With the majority of NFL off-season action behind us, Chris Burke and Doug Farrar grade each team's off-season.
The Bills have played the role of bottom-feeder, even of AFC East laughingstock. They endured through a painful and almost interminable rebuild. Now, coming off their team's first winning season in a decade, Buffalo is experiencing a long-lost sensation.
"I know it’s been 15 years since the Bills made the playoffs," new coach Rex Ryan said at his introductory press conference. "Well, get ready, man, we’re going. We are going. ... Am I guaranteeing a Super Bowl and all that? I’ll tell you what I will do: I will guarantee the pursuit of it. There is no question about that."
The front office approached this off-season—even more so than it did the last—as if the roster was just a few tweaks from serious contention. Some of those adjustments were more substantial than others—see: trading LB Kiko Alonso for RB LeSean McCoy and opening the checkbook to swipe TE Charles Clay from Miami. Also under that umbrella was GM Doug Whaley's ability to keep DE Jerry Hughes (10.0 sacks) in tow with a five-year, $45 million contract.
Other off-season acquisitions include WR Percy Harvin, FB Jerome Felton and QBs Matt Cassel and Tyrod Taylor. The Bills would love one of those quarterbacks to take charge of the offense, if EJ Manuel continues to stumble. Meanwhile, Felton figures to play a critical role in offensive coordinator Greg Roman's attack and Harvin could, depending on how healthy and invested he is this season.
The defense, minus Alonso and fellow LB Brandon Spikes, still has the look of a playoff-caliber unit. Can the offense follow suit and turn Ryan's prediction true? Perhaps, but Whaley's continued inability to land a legit No. 1 QB lingers as a potential pratfall.
Best acquisition: LeSean McCoy, RB
McCoy may never again reach the heights he hit in 2013 (1,607 yards rushing, 2,146 total yards, 11 touchdowns). The Bills also do not need McCoy to be that remarkable to improve upon what they accomplished in the run game last season—their mark of 92.6 rushing yards per game ranked 25th in the league. Fred Jackson topped Buffalo's charts with 525 yards; C.J. Spiller, who essentially was pushed out of town by McCoy's arrival, made it to just 300 yards after a broken collarbone cost him several weeks.
One thing is for certain: Buffalo will commit to the run under Ryan and Roman, perhaps more so than it has as a team since the days of Thurman Thomas. Swapping out Alonso, an extremely talented young linebacker, for McCoy was proof positive of that.
"Greg [Roman] is an excellent guy. He’s very intelligent. He finds ways to get his running back the ball in space to make different plays," McCoy said, via the Bills' website. "I’m very close with Frank Gore and Frank couldn’t stop saying positive things about coach. So it sounds like Greg and I are going to have the same vision and the same goals. I can say just the way he uses the back, he wants to make the guy the workhorse, so we definitely agree on that."
Buffalo has to figure out exactly how it will block for McCoy, Fred Jackson, rookie Karlos Williams and any other back who gets a shot. Third-round pick John Miller is on pace to pay early dividends at guard, but both spots on the right side of the line could be up for grabs.
Settle the depth chart there and the Bills can let McCoy do his thing. When he is on his game, few in the league are better than Buffalo's new back.
Biggest loss: Brandon Spikes, LB
This is all relative. Alonso was incredible during his rookie season of 2013, so if he fully recovers from a devastating knee injury, he's the most talented player to exit Buffalo.
With respect to how the Bills made it to 9–7 last year, though, it's either Spikes or S Da'Norris Searcy who leaves the most unanswered questions. There are at least some ideas in all cases—Aaron Williams will slot in for Searcy; Preston Brown and Nigel Bradham, both 14-game starters a year ago, made Spikes and Alonso expendable, at least in Whaley's eyes. Heck, Spikes was on the free-agent market until last week, then signed a cheap deal with New England. If Buffalo truly wanted or needed him back, odds are he would be a Bill.
"With me and Nigel [Bradham], we think we have a lot of talent coming back," Brown said during a media session at an April minicamp. "Just get some depth behind us and be ready to go out there every week."
The depth concern is why Spikes remained a possibility up until he signed with New England. In a limited, run-stuffing role a year ago, Spikes recorded 54 tackles and graded out as Pro Football Focus' 13th-best linebacker. Brown and Bradham are the catalysts, but who's going to round out that positional group?
Underrated draft pick: Nick O'Leary, TE (pick No. 194)
The Bills' draft grade took a hit because of their absent No. 1 pick, and their offseason mark does the same here. Second-round CB Ronald Darby and Miller both are potential starters, but unlike 2014's Sammy Watkins swing for the fences, Whaley's task in 2015 was to maximize value.
Which brings us to O'Leary, a limited athlete who nevertheless emerged as Jameis Winston's most trusted target.
"He’s been productive his whole career," Bills director of player personnel Jim Monos said, via the team's website. "Everybody tells you that he’s not the fastest, not the tallest, or most athletic but then you watch him and all he does is make plays for one of the best teams in the country."
Think of him like a football version of Dustin Pedroia—what O'Leary lacks in measureable traits, he makes up for with intelligence and effort. As an H-back in Buffalo's offense, paired with some combo of Clay and Chris Gragg, O'Leary will continue to provide a safety net for his QB.
Looming question for training camp: So, uh ... who is the quarterback?
NFL.com posed the question over the weekend: "Could Tyrod Taylor start at QB for the Buffalo Bills?" It was part innocuous attempt to generate discussion, part glimpse into the Bills' frustrating reality under center.
Whaley said during an appearance on The Jim Rome Show last week that all of Taylor, Cassel and EJ Manuel are seeing reps with the first-team offense. While that gives everyone a shot, it also speaks to the Bills' lack of an obvious starter at the game's most important position. They traded for the underwhelming, 33-year-old Cassel in early March, then signed Taylor less than two weeks later.
Conventional wisdom at the time pointed to a Cassel-Manuel duel, but the new coaching staff is not tied to Manuel in any way aside from his contract (his fully guaranteed, $8.885 million deal runs through 2016, with a club option for 2017). And Cassel is little more than a veteran placeholder, which Minnesota eventually would have determined last season had Cassel not landed on I.R. with a broken foot.
Taylor might have a legitimate shot at this thing then. He still has to be considered a long shot, at least until Cassel and/or Manuel falter. Cassel, at the very least, has had a moderate level of NFL success—33 wins as a starter, spread over three teams and 10 seasons.
Ryan is used to this situation. He spent six years as the Jets' head coach cycling through the likes of Mark Sanchez, Geno Smith, Michael Vick, Matt Simms and even Tim Tebow trying to uncover a star. While it never happened, Ryan's Jets did make two AFC title-game appearances behind Sanchez (2009 and '10). This Buffalo team is built in fashion, with a stout defense and promising run game backing an uncertain passing attack.
Buffalo may not have a quarterback capable of taking over games. Ryan would settle for someone who can play it safe and avoid costly turnovers. Cassel best fits the bill at the moment, but all options are on the table.