BBD Editor: Dan Hope
Fourteen games into the 2013 NFL season, the story of Buffalo Bills defensive tackle Marcell Dareus was that the 2011 No. 3 overall draft pick had emerged as one of the NFL’s best defensive tackles. The massive, powerful yet athletic presence had proven to be a great fit for the middle of Mike Pettine’s defense, and Bills fans started to clamor for the team to sign Dareus to a long-term contract extension.
Since then, Dareus’ success story has become blemished with embarrassing, disappointing incidents that have cast not only his long-term future, but perhaps his immediate future, into question.
Dareus’ season ended on a sour note when he was benched in consecutive games—first for a quarter in Week 16 then for a half in Week 17—for what was described to CBS Sports’ Jason La Canfora as “chronic lateness.” That sequence, at the very least, cast doubt upon about Dareus’ reliability and dedication to his craft.
Since then, Dareus’ reputation has only become further stained. The defensive tackle was arrested in Alabama in early May for felony possession of a controlled substance, which was reported to be “spice” (a form of synthetic cannabis) by Mark Heim of AL.com. On Friday, Dareus was arrested again, this time on three misdemeanor charges after he crashed his car into a tree during an illegal drag race, according to James Staas and Shawn Campbell of The Buffalo News.
If there was already concern about Dareus’ off-field behavior, his most recent run-in with the law should have all the alarm bells sounding. Consequently, it forces the Bills to reconsider how it should handle Dareus going forward, both in the short and long term.
Should he stay or should he go?
Thus far, the Bills have thrown their support behind their defensive tackle. While team head coach Doug Marrone told the media Tuesday that Dareus will miss the rest of the team’s OTAs (organized team activities) following the incident, Marrone emphasized that his time away from the team is “not a punishment.”
“We all know and are well aware that Marcell has made some poor decisions lately and the one thing is that I’ve been working with him and he’s dealing with a lot of personal issues too,” Marrone told the media. “I believe in Marcell and I will do everything I can to make sure that we can get him on the right track.”
Marrone said Dareus will be back in Buffalo for the team’s mandatory minicamp, and he made it clear that he wants to help the fourth-year player through his troubles. It’s no surprise that on a public and interpersonal level, the Bills are being outwardly supportive of one of their most prominent players. Privately, however, should Buffalo be considering going in another direction from Dareus?
Some Bills supporters have downplayed Dareus’ off-field troubles. Even Dareus himself, in regards to his Alabama arrest but prior to crashing his car into a tree, acted as though his off-field incidents were no big deal and instead cast blame upon the media.
“It’s not what you guys think,” Dareus said last week according to ESPN’s Mike Rodak. “The media put things out there the wrong way.
“It’s behind me. I’m not a trouble guy,” Dareus added. “I don’t cause any problems nowhere. I’m not a bad guy. I don’t do anything. I just have fun and be myself. Things happen, things happen.”
Those comments already seemed to lack self-awareness when he made them, but they look even worse now.
If one were to consider any one of Dareus’ transgressions by itself in a vacuum—even his most recent arrest—it would be reasonable to downplay an incident. That downplaying is likely and justifiably going to play out with Bills defensive end Jerry Hughes, who was identified by The Buffalo News and WGR’s Joe Buscaglia as the driver of the other car Dareus was drag racing against. Assuming Hughes stays out of further off-field trouble, his lapse in judgment is likely to be forgiven quickly by the Bills, even if he is charged for his role in the incident.
Although one would hope the Bills are encouraging and reminding all their players to avoid substance abuse and reckless driving, the specifics of Dareus’ individual incidents shouldn’t be the real cause for concern.
String his inability to be timely with his multiple arrests together, however, and you discover a problematic pattern. A pattern that shows Dareus is failing to learn from his mistakes. A pattern that should have the team turning its attention away from long-term extension talks and toward considering whether Dareus should even remain on the team’s roster for another year or two.
If the Bills were to move on from Dareus at any point, they’d be depriving their roster of a talented player who might not be easy to replace. The Alabama product was ranked No. 62 on NFL Network’s ranking of the league’s top 100 players this year.
Dareus was also ranked as the league’s second-best defensive tackle on Bleacher Report’s NFL 1000 and was scored with the sixth-best overall grade among NFL DTs this past season by Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Cutting Dareus this season would come with little benefit for the Bills. His 2014 cap hit is fully guaranteed according to Spotrac. The team could release him if it wanted to make a resounding statement about its expectations for off-field behavior, but that seems like a highly unlikely move, unless his pattern of incidents continues, given Marrone’s comments in support of Dareus.
Dareus could be back with the Bills in 2015 too, as they elected to pick up the fifth-year option on his rookie contract in April. As Jay Skurski of The Buffalo News noted in a tweet Monday, the decision to pick up that option essentially “means nothing” because his 2015 salary is guaranteed for injury only until the start of the 2015 league year.
It’s possible, but also unlikely, that the Bills could look to trade Dareus. His value for the upcoming season is significantly compromised by the expectation that his multiple arrests will lead to a multi-game suspension from the NFL. If Buffalo really wanted to move on from Dareus, it would make more sense to trade him than lose him for nothing, but they aren’t going to be able to get a strong return value on a player who, if he can keep himself on the field and out of trouble, is one of the best talents on a team looking to become serious playoff contenders within the next two years.
What the Bills shouldn’t be considering at all at this point is signing Dareus to a long-term extension. If he remains on the roster for each of the next two seasons, plays well and stays out of off-field trouble, it would then become a possibility worth revisiting. But until he proves that he overcome his personal issues and get his act together off the field, the Bills shouldn’t make any further commitments to Dareus.
How could the Bills replace Dareus?
If Dareus isn’t on the roster for the next two years, it will be because the team made a reactionary move to his off-field issues. But even if the team intends to keep him in the fold as long as possible, Buffalo must be preparing right now for life without Dareus at the start of the 2014 season, as he will likely be suspended by the NFL for multiple games after his recent arrests.
Alan Branch, who the Bills signed to a three-year contract extension in December, is the primary candidate to fill Dareus’ shoes, despite his absence from OTAs. Branch is better suited for a hybrid under tackle/defensive end role than he is for playing nose tackle, but he is a strong run-stuffer with enough size and capability to play Dareus’ position in a 4-3 defense.
Rotational defensive tackles Stefan Charles and Corbin Bryant would also be in for an uptick in playing time if Dareus misses games.
The Bills aren’t well equipped for permanently moving on from Dareus. If his future with the team remains in doubt next offseason, selecting a nose tackle in next year’s draft or signing one in free agency could become a priority.
He’ll still be a Bill, but for how long?
That’s the question the team has to consider with Dareus now. Cutting him would still be an overreaction, even after his latest arrest. But should Dareus have another run-in with the law or break a team rule, would it still be an overreaction then? At the very least, the Bills need to draw a line in the sand and make it as clear as possible to their young defensive tackle that there will be consequences if he continues to make mistakes.
Deciding where that line should be drawn, and what those consequences should be, is preparation that the Bills should be taking care of now if they haven’t done so already.