BBD Staff Writer: Ryan Glaze
After a six-win season in 2013, the Buffalo Bills’ brain trust of general manager Doug Whaley, head coach Doug Marrone and team president Russ Brandon will look to lead the team to improvement in 2014. A major part of that process will play out this offseason as the Bills look to add talent to their roster through the NFL draft, free agency and possibly trades.
The Bills especially need to improve the talent of their offense, which ranked 19th in the NFL in total yards (338.1 per game) and 22nd in points scored (21.2 per game). Still, from quarterback EJ Manuel to left tackle Cordy Glenn and others in between, the Bills have some core pieces to continue building around this offseason.
The Bills had a strange 2013 season at the quarterback position, and that’s an understatement. EJ Manuel, the man the Bills hope will eventually be their franchise signal caller, suffered multiple knee injuries. That left the Bills with a revolving door of retread journeyman placeholders, though one somewhat surprising revelation of a backup quarterback.
While it’s difficult to feel too comfortable with the current status of the position, it’s also not hard to see what could be. Given the investment made in him and the flashes of potential he showed, 2013 first-round pick Manuel will be given at least one more year as the incumbent. However, with lingering questions about his ability to stay healthy, grasp the entire playbook and make solid decisions as a passer, Manuel has a long way to go to prove he’s the long-term answer.
The good news for the Bills is that while the rookie was sidelined in 2013, Thad Lewis looked like a quality long-term backup capable of manning the helm in emergency relief.
Moving into the 2014 season, Manuel and Lewis figure to sit atop the depth chart. It would not be surprising, however, if Buffalo makes a move to hedge its bets on Manuel. Bringing in a high-potential, developmental prospect like Logan Thomas or Tajh Boyd late in the draft could provide the Bills a backup plan at quarterback if Manuel sputters in 2014.
Though the Bills running back group went into the 2013 season with high expectations, Buffalo’s situation at that position enters the offseason in a similar spot to the quarterback situation.
Despite sky-high expectations, driven by grandiose claims from offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett about feeding budding star C.J.
Spiller with carries “until he throws up”, Spiller’s 2013 season was a disappointment. He was derailed early by an ankle sprain that would linger for most of the season.
Though his output (927 rushing yards, 185 receiving yards) was nowhere near what Bills fans and fantasy owners were expecting, Spiller should be credited for showing a lot of heart, as he played 15 games despite evidently not being 100 percent for most of the season. At 26 years old, Spiller is still the closest thing the Bills have to a star running back. When healthy, Spiller looked like he was comfortable in Marrone’s offense. It will be a shot in the arm if, like Manuel, Spiller can shake the injury bug and have a strong, healthy season in 2014.
Fred Jackson ran for 896 yards and led the Bills with nine rushing touchdowns as he continued to overcome “Father Time” in 2013, but he will enter the 2014 season at 33 years old. Even as a “young” 33, the ageless wonder and emotional leader’s body will break down at some point, and thus far, Spiller hasn’t proven to be a guy who can handle a full workload.
While Jackson may have another few years left in his tank, it would be a mistake to rely on that with so many other questions in the backfield. The Bills called up one young backup late in 2013 in Ronnie Wingo, but they should shop the market to add another young running back.
There may not be a more interesting position on Buffalo’s roster than wide receiver.
On the bright side of things, rookies Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin at least met expectations, if not exceeded them, in 2013. Woods’ reliable hands, underrated athleticism and precise route running looked the part of a dangerous No. 2 receiver, if not more of a 1-B. Goodwin also showed glimpses of being a long-term playmaker; he led the Bills in kickoff return yardage and average yards per reception, and displayed the type of explosion that made him a US Olympian in track and field.
The rest of Buffalo’s wide receivers, however, were disappointments.
Entering the 2013 season, Stevie Johnson was unquestionably Buffalo’s go-to receiver, but there is reason for doubt heading into the 2014 season. Though some of his lack of performance can be attributed to poor quarterback play, Johnson posted his worst statistical season since 2009, and simply didn’t do enough on the field to justify the bonehead penalties, inexcusable drops and media storms that come with his play.
Johnson has always been more of a 1-B receiver than a 1-A, and Woods’ presence might get the Bills thinking about moving on from the enigmatic Johnson. It wouldn’t be surprising if the Bills shopped Johnson this offseason, though general manager Doug Whaley said following the season that he was “taken aback” by a question about Johnson’s future and expects him to be back next season, according to Buffalo Rumblings.
The oft-injured Marcus Easley also entered 2013 with high expectations. Finally healthy, Easley looked explosive in the preseason, and some thought the Bills would finally see the player deemed worth hanging onto for two seasons of zero productivity. Instead, however, he was unable to break into the depth chart all season and recorded just two catches on the year. He should be a longshot to make the 2014 roster.
Second-year wideout T.J. Graham also failed to impress. Though blessed with plenty of deep speed, Graham struggles to separate, has subpar hands and a knack for coming up small in clutch situations. Graham’s speed is an asset in opening up the offense, and he’ll likely be brought back for a third season in Buffalo, but he needs to rededicate himself to running more precise routes and improving his ball skills if he hopes to stay in the league.
There’s a lot of good in the NFL, there’s not a lot of great. While Woods and Goodwin are a nice start, the former Trojan is best suited as a Robin rather than a Batman, and the Olympian is more of a gadget player in the Tavon Austin mold.
Though not a huge splash, the signing of former New York Giants wide receiver Ramses Barden to a futures contract could be significant. Whether combined or separate, the Bills should be looking for a true No. 1 receiver and a red zone presence at wideout. If signing Barden gives them the latter, it could allow Whaley to shop for the best talent in a No. 1 wide receiver, rather than being pigeon-holed in making that receiver a player with elite size.
There might not be a more boring positional group in the NFL than the Buffalo Bills tight ends. As the team continues to bolster EJ Manuel’s development, adding some dynamism to the quarterback’s best friend is a must.
Although Scott Chandler was the most productive of the bunch (a term that is very much relative here), and actually led the team in receptions and receiving yards in 2013, he offers little as a blocker, has inconsistent hands and will never be confused for a dynamic athlete. More importantly, Chandler is one of Buffalo’s pending unrestricted free agents, and it is uncertain, even with a modest contract, if he’ll be back in Orchard Park for 2014.
Second-string tight end Lee Smith provides solid push as a run blocker, but although he has flashed decent body control for a big man, he offers very little as a receiver.
The Bills do have several intriguing athletes who could make an impact next season at the position. 2013 seventh-round draft pick Chris Gragg is an intriguing athlete who seems to have the speed and size to be a weapon in the Buffalo passing offense. But while Gragg’s speed might be useful in stretching the seam, his lack of blocking abilities will likely keep him from being an every-down tight end.
Late-season pickup Tony Moeaki will be an interesting player to keep tabs on this offseason. To this point in his career, Moeaki has tantalized the NFL with unfilled potential. Moeaki was an impactful contributor in the Kansas City Chiefs’ passing offense when healthy, but he missed the entire 2011 season due to injury and was released prior to the 2013 season due to another injury.
While Moeaki is by no means a dominant blocker, he can hold his own as a run blocker well enough to potentially be a starter. His health might play a significant role in how Whaley addresses the tight end position this offseason.
Knowing they need to get EJ Manuel a safety blanket, expect the Bills to take a close look at the deep and talented pool of rookie tight ends in this year’s draft class, and possibly even make a splashy offer to New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham, who is an unrestricted free agent. Top prospects Eric Ebron (North Carolina) and Austin Seferian-Jenkins (Washington) will likely be at or near the top of the team’s draft board, and either could make a significant impact on Buffalo’s passing offense. When the dust settles, however, I expect the Bills to take advantage of the positional depth at tight end and use a mid-round pick on a less spectacular but well-rounded prospect such as Iowa’s C.J. Fiedorowicz or USC’s Xavier Grimble. They could even double-down on their successful gamble on Kiko Alonso and again swing for the fences with a Oregon product by spending a late-round pick on talented but troubled Colt Lyerla.
Much like the rest of the offense, and the theme of this article entirely, the Buffalo Bills’ offensive line has both solid positives and troubling negatives.
Once Buffalo’s biggest vulnerability, the left tackle position in one of the team’s greatest strengths thanks to Cordy Glenn, who has provided blindside security as a pass protector and a solid push as a run blocker throughout his first two seasons.
Another well-established pillar of the offensive line, center Eric Wood, has continued to be a leader in the middle of the offensive line.
The Bills’ right side of the line performed in 2013 at what could probably be described as a passing level. While that’s no ringing endorsement, right tackle Erik Pears and right guard Kraig Urbik were both effective enough to not force any drastic decisions this offseason. Both have reasonably high cap numbers relative to their on-field performance, however, which could make both potential cap casualties if the Bills can find replacements in a deep draft of offensive linemen. (Pears carries a $3.45 million cap hit for 2014, while Urbik’s cap hit is $3.375 million)
The most glaring problem on the Bills’ offensive line, however, comes from the left guard position. Colin Brown was so ineffective as the starter early in the season that he was cut, and Doug Legursky didn’t perform much better in his place. Though the Bills brought in Midwestern State rookie JJ Unga and journeyman Mark Asper for a look late in the year, expect the gaping chasm at left guard to be among the team’s top priorities to address this offseason.
There are certainly some things to like about the Bills offense moving forward. Solid prospects at skill positions, two pillars on the offensive line, a potential franchise quarterback and low attrition all provide reasons to be optimistic about this group going forward.
Still it looks as though the Bills might be forced to prioritize this side of the ball for a second straight offseason. That in itself though might not be a bad thing. Marrone can help fill those holes by finding players who best fit his offensive system, and in the process, the Bills should continue to become a more athletic offense.