It has been a while since the Bills contended for more than a Top 10 draft pick and this doesn’t look like the year that things change.
Perhaps things would feel different if linebacker Kiko Alonso was going to be a part of the defense after his strong rookie season, but a torn ACL has left the Bills shorthanded just before the start of training camp. It’s a massive blow for a team that has big questions to answer about quarterback E.J. Manuel in head coach Doug Marrone’s second season leading the team.
Manuel’s progress could make this prediction seem silly come December, but, for now, PFT’s panel thinks the Bills are headed for another disappointing season as the quarterback tries to grow after an injury-riddled rookie season.
The Bills led the AFC with 57 sacks last season and much of the pressure came from a talented defensive line. Defensive end Mario Williams and defensive tackle Kyle Williams will lead the defense again and there’s every reason to believe they’ll be just as effective. The team has to hope that defensive tackle Marcell Dareus gets his head on straight after multiple arrests in the offseason because they’ll need to continue pressuring offenses throughout games to get the results they want.
If that pressure continues to flow, the Bills’ corners should have plenty of opportunities to take the ball away. Stephon Gilmore has lived up to his first-round selection and there’s good depth with Leodis McKelvin, Corey Graham, Nickell Robey and 2014 draft pick Ross Cockrell.
While the Bills keep their fingers crossed for a leap forward from Manuel, they’ll lean heavily on their running backs to keep the ball moving. C.J. Spiller was banged up last year, but still picked up 4.6 yards per carry, and Fred Jackson blew past any age concerns with 833 yards of his own. They added Bryce Brown to the mix in a trade with the Eagles, giving them plenty of options to control the ball and the clock in the coming season.
The team signed Brandon Spikes and Keith Rivers to give them some veteran depth at linebacker, but Alonso’s loss is still going to be a big one. The team saw safety Jairus Byrd leave in free agency, which means they’ll be without two of their biggest defensive playmakers from last season.
There’s plenty of talent on the offensive line with right tackle Cyrus Kouandjio joining left tackle Cordy Glenn and center Eric Wood as foundational pieces to build around. The guard spots are less settled and it may take some time for the unit to coalesce, especially if rookie Cyril Richardson winds up starting between Wood and Kouandjio this season.
The Bills defense made life difficult for opposing quarterbacks in 2013, but their run defense was not as sharp. Alonso’s loss doesn’t figure to help that, although a new scheme may bear more fruit.
Gelling quickly would be a major boost to E.J. Manuel’s chances of making strides in his second season. Manuel struggled through several knee injuries last season, robbing him of practice and playing time he needs to mature as a quarterback. It is far too early to make any kind of sweeping proclamation about Manuel’s future, but it is also a stretch to say that the Bills should feel totally confident about him heading into this season.
There are big changes at wide receiver for the Bills after they traded away Stevie Johnson, acquired Mike Williams from Tampa and made a big move up the board in the first round to select Sammy Watkins. Watkins’ big-play ability is a welcome addition to the offense and should be of great assistance as Manuel tries to establish himself as a starter.
Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine left to become the head coach in Cleveland after devising a disruptive attack during his one year with the Bills. Former Lions head coach Jim Schwartz has taken over the unit and a lot of the pieces are still in place, although it remains to be seen if Schwartz will deploy them as aggressively as his predecessor.
Byrd’s absence may be one reason for a less frenzied approach. Aaron Williams will take over Byrd’s spot while Da’Norris Searcy, Duke Williams and Jonathan Meeks vie for playing time next to him.
The biggest change hasn’t actually been made, though. The Bills are going to be sold in the wake of founder Ralph Wilson’s death and that will mean differences in the way business is done in Buffalo, although we won’t know how many until the new owner has taken over the reins.
With Watkins, Williams and Robert Woods, the Bills have the top three spots at wide receiver pretty well settled heading into camp. T.J. Graham and Marquise Goodwin will compete for snaps as the fourth man on the depth chart and one of the third-round picks could find his roster spot in jeopardy.
Kouandjio is seen as the likely right tackle, but the Bills have both Erik Pears and Chris Hairston back as well. That means the rookie won’t be handed the job without a second thought, although taking him in the second round is a pretty good sign of how much the Bills wanted to upgrade at the spot.
Alonso’s injury has cast some doubt on how the Bills will line up at linebacker. Spikes looks set for the middle and Preston Brown is expected to get the first shot at replacing Alonso on the weak side. Nigel Bradham and Rivers should compete on the other side, although the situation will likely be fluid through camp.
The looming ownership change creates uncertainty beyond the eventual home of the Bills. Marrone and General Manager Doug Whaley should probably feel some pressure to put up a winning season before new decision makers decide their fate in the organization.
That pressure may have contributed to the decision to trade up for Watkins, a move that brought them a dynamic athlete but also cost the team next year’s first-round pick. As a result, it ratchets up the need to win now because another high pick will be Cleveland’s to use.
There’s enough talent on defense and in the backfield to make a case for the Bills taking that step forward, but they stand right alongside several trouble spots that make it hard to buy into that wholeheartedly as the Bills head toward a new chapter in the history of the franchise.