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Tuesday, 23 July 2013 15:16

Sizing up the AFC East: Buffalo Bills edition

Written by 
QB's EJ Manuel and Kevin Kolb will compete to be the Bills' starter QB's EJ Manuel and Kevin Kolb will compete to be the Bills' starter Kevin Hoffman, USA TODAY

Bills QBs

Photo Credit: Kevin Hoffman, USA TODAY

With training camp upon us, it's time to do a look around the AFC East and size up the Patriots' competition heading into 2013.

Next up, the Buffalo Bills.

2012 Stats

Record: 6-10 (3rd in AFC East)

Pts Scored: 344 points (21.5/g), 21st of 32 in the NFL. 
 

Pts Allowed: 435 points (27.2/g), 26th. 
 

Differential of -91 points (-5.7/g), 25th. 
 

Expected W-L: 5.8-10.2.

Interesting tidbits

The Bills won back-to-back games just once – against the lowly Chiefs and Browns.

They went 0-6 vs. playoff teams and gave up an average of 38 points in those games.

Roster Changes

Additions:
 head coach Doug Marrone, O.C. Nathaniel Hackett, D.C. Mike Pettine, QB Kevin Kolb, G Doug Legursky, DT Alan Branch, OLB Jerry Hughes; drafted QB E.J. Manuel, WR Robert Woods, LB Kiko Alonso, WR Marquise Goodwin, S Duke Williams;

Subtractions: QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, QB Tarvaris Jackson, WR Donald Jones, G Andy Levitre, DE Chris Kelsay, DE Shawne Merriman, DE Kyle Moore, LB Kelvin Sheppard, OLB Nick Barnett, S George Wilson

Expectations

This is a big rebuilding year for Buffalo.

In 2012, the Bills had high expectations but the team – and its newly signed franchise quarterback – struggled to a 6-10 record for the second-straight year.

On March 12 2013, the Buffalo Bills released Ryan Fitzpatrick just 17 months after signing him to a six-year, $59 million contract.

“He'll be our quarterback for a long time," general manager Buddy Nix said when the deal was announced.

On March 13, Buddy Nix stepped down as the team’s GM.

With a new coach, (Chan Gailey was fired at the end of the season), a new general manager, and two new quarterbacks, the 2013 Bills will be focused on implementing new schemes and integrating new players on both sides of the ball.

A new era is beginning in Buffalo.

Offense

Eventually, the Bills are hoping it will be the EJ Manuel-era after making the former Florida State star the first quarterback taken (16th player overall) in April’s draft.

But the new GM-head coach duo of Doug Whaley and Doug Marrone also signed Kevin Kolb to a two-year deal and reports out of Buffalo indicate Kolb has the edge for the starting spot – for the moment anyway.

Whoever ends up getting the nod will be taking snaps behind a solid-but-weakened line. After four years in Buffalo, guard Andy Levitre left for Tennesse via free agency. Levitre was the Bills best player on an offensive line that allowed just 30 sacks and delivered one of the best running attacks in the league. In his place, the Bills will turn to some combination of former Cowboys tackle Sam Young, backup center Colin Brown and ex-Steeler Doug Legursky.

The Bills are improved at receiver, where in 2012 it was Stevie Johnson and not much else. Buffalo released Donald Jones and used second and third round draft picks to add former USC star Robert Woods and speedster Marquise Goodwin out of Texas. Woods is an intriguing player who can run every route on the tree but will need to show more consistency hanging onto the football. Goodwin is undersized but is an absolute burner, posting a 4.27 40-yard-dash, the fastest at the combine.

Buffalo had an excellent run game in 2012, finishing sixth in rushing yards and fourth in yards-per-carry. Third-year pro C.J. Spiller is a home run threat every time he touches the ball and averaged more yards per attempt than any player in the league not named Robert Griffin or Adrian Peterson. Do yourself a favor and make a point to catch some Bills’ games this season – Spiller is an absolute thrill to watch. Veteran back Fred Jackson missed six games in 2012 due to knee ligament injuries and a concussion, but when healthy he is one of the best all-around running backs in the league and his power makes a great compliment to Spiller’s elusiveness.

Defense

The Bills struggled everywhere on defense last year. According to Football Outsiders, Buffalo had the 22nd worse pass defense and the 31st worst run D.

New defensive coordinator Mike Pettine will bring the aggressive-pressure schemes he’s developed alongside Rex Ryan in Baltimore and New York to a defense that has lost its top three tacklers from 2012. Safety George Wilson and linebackers Kelvin Sheppard and Nick Barnett have all moved on and the Bills were unable to come to terms on a contract extension with franchised free safety Jairus Byrd.

Buffalo traded Sheppard – an inside linebacker – to the Colts for outside linebacker Jerry Hughes, a former first round pick who never panned out in Indy. Hughes projects to be a situational pass rush specialist in Pettine’s 3-4 defense and moving Sheppard opens up a starting spot inside for fourth round pick Kiki Alonso, whom the Bills seem to be very high on.

The defensive backfield is a huge question mark for the Bills. Until Byrd signs his offer, the Bills have only two potential starters with experience at the safety position. Aaron Williams is a third-year pro making the transition from cornerback to safety and projects to be the starter alongside Byrd. If Byrd holds out however, Da’Norris Searcy, who saw part-time at strong safety in 2012, will challenge fourth-round pick Duke Williams for a starting spot. Duke Williams saw first team reps at cornerback in spring practices and has more versatility than Searcy – something Pettine values in his defensive backs – but at 223 pounds, Searcy is significantly bigger and stronger than either Duke or Aaron Williams (both listed around 200 pounds), and has a distinct advantage in run support. They’ll probably all see a good number of reps as part of a rotation.

As thin as they are at safety, the Bills look even more vulnerable at cornerback. Buffalo signed wildly inconsistent veteran Leodis McKelvin to a four-year, $20 million contract in the offseason while the 27-year-old was rehabbing from groin surgery. McKelvin is a terrific kick returner but has yo-yoed up and down the depth chart for years, starting just 10 games in the last two seasons and was a legitimate threat to not make the team in 2012.

Second-year pro Stephon Gilmore is the team’s lone bright spot at corner. Gilmore had an impressive rookie season and has the potential to become a top-tier cover guy. The rest of the cornerbacks are a mishmash of late-round picks and practice squad players.

The defensive line is where the Bills were supposed to be the strongest. They spent $100 million on Mario Williams, who was an absolute train wreck for the first half of the season before quietly putting together a more respectable second-half. There are questions as to how Williams will fit in Pettine’s 3-4 scheme but the defensive coordinator insists they will be using multiple fronts so often it won’t really matter. Ultimately, Pettine knows his highest paid player is at his best when rushing the passer, and it’s safe to assume Pettine will use him accordingly.

Defensive tackle Kyle Williams turned 30 in June but he is still an excellent, if slightly undersized player and without question, the best player on the team.

Alongside Williams is third-year pro Marcell Dareus. Dareus was an absolute stud at Alabama and played well his rookie season in 2011. In 2012 however, Dareus’ play took a huge step back as he acknowledged it was a struggle to focus on football in the wake of his younger brother’s tragic murder, just one week before the NFL season.

This offseason, Dareus has actually been playing behind Alex Carrington in three-man fronts and behind undrafted free agent Jay Ross in four-man fronts, though this is probably just the coaching staff sending him a message. At 6’3, 331 pounds, and with his athleticism and pedigree, this season Dareus should begin to resemble the pro bowl-caliber tackle the Bills drafted him to be.

Final Verdict

The Bills have some very talented young pieces on both sides of the ball and could absolutely become a contender a few years down the road. So much of that will depend on the development of E.J. Manuel (or Kolb, for that matter). In the meantime however, Buffalo will remain a below-.500 team as new coach Doug Marrone and his staff lay the groundwork.

Jonathan Lemons

Jonathan Lemons writes and reports about sports.

He has worked for WEEI.com, 98.5 The Sports Hub, WickedLocal.com, WTBU Sports, and a number of newspapers, including the Allston/Brighton Tab and the Dedham Daily News Transcript. 

Jonathan recently received his Master's degree in Sports Journalism from Boston University. He is also an accomplished Monopoly player and enjoys apples.

Follow him on twitter @jonathanlemons