Head Coach: Rex Ryan
2014 Record: 9-7
Odds to win Division: +485
Odds to win Conference: +2000
Odds to win Super Bowl: +5500
Season Wins: Over 8 (-110); Under 8 (-110)
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The Buffalo Bills are just 31-49 over the past five seasons and went 9-7 last year. Expect much of the same even with a new coach in Rex Ryan.
Doug Marrone is out, and Rex Ryan is in. The attention this change drew was immense, but the team spent $92 M in free agency which should help bolster a team that holds the NFL’s longest streak of missed postseasons. The Bills are only expected to win 8 games according to 5dimes oddsmakers, and the team really needs more than that to return to the playoffs. That has to be the goal, too.
Ryan brought in former San Francisco 49ers OC Greg Roman to be the OC in Buffalo. The offense will remain run-heavy, and the Bills will be a team reliant on its backfield. With the 49ers Roman’s backs consistently were successful, and he’s good at stressing the limiting of fumbles. He’s going to help the running backs immensely, so look for LeSean McCoy and Fred Jackson to both be major beneficiaries as the top-2 backs.
McCoy was acquired for LB Kiko Alonso, and the second-leading NFL rusher over the past two seasons should carry the Bills. He is a high usage back but hasn’t really showed any signs of slowing yet. Jackson was nearly released but he’s a team captain and good veteran to have on the roster even if he is the league’s oldest running back. He’s good for short yardage and a decent passing option.
Behind that tandem is Boobie Dixon, who will mostly make his presence felt on special teams. But he does know the offense well already as a former 49er. Bryce Brown and rookie Karlos Williams will fight it out for the fourth roster spot. Williams has the edge thus far given Brown’s issues with fumbles, as he fumbled three times in Monday’s practice while running with the second unit, as well.
The Bills acquired QB Matt Cassel from Minnesota and he’ll be in competition with third-stringer Joe Webb and vaunted former Florida State Seminole E.J. Manuel.
Manuel really should be keyed in on as the future, but he hasn’t been that good in his NFL career really. Last year, the 6’5” 240 pound QB threw 76 of 131 for 838 yards with five TDs and three INTs. Orton started the majority of the season with not much better results.
All that said, the job should and likely will go to Cassel, even if Manuel threw a nice TD pass to Deonte Thompson in the third quarter of a Bills’ win against Carolina on Friday night.
Cassel represents the “win now” culture in Buffalo, and the team really wants to get back to the postseason more than wait on Manuel to learn the ropes. Former Virginia Tech Hokie Tyron Taylor has received high praise from Ryan but it’s hard to figure he rises to the top-3 in the depth chart at QB.
The OL is going to be in transition with a new coach in Aaron Kromer. He wants to get his five best players on the field at the same time which may require some lineup creativity such as putting LT Cordy Glenn at G, and moving Seantrel Henderson move from RT to LT.
The Bills will keep the lineup in flux until it hits upon the right combination, and that transition we speak of is really going to be a lot of guesswork to maximize the line. Eric Wood at C is the line’s leader, but he struggled last year and the two G positions will have to be settled with five candidates up for the two spots. Miller and Incognito are the top two.
Defensively Ryan brought his DC to New York in Dennis Thompson. Thompson is the DC in name, but Ryan will more than make his mark on the schemes employed while calling the defensive plays on game day, as well.
The ‘D’ will be aggressive and pressing with a lot of pass rushes. He’s good at utilizing CBs and the Bills will use a lot of dime coverage accordingly. The DL may be the best in the NFL. Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes were the ends in a 4-3 scheme but this season it could be a 3-4. Even so, both will do much of the same in attacking opposing QBs, they combined for 47.5 sacks in 2014.
On the inside the Bills have Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams, the former of which made first-team All-Pro and was nearly an unstoppable force for opposing blockers. He’s suspended for the first game of the season for violating the substance abuse policies but will be good to go in Week 2. Williams is aged but is still a force rushing passes and a formidable end even at age 32.
Stefan Charles and Corbin Bryant both add depth at LB.
The secondary is very good with Stephon Gilmore becoming one of the best CBs in the league. The other corner will feature Leodis McKelvin who enters his ninth season. The fact that the team spent its second round pick on a CB in Ronald Darby means that McKelvin could be soon passing the torch.
Corey Graham adds reliable depth at corner and is also a capable S. Nickell Robey, Ross Cockerel and Ron Brooks are all fighting for the remaining spots, and how each contributes in special teams will be a decisive factor in who makes the cut. Duke Williams said on Aug. 10 that he “expects to be the starter” (at safety next to Aaron Williams). So, we’ll see?
The LB corp is decent. Nigel Bradham and Preston Brown are coming along well and it was enough that the Bills felt it could part with Alonso (though McCoy was enticing in his own right to be fair). Bradham and Brown are both quick and good in all facets of coverage. Both also tallied over 100 tackles last year.
Depth behind the tandem is very thin, however, especially with Brandon Spikes departed. Manny Lawson and Randell Johnson are both options, as is Ty Powell, but none of these guys are proven in any sense of the word, and Johnson barely played last season as a rookie. The Bills drafted Clemson’s Tony Steward in the sixth round and he was signed on May 18. He’ll play a key role in special teams, if nothing else.
The Bills improved special teams play in 2014 and it happens to be an area Ryan excels in. Danny Crossman remains the special teams coordinator after having proven himself so well with last year’s staff in Buffalo.
K Dan Carpenter was a great FA signing who specializes in kickoffs, and he gives teams bad field position. P Colton Schmidt did fairly well in his first NFL season but will be pushed by Spencer Roth of Baylor. Percy Harvin should good for kick and punt returns and is the leading candidate for both gigs.
The Bills need Cassel to play like Cassel of old to be much more than the nine win team it was last season. In fact, given the fact that the coaching staff has largely turned over, a slight regression may come. The Bills defense will keep it in games, and the special teams will even tip some of those games in Buffalo’s favor, but overall the offense is going to be as good as Cassel and McCoy are.
It’s hard to imagine McCoy doesn’t improve a rush attack that ranked No. 25 in the NFL last season, and the QB play helped Buffalo finish in the lower half of pass attacks too (18th). The offense has to get better because Buffalo’s ‘D’ was the NFL’s fourth best, and that’s a pity of a thing to go to waste. We’re still giving Buffalo the ‘over’ for wins on the 5dimes O/U prop of 8.
Prediction: 9 wins