State of the Franchise
A wise man once said that if you do the same things you’ve always done, you’ll get the same things you’ve always gotten. In Buffalo, it’s a new year and a new outlook for the Bills, with plenty of room for hope and optimism. A new coaching staff is in place, the defense is improved, special teams are taking steps forward, and there are two new quarterbacks in town.
Entering the offseason, a quick look at the Bills showed a middle-of-the-pack team, one that might not need drastic changes to improve. It could be said that sweeping changes might set the team back in the short term, so why take the risk? Well, those who know the Bills realize things had to change. Last year was just another spin on the same treadmill. Despite a well-regarded draft and some high profile free agent signings like DE Mario Williams, the Bills delivered the same 6-10 record, similar points scored, similar points allowed and another playoff season at home.
And in Buffalo, the phrase “another playoff season at home” hits harder than in any other NFL city. The Bills haven’t been to the playoffs since the Clinton administration. Their last playoff appearance came in 1999, the longest drought of any team in the league.
Clearly, something had to give. Former head coach Chan Gailey managed only a 16-32 record in three years at the helm, so he has been replaced by Doug Marrone and a brand new staff. Mike Pettine makes the intra-division move from the Jets to coordinate the defense. Nate Hackett headed west on I-90 along with Marrone from Syracuse and he’ll be running the offense.
As you’d expect, the roster has also seen some big changes. Ryan Fitzpatrick’s four-year run as starting quarterback ended when he was released in the offseason. WRs David Nelson and Donald Jones left as free agents. Kevin Kolb will compete with rookie EJ Manuel for Fitzpatrick’s old job, and the receiving corps will be filled out with some rookie targets. On defense, decorated veterans LB Nick Barnett (released) and DE Shawne Merriman (retired) are gone. Free agency brought in LB Manny Lawson and DT Alan Branch. The Bills also selected LB Kiko Alonso in the second round of the draft and traded with the Colts for LB Jerry Hughes. The beefed-up front combines with a strong secondary to form a defense that could surprise.
Say what you want about the Bills, but don’t say they stood pat and waited for another middling season and another playoff season at home. No one knows exactly what’s in store for them this year, but we can be sure they won’t get what they’ve always gotten.
EJ Manuel - QB, Florida State
(Round 1, 16th overall)
Many viewed this pick as a reach, but also praised him for having the best tools and most upside in the draft. He could start for Buffalo as soon as this year.
Kevin Kolb - QB, Cardinals
Should benefit from a better offensive line and running game with the Bills.
Robert Woods - WR, USC
(Round 2, 41st overall)
With crisp routes and sure hands, he could be the team’s No. 2 receiver after Steve Johnson from Day 1.
Marquise Goodwin - WR, Texas
(Round 3, 78th overall)
Likely to be the No. 4 receiver in this offense, but with world-class speed he figures to contribute to the return game as well.
Dustin Hopkins - K, Florida State
(Round 6, 177th overall)
Has the big leg to be a starter in standard leagues if he beats out Rian Lindell.
Ryan Fitzpatrick - QB, Titans
His release was something of a shock, but the results (39 picks over the last two seasons) forced a change.
Andy Levitre - G, Titans
The durable left guard departs after inking a big deal with Tennessee.
David Nelson - WR, Browns
After an emergent season in 2011, an ACL tear in Week 1 ended his season and ultimately his time as a Bill.
THE NEW COACH
Eyebrows were raised on January 6 when Doug Marrone was hired as the new coach of the Bills. After all, he was the head coach of a Syracuse program that only managed a 25-25 record under his leadership. If you look deeper you’ll see a longer resume that includes seven years as an NFL assistant, most notably as offensive coordinator of the vaunted New Orleans offense from 2006-08. Marrone parlayed that success into the gig at SU, his alma mater. After four alternating seasons of disappointment and moderate success, he’s back in the NFL as the leader of the Bills. Marrone has a history as an offensive line and tight end guru, which may improve results for Scott Chandler and even rookie Chris Gragg.
PASSING THE TORCH
A new head coach always brings roster changes, but the turnover in the Bills’ passing attack has been greater than expected. Steve Johnson remains the No. 1 receiver and Chandler is still the top tight end, but beyond that there are changes everywhere. Ryan Fitzpatrick, the starting quarterback for most of the past four years, is gone. New signal callers include the star-crossed Kevin Kolb and first-round pick EJ Manuel. It remains to be seen which one will start, though a first guess is that Kolb gets the job early and is supplanted midseason by Manuel. Two of the top receivers (Donald Jones and David Nelson) are out as well. Rookie Robert Woods is the favorite to become the No. 2 receiver, with T.J. Graham sliding to No. 3. Rookies Marquise Goodwin and undrafted free agent Da’Rick Rogers are next in line.
RUNNING ON EMPTY
When you think of the Bills and fantasy football, you think of running backs C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson. Spiller is an explosive, dynamic weapon and Jackson is a workhorse with a track record. But, if you look closer you may wonder if it can continue. The biggest question is Jackson, who has been limited by injuries and, at the age of 32 is well beyond the prime age for running backs. His best years appear to be behind him. What’s more, the Bills lost offensive line stalwart Andy Levitre to free agency and have done little to replace him. Spiller is absolutely in his prime and had a breakout season in 2012, but the issue for him is consistency. He produced five games of 100-plus yards, but six with less than 60. Nevertheless, his season totals were strong. But can he do it again? He’ll be the focal point of the offense and opposing defenses will be stacked up specifically to stop him, plus he’ll be dealing with the loss of Levitre and a new coaching staff in town.
Rising: The BUFFALO defense and special teams added some difference-makers last year and really have filled the holes in 2013. Adding Dustin Hopkins and Marquise Goodwin to special teams is a boost.
Declining: Checking in at age 32 and coming off an injury-shortened season, Fred Jackson will probably go too high in fantasy drafts based on name recognition.
Sleeper: Robert Woods could go late in drafts because he’s a rookie who may also work with a rookie quarterback, but he has the route discipline and talent to emerge quickly in Doug Marrone’s offense.
Supersleeper: T.J. Graham showed glimpses in his first NFL season, so there’s a chance the speedster takes the next step in 2013.
Mario Williams - DE
With 10.5 sacks in an injury-marred year, bigger things could be in store.
JAIRUS BYRD - S
Averaging 87 tackles the past three seasons, he’s still in his prime.
STEPHON GILMORE - CB
The 10th overall draft pick in 2012 is just getting warmed up.
RotoWire Rank: 25