Offseason Report Card: Buffalo Bills
With the flurry of NFL offseason action nearly in the books, Chris Burke and Doug Farrar take stock of every team’s offseason. Find all our Offseason Report Cards here.
This offseason consisted less of a total makeover for the Bills than a few tweaks. A few significant, substantial tweaks.
The ultimate verdict on the front office's work may boil down to if and when Sammy Watkins can become an All-Pro-level talent for the Bills. Losing S Jairus Byrd to the Saints and signing LB Brandon Spikes and CB Corey Graham could have as much impact on the defense as Watkins' arrival does on offense. Both players are proven, veteran pieces, and Spikes brings the added value of knowing the AFC East inside and out.
Spikes and whoever replaces Byrd may wind up as the only new faces in Buffalo's starting lineup, a positive if the Bills can build on last season's defensive performance, which saw them rank 10th in yards allowed (though 20th in points). Spikes' presence as a two-down hammer should bolster a run D that allowed 150 or more yards seven times, including in four of Buffalo's final five games.
He will have to offset the loss of Byrd as an in-the-box safety. The Bills no longer appear to have that type of high-impact performer at that position.
Yet, again, the key to the 2014 season will be Watkins' development. There is enough talent on offense for the Bills to be a scary foe, and the defense led by Kiko Alonso could be formidable in stretches. Buffalo took a few baby steps ... and at least two or three huge leaps in its player movement over the past few months.
Best acquisition: Sammy Watkins, WR.
The Bills want to be faster, more dangerous on offense. They want to get the ball out of EJ Manuel's hands and into those of their weapons. And they believe Watkins is the key to all of it coming together.
He had better be for the price tag Buffalo paid to land him: two first-round picks plus an additional fourth-rounder. The move was one befitting a team that believes it is on the verge of Super Bowl contention -- see: Atlanta trading up for Julio Jones. The Bills, though, have not finished even .500 since 2004 and their last postseason berth came last millennium, in 1999.
So rather than bank on Watkins leading them to the promised land this season, Marrone's Bills will build around the Clemson product. Ideally, Watkins, Robert Woods, C.J. Spiller, Marquise Goodwin and Manuel would form the backbone of this offense for several years to come. Each one of those guys was taken in the first three rounds of the draft, all but Spiller (Round 1, 2010) acquired over the past two offseasons.
"This game is about making plays and surrounding our quarterback with playmakers," GM Doug Whaley said after executing the risky move for Watkins. "He’s automatically going to make our quarterback better and us better as a team."
How much better will depend in large part on Manuel's improvement over a year ago. From a WR perspective, however, the bar is not all that high in Buffalo. Tight end Scott Chandler actually led the team in receptions with 53; Stevie Johnson, who the Bills traded to San Francisco, in part to clear room for Watkins, topped his position group with 52. No player on the roster caught more than three TD passes, and only on rare occasions did Marrone's offense drum up big plays.
Watkins offers the promise of brighter days.
Biggest loss: Jairus Byrd, S.
Thanks to Aaron Williams and a handful of returning options, the Bills may not be in as dire straits at the safety position as it appeared on paper when Byrd departed for New Orleans. They still will feel the loss of one of the league's top safeties, a three-time Pro Bowler.
Williams, who tied three others (Byrd, Kiko Alonso and Jim Leonhard) for the team lead with four picks last season, is all but locked in to the starting lineup at one safety spot. "He can range from the middle of the field, he can cover a guy man to man," new Buffalo defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz said of Williams. "He’s got those hybrid corner-safety skills."
The job alongside him is up for grabs, with Da'Norris Searcy, 2013 fourth-rounder Duke Williams and 2013 fifth-rounder Jonathan Meeks leading the competition. Undrafted rookie Kenny Ladler, out of Vanderbilt, could be a deep sleeper. Whoever takes the gig will have huge shoes to fill, even as Schwartz pushes the Bills more into a defense featuring interchangeable safeties.
Buffalo actually finished No. 4 in the league in passing yards allowed last season, though the defense's inability to stop the run -- teams rushed for nearly 2,100 yards on the Bills -- made it much easier for the opposition to eschew throwing the football. Still, when teams did take to the air, Buffalo picked off 23 passes (second-most in the league) and more than held its own. Can that performance continue with Byrd playing elsewhere?
Underrated draft pick: Preston Brown, LB.
The Bills got their middle-of-the-field run-stuffer in Brandon Spikes, who signed with Buffalo this offseason after spending several years in New England. Brown, a third-rounder, eventually could fill a similar role. In the meantime, the coaching staff is staying open to simply getting him on the field.
"We see him a little bit as a 'Mike' right now, but he’s versatile enough [to play outside]," Bills director of player personnel Jim Monos told the team's website. "He can do both in my opinion. He’s done it, but that will be more up to the staff."
Brown was our Louisville player to watch way back in August when Audibles rolled out its college football conference-by-conference draft primers. He never really ascended from being a steady, solid player to stardom, but Brown did turn in another 98 tackles and a career-high 4.5 sacks in 2013. At 6-foot-1 and 251 pounds -- similar size to Spikes, who stands 6-2 and 250 -- Brown plays a heavy-hitting, downhill game from his linebacker spot.
Buffalo has been testing him out so far in nickel packages, and there might be some playing time available next to Alonso there. Whether or not Brown can handle coverage duties out of such looks could determine his fate as a rookie; his tackling and blitzing abilities will give him a shot.
Looming question for training camp: Is the offense capable of taking the next step?
The goal is to push the pace, though Buffalo was ineffective in that aim last season -- the Bills ran 1,116 plays, third-most in the league behind Denver and New England, but finished just 22nd in points scored. Now in Year 2 of the offensive cultivated by Marrone and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett, and with Manuel firmly planted in the starting role, the Bills expect more of their possessions to end in points.
"We look back at last year, and those first four games when EJ had a lot of run going on, it was awesome," Hackett recently told the Buffalo News. The Bills averaged 22 points and 350 yards of offense in that stretch, both slightly above their season paces. "We were really rolling. It’s funny. You look back on it and as the season went on, with the changes we had at that position, it slowed down.
"The better we get, the more we have of the understanding of the offense, the faster we can go." Count at least a few folks out there as doubters, mainly because of Manuel. He finished the 2013 season with 11 touchdowns to nine interceptions over 10 games played, and the offense actually hummed a little better at times with backup Thaddeus Lewis in the lineup. The dream, though, is for Manuel to move from being a rookie insulated by the playbook to a playoff-caliber QB in short order.