Buffalo Bills 2014-15 Team Preview
The Buffalo Bills are hoping former Florida State quarterback E.J. Manuel can finally bring the team back to competitiveness. The Bills orchestrated three major trades over the offseason while spending its top two draft picks on offensive players.
The team has gone just 6-10 over the last three seasons, though, and are expected by most analysts to finish at the bottom of the AFC East again this season.
Odds to Win Superbowl: 100/1
Odds to win AFC: 40/1
Odds to win AFC East: +900
Odds courtesy of Bovada
The Bills offensive attack is heavily rush-dependent. C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson do the bulk of the carrying, and the Bills attempted the second most rushes in the NFL last season (546). The Bills were forced to use three different QBs over the course of the season, and none of them had any prior experience as a starter. Nathaniel Hackett barely had a chance to succeed with that offensive unit, and he had to water things down to situate with his changing lineups.
Manuel is really the beginning and end for this team, though, and the only quarterback the team has that has star potential. He went just 4-6 last season, though. He was just 1-4 on the road and completed 55 percent of his passes. The three separate knee injuries he sustained are also troublesome. He is said to be 100 percent recovered, but if he is injury prone, the Bills have built around a faulty premise.
It may have made sense to add a veteran behind Manuel in case things go sour, but the Bills chose not to. Thad Lewis and Jeff Tuel will back Manuel up, and Lewis at least is a decent option. He guided the team to two wins out of five while finishing with a better passer rating than Manuel (81 compared to 77.7).
As much as people are hoping for Manuel’s success, it’s tough to access the quarterback situation in Buffalo as very good. It’s just too unpredictable, and Manuel hasn’t shown anything as a pro to back up the Bills’ confidence in him. He’s a strong, mobile quarterback, but it remains to be seen if that translates to success in this early juncture of his career.
The running game is still solid, though, and the true strength of this unit. Jackson and Spiller combined for 1,823 yards last season and both players are in contract years. Spiller needs to be more of a passing threat, though. Last season he caught just 33 passes for 185 yards, which was down from 43 and 459 the previous season.
The draft day trade for Bryce Brown may help some. He’s averaged 4.6 yards per carry over his career. He’d been long coveted by the Bills, so we may find out why this season, as expectations are high.
The Bills selected Clemson WR Sammy Watkins fourth overall in the draft, and the Bills believe Watkins will eventually be a top-tier receiver. The team parted ways with veteran Stevie Johnson, who never seemed to mesh with Doug Marrone.
The Bills added Mike Williams in a trade with the Tampa Bay Bucs, and he caught 23 TDs in his first three seasons in the league. He played just six games last year after suffering a torn hamstring, but he should be second on the depth chart at WR. Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin will also be in the mix.
The offensive line is passable, but not exceptional. Marrone has stacked it with large, less mobile athletes like Chris Williams and rookie Cyrus Kouandijo, who account for 648 pounds between them, while both standing 6’6” and 6’7.” Marrone is a former offensive lineman, so presumably he is competent in this approach towards protecting his quarterback, but the mobility with creating holes has to be an issue to some extent at least.
The Bills will once again have a new defensive coordinator in former Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz. He’s going to install the 4-3 scheme, and it will be a change from the hybrid scheme utilized by Mike Pettine last season. The Bills had 57 sacks last season, though, and that will be something Schwartz won’t seek to eliminate; the “D” will remain aggressive.
The defensive line is one of the best in the NFL. Mario Williams had 23.5 sacks in the last two seasons with Buffalo and Jerry Hughes finished with 10 sacks last season. Tackle Kyle Williams is the key cog in the engine, and former No. 3 overall pick Marcell Dareus made the Pro Bowl last season, too. Dareus was suspended twice for missing team meetings and was arrested over the offseason, so it will be a bit of a challenge managing his off field issues, not to mention he’ll likely be suspended for the beginning of the season.
The Bills are going to move Kiko Alonso from middle linebacker to the weak side. This will be done so that he can be more free to make plays on the ball. He played every single defensive snap as a rookie, and that’s unlikely to change. He was a finalist for the AP Defensive Rookie of the Year, and has a long bright future ahead of himself. He should function very well in the 4-3 scheme.
The Bills also brought aboard middle linebacker Brandon Spikes to help the defense improve on its run defense. The team ranked 28th in the NFL last season. Keith Rivers will play the strong side. The Bills also added some depth by selecting Preston Brown of Louisville in the third round of the draft. He’s great at stopping runs, so he’s a great fit for this team’s needs.
The secondary will be hurt by the loss of Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd, and the team decided against franchise tagging him for the second straight season. It didn’t make a lot of sense superficially since there are no players capable of filling Byrd’s void, and the Bills are desperate to win now (though it’s unclear how a team that has gone 18-30 over three seasons will instantly become a contender). The development of Aaron Williams is the main reason for letting Byrd walk, but he’s a ways away from filling Byrd’s shoes.
Cornerback Leodis McKelvin had a great season last year on the opposite side, and Stephon Gilmore will need to have a better season, since last year was broken apart by injury. The Bills got a gift with undrafted free agent cornerback Nickell Robey.
Buffalo re-signed possibly the best place kicker in team history. Dan Carpenter hit 33 field goals last season, matching a single season record. The Bills also have 2013 6th round pick Dustin Hopkins, and it’s still possible that the team utilizes both place kickers extensively. Trading Hopkins is certainly an option, though. Punter Brian Moorman and Jake Dombrowski will compete for punt duties.
The Bills only attempted 23 kickoff returns last season, which was the 2nd fewest in the league. Marquise Goodwin can be very explosive and is capable of big plays, but he didn’t get enough opportunities to show it. Leodis McKelvin is also a great punt returner who declined drastically last season. The special teams have to show a vast improvement over last season, because kicks are meant to be returned.
The Bills really don’t have a chance to finish any higher than third in the division, and it’s most likely that they finish in the cellar again. It’s not that the team is particularly horrible, but it is overwhelmingly mediocre. Its star talent is an unproven quarterback, and the running game can only do so much to keep the Bills in the game.
The defense has been good for quite some time, but the Bills are going to have to have Manuel make a quantum leap from last year’s disappointment to be anything better than the typical 6-10 that they mail in every year.