Buffalo Bills 2013 Offseason Preview
SI.com is laying out offseason road maps for all 32 teams as they start their journey for the Lombardi Trophy -- two teams per day, from the teams that need the most work to contend in 2013 to the ones that are in pretty good shape. See them all.
2012 Record: 6-10
Key Pending Free Agents: Jairus Byrd, S; Andy Levitre, G; Kyle Moore, DE; Leodis McKelvin, CB; Tarvaris Jackson, QB; David Nelson, WR
List of Draft Picks (pending compensatory picks): 1 (8), 2 (41), 3 (71), 4 (102), 5 (136), Round 6 (166)
Available Cap Space: $20.9 million
GM/Coaching moves made: Head coach Doug Marrone, defensive coordinator Mike Pettine and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett are all new.
The Bills raised the expectations in the offseason by signing free agent defensive end Mario Williams to a six-year deal worth up to $100 million deal (with $50 million guaranteed) and adding defensive end Mark Anderson, who was coming off 10-sack season in New England. They already had talented skill players in head coach Chan Gailey's offense, and Bills faithful hoped improving the pass rush would help them reach the playoffs for the first time since 1999.
Then the season started and doubt immediately crept in after a 48-28 loss to the Jets in Week 1. The Bills recovered by beating Kansas City and Cleveland, but in Week 4 against New England it became clear the defensive additions didn't make a difference. The Bills blew a 21-7 third-quarter lead and eventually fell 52-28. Then the defense totally fell apart the following week against San Francisco, when Buffalo became the first team in NFL history to allow 300 yards running and 300 yards passing in the same game in a 45-3 loss. Williams was hampered with a wrist injury in the first half of the season and Anderson tore his MCL in Week 5.
Buffalo also suffered injuries on the offensive side -- receiver David Nelson tore his ACL in Week 1 and running back Fred Jackson played just 10 games while dealing with knee injuries. Running back C.J. Spiller stepped into the void and rushed for 1.244 yards, but Gailey seemed hesitant about using him as much as he probably should have. Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick threw for 3,400 yards and 24 touchdowns, but also threw 16 interceptions and fell off the second half of the season. After posting a QB rating over 100 in three of his first seven games, Fitzpatrick then finished below 100 in each of the final nine games of the season.
The Bills ended up winning six games, but none of their victories were over teams with a winning record. Williams came on strong toward the end of the season, with six of his 10.5 sacks coming after Week 10. But his emergence didn't help much and Buffalo ended up 26th in scoring defense and 31st against the run. Offensively, the numbers weren't pretty either. The Bills ranked sixth in rushing, but 25th in passing. At season's end, Gailey was fired after three years on the Buffalo sideline, opening the door up to a new staff.
6.01. Yards per carry for Spiller, third best in the NFL behind Robert Griffin III and Adrian Peterson.
Bills general manager Buddy Nix said he wants to find a quarterback in the draft. He may have picked the wrong year because most draft experts believe this crop of QBs is less impressive than the previous two years. But Marrone was the head coach at Syracuse the last four seasons and should be familiar with this group. The obvious choice would be drafting his signal-caller at Syracuse, Ryan Nassib. But scouts are mixed on Nassib and No. 8 seems too high for a quarterback with adequate physical skills who never really dominated at the college level. Maybe Nassib will fall to the second round. Or perhaps Nix and Marrone will fall in love with someone like West Virginia's Geno Smith, who some experts consider a top-10 talent. That leaves Fitzpatrick in a tough spot. They could keep him -- the cap hit is going to be around $10 million if he's on the roster -- but he will have to be willing to be a back-up.
47.3. Quarterback rating of Ryan Fitzpatrick under pressure according to Pro Football Focus. It's 92.9 when he's not.
Considering the success Spiller had in '12, it's time to feature the speedy multi-purpose back even more instead of going back to a split backfield. The Bills need to be more explosive offensively, and Spiller's speed is one of their best weapons. Should Marrone run a more up-tempo offense, as many expect, that would suggest a heavy reliance on Spiller's running and receiving skills. Don't expect Marrone to recreate the offense he ran in New Orleans from '06 to '08 and minimize the use of running backs. Though Marrone had only one 1,000-yard back when he was the Saints' coordinator (Deuce McAllister had 1,057 yards in '06), the Bills don't have that kind of pass-heavy personnel and have a better chance to succeed featuring Spiller.
1. Find another receiver. Nix said he wants to add a wide receiver so the Bills can move Stevie Johnson into the slot. In a related story, they also announced they will not re-sign free agent Donald Jones, which means Buffalo desperately needs a big receiver who can get down the field. The Bills were hopeful last year's third-round pick T.J. Graham could stretch the defense, but according to Pro Football Focus, only one receiver in the entire league ran shorter routes last season than Graham. Buffalo doesn't have too much cap space to play with and may not want to overspend on this position in free agency. It's more likely the team will try to find another burner in the second- to fourth-round.
2. Sign a free-agent linebacker. The Bills were thin here last season and they recently cut veteran Nick Barnett. Expect speculation that defensive coordinator Pettine will bring in Bart Scott, who likely will be released by the Jets. Scott would help teach other players to run the new defense, like he did coming to New York from Baltimore with Rex Ryan. But he's a major liability in pass coverage.
3. Re-sign safety Jairus Byrd and guard Andy Levitre. Other teams are going to come after the Bills' top two free agents and push the price up. Nevertheless, Byrd has a knack for making big plays and Levitre is the kind of sure thing every team wants on their offensive line.
4. Draft a tight end. Productive veteran Scott Chandler is coming off a torn ACL and the Bills don't have much speed behind him. They may have the chance to nab Notre Dame's Tyler Eifert or Stanford's Zach Ertz if either falls out of the first round, or Rice's Vance McDonald or Cincinnati's Travis Kelce later on in the draft.
5. Change the culture. Marrone may have to cut a lot of players before Week 1 to send a message that the effort level in Buffalo over the last decade won't cut it. Marrone, a former offensive lineman, seems like the kind of fiery coach who might do that. He had better, because a lot of coaches have tried with little success.
Plenty of pundits predicted the Bills would make the playoffs last year, but no one will have them penciled in for the postseason in 2013. They could easily be starting a rookie quarterback and the defense will be completely revamped. Maybe that's Marrone's biggest advantage as a first-year head coach. Last season teams with young quarterbacks like the Colts, Redskins, Seahawks and Vikings defied expectations and reached the playoffs.
The Bills do have veteran talent that wasn't being utilized properly by Gailey and his staff. Start with the defense, where Pettine will have to instill a more aggressive, attacking style. Pettine could bring over some of his former Jets, like Scott and safety Laron Landry, to help. The Bills may also at least give their division rival a call about Darrelle Revis, although Gang Green will be nervous about trading the best cornerback in the league within the division. No matter what, the Bills do need a cornerback to complement last year's first-round pick Stephon Gilmore.
On offense, Marrone will try to make some more changes and is likely to pick up the pace with a no-huddle attack.
Outside of Western New York, don't expect a lot of buzz around what the Bills are trying to achieve. But sometimes in the NFL that's exactly what you want as you try to reverse the course after years of disappointment.