Buffalo Bills State of the Roster: Defense and Special Teams

BBD Staff Writer: Ryan Glaze

The Buffalo Bills defense is currently in a state of flux as defensive coordinator Mike Pettine has left to become the head coach of the Cleveland Browns and subsequently, has pilfered three Bills assistant coaches from last year’s staff, one who had been hired by the Bills earlier this month (Jeff Hafley) and might be on the verge of hiring away defensive line coach Anthony Weaver.

The Bills reacted quickly and hired former Detroit Lions head coach Jim Schwartz to replace Pettine. Though his staff isn’t completely solidified yet, it appears likely that Schwartz will bring his “Wide 9,” 4-3 based defense to Buffalo.

The good news for Schwartz is that he’s entering a kitchen with a well-stocked pantry. Buffalo’s defense was its stronger side of the ball last season, and with only one glaring exception, returns all of its key contributors who, for the most part, look to be solid fits for Schwartz’ scheme.

Defensive Line

The Bills defensive line thrived in Pettine’s hybrid system, where the athleticism and versatility of Pro Bowlers Mario Williams, Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus were put on display. A premium on pass-rushing ability and quickness off the snap should continue to be part of Schwartz’s defensive scheme.

While we can’t know for sure how exactly Schwartz intends to use his players, both Dareus and Kyle Williams seem like solid fits as a defensive tackle duo in a four-man front, while it’s difficult to imagine any defensive scheme struggling to find a place for an athlete like Mario Williams.

Two major developments on the defensive line from the 2013 season could play a big part in the Bills returning to relevance. The first was Jerry Hughes, a pass-rushing specialist acquired from the Indianapolis Colts in exchange for inside linebacker Kelvin Sheppard. Though not the star his defensive linemates are, Hughes provided a significant impact as a pass-rusher with 10 sacks, and should be a great fit for Schwartz’s defense, at least on passing downs.

The biggest defensive line development of last season, however, was Dareus’ progress. After a frustrating 2012 season marred by injuries and the tragic death of his brother, many Bills fans were beginning to use the dreaded “b” word, comparing him to former first-round bust Aaron Maybin. The immediate success of many of the other top defensive players drafted in the 2011 draft class (J.J. Watt, Von Miller and Robert Quinn, to name a few) certainly didn’t help his case. In 2013, however, Dareus started to look like the dominant defensive lineman he was drafted to be, a tribute to the value of patience, mental and physical health, and development.

Dareus led all NFL defensive tackles with 45 stops and was graded as a top-10 defensive tackle as both a pass and run defender, according to Pro Football Focus.

Entering next season, the Bills will return all significant contributors from the 2013 defensive line after they smartly extended defensive tackle Alan Branch’s contract through the 2016 season.

Branch’s extension is potentially significant for Buffalo’s lone free agent along the defensive line, Alex Carrington. Carrington looked to be coming into his own in Pettine’s defense before a Week 3 quadriceps injury ended his season. Entering free agency with questions about his health, production, and fit into Schwartz’s new scheme, it is uncertain whether Carrington will be back with the team next season. This may be compounded by the fact that he’s represented by Eugene Parker, who also represents free safety Jairus Byrd (more to come). If the negotiations with Byrd go south, expect both sides to walk away from any deal for Carrington.

Look for the Bills to find a starter opposite Mario Williams and depth at defensive end this offseason. To allow Hughes to remain a pass-rushing specialist, adding a player capable of setting the edge and rushing the passer on running downs will be an important piece of the puzzle.

Linebackers

At first blush, it seems as though Schwartz’s scheme is a terrific fit for Lawson and Alonso as both excel in coverage. That said, a position change to the weak side for Alonso to better leverage his playmaking abilities should’t be overlooked.The “Wide 9″ defense emphasizes linebackers’ ability to make plays against the run and defend the pass in coverage. With only four linebackers currently under contract, this is not the deepest group on the Bills roster, but should-be Defensive Rookie of the Year Kiko Alonso and 2013 free-agent signee Manny Lawson look to be solid positional fits at weak- and strong-side linebacker, respectively. Backups Nigel Bradham and Ty Powell are young, cheap and intriguing athletes who could be retained for development, depth and special teams purposes.

Alonso’s ability to quickly pick up Pettine’s hybrid scheme likely stemmed from his experience with a very similar scheme in college. Though the transition to a new scheme, which often includes new techniques, new verbiage and new responsibilities, will be a stressor to the entire defense, a scheme and positional adjustment might impact the read-and-react ability that makes Alonso such a special linebacker.

Look for Buffalo to make addressing the middle linebacker position a high priority this offseason. The University of Buffalo’s Khalil Mack is a versatile and talented linebacker who would make for an extremely intriguing choice if available with the Bills’ No. 9 overall pick in this year’s NFL draft. New England Patriots free-agent middle linebacker Brandon Spikes is another name that would seem to make sense. Spikes excels in stopping the run, and signing him would have a “two birds with one stone” effect by taking him from a division rival.

Four-year veteran Arthur Moats, the team’s lone free-agent linebacker, is another potential candidate to fill the Mike role. Though he may be a bit undersized to be a truly natural fit as a middle linebacker in Schwartz’ scheme, he would likely to be cheaper to sign than Spikes and could make sense as a placeholder, should the Bills decide to take more of a developmental approach to the Mike position with a mid-late round pick.

Safeties

Much like their defensive counterparts in the front seven, the Bills defensive backfield became a strength by the end of the 2013 season, bolstered by several significant developments and an undrafted rookie gem.

While talented even without him, this could be a truly special unit going forward if the Bills can come to an agreement on a reasonable contract extension with star safety Jairus Byrd.

According to Patrick Moran of Buffalo Sports Daily, Byrd is looking to become the highest-paid safety in the league, a demand the team was unwilling to accommodate during last season’s negotiations. While Bills team president Russ Brandon said the Bills are working toward a long-term deal with Byrd according to a report by The Associated Press, the team made it clear last offseason that they weren’t willing to invest the type of money in a safety that Byrd is seeking.

With Parker no stranger to holdouts, it appears this stalemate is likely to continue. If no long-term deal is struck, the Bills could use the franchise tag on Byrd for a second consecutive year. Should the tag be used again, the team might look more aggressively to trade him this time around.

In 2013, Byrd held out until the end of the preseason, then missed the team’s first five games with plantar fasciitis. Many wondered how the Bills would be able to replace him. Though he wasn’t able to completely replicate Byrd’s impact on the field, Aaron Williams had a very nice season and looked far more comfortable at safety than he had at cornerback in his first two NFL seasons. This offseason will be a big one for Williams as he continues to familiarize himself with his new position, whether it be alongside Byrd or not.

Behind Williams, Da’Norris Searcy is adequate enough to provide solid depth and 2013 rookies Jonathan Meeks and Duke Williams, neither of whom saw much action in their first years, might figure into the defensive rotation more in their second years.

Any acquisitions at the safety position will almost certainly be driven by the outcome of the Byrd negotiations. If the team is forced to settle for trading or letting their star go, adding another veteran safety would seem a very realistic priority. If a long-term deal is worked out, the Bills look to be in great shape at the safety position heading into 2014.

Cornerbacks

Despite an up-and-down year, Gilmore looked like a quality starter as he became healthy toward the end of the saeson. He has the potential to be a true lockdown cornerback; a solid offseason of development will be big in determining whether or not he ever reaches that level.2013 was supposed to be Stephon Gilmore’s breakout year, but that quickly changed after he suffered a fractured wrist in the preseason. That kept him out of Buffalo’s first five games of the season, and forced to play with a club on his injured wrist for most of the rest of the season.

Gilmore’s teammate, 2008 first-round pick Leodis McKelvin, ultimately came up with a breakout season. Like Dareus, many were beginning to use the “bust” label with McKelvin who, through his first five seasons, was a subpar starter. Despite many finding McKelvin’s four-year, $17 million contract extension last offseason to be surprising and perhaps unwarranted, the Bills were rewarded for taking a chance as McKelvin posted his best year to date and solidified himself as a quality starter.

The emergence of Nickell Robey, an undrafted free agent rookie from USC, also strengthened the Bills cornerback roster. Though only 5’8”, Robey’s ball skills, agility and instincts made him an ideal nickel slot cornerback. If the defense continues to be successful in getting to the quarterback, Robey’s aggression should continue to lead to big plays.

Behind Gilmore, McKelvin and Robey, the Bills have serious depth issues. 2012 fourth-round pick Ron Brooks doesn’t seem to be developing into the player the Bills thought he could be. Justin Rogers was a midseason cut by Buffalo after he started the season out disastrously playing in place of the injured Gilmore.

With the injury history of McKelvin and Gilmore, expect the Bills to add depth by bringing in another veteran capable of playing on the outside if called upon.

Defensive Summary

Williams’ tweet says it all. Schwartz is the Bills’ fifth defensive coordinator in the past six years. With that much staff fluctuation, it’s a wonder guys like McKelvin and Dareus developed at all.

The defensive roster has talent littered across the field and most importantly, in the trenches. A stout middle linebacker and dependable defensive end could make this a very good unit, but reaching an agreement with Byrd could make it special. Though they might be taking the prudent approach in not wanting to invest too much in one position, they’re toeing a dangerous line of getting too cute with their cap management.

Special Teams

According to Football Outsiders metrics, the Bills had the third-worst special teams play in the league last season. While both kickoff coverage and kickoff return groups were rated as performing below average, they were, relatively speaking, far superior to the team’s punt coverage and punt return teams, the latter of which was ranked dead last by Football Outsiders.

Special teams coordinator Danny Crossman was given a second year to correct those issues, but he will have to make some difficult personnel decisions to do so.

The one strength of the Bills special teams was its field goal unit, as Dan Carpenter made 33 of 36 attempts in 2013. Signed just before the season, Carpenter enjoyed one of his most productive seasons as a pro. However, the Bills invested a sixth-round pick in Dustin Hopkins last season. With Hopkins coming off a groin injury that put him on injured reserve for the entire season, the team will have to decide whether to opt for the strong-legged young gun or resign its veteran special teams bright spot.

The punter position will be another to watch. After netting only 35.2 yards per punt through his first five games in 2013, the Bills replaced punter Shawn Powell by bringing back longtime Bills veteran Brian Moorman. Though a fan favorite, Moorman only managed to marginally improve on Powell’s performance, netting 36.6 yards per punt, good for 30th in the NFL. The Bills have already resigned Moorman through the 2014 season, but given those paltry numbers, it would be a surprise if they didn’t at least bring in some competition for the spot.

Don’t be surprised if the Bills look to acquire several special teams aces this offseason as well. With just under an estimated $20 million in cap space and only a handful of priority positions to fill, the Bills could look to quickly improve their special teams woes via free agency. With McKelvin entrenched as a starter at cornerback and depth concerns already an issue at the position, the team might ask its leading punt returner to focus on defense. Though they could ask receiver and kickoff return man Marquise Goodwin to take on punt return duties as well, signing a special teamer who could make an impact on kick and punt coverage as well as taking punt return duties could make a profound difference on the Bills’ special teams, while adding to the team’s overall depth and allowing Goodwin’s role on offense to continue to grow.

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