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2014 Team Report: Buffalo Bills

Quarterbacks

Starter: EJ Manuel
Backup(s): Thaddeus Lewis, Jeff Tuel, Dennis Dixon

Starting QB: The Bills did what they could to add some weapons for EJ Manuel, who they are praying is healthy for the whole season. He's got a solid offensive line, a good backfield and Sammy Watkins added to Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin. The defense should keep things close as well. Can Manuel improve though? We don't have a lot of NFL film to go on. He needs to make much better decisions with the ball, and avoid taking foolish hits when running. Manuel has the tools but was always a guy who might take a few years to reach his potential. If he can stay healthy, he should see a tremendous improvement this season.

Backup QB: Thaddeus Lewis hung in there when EJ Manuel was down, passing for 1,092 yards and throwing four touchdowns compared to three interceptions in five games. He proved he is a capable backup and could stay as the #2 guy in Buffalo if he shows he can take the next step. Jeff Tuel signed in Buffalo as an undrafted free agent last season and was one of many quarterbacks pressed into service while Manuel was hurt. Tuel has an average arm at best and struggled in his appearances because of it. Expect him to be just a backup unless the worst happens and both Manuel and Tuel go down again. Dennis Dixon is an interesting add, as his mobility seems like a natural fit as Manuel's backup. Dixon has never been able to produce consistently though, so he may still be a long shot to make the roster, much less get playing time.

Running Backs

Starter: C.J. Spiller
Backup(s): Fred Jackson, Anthony Dixon, Bryce Brown, Ronnie Wingo
Fullback(s): Frank Summers, Evan Rodriguez

Starting RB: Spiller saw Fred Jackson cut into his carries a bit and struggled with an ankle injury last season. Rumors that the Bills tried to trade up in the second round of the 2014 NFL draft for Carlos Hyde don't instill long-term confidence that he's getting an extension. You can also consider trading for Bryce Brown as insurance in case they let Spiller go after this contract. That said, Spiller is a dynamic playmaker who has shown the speed, vision and ability to break off big chunks of yards and game-changing plays. The Bills will continue to hand him the ball early and often to help keep the defenses off quarterback EJ Manuel.

Backup RBs: Fred Jackson bounced back in 2013 after a disappointing 2012, totaling 896 yards and nine touchdowns despite dealing with multiple injuries. Jackson is in the last year of a contract an it's unclear if the team will be extending him. At 33, he may not find many prospects next season even if he has an extraordinary year. He has every reason to exceed expectations for one last contract though. Anthony Dixon never showed much in San Francisco and will have to work hard to hang onto his roster spot here, especially with the Bills going out of their way to trade for Bryce Brown. Brown is very talented but bounces things outside too much. If he can stay between the tackles, he can be very effective in this offense. He could be a long-term replacement for either Fred Jackson or C.J. Spiller, if Spiller opts out of his rookie contract. Ronnie Wingo was promoted from the practice squad when Spiller got hurt in October, though he carried the ball just once. He's got an interesting combination of size (6'3", 231) and speed but we haven't seen much from him so far so he is an unknown. If he can get his pass blocking down, Wingo could turn into a third down back, but as it stands that might not be enough to keep him around.

Fullback: While some fullbacks will be used to do more than block, the Bills don't tend to use them that way. Evan Rodriguez is intriguing as he is more of an H-back so he might see more work. Otherwise though, these guys are blockers.

Wide Receivers

Starters: Sammy Watkins [R], Robert Woods, Mike Williams
Backups: T.J. Graham, Marquise Goodwin, Marcus Easley, Kevin Elliott, Ramses Barden, Brandon Kaufman, Chris Summers, Chris Hogan, Cordell Roberson

Starting WRs: We've had a changing of the guard in Buffalo, as Stevie Johnson was shipped off to San Francisco after the team drafted Sammy Watkins with their first overall draft pick in the 2014 NFL draft. Watkins is a beast who should be heavily involved right away. He'll be an instant star and EJ Manuel will look to him often. For now, Robert Woods is considered the starter on the right side and he produced enough last season to see him as a nice compliment to Watkins. When there is another big receiver across the field, Woods has a knack for taking advantage of the attention thrown that way. Mike Williams was acquired on the cheap after wearing out his welcome in Tampa Bay. According to Ourlads.com, he is slated as the third "starter", likely out of the slot. If he can stay out of trouble off the field - and healthy on it - Williams' big frame and great hands could make him a real threat on short and intermediate routes. If he cannot stay out of trouble though, the team will not hesitate to pull the cord on him.

Backup WRs: If Robert Woods or Mike Williams struggles, Marquise Goodwin will step in. Goodwin missed a few games due to injury, but looked good in flashes last season. He's another reason the team felt confident getting rid of Stevie Johnson. T.J. Graham continues to underperform what his ability was supposed to be. He continues to be a guy with straight-line speed and not much else. Ramses Barden is a big-bodied wide receiver who could have been a beast in New York with the Giants but has never consistently been able to use his size to block out or overcome defenders. He's going to have to prove he has learned to do that, and if he can he could be a huge red zone threat. Patience is wearing thin on him though. Marcus Easley had injury issues in 2012, but was healthy in 2013. He just wasn't used often and had problem separating from defenders. Chris Hogan was lost in the pile of receivers behind Johnson, Woods and Goodwin, but won't have an easier time this year unless he flashes more in camp. Chris Summers is a small school guy who has bounced around over the past two years, killing some time in the arena league's LA Kiss. He may not make it onto the crowded roster. He's an average receiver at best. Chris Hogan has also bounced around the league, finally landing with the Bills in 2012. Mostly a special teams player, Hogan did show some skills over the course of last season when he had 10 targets for 83 yards overall. He may stick, but it will probably be on the special teams unit again.

Tight Ends

Starters: Scott Chandler
Backups: Tony Moeaki, Lee Smith, Chris Gragg, Mike Caussin

Scott Chandler's targets went up again last year, totaling 53 catches for 655 yards. His touchdowns went down to just two, but he could see them come back up with consistent quarterback play. Chris Gragg is mostly used for blocking, although he will get the occasional target. Lee Smith sees less targets, less snaps but as much blocking as Gragg. Tony Moeaki only joined the team in Week 17, so it's hard to say how active his role will be. he has shown some good hands and athleticism, but hasn't ever busted out in a big way. Mike Caussin has had injury issues and will have to stay healthy first before his role expands or his roster spot is secure.

Place Kicker

Dan Carpenter: Last year, the Bills drafted Dustin Hopkins, who went on to win the job over incumbent Rian Lindell. However, a Hopkins injury a week before the regular season forced the team to bring in Dan Carpenter, who went on to have a career year (33 of 36 on field goals). Carpenter retained the placekicking job and Hopkins failed to stay on as a kickoff specialist. Jordan Gay was claimed off waivers and will serves as the new holder/punter. Garrison Sanborn remains the snapper. The Bills have alternated between the middle and bottom of the rankings in kicker scoring opportunities the past five years (11th, 28th, 14th, 31st & 16th).

Kick and Punt Returners

Kick Returners: Percy Harvin, Marquise Goodwin, Marcus Thigpen, Sammy Watkins

A change in coaching staff leaves us speculating on how Buffalo will handle their return game this season. With receiver Percy Harvin rejoining coach Rex Ryan, Harvin is a good candidate to land the primary return job. Receivers Marquise Goodwin and Marcus Thigpen also are experienced returners who could see opportunities. Sammy Watkins continues to get mentions when the Bills return game is brought up, but has yet to handle an NFL return.

Punt Returners: Leodis McKelvin, Marcus Thigpen, Fred Jackson, Nickell Robey

Cornerback Leodis McKelvin was Buffalo's punt returner of choice in 2015 before missing time to an injury. Receiver Marcus Thigpen handled most of the returns with McKelvin out, fielding 12 punts for 155 yards including a 75-yard touchdown. Running back Fred Jackson was also in the old coaching staff's plans briefly before giving way to Thigpen, but might compete for the job again this year.

Offensive Line

Projected Starters: LT Cordy Glenn, LG Chris Williams, C Eric Wood, RG Kraig Urbik, RT Cyrus Kouandijo [R]
Key Backups: T Chris Hairston, G Cyril Richardson [R], G J.J. Unga, G/C Doug Legursky, T Sentrel Henderson [R]

The Bills start the year near the bottom of the offensive line rankings, but they certainly have the potential to be ranked higher as the year progresses, especially if second round right tackle Cyrus Kouandijo runs with the job. Kouandijo fits a profile that head coach Doug Marrone seems to prioritize: massive human beings who win at the point of attack. Like current left tackle Cordy Glenn, size and strength are Kouandijo’s calling cards. The down side of this player (and it’s a downside shared with other Bills’ linemen) is that he can be exploited by agile pass rushers. There were also pre-draft rumors that his knee was in rough shape after leaving Alabama and his glacial 40 yard dash at the combine didn’t soothe that fear. Still, assuming all is well medically, Kouandijo will win this job. The Bills also added former first round pick Chris Williams to start at left guard. While somewhat of a washout at tackle, Williams has the size and strength that this system prioritizes and should bring stability to that particular spot. Baylor rookie Cyril Richardson is probably not going to beat out Kraig Urbik this preseason but the writing is on the wall and the Bills will likely give this job to him sooner or later. Late round pick Sentrel Henderson is an awesome athlete but has serious character concerns and he will really have to get his act together to have a career in this league. Overall this ranking of the Bills can seem rough but they have the potential to rise up the rankings, especially if the rookies step up in preseason. The vision of having huge human beings at non center positions has a certain appeal. It will be interesting to see if the lack of agility on the bookends will make a difference. If a year from now everyone is drafting giants, perhaps we will look back at Doug Marrone as a visionary.

Team Defense

After a fairly disappointing debut season in Buffalo, Mario Williams posted 13 sacks last year. He should be thrilled that the team is moving to a 4-3 defense, returning him to his natural position of defensive end. The loss of Kiko Alonso for the year is an enormous one. Brandon Spikes will be asked to carry this group of inexperienced linebackers. An even bigger question about this defense is in the secondary. Without Jarius Byrd there are a lot of moving parts and serious questions whether Buffalo has the horses to cover opposing receivers. This defenses success will be based on whether or not they can.

Defensive Line

Starters: DE Mario Williams, DT Kyle Williams, DT Marcell Dareus, DE Jerry Hughes
Backups: DE Manny Lawson, DT Alan Branch, DE Corbin Bryant, DE Jairus Wynn

Starting DL: The Bills will be shifting from a 3-4 front to a 4-3 defense this year, but they used a lot of 4-3 principles last year and have the personnel in place to make a smooth transition. Up front, Mario Williams is coming off a 13-sack season and should continue to be one of the most productive pass rushers in the league. He rarely dropped into coverage last year so playing in a 3-point stance should be a more natural fit. DT Kyle Williams has long been one of the most disruptive interior players in the league and he proved it last year with a 10-sack season. He’ll likely line up as the team’s 3-technique tackle and help continue to make life difficult for opposing offenses. Marcell Dareus is slotted into the NT position but it will be more of a 1-gap role that also allows him to attack instead of focusing on tying up blockers. He’s a very talented player with elite potential, but there are some character concerns about him after he was benched late last year for being late to meetings, and then again this offseason when he was arrested for marijuana possession. Jerry Hughes is not an ideal fit as an everydown 4-3 DE due to his size and run defense, but he can likely sit on clear run downs and serve as a pass-rush specialist opposite Mario Williams. This is a group that should be the strength of the defense, and should provide a nice combination of outside speed and inside power.

Backup DL: Manny Lawson was a huge upgrade for the Bills last year at OLB and really helped solidify their run defense as he could set the edge and prevent runners from gouging them for big plays. He's being moved to DE in the team's new 4-3 front and is expected to share time with Hughes, so his fantasy value will remain limited. Alan Branch figures to see regular playing time as part of the DT rotation up front, particularly if Dareus misses any time to suspension. Corbin Bryant and Jairus Wynn are depth players that could push for a bigger role, but who will not be counted on for much.

Linebackers

Starters: WLB Preston Brown, MLB Brandon Spikes, SLB Keith Rivers
Backups: OLB Nigel Bradham, OLB Stevenson Sylvester, OLB Kiko Alonso (IR)

Starting LBs: Kiko Alonso played every snap at MLB as a rookie last year and was a key piece of the Bills turnaround. He was expected to move outside to WLB but suffered a torn ACL during offseason workouts and will likely miss the season. His replacement is expected to be rookie Preston Brown, who the Bills added in the third round of this year's draft. The coaches were very impressed with him in minicamp and were already using him as a first string nickel linebacker, so he could be a big breakout candidate. Brandon Spikes was signed from the rival Patriots to take over the MLB role in the new Bills defense. He brings toughness and leadership, and although he may not have sideline to sideline range his strength is defending the run. He's expected to play nickel snaps and should see his fantasy value rise significantly. The strongside job is up for grabs, but Keith Rivers looks like the early favorite given his years of experience. However, he's been underwhelming in recent years with the Bengals and Giants so expectations are limited.

Backup LBs: Nigel Bradham came into 2013 with high hopes that were never realized. Even when he received extensive playing time, he barely showed up on the stat sheets and it looks like the team is moving on with a new set of options. The loss of Alonso could force the team to consider shifting Manny Lawson back to linebacker, and he would likely be a great candidate to hold down the strongside job.

Defensive Backs

Starters: CB Stephon Gilmore, SS Da’Norris Searcy, FS Aaron Williams, CB Leodis McKelvin
Backups: CB Corey Graham, CB Ron Brooks, CB Nickell Robey, S Duke Williams, S Jonathan Meeks

Starting DBs: Stephon Gilmore was a high draft pick who looked ready to emerge as a shutdown corner in 2013, but a preseason wrist injury really limited his effectiveness. He should be healthy this year, and will be relied on more heavily following the loss of All Pro safety Jairus Byrd to the Saints in free agency. Da’Norris Searcy was groomed to take over the strong safety spot, but was beat out by Aaron Williams to start the year. He is a pretty good safety in the box, but can be exploited in coverage. Williams was a bust at corner, but looked like a potential Pro Bowler at safety and he’ll help lessen the blow of losing Byrd. He can deliver a big hit (which led to some unwise penalties last year), but he also has good ball skills and can help cover TEs and slot WRs. Leodis McKelvin had a rough start to his career and was benched for awhile, but he eventually developed into an above-average starter at the position. The main knock on him is that he doesn’t seem to track the ball all that well which limits his interception potential, but he’s solid in man coverage.

Backup DBs: Corey Graham was a key free agent pickup who helped the Ravens win a Super Bowl in 2012. He’s a local product who should slot in as the nickel corner, but he’ll probably see almost as much playing time as the starters. Nickell Robey played well as the nickel corner last year and will provide solid depth along with the speedy Ron Brooks. The Bills drafted Duke Williams and Jonathan Meeks in the middle rounds last yea and both will get a chance to earn a bigger role in training camp. Duke Williams in particular figures to push Searcy for the #1 SS job.

Last modified: 2015-05-03 19:46:35