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The LiveBall Sports Buffalo Bills Season Preview

Checking in on the 32 NFL teams, continuing from the bottom

What we said about the Bills prior to the 2012 season

The Bills spent a whole bunch of cash in free agency last year to rebuild a lacking pass rush, bringing in pass rusher Mario Williams from Houston, defensive end Mark Anderson from the Patriots, and brought back Shawne Merriman for another season.  The Bills had a strong defensive line prior to bringing in Williams and Anderson, so even though both appeared to get way more money than they were worth, the Bills seemed to have bought one of the AFC’s best defensive units.

The Bills kept adding to Dave Wannestedt’s unit in the draft, selecting cornerbacks with their top two picks, and featuring CB Stephon Gilmore as the defense’s top DB last year.  With pro bowl S Jairus Byrd heading into a contract year, it seemed like the Bills were a good unit to be optimistic about, at least on the defensive end.  But because the offense was strictly made up of home grown offensive talent and wasn’t being supplemented in any way by veteran acquisitions, a great burden would fall on head coach Chan Gailey to get production from the offense and quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick.  Fitzpatrick may have been Gailey’s best project yet, coming off a year where he earned a massive contract extension before falling prey to injury, and a full on team collapse in 2011.  Fitzpatrick was going to have to be even better in 2012 for the Bills to cash in on their free agent investments with a playoff berth.

What should we have known with hindsight?

Nothing more than what we did know which was that Gailey wasn’t getting enough help from the organization in building a winner.  The Bills saw an opportunity to improve in a weak AFC when they decided to spend on their defense, but the offense got completely neglected and was unable to sustain it’s gains from 2011.  Fitzpatrick had an absolutely dreadful season throwing the football, and showed yet again that he’s stretched as an NFL starter.  The Bills did release Fitzpatrick after the season, eating a lot more money on the back end of a contract that looked foolish the day it was signed, and worse in the year and a half since.

Gailey was not retained by the team either, which is a move that we all saw coming, and an unfortunate ending to a long, well-traveled NFL coaching career who was more than willing to implement spread and pistol concepts in the NFL before it was en vogue to do so.  A progressive offensive mind does not necessarily make a great head coach, and Gailey has had an issue with holding jobs.  For the Bills, it made sense to go in a different direction since they did not have a coherent plan under Gailey in the first place.

Williams and Anderson both had disappointing years and Merriman retired at the conclusion of the 2012 season.  You may have guessed given that statement that the Bills did not rush the passer all that well despite all the money spent on upgrading their pass rush, and you would have been correct in that assessment.  They still needed to find a pass rush, and a passer heading into the 2013 NFL Draft.

Where does the team appear to think its at?

This is a tricky question only because the Buffalo Bills are not and have not been a premier football organization for some time now and actually made the decision to switch general managers after the conclusion of the draft.  That’s a good indication that the front office changes will be mostly cosmetic.  Otherwise, how else do you explain drafting a quarterback in the first round of the draft and then changing the guard immediately after?

The Bills are not going to rebuild anytime soon with owner Ralph Wilson now in his mid-nineties and with team payroll at a relatively high level and big names on the payroll like Williams, Byrd, Steve Johnson, and C.J. Spiller.  But they are also not that close to competing for the division title either.  They are closer to that goal than they have been in years, but the Bills are only just starting to embrace football analytics, and to date, have not figured out how to compete in the modern NFL with limited resources.  For years, the Bills have been happy just giving themselves enough talent to win 5 to 7 games and stay on the fringes of the wild card race, but never to give their fan base a real winner or even a coherent plan to get a winner in the near-term future.

How did the team improve in the draft and free agency?

The Bills drafted EJ Manuel in the first round of the 2013 draft to be their quarterback of the future.  Manuel is a big player who is an excellent athlete and threw the ball pretty well in college at Florida State.  He is not really a big time pro prospect because he does not handle pressure well at all and has shoddy, sometimes careless mechanics.  However, the Bills may be justified in believing in his upside relative to the rest of the 2013 QB class.  Since the Bills are a bit unlikely to pick in the top five of the NFL draft anytime soon, Manuel’s selection made some sense: it was not likely the Bills were going to be able to pick a more talented player with a better pedigree in the future.

Buffalo has actually been a pretty good player development organization for some time now, and Manuel is a better prospect coming out than JP Losman was in 2004, which is very faint praise, to be sure.  The real test for Buffalo is going to come inside the division as Manuel plays against Jets draft pick Geno Smith, a far more mechanically polished college player with much better college statistics, and a higher consensus draft grade for those reasons.  The Bills’ lack of comfort with Smith led to the team’s selection of Manuel, and any mistake they made with this evaluation will be amplified because Smith landed inside the division.

It made a lot of sense when the Bills acquired Kevin Kolb after the Cardinals released him.  Kolb plays a lot like Syracuse QB Ryan Nassib did in college, where he was coached by Doug Marrone before the Bills hired Marone.  Kolb is young enough where you could at least argue that his statistical record to date could be understating his abilities, and experienced enough where he should be able to contribute immediately in a new offense without too much of a learning curve.  Kolb was a higher grade of a prospect than Ryan Fitzpatrick was, and given the success that Fitzpatrick enjoyed in Buffalo prior to the contract extension, Kolb is a strong value signing to a team that will very much keep expectations under control.

The Bills also signed DE/LB Manny Lawson from the Bengals, which, I mean, this is the kind of moves the Bills usually make.

What is the team’s outlook for the 2013 season?

My projections suggest that the Bills are the team that many observers believe the Chiefs are.  The Bills are the team that underachieved last year in spite of it’s talent and the team that had the major hole at the quarterback position while the rest of the team was far ahead.  In drafting Manuel and signing Kevin Kolb, the Bills may have done more to plug the hole at quarterback the the Chiefs did by trading for Alex Smith’s contract.

This year’s Bills are not a deep team because the Bills are never a deep team, and they have been derailed by injuries each of the last two years.  That’s unfortunate.  It’s also been a fairly effective reality check on the Bills because this is a roster that could do a lot of damage in the AFC if they had a really healthy year.

The knock on the Bills is that they are one of the easiest team to project year after year because they never really change their organizational direction even as coaches and quarterbacks come and go.  2013 brings a new general manager, a new coach and a new quarterback to Buffalo, although it’s mostly the same team that it was under Gailey these last two seasons.  If the Bills can maintain continuity in a good way over the next couple of years, Ralph Wilson is probably going to get to see his team back to the playoffs at least one more time.  But the Bills are the kind of team where consistency has never really been a virtue.  It’s become a way of life for an organization that averages 6.5 wins a year.

Bet the over on the Bills’ win total, but feel free to make non-football plans for January.

Previously: Kansas City ChiefsJacksonville JaguarsOakland RaidersPhiladelphia EaglesDetroit LionsCleveland Browns, Arizona Cardinals,

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