The Buffalo Bills have been a team in “rebuilding mode” for approximately 14 years. That time has come to an end in 2014. The Bills, despite recording another 6-10 season and 4th place in the division in 2013, have built the foundation for their franchise’s future. They have a solid defense built around pressuring the passer and forcing sacks, turnovers, and other mistakes. They have a well above average running game in Fred Jackson and CJ Spiller. They have a budding young quarterback in EJ Manuel and a variety of weapons for him to target in Stevie Johnson, Robert Woods, Marquise Goodwin, and Scott Chandler. But what are they missing? In this two part article we will look at the Bills position by position and determine what should be done at each to propel the Bills out of the basement and back into the playoffs, where they belong. In today’s edition, I will dissect the Bills’ offense and assign a grade on a scale of 1 – 5, with 5 being the best.
The Buffalo Bills Offense
The Bills took a chance in drafting EJ Manuel at 16th overall in 2013. Depending on your point of view, it either paid off in the sense that Manuel set franchise records for a rookie QB or it was a let down since he missed 6 games due to 3 separate knee injuries. Personally, I think that the jury’s still out on the young player and his success in 2014 depends more on factors outside of his control. What is apparent to me, however, is that keeping a quality backup like Thad Lewis on the roster is absolutely essential. The staff can say all they want about exercising Manuel‘s legs to strengthen his knee ligaments, but if that was easy and/or effective I think more people would do it and we’d see less knee injuries.
Current Grade: 1.5 Projected Grade in 2014: 3.0
There’s not a Bills fan in Buffalo who would tell you that CJ Spiller was anything less than a huge disappointment in 2013 – well, there’s not a sane Bills fan who would say otherwise. But they still had the 2nd ranked rushing attack in the NFL, in large part thanks to the man-beast that is Fred Jackson. Spiller out-gained him in yards thanks to a few big games at the end of the season, but Fred Jackson has proven once more that he is the heart and soul of the Bills offense and their go-to guy when the tough yards need to be gained. The additional playtime seen by Frank Summers as a hybrid FB/RB was also a small factor, he was a surprise ball carrier and receiver in several games and racked up some key touchdowns and first downs. What remains to be seen is if the offensive scheme can be adapted to the strengths of the personnel on hand or if a change needs to be made. Offensive Coordinator Nathaniel Hackett was the target of much fan abuse as he continually misused Spiller, trying to make the player fit his scheme instead of adapting to the player’s strengths. If he refuses to bend, it might be best for all parties if the Bills trade Spiller and draft or acquire a more straight ahead, power style RB. Either way, changes made might have no impact if the next group doesn’t get their act together.
Current Grade: 3.5 Projected Grade in 2014: 4.5
The Bills front office spent a lot of time and energy in a fruitless attempt to sign Jairus Byrd to a long term deal in 2013. They failed and in the process they let a proven veteran in Andy Levitre walk away to Tennessee as a Free Agent. That turned out to be one of the worst mistakes this organization has made in years, as was apparent with the performance of his first replacement, Colin Brown, putting up tragically bad numbers over a sustained period of several weeks. The veteran Doug Legursky, acquired as a Free Agent himself, was not much better over the last half of the season and it showed up in both the run blocking and the pass protection. Once of the strengths of the Bills offense, the O Line has become one of the biggest, if not the single greatest, weaknesses on the team. It’s a position that needs to be fixed immediately, through free agency and the draft, or the running game will continue to suffer and EJ Manuel’s development will be stunted, possibly for all time to come. At minimum, one high quality LG needs to be found, ideally a LG and a RT, plus an additional body for depth. If the Bills can fix their line problems, even if nothing else changes on their roster, they could improve their record by 3 or 4 wins.
Current Grade: 1.0 Projected Grade in 2014: 3.0
The Bills have one of the more promising WR corps in the NFL, in my humble opinion. They have an established veteran in Stevie Johnson and a pair of good, young receivers in Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin. They also now have a QB with the arm strength to get them the ball anywhere on the field. While Stevie Johnson did not post 1,000+ receiving yards for the first time in four seasons, that can be attributed to the instability at QB and the resulting lack of targets. Johnson is still a legitimate receiving threat, particularly out of the slot and having a speedy deep threat like Goodwin and a reliable pair of hands split wide on the other side of the field in Woods will only help him in the long run. However, he is paid very well for what he is and the Bills lack that large, prototypical NFL WR1. I could see him being a cap casualty as the Bills cut ties with him in favor of a guy like Kelvin Benjamin or Mike Evans in the upcoming draft. However, I think that would be a mistake, they need a veteran presence in that group, and while Johnson would never be my choice for an exemplar of maturity and wisdom, he’s the best they have. I think they stick with him another year at least, address other pressing needs in this draft, and then maybe move on in 2015.
Current Grade: 3.5 Projected Grade in 2014: 4.0
Tight end is a strange position for the Bills. On one hand, they have a guy in Scott Chandler, a guy who just put up his best season numbers as a pro and lead the team in receptions and receiving yards. On the other hand, he’s a limited weapon, primarily a possession or red zone threat, and not well suited to catch and run. He’s also not the best at blocking for either run or pass. They have a powerful blocking TE in Lee Smith and a younger, more athletic receiving tight end in Chris Gragg, but he lacks size. And finally, they picked up the oft-injured Tony Moeaki as a free agent from Kansas City during the 2013 season. Moeaki has nice measurable traits but he’s only played 30 games in 4 seasons. I think the second biggest gap the Bills need to fill in the draft this year is Tight End. In fact, I’d say they would be best served by trading out of their #9 overall pick and trying to go back 8 – 10 places, pick up an additional second round pick, and then get Austin Sefarian-Jenkins. I would dispense with Chandler and Moeaki and move on with the young talent.
Current Grade: 2.0 Projected Grade in 2014: 3.5
Now, if you have managed to make it this far without angrily commenting about how far off my grades are in either direction, I’d like to explain that my projected grades are mostly based on the assumption that the Bills focus on improving their offensive line in the off season. It’s their biggest weakness, as I stated, and it’s one of the most important positions to be strong at in the NFL. The personnel improvements outside of that line are bonus upgrades, in my opinion, they would be nice, beneficial even, but with the people at the other four positions covered in this article, the Bills are capable of making the leap from perennial bottom feeder to playoff contender.
Stay tuned for the next edition, where I run through the defense and point out all of the flaws begging to be corrected.