The Bills were the only team in the NFL to select a quarterback in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft. While most teams, even the neediest at quarterback, shied away from spending a premium pick on anyone from the 2013 quarterback class, the Bills took EJ Manuel out of Florida State after a trade down. It was certainly a risk, but for a team searching for a franchise quarterback really since the Jim Kelly days, having last made the playoffs in 1999 and last won a playoff game in 1995, it was understandable. However, given the risk, the Bills season can be best evaluated on the basis of EJ Manuel’s development and, by those standards, 2013 was a failure.
Part of the problem was that Manuel missed too many valuable reps both in practice and in the game with injury. Manuel attempted just 306 of the Bills’ 522 pass attempts this season, as he missed 6 full games and parts of others with injury. He was also pretty ineffective when on the field, getting outplayed by backup Thad Lewis, who was on the practice squad to start the season. Lewis completed 59.2% of his passes for an average of 6.96 YPA, 4 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions, while rushing for 52 yards and a touchdown.
Meanwhile, Manuel completed 58.8% of his passes for an average of 6.44 YPA, 11 touchdowns, and 9 interceptions, while rushing for 186 yards and 2 touchdowns and grading out as Pro Football Focus’ 3rd worst ranked quarterback. As a result, the Bills were 28th in the NFL, moving the chains at a 66.27% rate, in spite of a decent running game. It’s obviously way too early to make any determination on Manuel’s future, but Bills fans can’t feel happy with his progress thus far. If he continues struggling into next season, they may have to give Thad Lewis a longer look. At the very least, Lewis is a decent backup.
Lewis’ emergence as a decent backup wasn’t the only positive from the Bills’ 2013 season as they had one of the league’s best defenses this season. Not only were they 2nd in the NFL in both sacks and interceptions, but they also rank 6th in rate of moving the chains against, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 67.58% rate. They were actually better than their 6-10 record would have suggested, in spite of their weaknesses on offense, ranking 19th in rate of moving the chains differential and posting a -49 point differential. Kyle Williams, Mario Williams, Jairus Byrd, Mario Williams were all deserving Pro-Bowlers, while Kiko Alonso, their 2nd round pick, is in the running for Defensive Rookie of the Year.
The bad news is the Bills lost the architect behind this defense as defensive coordinator Mike Pettine took the Cleveland Browns’ head coaching job. The Bills have talent independent of him and they’re going to be in good hands under new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, but Pettine was really the one to get the most out of them. They could also lose stud safety Jairus Byrd in free agency. They’ll have to continue playing like a top-10 unit on defense if they have plans to make the playoffs in 2014. For right now, it looks like they’re headed towards another year of mediocrity unless the offense can take a huge step forward.
Andy Levitre is one of the best guards in the NFL, but the Bills let him go last off-season as a free agent. Their efforts to replace him were a train wreck. Colin Brown got the first crack at the job, starting 5 games and, in spite of his limited playing time, he finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 4th worst ranked guard. Doug Legursky then took over and he was better, but only by default. He finished the season as Pro Football Focus’ 63rd ranked guard out of 81 eligible. If you combined them, they would have been the 2nd worst guard in the league last year. They need to address this position this off-season.
Offensive tackle is another problem on their offensive line. Right tackle Erik Pears could be upgraded, especially as he heads into his age 32 contract year. He graded out as Pro Football Focus’ 55th ranked offensive tackle out of 76 eligible. They could draft someone like Auburn’s Greg Robinson with the 9th overall pick and then move Pears to left guard for the short-term. They could also draft an offensive tackle and slot him at left guard for the time being until Pears’s contract runs out. Cutting Pears could also be an option.
Scott Chandler is a free agent this off-season. He was their leader in receptions and receiving yardage last season, in addition to his work as a blocker, so he’d obviously need to be replaced if they were unable to bring him. No other tight end caught more than 5 passes this season for them. They could also add another tight end early in the draft to bring in another receiver to the mix. Chandler is more of an inline tight end and they don’t have a true pass catching tight end.
Jairus Byrd is a free agent. If they aren’t able to bring him back, they’ll need to replace him at safety. The Bills would frequently use 3 safeties in obvious passing situations with Jairus Byrd, Aaron Williams, and Da’Norris Searcy who is the biggest of the bunch and would often play linebacker. Everyone would have to move up a role if Byrd left unreplaced.
No Bills receiver had more than 600 yards receiving last year. Steve Johnson could be a cap casualty next off-season if he continues to disappoint, while youngsters Robert Woods, Marquise Goodwin, and TJ Graham have yet to develop into #1 receivers. Robert Woods, a 2013 2nd round pick, could be a solid #2 receiver long-term, but Goodwin, a 2013 3rd round pick, hasn’t shown much on offense, while TJ Graham, a 2012 3rd round pick, has been awful when on the field. They could add someone else to the mix this off-season.
Dan Carpenter nailed 91.7% of his kicks this season and his career kicking percentage is 83.8%. However, he’s a free agent this off-season. They’ll need to replace him if he can’t be re-signed. Dustin Hopkins is an option to replace him because they drafted him last season, but he struggled so much in training camp and the pre-season that they brought in Dan Carpenter. Hopkins also missed all of the season with a groin injury suffered in September.
Key Free Agents
S Jairus Byrd
Jairus Byrd is not just one of the top safeties in the NFL, but one of the top defensive players at any position. He’s what everyone thinks Earl Thomas is (not that Thomas is bad by any stretch of the imagination). Byrd was Pro Football Focus’ 3rd ranked safety in 2011 and 2nd ranked in 2012. He ranked 8th in 2013, which wasn’t as good, but he missed a few games with injury to start the year so that had something to do with it. Upon his return, he was just as good as he was before the injury. The Bills now have a choice between franchise tagging him for the 2nd straight year or letting him hit the open market, where he could become the highest paid safety in the NFL. Either way, he’ll get paid.
TE Scott Chandler
Scott Chandler is not explosive at all, but he’s a great blocker at 6-7 265 and he’s also a good possession receiver and end zone threat, in spite of his inability to get separation. Over the past 3 seasons as a starter, he’s caught 134 passes for 1615 yards and 14 touchdowns in 45 games. Last season was the best season of his career, as he caught 53 passes for 655 yards and 2 touchdowns, reaching career highs in receptions and yardage, in spite of inconsistent quarterback play on a run heavy team. He was the team’s leader in both receptions and receiving yardage. He won’t command a ton of money on the open market, but the Bills will definitely need to replace him if he leaves.
K Dan Carpenter
Dan Carpenter was cut by the Dolphins before this season, but it was for financial reasons, not because of his performance. He was then cut by both the Cardinals and Jets, who brought him in purely as competition, but he caught on with the Bills, where he nailed 91.7% of his kicks. His career kicking percentage is 83.8% and it shouldn’t be hard for him to find work this off-season. My guess is the Bills want to bring him back.
Cap Casualty Candidates
QB Kevin Kolb
Yeah remember this guy? He’s still on the roster. The Bills signed Kevin Kolb to a two-year deal in the off-season to give them a stopgap for their rookie quarterback. However, Kolb continued to be injury prone and suffered a significant concussion in the pre-season that not only knocked him out for the season, but potentially for his career. He reportedly didn’t know his own name or where he was after that hit. There’s no chance the Bills keep him on the roster at a 3.1 million dollar salary. The Bills would save 3.1 million on the cap by cutting him and there’s a very good chance he just retires for his health. Hopefully he can live a normal life.
OT Erik Pears
Erik Pears isn’t terrible, but he was Pro Football Focus’ 55th ranked offensive tackle out of 76 eligible and he’s heading into his age 32 contract year. The Bills can save 2.9 million in cash and cap space by cutting him and they’d have their choice of upgrades over him with the 9th overall pick. He could also be moved to guard.