It’s time for another new start in Buffalo.
Doug Marrone has replaced Chan Gailey as the head coach, Doug Whaley is the new general manager and there are radical changes underway schematically on both sides of the ball. You can’t argue with the reasons why the team has shifted directions, but you can certainly wonder whether it will make a difference since the team’s gone through several such shifts since last making the playoffs in 1999 without much success.
This reorganization needs a leader on the field, one the Bills hope they got when they drafted quarterback E.J. Manuel with the 16th overall pick in April. It will take more than one year to determine if he’s the right man for the job and Kevin Kolb could be the starter this season, but the new regime didn’t hitch their wagon to Manuel on a whim. They believe he’s the right man to take them back to the postseason and this year will be about putting the team they want him to lead in place. That may not lead to many wins, but it’s hard to argue with the decision to move away from what wasn’t working in Buffalo.
The Bills may have questions at quarterback, but there’s not much reason to worry about their running game. C.J. Spiller is a threat to take every touch to the end zone while averaging more than six yards per carry in 2012 and Fred Jackson is as solid a complement as the team could hope to have. Andy Levitre’s departure adds some uncertainty to the line, but the run blocking was good last year and should remain so this time around.
The Mario Williams signing didn’t pan out exactly as hoped, but Williams still had double-digit sacks in his first year with the Bills and remains part of a front seven with a fair amount of talent. New defensive coordinator Mike Pettine brings a more aggressive mindset with him, which includes multiple fronts that will have players like Williams, Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams lining up in various spots.
Assuming unsigned franchise tag recipient Jairus Byrd doesn’t hold out into the season, the Bills defense will also have one of the league’s best safeties patrolling the back end of the defense. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore needs to cut down on penalties, but the 2012 first-round pick showed enough skill for optimism about what he’ll do in his second season.
The Bills still don’t have a clear No. 2 option at receiver behind Stevie Johnson, something that hurt the offense last year and be a drag again in 2013 if no one claims the spot. Rookies Robert Woods, Marquise Goodwin and Da’Rick Rogers give the Bills some new options, but there’s not much experience around them and rookie receivers can take some time to get acclimated.
Pettine coached with the Ravens and Jets before coming to Buffalo and inside linebackers played a major role in the defenses at each place. With rookie Kiko Alonso and second-year player Nigel Bradham looking like the likeliest starters there this season, he’ll have a lot of teaching to do to turn green players into big contributors.
Byrd and Gilmore look like strengths, but the defense struggled to get off the field on third down last season because they couldn’t stop teams from hitting passes. The pass rush needs to be better and so does the coverage from other corners like Leodis McKelvin and Ron Brooks. Schematic changes should help, but execution has to be much better.
Ryan Fitzpatrick is gone after a big contract extension was followed by mediocre play over the better part of two seasons. They signed Kolb and drafted Manuel in hopes of settling the quarterback spot once and for all.
That might not have been the biggest change, though. Marrone’s arrival and the talk of a very different offensive approach combines with Pettine’s defensive changes to make things look a lot less vanilla in Buffalo than they were the last couple of years. It’s the kind of thing that can take time to implement fully, but innovation is better than stagnation.
The Bills dropped safety George Wilson and linebacker Nick Barnett as part of the transition to they new defensive look, bringing in Manny Lawson to start at one outside linebacker spot and opening a hole at safety for Da’Norris Searcy, rookie Duke Williams or converted corner Aaron Williams. The Bills also took a flier on former first-round pick Jerry Hughes in hopes that a change of scenery leads to a change in productivity.
Doug Legursky was signed to be part of the group trying to replace Levitre at left guard while Chad Rinehart left for San Diego. Wide receivers Donald Jones and David Nelson both departed without many tears from the Buffalo brass.
The old saying is that if you have two quarterbacks, you don’t actually have any. The Bills have Kolb and Manuel competing for the gig. Manuel is clearly their choice for the long term, but camp will determine whether the future starts immediately or if Kolb gets one more shot to prove he can both play well and stay healthy for 16 games in a row.
Dareus spent the spring working behind Alex Carrington in some sets and splitting time with Jay Ross in others, although it is hard to know just what the Bills were up to with those machinations. Dareus is more talented than either of those players, which suggests either a motivational ploy or an attempt to get a longer look at backups to see what role they might be able to play next season.
Legursky will battle Colin Brown at left guard while Erik Pears and Chris Hairston slug it out for the right tackle gig. Marrone’s background is in coaching the offensive line, so one would expect those competitions to grab the head coach’s eye as camp progresses.
The Bills spent a sixth-round draft pick on kicker Dustin Hopkins, which likely gives him an edge on Rian Lindell for that job. Punter Shawn Powell is also getting a push from Brian Stahovich, which could mean an all-new kicking tandem in Buffalo.
The Bills have gone young in several spots, they have a new head coach and a new general manager in Whaley. They also don’t know who their quarterback will be in Week One. Dealing with all those things at once usually signals the start of an extended building process and that appears to be the case in Buffalo.
While Spiller, Johnson, Byrd and the defensive linemen give the Bills a strong core, there’s not enough supporting parts to expect them to make a serious run at the playoffs this season unless Manuel is the latest rookie quarterback to take the league by storm.
The good news is that there appears to be some real direction with the team as opposed to former General Manager Buddy Nix talking about the need for a franchise quarterback less than a year after paying Fitzpatrick like one. More aggressiveness on both sides of the ball should help to build an identity that the Bills can use to climb the ladder in the AFC.
Get a couple of rungs out of the way this season and that climb will be easier in the years to come.