The Buffalo Bills 2014 season was a bit of an enigma. They finished 9-7 and closed the season out with their first win in New England in 15 years but it also saw head coach Doug Marrone unexpectedly quit and pocket $4 million in hard cash for next year and left the Bills again in a cloud of uncertainty and the feeling of the doom of a sub-par standard that still has them awaiting their first playoff appearance in a decade and a half. The Bills defense was outstanding in 2014, they changed from a 3-4 to a 4-3 base scheme over the course of last season under new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz and went on to lead the league in sacks. The offense was another story altogether. despite their trade-up to land stud receiver Sammy Watkins in the draft their belief in second-year quarterback EJ Manuel fell apart again after just six games as he was benched following a series of erratically bad performances and a serious lack of development outside a basic offensive package for the Florida State product. The season closed out with veteran Kyle Orton going 4-2 and passing for eight touchdowns in his last six games before promptly retiring. What the Bills do to develop on offense will be key to any true success in 2015, and if they can finally shed the image of AFC East pretenders.
As it stands the Bills have about $16 million in free cap space and with the cap due to be raised this coming season they may even have some more money to work with, potentially upwards of $40 million. General manager Doug Wharsley has plenty of decisions to make though, they have seven unrestricted free agents including defensive end Jerry Hughes. Hughes was a beast last season picking up 19.5 sacks as a speedy, athletic weak-side pass-rusher. He plays on one of the best defensive lines in the country with Mario Williams, Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus and they account for almost $34 million of the Bills salary cap as it stands for 2015. Hughes is a high-impact player though and Wharsley has to find a way of getting him signed without shifting too much money elsewhere given the room that potentially may be needed for a new quarterback. Hughes is also likely to cost them a long-term deal in the region of around $50 million but that is a spending worth its weight in gold given how the MVP of this Bills team is undoubtedly it’s defensive line and they are unlikely to allow another defensive star to leave like Jairus Byrd did last year, and they will need to move quickly.
Versatile running back CJ Spiller is very likely to leave, with the Bills appearing to have their heart set on Bryce Brown at that position with Spiller’s health dwindling over the past two seasons. Brandon Spikes is intriguing; signed from the Patriots last year, he’s been a ball-hawk and a locker room leader for the Bills this past season but they also get a healthy Kiko Alonso back and Spikes is at the stage of his career where he may well want a well-paid year as a starting inside linebacker. I have a feeling Wharley will look at getting safety Da’Norris Searcy resigned first. He did an impressive job replacing Byrd last season and the Bills want reliability in that secondary and he is it. Jarus Wynn, Marcus Easley, Chris Hogan and Keith Rivers are also all out of contract and that leaves two potential holes on the offensive line that Wharley may need to be careful of.
Marrone was a surprise appointment at Buffalo, one that was seemingly made for the progression he had shown with quarterbacks, namely Drew Brees when he was at the New Orleans Saints but that didn’t transpire with Manuel and Marrone quit unexpectedly and swiftly following the 2014 season, apparently with another job lined up which is something that has taken on a whole new chapter of it’s own. The Bills took less than a fortnight to name Rex Ryan his successor. Much like the Bills season though, Wharley has himself looked a bit of an enigma after claiming he wanted Marrone’s replacement to be a coach who “could develop EJ Manuel and young quarterbacks.” He wasted little time in giving the job to Rex Ryan, a defensive guru whose recent track record with quarterbacks is about as good as EJ Manuel’s game tape. He has given Rex a lifeline in the form of a new offensive coordinator in Greg Roman, who worked wonders with Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick in San Francisco, but will have his work cut out with the major struggles of Manuel.
Ryan himself wasted little time asserting himself on this prolific defense, firing one-term coordinator Jim Schwartz despite an excellent first season. Ryan will undoubtedly help to make this already great defense even better and is going to be the kind of defensive-minded coach a lot of talented players will be inspired to come and play for but he’s likely to be judged upon how well the offense fares. Roman’s success is key there, as is their decision about whether or not to move forward with Manuel or if not what to do in the meantime having no first round pick this year. Ryan will bring a lively, charismatic homely feel to the team which should suit Buffalo but after their best finish this past season in over a decade they will expect progression from that and whilst Ryan is still rated as one of the best coaches in football his era as a head coach self-imploded in nearby New York and he has going to have to prove quickly in Buffalo that was more the organization than it was him.
Team Needs: QB, OL, TE, WR, RB
Despite Wharley adding longevity and depth at a number of defensive positions, and a few offensive, over recent times the offense is still likely to be the main focus of the 2015 draft and the hunt for a franchise quarterback remains very much on. It’s highly unlikely that the Bills trade back up to the first round and even if they did it would be far too expensive to get a sniff at Jameis Winston or Marcus Mariota who are both likely to be gone inside the top five picks. The offensive line struggled again last season and there are further potential holes due to free agency whilst at the tight end position the Bills haven’t found a reliable or consistent fit yet with nine tight ends across the past three seasons. The second and third rounds are likely to be loaded with offensive linemen and tight ends so I would not be surprised to see the Bills use these picks to fill glaring holes there. The other skill positions on offense, wide receiver and running back, could also be addressed with the Bills perhaps wanting to add a more versatile, physical receiver to the middle of the field and also look for a long-term replacement for CJ Spiller at running back. The added weight of weaponry can only go to help whoever is playing quarterback as well.
This all having been said Rex Ryan loves to use his earlier draft picks on defense, do not be surprised if this plan is thrown out of the window by May and they take a pass-rusher.
X Factor Acquisition: Mark Sanchez (Quarterback, Free Agent)
Now, don’t laugh, but this actually makes a lot of sense. If the Bills, and particularly Ryan, decide that EJ Manuel isn’t ready or is never going to be they are likely going to want to steel themselves for a year to decide the next step, and also to get a first-round pick back in a more top-heavy quarterback draft class. They will need a filler and ideally one who is experienced and can guide a blossoming crop of wide receivers like Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods. Sanchez has found himself more than a little in Philadelphia and went to back-to-back AFC Championship games with Ryan in New York and he is a quarterback who can run the kind of offense which Roman will likely bring to Buffalo. He’s also not going to cost too much to go and get given that he’s a free agent and the Bills don’t want to be trading any more picks away. He’s also younger than his years in the league might suggest at 28 and he’s taken teams to the playoffs, winning four of his six games whilst there. There’s no better free agent quarterback on the market, he comes with a ready-made relationship with the head coach, he’s only going to cost cap space in what is looking a potentially very positive year from that respect and he gives you time and a bit more to decide what to do with the future at that position whilst offering you much better odds of being a game-winner at the position than he was this time two years ago.