Buffalo Bills 2013 NFL Season Preview

Introduction

The Bills had the worst fumble luck in the NFL last season, recovering just 30.6% of fumbles that hit the ground last season, which led to a -8 fumble margin and subsequently a -13 turnover margin. That should improve in 2013. A team’s ability to recover fumbles once they hit the ground is largely more dependent on luck and fumble type than actual ability and for this reason it averages out over time. For example, there have been 6 teams who have recovered 35% or fewer of their fumbles since 2003. The following season, they recovered on average 53.7% of their fumbles. If the Bills are at 50%, it will definitely help stabilize the turnover margin.

Quarterback

However, that doesn’t necessarily mean a large improvement in wins is in store for the Bills, largely because of their quarterback situation. In a historically bad quarterback class, the Bills were the only team who felt there was a quarterback worth taking in the first round, trading down with the Rams and taking EJ Manuel from Florida State 16th overall. They definitely didn’t hide their intention to add a young quarterback, talking at length about their desire to do so starting pretty much early last season, and when they cut big money failure Ryan Fitzpatrick this off-season, it left a huge hole at quarterback.

They did, however, surprise everyone with the quarterback they decided to take. Reports in the days before the draft had the Bills interested in everyone from Geno Smith to Ryan Nassib to Matt Barkley in the first round, but it proved to just be very good smokescreening by the Bills, who had their eyes on Manuel all along.

It’s definitely a risk. Manuel is rawer than even guys like Jake Locker, Ryan Tannehill, and Cam Newton who have been drafted in the first round of major projects in recent years. It’s very possible that the Bills were one of only a few teams who felt he was, or any quarterback for that matter, was worth a 1st round pick. Fortunately, all of his problems seem coachable and he has plenty of upside, but he’s unlikely to make a positive impact as a rookie.

Kevin Kolb is the veteran option and would be their best bet if their goal is to win as many games as possible this season, but the Bills seem ready to hand the job to Manuel and have him take his lumps, rather than desperately trying for their first 8-8+ season in 9 years. There is much debate about whether the trial by fire/learn by doing approach is better for a young quarterback than having him wait until he’s ready and not form bad habits, so we’ll see how this approach works. In my opinion, it depends on the quarterback.

Kolb, meanwhile, is on his 3rd stop in his NFL career in Buffalo, after he flamed out as a big money quarterback in Arizona. The 2007 2nd round pick has certainly flashed at times, impressing in limited action with Philadelphia as backup to Michael Vick and Donovan McNabb, to the extent where the Cardinals traded a starting cornerback and a 2nd round pick to Philadelphia for Kolb, who they gave a 63 million dollar contract over 6 years. He looked on his way to being the quarterback he was supposed to be in 2012, completing 59.6% of his passes for an average of 6.4 YPA, 8 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions in 6 starts, going 4-2, but injuries cut his season short once again.

That’s always been the issue for him. It’s why he lost the starting job in Philadelphia to Vick and it’s why the Cardinals cut him this off-season. Now he’s going into his age 29 season, with just 755 career pass attempts to his name in 34 games and a 28 to 25 touchdown to interception rate. He was rightfully forced to sign a cheaper, short term deal with the Bills and compete for the starting job and another injury put him behind EJ Manuel early, as he comically missed a week of practice after slipping on a wet bath mat. He’ll probably remain behind Manuel all season.

Grade: C

Running Back

Part of why the Bills were able to score even a respectable 21.5 points per game, 21st in the NFL, last season was because of their running game. Their running game should once again be a great aid to the passing game and rookie quarterback EJ Manuel this season, likely even more so this season as they plan to be very run heavy. New Head Coach Doug Marrone was one of the run heaviest coaches in College Football, running more than they passed in all 4 of his seasons as Syracuse’s Head Coach, and they want to make life as easy as possible for Manuel.

CJ Spiller will be the workhorse, playing every down including on the goal line, and the Buffalo website predicted he could see 30 touches per game. That would be an absurd 480 touches over the course of the season. That won’t happen, as is often the case with lofty touch expectations for backs because some games just force you to throw out your game plan and pass more than you’d like.

However, Marrone said he wants to feed Spiller the ball “until he throws up” and he runs a very up tempo fast paced offense so he’ll definitely get 30 touches in some games. 360 touches (300 carries and 60 catches) over the season wouldn’t be absurd, assuming, as always is the caveat with running backs, he stays healthy. The 5-11 200 pound Spiller has never handled that kind of work load at any level, but he’s never had a serious injury either, missing just 2 games in 3 seasons, and he’s still young (age 26 season) and has very little tread on his tires.

Spiller certainly has plenty of talent. He’s a terrific pass catcher, in addition to what he does as a runner, with 21.5% of his career touches coming on catches. He’s averaged 5.4 yards per carry in his career, including a ridiculous 6.0 yards per carry last season. He was ProFootballFocus’ #2 ranked running back both in run grade and overall grade behind Adrian Peterson last season and he also was their #3 back in pass catching grade. He averaged 3.6 yards after contact per carry, also 2nd behind Peterson, and broke 53 tackles on 207 carries, the highest rate in the NFL among players with as many carries as him. He was 6th in the NFL with 1703 yards from scrimmage despite just 250 touches. He probably won’t maintain his rates because that’s near impossible for anyone to maintain, especially getting as many touches as Spiller is expected to, but all signs are pointing to the 9th pick in the 2010 NFL Draft being one of the NFL leaders in all-purpose yardage and having a Pro-Bowl breakout year.

Fred Jackson is a talented back as well, but he’ll be a pure backup this season. That’s good for him as he heads into his age 32 season. He doesn’t have as much tread on his tires as most 32-year-old backs, not making his NFL debut until his age 26 season and touching the ball just 1141 times over the last 6 seasons, but he still seems to be breaking down. He’s missed 12 games in the last 2 seasons combined and managed just 3.8 yards per carry in 2012. He’ll see still some work as the #2 back in a run heavy offense, but he’s unlikely to post big numbers unless Spiller gets hurt. He did average 5.5 yards per carry in 2011 before getting hurt though and has averaged 4.5 yards per carry for his career, so he is talented.

Grade: A

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends

In addition to having a rookie quarterback, the Bills also have a very young receiving corps. 3 of their top 4 wide receivers were drafted in either 2012 or 2013. 2nd round rookie Robert Woods will compete with 2012 3rd round pick TJ Graham for the starting job and the trio will all see the field in 3-wide receiver sets. 3rd round rookie Marquise Goodwin will probably be the #4 receiver and see a very small role on offense as a rookie, though the blazing fast track star could be a weapon on special teams as a returner. There’s definitely some promise with this group, but it’s very, very tough to rely on young receivers.

Graham was awful as a rookie last season, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ absolute worst rated wide receiver, by a fairly large margin. He caught just 31 passes for 322 yards and a touchdown on 58 attempts and 428 pass snaps. He ranked dead last in the NFL among eligible wide receivers who didn’t play for the Cardinals in QB rating when thrown to last season, as Bills quarterbacks had a 54.0 QB rating when throwing to him. He also dropped 7 passes to 31 catches, the 2nd worst rate in the NFL among eligible wide receivers and averaged just 0.77 yards per route run, worst in the NFL among eligible wide receivers who didn’t play for the Cardinals.

Steve Johnson is the veteran of the group. He broke out in his 3rd year in the league in 2010, which is usually when receivers break out, and has posted 1000-yard seasons in each of the last 3 seasons. He’s been very consistent with 82/1073/10, 76/1004/7, and 79/1046/6 seasons and hasn’t missed a game despite playing through various ailments, but he could see his numbers dip this season. He has a raw rookie quarterback and the Bills will run more. He’s largely a volume receiver, averaging 138 targets per season, but could see that drop down to 120 this season.

Tight end Scott Chandler is the other veteran. Chandler is a big 6-7 263 pounder who blocks well and is a threat around the goal line, with 12 of his 81 catches over the past 2 seasons going for a touchdown. He’s otherwise a marginal player who doesn’t get much separation downfield. He’s totaled 81 catches for 960 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns over the last 2 seasons. He’s also coming off of a torn ACL suffered last December so he might not be 100%, especially early in the season.

Lee Smith is the #2 tight end. He didn’t play much last season because Chan Gailey didn’t like using 2-tight end sets, but he should see more action this season. He played 294 snaps as almost solely a blocker, running just 17 routes. That’s all the 6-6 269 pounder really is. Overall, the Bills’ receiving corps are underwhelming at best. Between that and a raw rookie quarterback, it’s going to be hard for them to move the ball through the air.

Grade: C+

Offensive Line

The Bills once had one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, but it’s on the decline. In 2011, they graded out 1st on ProFootballFocus in pass protection and 15th in run blocking, but last year, they were 4th and 21st respectively and they could be even worse this season. A big part of the reason why is the loss of left guard Andy Levitre, who signed with the Titans this off-season on a deal worth 46.8 million over 6 years. That’s a lot of money for a guard and he’s worth what they paid him. He graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 9th ranked guard in 2012 and 6th ranked in 2011.

David Snow will get the 1st crack at replacing him, but the 2012 undrafted free agent played just 139 snaps as a rookie, primarily at center, his natural position, and the Bills don’t seem too sure about him. Colin Brown and Doug Legursky are the other options. Brown has played just 155 snaps in his career, while Legursky has struggled mightily whenever he’s been counted on to start as a utility interior offensive lineman with the Steelers. Things are so desperate at the position that the Bills have experimented moving left tackle Cordy Glenn to left guard, but that wouldn’t make any sense because the 2012 2nd round pick played well at the more important left tackle position last season. This scenario would have Thomas Welch and his 93 career snaps protecting EJ Manuel’s blindside.

The other reason their offensive line has declined since 2011 is that center Eric Wood and right tackle Erik Pears have failed to live up to their 2011 levels of play. Wood was ProFootballFocus’ 8th ranked center in 2011, despite missing half the season with injury, but he’s graded out below average in each of his other seasons since being drafted in 2009. The former 1st round pick has plenty of talent, but has never been able to put it together and emerge as one of the top centers in the NFL. The Bills rightfully seem content to let him play out his contract year in 2013 before making a decision on him.

Pears, meanwhile, graded out above average in his first chance as a starter in 2011, but graded out below average in 2012 and also missed 9 games with injury. He’ll compete with Chris Hairston for the starting job. Hairston graded out below average on the left side making a few starts in 2011, but seemed more comfortable at right tackle in Pears’ absence last season. He probably deserves the job, as inconsistent as he’s been, but he’s still missing valuable practice time with lingering foot/ankle injuries from last season. Finishing off the offensive line is right guard Kraig Urbik, who has graded out above average in each of the last 2 seasons as a starter and he should remain an above average starter this year. It’s still a decent offensive line, but it’s not what it once was.

Grade: B-

Defensive Line

The Bills had high hopes defensively last season, after signing Mario Williams and Mark Anderson to big contracts, and using the 10th overall pick on Stephon Gilmore. However, they allowed 27.2 points per game, 26th in the NFL and a massive disappointment. Defensive Coordinator Dave Wannstedt rightfully took much of the blame and was let go this off-season, replaced with former Jets Defensive Coordinator Mike Pettine, who will be implementing a new hybrid defensive scheme.

That’s reason for optimism, as is the way they finished last season defensively. After their week 8 bye, they allowed just 23.1 points per game, as opposed to 32.4 points per game before the bye. Even that 23.1 points per game figure is skewed by two very poor defensive performances against two of the better offenses in the NFL (New England and Seattle). Excluding those two games, they didn’t allow more than 24 points after the bye and they were generally a solid defense.

What was the difference? Well, Mario Williams played much more like himself after getting his wrist problem corrected during the bye and rookie cornerback Stephon Gilmore really improved as the season went on, stepping up as a #1 cornerback ahead of schedule. I’ll get to Gilmore later, but Williams had 8 sacks, 2 hits, and 25 hurries in the final 9 games of the season, after just 3 sacks, 5 hits, and 13 hurries in the first 7. He was also noticeably better against the run.

After an off-season to get healthy, Williams has a very good chance of once again being one of the top edge rushers in the NFL. He’s only going into his age 28 season and before missing most of the 2011 season with a torn pectoral, he graded out as a top-15 4-3 defensive end in each season from 2008-2010. He was on his way towards a similar season in 2011 before the injury and all in all finished 17th in 2012. There’s a reason the Bills gave him a 6 year, 96 million dollar contract and he still has a chance to make good on that.

Williams will play both 4-3 defensive end and 3-4 outside linebacker in Pettine’s hybrid scheme and he has experience in both schemes. He could also see some action at 5-technique end in a 3-4 at times because of his size at 285 pounds. He’s plenty versatile and should have plenty of opportunities to get after the quarterback. Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus will both play every down on the defensive line, regardless of the scheme. Both are big 300+ pounders who move very well for their size.

Dareus was the 3rd overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft and has been ProFootballFocus’ #12 ranked defensive tackle in each of the last 2 seasons. The ridiculously athletic d-lineman is still only 24 this season and probably hasn’t played his best football. Williams, meanwhile, was ProFootballFocus’ #1 ranked defensive tackle in 2010 and #3 ranked defensive tackle in 2012, with an injury plagued season in the middle. That injury is far behind him and he should continue being one of the best interior defensive linemen in the NFL.

Along with Dareus and Williams, one of either Alex Carrington or Alan Branch will play on the line when the Bills go to 3-4 packages. Carrington was excellent as a situational interior pass rusher last season with 2 sacks, 1 hit, and 15 hurries on 189 pass rush snaps last season, a 9.5% pass rush rate. He could also play some defensive end in 4-3 sets. He’d play one 5-technique spot with either Dareus or Williams manning the nose. Branch, meanwhile, will play the nose in some situations with Dareus and Williams outside. The 6-5 331 pound Branch is just a two-down run stuffer, but he can be a very good one, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ #3 run stuffing defensive tackle in 2011.

As I mentioned, Mario Williams will also play some on the defensive line in 3-4 sets. In 4-3 sets, Kyle Williams and Dareus will play inside with Mario Williams outside and either Carrington or Jerry Hughes as the other defensive end depending on the situation. That’s the one hole in an otherwise promising Bills front line. They don’t have another edge rusher opposite Mario Williams.

This isn’t a new problem. Mark Anderson was awful in his first year of a 4-year, 20 million dollar contract last year. He played just 256 snaps before going down for the year with injury, so he wasn’t eligible, but if he had been eligible he would have graded out 5th worst among 4-3 defensive ends, despite his limited playing time. Kyle Moore took over for him, but he wasn’t much better, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 49th ranked 4-3 defensive end out of 62 eligible last season.

Moore is no longer with the team and Anderson was cut. The Bills traded for Jerry Hughes from the Colts to be a situational edge rusher, but the bust of a 2010 1st round pick has played just 873 snaps in 3 seasons and graded out below average in all 3 seasons. He did show some promise as a pass rusher last season, grading out above average with 4 sacks, 6 hits, and 17 hurries on 246 pass rush snaps, a 11.0% pass rush rate, but he was awful in other aspects of the game and committed 7 penalties. He does have experience in both schemes though.

Grade: A-

Linebackers

Nigel Bradham and Kiko Alonso are probably the Bills’ two every down linebackers, though Bryan Scott could continue serving a coverage specialist role. The converted safety is great in coverage, but struggles mightily against the run, as you’d expect from a 6-1 219 pounder. Bradham and Alonso will definitely start though. Alonso is a 2nd round rookie, while Bradham was a 4th round pick in 2012. He graded out about average on 402 snaps as a rookie. There’s promise here, but neither one is proven at all.

Manny Lawson comes over from Cincinnati and will be a two-down base package linebacker, playing outside both in 3-4 and 4-3 sets. He has experience in both schemes and though he’s not much of a pass rusher at all, as the 49ers learned early in his career, but he’s an alright run stuffer. In 3-4 sets, he’ll line up outside with Mario Williams or maybe Jerry Hughes, though Hughes will probably rotate with Lawson primarily.

Grade: C+

Secondary

I mentioned I’d get back to Stephon Gilmore. When Stephon Gilmore declared for the NFL draft as a junior out of South Carolina, he certainly had the profile of a top draft pick. After committing as a 4-star recruit and the #2 recruit from the state of South Carolina, Gilmore was a starter at the University of South Carolina from the word go as a true freshman and wound up starting all 39 possible games in 3 years in the always tough SEC. His efforts as a freshman earned him Freshman All-American honors. As a sophomore, he was named a 3rd team All-American. He had a down junior year by his standard, but at The Combine, Gilmore measured in at 6-0 3/8 with 31 inch arms and ran a 4.40 40, which sent his stock soaring once again.

The Bills obviously liked what they saw as they drafted him 10th overall in 2012 and made him a rookie starter. They had huge hopes for him, but he didn’t get off to the best start. In his first 5 NFL games, he allowed 19 completions on 31 attempts for 327 yards and 3 touchdowns. This was completely understandable as even for a talented prospect such as Gilmore, the transition to the NFL can be a tough one, especially for a cornerback and especially for a cornerback frequently asked to cover opponent’s #1 receivers from day one.

However, in week 6, Gilmore hit his stride and played very well from there on out. He allowed 30 completions on 56 attempts for 409 yards. He didn’t allow a touchdown the rest of the way and intercepted his only pass of the season week 13. His only issue was penalties, as he was penalized 11 times in his final 11 games, but as he matures, that issue should correct itself. Heading into his 2nd year in the league, Gilmore, who doesn’t turn 23 until September, looks poised for a big year. He’s one of the reasons to expect an improved Bills defense.

He’ll start opposite Leodis McKelvin, another former 1st round pick, from the 2008 class. McKelvin has largely been a bust, only once playing more than 514 snaps in a season and missing 16 games in the last 5 seasons, but he’s graded out above average in each of the last 3 seasons so he could be alright, as long as he can stay in the lineup. His biggest impact last season was on special teams, where he returned 23 punts for 431 yards and 2 touchdowns, en route to making the All-Pro team as a punt returner. However, with the 4 year contract worth 20 million dollars the Bills peculiarly gave him this off-season, the new coaching staff clearly sees him as a starter at cornerback.

Justin Rogers will continue manning the slot even though he was horrible in that role last season, his first season since serious action since being drafted in 7th round in 2011. Despite being just a part-time player, he was still ProFootballFocus’ 105th ranked cornerback out of 113 eligible, 110th in coverage grade. He allowed 41 catches on 62 attempts for 477 yards, 2 touchdowns, and 1 interception, while deflecting just 4 passes and committing 2 penalties. He could be pushed by 2012 4th round pick Ron Brooks.

Aaron Williams was one of the starters at cornerback last season, but the new regime likes him at safety more, with McKelvin at cornerback. McKelvin will probably be an upgrade, because Williams was horrible in his first 2 years in the league at cornerback. The stiff hipped tweener could be better at safety, where some teams liked him better coming out of Texas in 2011, before the Bills took him in the 2nd round and made him a cornerback. He’ll have to beat out Da’Norris Searcy, who has graded out above average on 511 snaps as a backup since the Bills took him the 4th round pick in 2011. Whoever wins that job will be replacing George Wilson, a veteran who surprisingly graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 8th ranked safety last season. I don’t think either Williams or Searcy can be that good.

Jairus Byrd will be the other safety once again, at least he will once the Bills’ franchise player stops holding out. The 2009 2nd round pick has graded out above average in all 4 seasons as a starter and has been a top-3 safety in each of the last 2 seasons on ProFootballFocus, the only player in the NFL who can say so. Behind Eric Weddle, he’s probably the best safety in the NFL and I think he’s at least the best deep safety in the NFL. Hopefully for the Bills’ sake, he doesn’t hold out into the regular season or get out of shape from not practicing, especially with a new coaching staff coming in. The latter is more likely. The Bills really should have locked him up this off-season. He deserves the Dashon Goldson money he wants.

Grade: B

Head Coach

It’s very tough to grade first time Head Coaches, but Doug Marrone was certainly out of left field as far as Head Coach hires go. He was just 35-35 in 4 years as the Syracuse Head Coach, going 11-17 in the Big East, so he wasn’t a big time college Head Coach. He has an NFL background, serving as the Saints’ Offensive Coordinator under Sean Payton with Drew Brees from 2006-2008 and for what it’s worth Payton thinks very highly of him, but I’m skeptical at best about this hire.

Grade: C+

Overall

The Bills should have a more even turnover margin and play better defense in 2013 and of course they’ll be able to run the ball, but this is still a passing league and I’m very concerned about their ability to move the ball through the air. If I had to go either way, I’d say they’re more likely to go over 6 wins than under, but they should be right in that 5-7 win range once again. They’ll play spoiler from time to time, but the best they can hope for this season is that EJ Manuel shows promise for the future.

I think they’ll either win two or three divisional games. They’re better than the Jets, but not as good as New England or Miami, though they’re closer to Miami than the Jets. They also host Carolina, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Kansas City, and Atlanta, which is a tough bunch, but they could win 2 of those games. They also go to Cleveland, Jacksonville, Pittsburgh, New Orleans, and Tampa Bay, which is an easier group. There could be 2 wins in there as well. Overall, I have them at 6-10 again.

Projection: 6-10 3rd in AFC East

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