BBD Editor: Dan Hope
One of numerous reasons the Buffalo Bills only went 6-10 last season was their lack of a consistent and explosive passing offense. They ranked 25th in the NFL in passing yards, 24th in passing yards per attempt, and was one of 11 teams to grade out negatively in passing offense last year by Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Fortunately for the Bills, their passing offense is going to have a completely different look next season.
That all starts at the quarterback position, where the Bills are replacing Ryan Fitzpatrick, who they released after four underwhelming, interception-laden seasons as their starter. While it is yet unknown who will be starting under center in Week 1, 2013 first-round pick E.J. Manuel will be expected to take over the job sooner rather than later.
If Manuel is thrown into the fire immediately, the interception totals may not go down at all, but he has high upside as a developmental quarterback prospect, with physical tools Fitzpatrick simply does not have.
While Fitzpatrick is more of an intermediate passer and game manager, Manuel has the ability to create big plays with both his arm and legs. He has a strong arm and throws the ball with great velocity off a quick release, while he has the running ability to take off from the pocket and extend plays as a passer or gain yardage as a dual-threat runner.
The Bills’ brain trust decided that Manuel was the best fit among quarterbacks in the 2013 draft class to quarterback the offensive scheme that new offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett will run under Doug Marrone. Although both came from Syracuse in the same roles, they chose Manuel over their collegiate quarterback, Ryan Nassib, who fell to the New York Giants in Round 4.
New Players + New Coaching = New Passing Offense in Buffalo
To consider how Manuel and the Bills’ other new additions could fit the new offense, let’s take a look back at the passing formations Marrone and Hackett ran at Syracuse last season. Although their system will likely evolve for the NFL, they already ran an adaptable, pro-style offense which features a wide variety of multiple sets.
Most frequently, Syracuse passed out of shotgun spread sets in which they lined up with two outside receivers, a slot receiver and a tight end, the latter often being flexed off the line of scrimmage.
While the Orange used more shotgun than dropbacks from under center last season, that trend may shift toward the other direction as they develop their offense for the next level. Fortunately for the Bills, Manuel has a good amount of experience both under center and in the gun. He has very good footwork in his drops, while he is good at bringing the field to him by rolling toward the sideline out of the shotgun to extend passing plays and create passing opportunities.
Manuel has many of the same assets that allowed Nassib to excel in Syracuse’s scheme: throwing velocity, arm strength, scrambling ability, clean footwork, quick release, sound mechanics, accurate short passing. However, for Manuel to excel in a pro-style NFL offense, he has to become quicker and smarter with his reads, and improve his touch and precision on downfield throws.
While the success of the Bills’ passing offense will depend greatly upon Manuel’s development, it will also depend on how well the team’s receiving weapons emerge.
At wide receiver, Stevie Johnson and T.J. Graham may be the only returners from last season’s roster. Johnson and Graham will face competition for their starting spots from second-round pick Robert Woods and third-round pick Marquise Goodwin, while undrafted free agents Da’Rick Rogers and Brandon Kaufman could be in competition for the fifth receiving spot along with returning veterans Marcus Easley and Brad Smith.
While the top four receivers should be Johnson, Graham, Woods and Goodwin in some order, what remains unclear is what roles they will play in the offense, as each player has the versatility to play both outside and as an inside slot receiver.
Although Graham may seem the most natural fit for the slot with his speed and quickness but limited size, the Bills used him primarily outside in his rookie season, while “X” receiver Johnson was used in the slot often down the stretch.
That could change in Marrone’s offense, especially with Woods having the talent and polish to immediately unseat Graham for a starting spot. That said, the most likely formation for the Bills in three-receiver sets is to have Woods and Graham lining up as the two receivers split outside, with Johnson being used inside in the slot given his big-play ability.
Goodwin, the fastest player at the 2013 NFL Scouting Combine with a 4.27-second 40-yard dash, could also factor into three-receiver sets immediately, although he must become a more consistent catcher of the football and more developed in his route-running.
Scott Chandler should remain the starter and go-to option at tight end in three-receiver sets, but Marrone used two-tight end sets often at Syracuse as well, with one tight end often flexed away from the offensive tackle.
In situations where the Bills use similar packages, seventh-round pick Chris Gragg is a prime candidate, along with returning veteran Dorin Dickerson, to be used as a flex tight end. Like Dickerson, Gragg is undersized and a subpar blocker for an in-line tight end, but he is a dynamic athlete who can make plays as a receiver coming out of the backfield.
Marrone also utilized bunch packages often at Syracuse, which feature three receivers (two slots and a tight end or two tight ends and a slot) together in the formation, with one receiver split wide. Gragg would be a good fit in those packages as well, which could also be a way for the Bills to utilize Goodwin as both a playmaker and a decoy.
Two variables likely to evolve the Bills’ passing offense from what Marrone and Hackett deployed at Syracuse are increased athleticism at both the quarterback and running back positions.
Nassib showed some ability at Syracuse to run from the pocket when he had the option to do so, but it was not a regular or consistently effective part of the Orange offense. While Manuel is not a major running playmaker himself, he is a better athlete who could give the Bills more possibilities to incorporate zone read and option tactics into their offense.
Manuel is no Robert Griffin III or Colin Kaepernick, but as a runner and scrambler, he presents a similar skill set to Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck. While certainly a pocket passer first whose running ability is a small complement to his game, Manuel’s size and speed give him the ability to gain yards going out to the sideline and be tough to bring down.
While Marrone and Hackett had numerous talented downfield receiving options in play at Syracuse, one element limited in their passing offense was the lack of a significant receiving playmaker out of the backfield. In Buffalo, expect Marrone and Hackett to evolve the system to take advantage of the many ways they can utilize the game-breaking speed, quickness and elusiveness of C.J. Spiller, including as a receiver out of the backfield.
Will Different Passing Offense = Better Passing Offense?
While the Buffalo Bills’ 2013 passing offense may only resemble the 2012 scheme in its key returning players, whether philosophical differences or player addition will lead to improved performance remains to be seen.
The Bills should become a more explosive downfield passing team. While they already had great speed in Spiller and big-play downfield receiving ability in Johnson, they didn’t have a quarterback like Manuel who can drive the ball deep downfield. Additionally, they add even more speed by drafting Goodwin as a deep threat, while Woods is another talented downfield receiver and Gragg can make them more dynamic from the tight end position.
But as aforementioned, the key to the Bills’ success as a passing offense will be how quickly Manuel can progress and develop into the starting-caliber quarterback he was drafted to be. Unless Manuel is starting and playing well, the Bills will continue to be among the league’s less prolific passing offenses, as Kevin Kolb offers little if any upgrade over Fitzpatrick.