The PFT Preseason Power Rankings, which provide a context for looking at the changes made since last season, will be completed later today. (Spoiler alert: The Seahawks are No. 1.)
So let’s start something new, aimed at providing a template for discussion and debate about a team’s prospects for the upcoming season. For each team, I’ll ask and answer five questions for the 2014 campaign.
Hopefully, I won’t ask myself too many tough questions.
First up — the first team to camp in 2014.
1. Is EJ Manuel ready to take a major step forward?
To be a franchise quarterback, the quarterback must play well and be able to, you know, play. Last year, Manuel missed six of 16 games due to injury. While not entirely the quarterback’s fault (especially when the offensive line is not too good), franchise quarterbacks won’t become or stay franchise quarterbacks if they aren’t available to play, week in and week out.
Then there’s the quality of the performance when playing. Eleven touchdowns and nine interceptions last year. A 58.8-percent completion percentage. Six fumbles, three of them lost.
“I’m excited,” coach Doug Marrone recently said of Manuel. “[H]e looks good and confident, obviously it’s a better situation, last year we were explaining what the offense is and not really the ins and outs of things, this year we’re able to get more into the ins and outs of things, not just with EJ but with a lot of guys on the team with the system already being in place.”
That’s easy to say in July. Whether Manuel has mastered “the ins and out of things” will be determined when the dust settles on the regular season, and the Bills are either in or out of the postseason field.
2. Is Fred Jackson being phased out?
Speaking of ins and outs, running back Bryce Brown is in — and that could mean Fred Jackson will be out. With a $2.45 million base salary, he’ll have a spot on the roster barring something unforeseen. But will Jackson be part of a one-two punch with C.J. Spiller or that clunky third training wheel on a Spiller-Brown bicycle?
Brown, acquired from Philly after a reported effort to trade up for Ohio State tailback Carlos Hyde failed, has looked great so far in camp. If that continues, we could see a lot of Brown this year, and in turn a lot less (and eventually no) Jackson.
3. Was Sammy Watkins worth it?
The Bills gave up two first-round picks and a fourth-round pick to get receiver Sammy Watkins. The all-in move has created a ton of hype and astronomical expectations. To earn that investment, Watkins will need to become not just a potential offensive rookie of the year but a first-team All Pro.
So far, so good. But it hasn’t gotten very far yet. And it will be impossible to know whether Watkins can get off the line against NFL-caliber defensive backs until he has to do it in a game that counts.
For most receivers, the quality and intensity of top-level cornerbacks in bump-and-run coverage delays the breakout until year three. Watkins could be one of the exceptions, like A.J. Green and Julio Jones were two years ago.
If the Bills hope to save jobs in the front office and on the coaching staff, the impact needs to be big enough to get the team to the postseason.
4. What’s the deal with Marcell Dareus?
Not long after the Bills opted to exercise the fifth-year option on the Pro Bowl defensive lineman, Dareus exercised his inalienable right to screw up his life. Twice, via arrests for possession of synthetic marijuana and drag racing.
And then came the last chapter of the trilogy, with Dareus showing up out of shape and unable to pass the conditioning test.
It’s hard to paint the Bills as shocked, especially after Dareus missed game time twice last year for violating team rules. It also gives rise to a fair question regarding whether the Bills made the right decision three years ago taking Dareus instead of, say, A.J. Green or Julio Jones.
5. Will the impending sale affect the team?
On the record, no coach or player or administrator will say that the process of selling the franchise will affect in any way the franchise’s performance in 2014.
Off the record, and possibly with the attachment of a polygraph machine, the folks in power will admit that they’re worried about whether they’ll lose that power by losing their jobs when the new owner decides to bring in folks hand picked by the new owner to handle the key jobs.
The folks currently holding those key jobs will keep them only if the Bills do well enough to compel the new owner to stay put. The Bills, likely every other team, are optimistic. Throw cold water on that, or otherwise, below.