Buffalo's New Pieces
The AFC East has belonged to the New England Patriots for the past 15 years but aggressive free agency strategies from the other three teams in the division suggest that they want change, and they want it fast. While the Miami Dolphins and New York Jets mainly keyed in on one star players to strengthen their defense in Ndamokung Suh and Darrelle Revis, the Buffalo Bills tried everything to match an already strong defense with a potent offense.
Let’s have a look at the four main additions in Matt Cassel, Percy Harvin, Charles Clay and LeSean McCoy as illustrated in the below image created by PFF’s Rick Drummond.
Matt Cassel, QB
Cassel finally found his way back to the AFC East after being traded away by New England in 2009. His best year came in 2011 when he had an overall grade of +0.4 in nine games before his season was cut short due to injury. Considering that the Bills’ offensive line ranked 23rd in pass blocking last year, it is useful to look at Cassel’s numbers under pressure and here we can see that he has remained in the bottom half of NFL quarterbacks in this category throughout his career.
Despite his inconsistency, Cassel has continuously earned positive grades for his throws between 10-20 yards, which can be considered the best facet of his game. This bodes well for a Bills offense that may build its air attack around sophomore star wide receiver Sammy Watkins, whose average depth of target was 13.6 yards in 2014, good for 29th among wide receivers.
Although he is far from an elite quarterback and at this point it is uncertain if he will even start in Buffalo, based on what we have seen from E.J. Manuel so far, Cassel represents an upgrade at the quarterback position, however marginal.
Percy Harvin, WR
By signing free agent wide receiver Percy Harvin, the Bills have provided Cassel with an underneath target complementing Watkins — Harvin’s average depth of target of 10.4 yards was good for 75th among the 115 qualifying wide receivers last year. The major concern with Harvin is, obviously, his injury record and attitude question marks. He has never managed to play more than 650 snaps in a single season, nor has he ever topped 1,000 receiving yards.
Due to his off-field troubles in Seattle and the fact that he only played 16 games over the past two seasons, including the playoffs, people tend to forget how dominant Percy Harvin was when he was able to stay on the field. The only player who was graded among our Top 15 wide receivers in all seasons between 2009 and 2012 is Harvin, despite the low number of snaps.
When talking about his versatility, it does not stop at the fact that he can line up in the backfield — he lines up in all wide receiver positions and this is reflected in his snap distribution throughout his career. Although he lined up in the slot 88.5% of all his snaps in his rookie season, the ratio decreased throughout his time in Minnesota until the point where he lined up only 59.8% of the time in the slot in 2012. Last year, in his eight games with the Jets, Harvin lined up only 17.5% of the time in the slot, which may suggest how his former-and-current head coach Rex Ryan views him and tends to utilize him with offensive coordinator Greg Roman.
Charles Clay, TE
It is not the purpose of this article to comment on the contracts offered to the newcomers, but we need to address the elephant in the room: more than $20 million guaranteed for a tight end not named Rob Gronkowski or Jimmy Graham? Let’s see what the Bills are getting at this high price.
The huge question mark is which Charles Clay the Bills will see in 2015? The 2011 Clay, who was an adequate run blocker (+1.6), but a below average pass catcher (-3.4)? The 2012 Clay, who flashed ability as a pass blocker (+1.6), but did not contribute much in the other aspects of the game? The 2013 Clay, who exceled as a receiver (+5.0), but struggled as a run blocker (-5.0)? Or the 2014 Clay, who performed well everywhere except pass protection (-2.9)?
It is hard to look at Clay’s performance without noticing the inconsistency in his play; he has shown ability in all areas, but rarely at the same time. Obviously, the Bills hope he will repeat his best performance from each category in 2015, but do appear to be paying for potential.
One aspect where he would certainly bring something new to Buffalo is vertically extending the middle of the field. In 2014, Buffalo tight ends had a total of three targets when the ball traveled more than 20 yards and made only one reception. Clay alone had eight such targets and caught all five catchable balls, the same number as New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski.
LeSean McCoy, RB
The acquisition of McCoy through a trade from Philadelphia was perhaps the most noteworthy of all the offensive additions the Bills made over the past month. However, Ryan has not brought the offensive line with him from New York and that may be a problem for McCoy, because as we look at his performance over the past two seasons, we can see that it heavily relied on the offensive line in front of him.
In 2013, McCoy was our highest-graded halfback with an overall grade of +27.3, while playing behind the NFL’s best run-blocking unit. However, McCoy’s overall grade of -9.3 was good for only the 55th place among the 57 qualifying halfbacks in 2014. Though the Eagles line still ended up ranked No. 1 by the end of the season, that belies the major struggles it experienced early in the season, contributing to McCoy’s decline. Suspensions, injuries and some shaky play from backups who were forced into starting positions all caused major hiccups to the unit at points in 2014. Consequently, it may be bad news for McCoy that the Bills’ offensive line ranked dead last in run blocking last season.
The Bills made impressive additions to their skill positions in March and this offense seems to be in position to nicely complement a strong defense that should work well with their new head coach. Surprisingly, however, the only change they made to their considerably poor offensive line was the addition of Richie Incognito, whose potential contribution is uncertain at this point due to his age and the length of time he has been away from the game. Although many pieces now appear to be in place, one troubling question remains: will the decision to not focus on the offensive line bite back down the road?