. Waiting For Manuel
The Bills are clearly rebuilding, and in today’s NFL that’s just another word for “looking for a quarterback”. Though cutting the cord on Fitzpatrick was the smart long-term move, it leaves Buffalo with short-term uncertainty. If Kevin Kolb becomes a bridge to the E.J. Manuel era, he’ll be a shaky one. He had a +4.7 grade with a 84.08 PFF Passer Rating last season before getting hurt (again). However, his 69.6 Accuracy Percentage was near the bottom of the league rankings, and his rate of 8.2% Deep Attempts was lower than even Fitzpatrick’s. And while some may put that blame on the Arizona Cardinals’ offensive line, Kolb earned a troubling -6.0 grade when throwing from a clean pocket. If Manuel isn’t ready to start Week 1, then Kolb may not be able to keep Buffalo’s wagon steady until he is.
What to Expect?
For as over-hyped as the Bills were last season, they’re flying under the radar this August. By moving on from Fitzpatrick and committing to Spiller, their offense will not be as handcuffed as in years past. Their defensive line, better than most realize, is returning with talent and depth. Even positions of concern like WR, LB, and CB have some young talent and new faces that could surprise. Furthermore, the AFC East does not look as formidable as it once did. Compared to New England’s offseason losses, New York’s dysfunction, and a spending spree in Miami by a GM trying to save his job (how often do those end well?), Buffalo could distinguish itself with some quick cohesion under Marrone. And given the recent success of rookie quarterbacks, it would be foolish to count the Bills out because of Manuel. Their roster has a bit too much turnover to bank on a playoff berth, but with a new coaching staff and solid prospects there can be a lot of positives gained from the Bills 2013 season.
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