Bills Preview: The More Things Change
... Well, you know how the rest of the cliche goes. Another change of the guard in Buffalo won't lead to much improvement in the standings
There are certain things people are accustomed to seeing every few years: state and federal elections; new fashion styles; a Best Actor Oscar nomination for Daniel Day-Lewis; and a Buffalo Bills rebuilding project. Since Marv Levy retired in 1997, the Bills have had five head coaches, none of whom lasted four full seasons. The franchise that once went to four straight Super Bowls has crossed into that ugly territory where its last postseason appearance can be measured in societal timestamps—like gas prices ($1.27), White House Administrations (Clinton) and box office toppers (Stuart Little, followed by The Green Mile).
This latest Bills rebuilding effort is covering all the major bases—new general manager, new coaching staff, new defensive scheme, new quarterback. Time will tell if these changes are the right ones, but to most fans they’re simply unexciting.
The new GM is 40-year-old Doug Whaley, who was quietly promoted from second-in-command after 73-year-old Buddy Nix stepped down in late spring. The head coach is Doug Marrone, who comes over from Syracuse. Marrone coached the Jets offensive line from 2002 to ’05 and was a non-play-calling offensive coordinator for the Saints from 2006 to ’08. The new defensive coordinator is Mike Pettine, who spent the past four years in Rex Ryan’s shadow with the Jets. And the new quarterback is EJ Manuel, a first-round pick whom many teams saw as a second- or even third-rounder.
What little national chatter there is about the Bills—or international chatter, counting the fans in Toronto who are still interested in their adoptive step-team—has pertained mostly to the constant relocation rumors, even though the topic has been temporarily shelved by a new lease agreement between 94-year-old owner Ralph Wilson Jr. and Erie County that will keep the team around for at least another seven years. So, really, all that’s left to talk about is whether this latest rebuilding project can do the trick. History and the laws of random chance say the Bills’ fortunes will change at some point. But when?
Doug Marrone’s pedigree as an offensive line coach and his affinity for multiple tight end sets suggest the Bills will have an old-school, meat-and-potatoes offense. But Marrone has also been painted by some as a West Coast guy. And as a run-and-shoot type by others. What may have ultimately landed him this job was his successful reconfiguration of Syracuse’s offense in 2012 after studying the systems at Oregon and Toledo. Marrone spread things out, simplified the passing designs, used more single-back sets and increased the tempo. His embrace of new-age concepts, including some zone-read option, suggests he’s willing to do what good coaches do: install whatever system best fits the players.
Buffalo’s best personnel is at running back. Thirty-two-year-old Fred Jackson can still line up in traditional sets, in the shotgun or split wide. He’s effective in traffic and open space. He’s also likely to be relegated to back-up duties, as fourth-year pro C.J. Spiller has blossomed into a star.
Spiller last season rushed for 1,244 yards and led the AFC with an average 6.0 yards per carry. His slashing, space-oriented style portrays him as finesse, but according to Pro Football Focus he ranked second in yards after contact in 2012. What’s more, he’s as dynamic in the passing game as he is running the ball.
Spiller has the ideal skill-set for a spread offense. Jackson, and to an extent third-stringer Tashard Choice, can also prosper in such a system. And with these backs capable of lining up at wide receiver, there’s the possibility for formation versatility, which augments any spread—particularly ones that operate from a no-huddle, which Marrone will likely explore.
What may give Marrone and his young offensive coordinator, Nathanial Hackett, pause is that under Chan Gailey, the Bills ran more spread than any team in football. They weren’t successful. Of course, they weren’t running it with the right quarterback or receivers.
While there has supposedly been a competition between EJ Manuel and Kevin Kolb, it’s all but guaranteed that the first-round rookie will start, if not immediately (pending how he recovers from a recent knee procedure) then surely sometime before Halloween. Kolb isn’t a bad player, but he lacks unique, vibrant attributes that outweigh his limitations as a pocket passer. Manuel, on the other hand, has some intriguing raw tools. He’s mobile enough to be a legitimate read-option threat (and big enough at 6-5, 237 pounds to withstand the accompanying punishment). He also has good arm strength, which is critical. In spring workouts, Manuel boasted about the ease with which he thinks he’s learning pro passing concepts. But learning the concepts and honing the necessary mechanics to execute them accurately are different things. Those who studied Manuel’s Florida State tape believe his mechanics need refining.
Whoever is under center will likely be throwing to better receivers than predecessor Ryan Fitzpatrick had. Stevie Johnson is back as the titular No. 1. The sixth-year pro doesn’t have the speed, quickness or size of a true No. 1, but he has superb fundamentals and an innate sense for angles and spacing. Still, a receiver like Johnson can be somewhat reliant on having talented weapons around him. That’s why Nix, just before handing the keys over to Whaley, spent a second-round pick (41st overall) on Robert Woods and a third-rounder (78th overall) on Marquise Goodwin.
Woods may appear to some as a slot guy, but he played a lot as the X-receiver at USC. Few characterize him as explosive, but most scouts think he is fundamentally sound and moves well enough. While Woods may seem like just another version of Johnson, Goodwin can potentially give this offense much-needed vertical speed. But being somewhat underdeveloped coming out of Texas, Goodwin may initially land behind last year’s third-round pick, T.J. Graham. Graham also has some speed, though it’s a little concerning that he had just 31 catches for 322 yards despite starting 11 of his 15 games last year.
For spread purposes, Marrone’s most potent personnel package this season might be four-wide (which would bring some K-Gun concepts back to Buffalo). There is minimal talent at tight end. Lanky seventh-year journeyman Scott Chandler can run and elevate well enough to beat mismatched linebackers inside, but he’s not an inherent mismatch creator. He’s also coming back from a torn ACL suffered in late December. The other tight end options consist of the largely untested Lee Smith, who must improve his blocking technique, undrafted Nick Provo and seventh-round rookie Chris Gragg. A better option than all these guys would be H-back Dorin Dickerson, who showed surprising fluidity as a route runner last season.
Though Marrone’s background is in teaching offensive linemen, he brought longtime veteran O-line coach Pat Morris to his staff. Morris will be working with a progressing group led by cerebral fifth-year center Eric Wood. Despite a horrendous leg fracture in 2009 and an ACL tear in 2011, Wood still has good multidirectional mobility. He is capable of playing all three interior line spots, just like ex-Steeler Doug Legursky, who was brought in to compete with Colin Brown at left guard and David Snow at backup center. (Former Texan Antoine Caldwell could also be in the mix at left guard.) Legursky lacks explosive power but has light feet and a good football IQ. He’d work well in a spread scheme. At right guard is another former Steeler, Kraig Urbik, who underachieved early in his career but has morphed into a viable run-blocker in recent years.
At left tackle, the outlook is pretty good. Cordy Glenn showed flashes of run-blocking dominance as a second-round rookie last season. The next step for him is to become a more stable week-to-week pass-blocker. On the right side, veteran Erik Pears will compete with third-year utility tackle Chris Hairston for starting duties. Pears is some 35 pounds lighter than the 340-pound Hairston, and he can be porous at times in pass protection. However, he’s experienced in a variety of schemes and has rarely been an outright liability. Fifth-round sophomore Zebrie Sanders could also be in the mix, though he’s expected to need extra time to develop.
In recent years Buffalo’s defense has changed schemes the way most people change clothes. Or rather, the way most people would change clothes if they had just two outfits. It’s either been a basic 4-3 or a basic 3-4. Back and forth the Bills have gone, averaging an annual ranking of 23rd in yards allowed over the past eight seasons. Sometimes, the Bills have switched schemes midseason. Sometimes, they’ve switched midgame.
That’s what they’ll do under Mike Pettine, but this time by design. Pettine’s 3-4 and 4-3 concepts will be less basic, especially in obvious passing situations. Whether he will be able to use the full array of amorphous pressure packages he learned in New York (and whatever self-created concepts he’ll undoubtedly add) will depend on how much he trusts his secondary in man coverage.
He can absolutely trust cornerback Stephon Gilmore. Aside from a penchant for penalties, the 2012 first-rounder’s rookie season was a roaring (albeit largely unnoticed) success. Gilmore is a very physical press defender with athleticism oozing from his supple 6-0 frame. He has a chance to be a first-class defender, perhaps as early as this year.
Pettine will need a shutdown caliber presence on one side given the question marks at No. 2 corner. Leodis McKelvin and Ron Brooks will vie for those duties now that Aaron Williams has moved to the safety position that he played at Texas. McKelvin, a speedy former first-round pick, struggled early in his career, including at nickel early last season. However, he came alive down the stretch after injuries throughout the secondary put him in a starting role outside. It’s possible that’s where McKelvin is simply most comfortable playing. That may also be the case with Brooks, a 2012 fourth-round pick who is likely to win the nickelback competition over vulnerable incumbent Justin Rogers.
It wouldn’t be surprising if Williams or Da’Norris Searcy (whichever of the two loses out for the starting strong safety job) winds up being the dimeback. If Pettine is anything like Rex Ryan, he’ll need his safeties and backup corners to not just be versatile cover artists but also deft blitzers and open-field tacklers. And in this scheme, every defensive back is likely to see action. With this in mind, the Bills padded their safety depth by drafting Duke Williams in the fourth round. Williams’ raw speed and experience at Nevada playing man coverage in the slot should make him a good fit for a sub-package role. And let’s not forget, there’s still the headliner, Jairus Byrd. The fifth-year free safety is a reliable tackler and excellent route identifier, evidenced by his 18 career interceptions.
Pettine’s confounding sub-package attacks won’t be an option unless the Bills can force opponents into 3rd-and-long. Such situations have been few and far between in recent years, as Buffalo’s run defense has ranked in the bottom five in each of the last four seasons. That’s been part of the issue with the constantly changing foundational fronts.
Pettine has the resources to play a 3-4 or a 4-3 foundation. His decision could come down to whatever best fits the linebackers, the position that has struggled the most in Buffalo. To change this, the Bills spent a second-round pick on Kiko Alonso, who played mostly as an inside 'backer in Oregon’s multiple 3-4 scheme. If Buffalo goes 3-4, Arthur Moats and Nigel Bradham would compete for the other inside linebacker job. Bradham replaced Moats in the starting strongside spot last year but wasn’t particularly dynamic. The outside 'backer slots would then be filled by Manny Lawson, who has been a serviceable first- and second-down player in both a 4-3 and a 3-4, and Mario Williams. Williams hasn’t thrived in a small sampling of previous standup roles, but despite what his 10.5 sacks suggest, he was not good enough last season to prioritize in the construction of this new scheme. The Bills, doing whatever they could to generate a return on their $50 million guaranteed investment, moved Williams all over in 2012. He regularly got stalemated by single blocking. Williams is not at risk of losing playing time this season, as the only contending defensive ends would be disappointing (though somewhat quick) ex-Colts Jerry Hughes and the athletic but highly inexperienced Jarron Gilbert.
A great under-the-radar signing this past offseason was Alan Branch, a seventh-year pro with suddenness and power who can play the nose or any of the 4-3 defensive tackle techniques. Branch probably wouldn’t have been brought in if not for Torell Troup’s stunted growth. The 2010 second-round pick was placed on I.R. last August after being slow to recover from a December 2011 spinal fusion operation. Troup will have to beat out the unriveting-but-more-versatile Alex Carrington and the rising Jay Ross for playing time this season.
Troup isn’t the only defensive lineman with health concerns. Tenacious gap-shooter Kyle Williams, who tore his Achilles in October 2011, had offseason cleanup surgery to correct the chronic pain that he gutted through all last year. The hope is that the 30-year-old will regain his Pro Bowl form. Teaming with Williams is Marcell Dareus, who, hasn’t quite lived up to the billing of No. 3 overall pick but still showed glimpses of dominance in his first two seasons. At the very least, Dareus’ short-area lateral strength and natural low-leveraged explosiveness will make him a staunch run defender.
Longtime kicker Rian Lindell, 36, was recently released to make room for sixth-round rookie Dustin Hopkins. Lindell shouldn’t have been too surprised by his dismissal; he saw it happen last season to longtime punter Brian Moorman. The veteran’s replacement, Shawn Powell, was so-so and will have to fend off challenger Brian Stahovich this season. In the return game, Leodis McKelvin scored twice on punts and averaged an impressive 28.3 yards on kicks in 2012. There’s also Brad Smith, who averaged 27.6 yards on kick returns and had an 89-yard touchdown.
It sounds like the same old story in Buffalo, but at least this time the organization is placing its hope in a rookie quarterback with possible upside. With a bounty of youth in the passing game, it will take the offense time to figure things out. The defense has too many question marks to carry the team in the meantime.
Andy Benoit is diving deep into each team’s prospects for 2013. Read what he’s done so far.