BBD Staff Writer: Josh Cornwall
One season into the Doug Marrone/Doug Whaley era in Buffalo, a foundation has been laid to finally get the floundering Buffalo Bills franchise out of the AFC East basement and into the playoff picture. The excitement surrounding the franchise now is different than it has been in recent years because of the quality of youthful talent littered across the depth chart.
Still, two dilemmas face the current Bills’ regime on the not-so-distant horizon that could hinder their long-term plans.
First of all, the two guys at the top of the decision-making process have tied themselves to second-year quarterback EJ Manuel—for better or for worse. The coaching staff has said all the right things about Manuel this offseason in regards to his development following an injury-plagued season. Their task of upgrading the offensive talent at both skill positions and the line was accomplished through the draft, leaving few excuses for Manuel to not perform better in year two.
Second, if the Bills’ perceived “all-in” strategy does not pay off with a playoff appearance—the team’s first since 1999—their decisions during free agency in 2015 and 2016 could get tougher. Running back Fred Jackson, linebacker Brandon Spikes, tight end Tony Moeaki and safety Da’Norris Searcy are all unrestricted free agents next offseason, while blossoming pass-rusher Jerry Hughes could be tendered an offer from another team through restricted free agency. Right tackle Erik Pears is also a UFA next offseason, but he could be a cut candidate this preseason.
It is conceivable that the Bills could move on from all of those unresticted free agents in 2015. That would leave some holes in depth that the Bills should look to fill in the 2015 draft, even with their first-rounder in next year’s draft sitting in the property vault of the Cleveland Browns.
Where might the Bills have needs for new talent in the next couple years? The problem is having to forecast the potential holes that could arise if the team loses any of a number of high-profile unrestricted free agents in 2016, including defensive tackle Marcell Dareus, running backs C.J. Spiller and Bryce Brown, cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore, left tackle Cordy Glenn and tight end Scott Chandler.
The Bills have not done well with keeping quality players past their rookie contracts, which has led to inconsistent results throughout the past decade-and-a-half. The Bills must prepare for more potential losses by finding possible replacements who could be available for selections in the 2015 NFL draft.
Over the next few weeks, we will be highlighting the top few prospects at some of the Buffalo Bills’ potential positions of need in the 2015 draft; we start with running back.
Running back has to be close to the top of Buffalo’s list, if not its highest priority, as each of their top three running backs are set to become free agents by the end of 2016. The Bills made an effort to trade up for Ohio State running back Carlos Hyde in this year’s draft, according to Chris Brown of BuffaloBills.com, which essentially confirmed that the team sees a need for a replacement in the near future.
The Bills later traded a 2015 conditional fourth-round pick and swapped seventh-round picks in this year’s draft to acquire Bryce Brown from the Philadelphia Eagles, but his future beyond the next two seasons is uncertain. Odds are that Jackson’s time in Orchard Park will be coming to an end once his contract is over, while Spiller’s future to the team remains a big question mark.
Spiller’s created ties to Buffalo, influx of Clemson brethren to the team and his natural fit in a fast-paced offense make him an obvious candidate to be re-signed, but should that come at the expense of a Gilmore or a Glenn? Probably not.
Brown is fast and can make people miss in the open field, but he had no say of where he went in the draft-day trade. If he can make some noise in Hackett’s offense with limited touches, a bigger pay day elsewhere could be a no-brainer if he is looking for heavier responsibilities.
The Bills have to prepare for the potential for their running back depth chart to be wiped clean within the next two seasons. The following three running backs could be the best fits among players who could end up being in the 2015 NFL draft.
1. Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin (Jr.)
Gordon’s first year as the “lead back” at Wisconsin was nothing short of outstanding. While somewhat sharing duties with James White, who went on to be a fourth-round selection by the New England Patriots in this year’s draft, Gordon obliterated defenses in the Big Ten to the tune of 1,609 rushing yards on just more than 200 carries, which averages out to 7.8 yards per carry. (By comparison, Spiller rushed for 3,547 yards, with a 5.9 yards per carry average, in his career at Clemson.)
Gordon isn’t nearly the multi-dimensional weapon that Spiller was—especially coming out of the backfield—and he won’t time nearly as well in the 40-yard dash, but Gordon is more advanced in terms of patience and vision, which could very well be the best of any back in the draft next year.
While Gordon is fast, a lot of his success has to do with following his blocks and making small gains for eventually bigger returns. Part of the gripe with Spiller, especially early on in his career, has been the dancing in the backfield we have seen from far too many Bills running backs. Gordon has a knack for seeing a play opening in front of him and taking what the defense gives him for a positive gain. Some runs might only yield a yard or two, but a consistent push for positive yardage eventually leads to gobbling up big gains in the later stages of games.
He could have declared for the 2014 draft following a redshirt sophomore season that should put him on all of the preseason Heisman watch lists this year, but he elected to return to school for another year. If Gordon can stay healthy, he could be looking at a late first- or early second-round grade for the 2015 draft, assuming he declares.
2. Karlos Williams, Florida State
Big and fast. It is hard not to like Williams because of what he brings to the table as a downhill runner, while he also has the necessary speed to burn outside defenders if necessary.
Williams is he entered the 2013 season as a strong safety on Florida State’s depth chart, but lack of opportunity led to a position change. Backing up Devonta Freeman, a mid-round selection of the Atlanta Falcons, Williams ended up with 91 carries which he took for 730 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Like the aforementioned Gordon, Williams will be a hot name on award lists coming out over the summer. Williams is set to be the go-to guy behind Jameis Winston in 2014, and if he can show the ability to maintain his eye-popping yards per carry average with a higher volume of carries, the senior might end up being the first running back drafted in 2015.
The Bills haven’t had a back with Williams’ size (6’1″, 219 lbs) and speed since Marshawn Lynch, and Williams plays and times a little faster. Aside from proving he can take on a high volume of carries, however, Williams also needs to show he can catch the ball consistently if he wants to be the top prospect at the position.
3. T.J. Yeldon, Alabama (Jr.)
Yeldon took the college football world by storm during a prolific freshman season, in which he ran for 1,108 yards and 12 touchdowns on just 175 carries, including 21 carries for 108 yards and a touchdown in Alabama’s dismantling of what had been a stingy Notre Dame defense in the 2013 BCS National Championship Game.
Alabama’s reign atop the BCS hierarchy came to an end late in the 2013 season, which ended with back-to-back losses to Auburn and Oklahoma. That overshadowed how well Yeldon played from beginning to end. His statistics improved across the board from his freshman season, except for a dip in his yards per carry from 6.3 to 6.0, yet he seemed to be one of the least-talked-about “big-name” running backs by the end of the 2013 season.
Alabama’s disappointing finish may have had something to do that with, but Yeldon should be able to do enough in his junior season to vault him toward the top of the prospect lists. He has the size (6’2″, 218 lbs) and speed to be an above-average NFL starter in the very near future, but it’s unknown whether he will declare for the 2015 draft.
ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. ranks Yeldon as the third-best underclassman running back prospect in the country, behind Georgia’s Todd Gurley and the aforementioned Gordon.