STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
This year, the future arrives in Buffalo. A strong foundation was built in 2013 with the introduction of a new head coach (Doug Marrone) and multiple promising rookies, including QB EJ Manuel, but much more is expected in Year 2.
Once again, a key topic when discussing the Bills is the rushing attack. Not just their own, but also that of their opponents. The Bills know they can run effectively, led by Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller, but all too often opposing offenses have been able to do the same to them. Only four teams allowed more yards per game on the ground (128.9) than did Buffalo in 2013.
The Bills will look to build on their second-ranked rushing attack (144.2 yards per game) with an upgraded offensive line and the addition of some new offensive pieces. The line should be a more complete unit in 2014 after beefing up with free agent acquisition Chris Williams and the selection of three offensive linemen in the draft. Meanwhile, to bolster the team's attack, receiver Mike Williams and running back Bryce Brown were added through trades.
The team's splashiest acquisition, however, was wideout Sammy Watkins. To nab him at the fourth overall spot in the NFL Draft, the Bills executed a bold trade to move up five slots in the first round to select the talented pass-catcher. That left veteran Steve Johnson – who seemed to clash with Marrone last season – as the odd man out, and he was dealt to the 49ers. The decisive maneuvering will hopefully shake things up enough for a franchise that hasn't participated in a playoff game since 1999. Watkins is exactly the type of playmaker the Bills needed to add to a receiving corps that now includes Williams, as well as a young dependable receiver in Woods, and the vertical threat that is Goodwin. If all goes according to plan, a dynamic passing game could emerge in Buffalo.
The Bills ranked 10th in the league in overall defense last year thanks to a stifling pass defense from both the front seven and the secondary, en route to placing second in both sacks (57) and interceptions (23). They did say goodbye to Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd, but the Bills feel comfortable with Aaron Williams as their top safety this year. Free agency also yielded linebacker Brandon Spikes, who should help against the run, as well as cornerback Corey Graham. Meanwhile Mike Pettine (now the Browns head coach) was replaced as defensive coordinator by Jim Schwartz, who is now charged with the important task of helping the Bills slow opponent's gains on the ground.
Sammy Watkins - WR, Clemson (Round 1, 4th Overall)
The multi-skilled wideout could be the most league's most impactful rookie in 2014.
Mike Williams - WR, Buccaneers
If he can avoid off-field trouble, Williams provides needed experience for a young offense.
Bryce Brown - RB, Eagles
A draft-weekend trade brings the backfield a depth piece with upside.
Cyrus Kouandjio - OT, Alabama (Round 2, 44th Overall)
The Bills hope to solidify the line and continue a string of success in the second round.
Brandon Spikes - LB, Patriots
This defense does well against the pass but needed a thumper in run support.
Keith Rivers - LB, Giants
With the Bills still thin on the outside, Rivers has a decent chance of starting.
Steve Johnson - WR, 49ers
If Williams doesn't pan out, the loss of Johnson potentially leaves a major experience void.
Jairus Byrd - S, Saints
Losing one of the best safeties in football creates an opening in the secondary.
Yet another 6-10 finish last year means that the Bills still own the dubious honor of the NFL's longest current streak of seasons without a playoff berth (14). But the past is the past, and the Bills have been aggressive in building a team that should challenge for the postseason this year. The trade for Sammy Watkins has garnered a lot of publicity, but that very important move remains tied to one great truth. The Bills' chances of improving in the standings hinge largely on the development and performance of promising second-year quarterback EJ Manuel, whose rookie campaign was hampered by knee issues. Manuel finished up with 1,972 yards, 11 touchdowns, nine interceptions and a passer rating of 77.7 in the 10 games in which he suited up, showing both the ups and downs you'd expect from a first-year signal-caller. With his knee sound heading into the 2014 season and bolstered by a beefed up receiving corps and offensive line, things appear lined up for Manuel to develop into the player the Bills envisioned when they somewhat surprisingly made him the first quarterback taken in the 2013 NFL Draft, 16th overall. And with inexperienced backups behind him, the team has bet the mortgage on the young signal-caller.
RUNNING ON FULL
The popular belief is that C.J. Spiller had an awful year in 2013 and Fred Jackson enjoyed a resurgence. Yet if you look at their rushing stats, the two were oddly quite similar in their production. Spiller ran the ball 202 times for 933 yards (4.6 yards per carry) while Jackson carried the rock 206 times for 890 yards (4.3 yards per carry). Fueling the perception is a discrepancy in touchdowns (Spiller's two to Jackson's nine). However, it all boils down to expectations, and you have to wonder what expectations each will carry heading into the 2014 campaign. Given how often the Bills like to run the ball, the distribution breakdown is clearly something to monitor. Spiller may end up being a relative bargain on draft day if he can be had at the right price. However, complicating matters is the addition of Bryce Brown. Brown wasn't used much in Philadelphia last year, but his per-carry average over the past two years (4.2 in 2013 and 4.9 in 2012) is right in line with Spiller and Jackson. It stands to reason the Bills wouldn't have executed a trade for Brown if they weren't planning to use him. So, this two-headed monster looks like it has gone to three, which could suppress the value of everyone in the equation.
Rising: The offense has loaded up on talent, so EJ Manuel should have everything he needs to take the next step. All chips are at the center of the table on the second-year QB.
Declining: He had a nice bounce-back year in 2013, but Fred Jackson is 33 now and will split time with not only Spiller but possibly Bryce Brown as well.
Sleeper: All of the focus is on Sammy Watkins, but don't forget about Robert Woods. He's had a full year working with Manuel and may be the most complete receiver on the roster.
Supersleeper: Speed, speed and more speed. Marquise Goodwin is a super-sleeper for the simple fact he could break a long touchdown at any moment.
Kiko Alonso - LB
Much was expected from Alonso, who racked up 159 tackles and added four interceptions during his rookie year, but his 2014 season was unfortunately derailed by a torn ACL.
Aaron Williams - S
He's the focal point in the safety corps now, and the stats should follow.
Mario Williams - DE
If you're looking for sacks, he's as consistent as they come.
RotoWire Rank: 3