Buffalo Bills State of the Roster: Defense and Special Teams

The looming free agency of free safety Jairus Byrd ranks among the top storylines of Buffalo’s 2014 offseason. (Photo: Timothy T. Ludwig — USA Today Sports)

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

Injury curtailed Stephon Gilmore’s development in 2013. (Photo: Kevin Hoffman — USA Today Sports)

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.

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.

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 Buffalo Bills have to make a tough decision on whether to bring back Dan Carpenter. (Photo: Steve Mitchell — USA Today Sports)

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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Tags: 2014 NFL Draft, 2014 Offseason, Aaron Williams, Alan Branch, Brian Moorman, Buffalo Bills, Da'Norris Searcy, Dan Carpenter, Danny Crossman, Defense, Dustin Hopkins, Free Agency, Jairus Byrd, Jerry Hughes, Jim Schwartz, Kiko Alonso, Kyle Williams, Leodis McKelvin, Manny Lawson, Marcell Dareus, Mario Williams, Nickell Robey, Roster Changes, Roster Outlook, Shawn Powell, State of the Roster, Stephon Gilmore

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