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Today: The Buffalo Bills
Last Year: 6-10 (4th place in AFC East)
The Buffalo Bills weren’t just a bad football team last season, they were also one of the most unbalanced teams in the league — on both sides of the ball. While the Bills were the second best team at running the football in 2013, they were the 28th best team at throwing the ball. And, while the Bills finished the season as the fourth best team at defending the pass, they also finished the season ranked as the 28th best team at defending the run. The end result? A 6-10 record and a last place finish in the AFC East (interestingly enough, the Bills’ -49 point differential on the season was light-years better than the Jets’ -97 point differential, though the Jets somehow won eight games).
Much of the Bills’ running success was due to the balance between two backs. Buffalo adeptly utilized both C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson. The duo split carries at a nearly 50/50 rate and combined for 1,823 yards.
The trouble for Buffalo, offensively, lies on the other side — the quarterback position. As a team, the trio of EJ Manuel, Jeff Tuel, and Thad Lewis combined for 3,373 yards, 6.5 yards per attempt, only 16 touchdowns, and 15 picks. EJ Manuel took the majority of the snaps and should be the starter moving forward, but his performance in his first season as a pro left most a little skeptical of his future in the NFL.
Luckily for Manuel, the Bills went out in the draft and gave him a receiver that will be a serious weapon against opposing defenses — Sammy Watkins. Scott Chandler was the team’s leading receiver a year ago, so call this a significant upgrade for the Bills’ receiving corps.
Under the guidance of Mike Pettine — now the head coach of the Cleveland Browns —the defense repeatedly handled quarterbacks with ease, limiting its opposition to just 204 passing yards per game. Unfortunately for the Bills, Pettine is gone now. So is linebacker Kiko Alonso, who led the team in tackles, as he tore his ACL just last week.
Last Year’s Stud: Kiko Alonso
What makes Alonso’s recent ACL tear so damn devastating is how damn good he played last year — his first season as a pro. Not only did he lead the team with 159 combined tackles, but he also tied for the team lead in interceptions with four. Furthermore, Alonso took home a 10.3 overall score from Pro Football Focus.
Alonso was supposed to be the leader of the defense this season. He’ll most likely spend it rehabbing a torn ALC.
Runner-up: Mario Williams (13 sacks)
Last Year’s Surprise: Marcell Dareus
Okay, so the third-overall pick of the 2011 draft hasn’t exactly played like a third-overall pick should. But after only grabbing 5.5 sacks in both of his first two seasons, Dareus showed some signs of improvement in his third season. Racking up 7.5 sacks and a career-high 71 total tackles, Dareus finished as the team’s second best defender according to Pro Football Focus, as Dareus scored an exact 25 on the season.
Runner-up: Kyle Williams (career high 10.5 sacks and led the team with a 27.8 Pro Football Focus score)
Last Year’s Disappointment: Steve Johnson
(an old picture, but still a classic)
After three straight seasons of reaching over 1,000 receiving yards, Steve Johnson missed that mark by about 400 yards in 2013. He only played in 12 games and the quarterback situation in Buffalo wasn’t what you would call optimal, but still, Johnson only managed to catch 52 passes and posted an average of 11.5 yards per catch, his lowest totals since he became a relevant wide receiver back in 2010.
Runner-up: EJ Manuel
The Bills desperately needed weapons at wide receiver — especially when you consider Scott Chandler led the team in receiving last year and former semi-star wide receiver Steve Johnson is now playing for the 49ers — so they moved up five spots in the first round of the NFL draft to snag Sammy Watkins.
In case you didn’t know already, the former Clemson star is crazy good.
And crazy fast.
Other notable pick: Cyrus Kouandjio
This Year’s Stud: Sammy Watkins
As a Bears fan, I’m extremely nervous for our week one matchup against Buffalo. Pretty much because of this guy:
Runner-up: C.J. Spiller
This Year’s Surprise: Robert Woods
He only had 40 catches last season, but don’t forget how good this dude was at USC. Now, with Watkins as a legitimate threat that defenses will have to keep a watchful eye on, I think Woods will more often find himself in isolated coverage and more favorable pass catching opportunities may arise.
Runner-up: Keith Rivers
This Year’s Disappointment: EJ Manuel
Can you still be a disappointment in your second year if you were an overwhelming letdown in your first year? If you’re a first-round draft pick, then yes, you can be. I’m betting Manuel won’t improve too drastically in year two, at least not enough to justify his first-round status.
Apparently Manuel has already been struggling with his accuracy in OTAs, an issue that plagued him in his rookie season.
Runner-up: Preston Brown
Draft early: N/A
Good value in the middle rounds: Sammy Watkins, CJ Spiller
Don’t draft: EJ Manuel, the defense
What Vegas Is Saying (LVH Sports Book): 6.5 wins
What We’re Saying: 6-10 (3rd place in AFC East)
Truth be told, I had this team pegged at seven wins. But, with the loss of Kiko Alonso, I think six wins sounds more accurate. The out of division schedule for the Bills presents a formidable task (at Chicago, San Diego, at Houston, at Detroit, Kansas City, at Denver, Green Bay). The only three non-divisional games that I can see the Bills winning are matchups with the Vikings, Browns, and Raiders. After that, seven losses to the teams listed in the parentheses above isn’t out of the question.
But that’s doubtful, so let’s say the team goes 4-6 out of the division. Assuming the team loses two games to the Patriots, that already puts its record at 4-8. With four games against the Jets and Dolphin, it’s a fair guess to say the Bills go 2-2 against those teams. That puts their record at 6-10. Obviously all of those exact calculations won’t hold up, but I think the end result will be right around six wins.
The biggest storyline for the Bills this season has to be EJ Manuel. The franchise needs to determine by the end of the season if he’s worth sticking with or if he’s just another bust at the quarterback position.
[genericon icon=twitter] Follow Sean Wagner-McGough on Twitter @seanjwagner