The death of long-time owner Ralph Wilson has thrust the future of the Bills in Buffalo into question.
The fan base and current ownership group want assurances that the team will remain in Buffalo, which is one of the smallest markets in the NFL with one of the oldest stadiums. However, it seems that not all the bidders are willing to make such a promise, without at least stadium updates. So, the best way to prove to the potential owners that the Bills can continue to thrive in Buffalo is to put a young, winning team on the field that can provide a solid foundation for the future.
The Bills have begun addressing those issues. General manager Doug Whaley moved up in the draft to take play-making wide receiver Sammy Watkins, giving second-year quarterback E.J. Manuel a serious down-field threat while also providing running backs C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson some more breathing room as opposing defenses will need to stay honest.
The youth movement is important on a few other levels, including the future of Whaley and head coach Doug Marrone. With a new ownership group on the horizon, it will make it extremely difficult for the pair to get fired if the team shows improvement from its 6-10 2013 campaign.
The move to improve the offense is also expected to take some pressure off a defensive unit that was in the top-10 last year, but is expected to take a step back this year. The main reason for the expected back track is the loss of middle linebacker Kiko Alonso, who suffered a torn ACL during offseason workouts, safety Jairus Byrd, who left via free agency, and defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, who left to take the head coaching vacancy with the Cleveland Browns.
Those were three key cogs on the defensive side of the ball for Buffalo. Defensive lineman Mario Williams returns from his 13-sack 2013 campaign, but there are still plenty of questions on that side of line of scrimmage to cast doubts that the Bills can improve on a season ago.
Additionally, we need to see some proof that Manuel can stay healthy. He missed six games last season and with a shaky-at-best offensive line, he could face increased pressure this season as well.
So, coming into the 2014 season, it appears that not only do the jobs of Whaley and Marrone rest on the shoulders of Manuels success, the future of the Bills in Buffalo may also lay with him.
2013 RECORD: 6-10 (4th, AFC East)
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 1999, lost to Tennessee in AFC Wild Card
HEAD COACH (RECORD): Doug Marrone (6-10 in one season)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Nathaniel Hackett (second season with Bills)
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Jim Schwartz (first season with Bills)
KEY ADDITIONS: WR Sammy Watkins (first round, Clemson), ILB Brandon Spikes (from Patriots), LB Keith Rivers (from Giants), CB Corey Graham (from Ravens), OT Cyrus Kouandjio (second round, Alabama)
KEY DEPARTURES: S Jairus Byrd (to Saints), DC Mike Pettine (to Browns), LB Arthur Moats (to Steelers)
QB: Okay, maybe the "hopes of the Bills staying in Buffalo rest on the shoulders of E.J. Manuel" was a bit of a stretch. But the fact remains that an NFL team is only as good as its quarterback. Despite having Watkins at wide receiver and a solid running game with Spiller and Jackson and the newly- acquired Bryce Brown, Manuel will have to produce early and often for the Bills to succeed.
Last season, the Florida State product completed 58.8 percent of his passes for just 1,972 yards with 11 touchdowns and nine interceptions in only 10 games. He also had six fumbles, making his touchdown-to-turnover ratio absolutely horrible and compiled with an average of 197 passing yards per game, those are hardly numbers that scream franchise quarterback in an NFL that relies on the air attack and ball security more than ever.
Staying healthy will be key for Manuel so the Bills front office can see if he really was worth being the only first-round QB picked a season ago.
RB: The duo of Spiller and Jackson return again this season for the Bills. The pair ran for a total of 1,823 of the teams 2,307 yards a season ago and believe it or not, the team got deeper this offseason at the running back position, adding Brown and Anthony Dixon to give Buffalo maybe the deepest backfield in the NFL.
"I think it's going to be very important," said Spiller about the backfield depth to the Democrat & Chronicle this preseason. "I think it's going to take a lot of the pressure off EJ. I think if we have our running game going, he'll feel more comfortable relying on that."
The additions are smart moves by Whaley as both Jackson and Spiller are injury prone. Brown, who came over in a draft day trade with the Eagles, totaled over 1,000 yards both rushing a receiving the last two years combined in Philadelphia as a backup to LeSean McCoy. Dixon gives Buffalo a hard-nose, between the tackles, short-yardage back. Something Jackson thrived on in the past, but now at 33 years old, might have trouble producing compared to the 26-year-old Dixon.
The only thing holding this group back from an A grade is health and what keeps them from a C grade is the depth. Overall, it should be a solid season for the Buffalo backfield.
WR: The biggest addition this year is Watkins, an athletic play maker who has speed to go deep and good enough hands to make some acrobatic catches. Manuel showed confidence in Watson during the exhibition season and that should carry over into the regular season. The key for Watkins will be able to get open against NFL caliber defensive backs and not get frustrated.
Watkins emergence should result in more looks for Robert Woods and Mike Williams. Both will play opposite Watkins and with coverage shifting in that direction, the two have the potential to have productive seasons, as long as Manuel has matured enough in the pocket to go through his progressions.
"It's me growing as a quarterback and feeling comfortable to put the ball in a place where he can go get it," said Manuel about his growing confidence with his receivers. "We have receivers hungry for the football. I have put them in a position to go up and make a catch. That is something I have been working on."
Watkins had a monster career at Clemson, posting 3,391 yards and 27 touchdowns receiving in three seasons. In his final year with the Tigers, he had 101 catches for 1,464 yards and 12 scored. The Bills felt confident enough in him to trade up and give up next years first-round pick to select the 6-foot-1 Florida native.
Woods, entering his second season in the league, had a solid rookie campaign with a rookie QB. The second-round pick in the 2013 draft out of USC had 40 catches for 587 yards with three scores.
Williams spent his first four years with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and wasn't overly impressive despite high expectations. Maybe a change of scenery will help the veteran who has 215 receptions and 2,947 yards and 25 TDs in his career. If history holds true, this season could be another big one for him, as he has posted nearly 1,000 yards and averaged double-digit TDs in his odd numbered years. In his fifth season, the Bills certainly hope so.
If Watkins develops into the threat he is supposed to be, the sky is the limit for the wide outs on this club as everyone will see better looks. However, hard to go too crazy over a unit we haven't seen together in an NFL game yet.
TE: Scott Chandler returns for his eighth year in the league and fifth with the Bills. Last year, like many tight ends with rookie quarterbacks, he had a career season. The Iowa product had a career highs with 53 receptions and 655 yards. However, after consecutive six-TD campaigns, he had only two TD catches.
Chandler may not see increased productivity this season due to Watkins and the upgrade at the receiver position, but with a young QB he can help, especially in the red zone.
After Chandler the play-making depth at the position is thin, but that is consistent across the league. Tony Moeaki and Lee Smith provide the Bills with blocking tight ends, but that's about it.
OL: The Bills offensive looks like it will be made up of Cordy Glenn at left tackle, Chris Williams at left guard, Eric Wood at center, Kraig Urbik at right guard and Erik Pears at right tackle.
This group isn't overwhelming. Glenn reported to training camp out of shape and didn't take part in any activities until August 9 when he finally passed a physical. Whether he is mentally prepared for the season is another question. Additionally, Pears might not be a lock at right tackle. The Bills went out and drafted Alabama's Cyrus Kouandjio in the second round.
However, with injury concerns to Williams, there might be a spot for both players when the season begins.
"That's how every training camp is, you know?" said Pears. "You're trying to find your five best guys and put guys in different spots to see how they handle it to see what the best combination is going forward."
The only spot in the group that isn't expected to change is Wood at center. He is one of the better centers in the league and is going to be looked upon to anchor this group. Unfortunately, Wood isn't able to block everyone on the opposing team, so unless this group can find the right combination, Manuel might be in trouble.
DL: After tallying just 22 1/2 sacks in his final three seasons in Houston, Mario Williams has come to Buffalo and found new life. The former No. 1 overall pick by the Texans in the 2006 draft, Williams has 23 1/2 sacks in two seasons with the Bills.
Last year, he recorded a team-high 13 sacks and helped this defensive unit to a top-10 finish. But now without Jairus Byrd in the defensive backfield and Kiko Alonso at linebacker, more pressure is put on Williams to make plays on the defensive side.
However, he won't need to do it alone. Kyle Williams (10.5 sacks), Marcell Dareus (7.5 sacks) and Jerry Hughes (10 sacks) all return to the defensive line this year. This group is among the best in the NFL and if they can continue to pressure opposing quarterbacks, the linebackers and defensive backs should be able to force turnovers.
Dareus is a question mark, though, after being arrested twice in May, one for possession of synthetic marijuana and drug paraphernalia in his native Alabama and the other for illegal street racing in a Buffalo suburb.
"I'm just trying to stay focused," Dareus said. "A lot of issues come from other people and they distract you from what your main focus and goal is, so I've been keeping my eyes on the prize and doing the best I can. Mentally I'm in a good state and I'm just happy to be back out here."
LB: As strong as the defensive line is, this group would've been even stronger if Alonso was back at middle linebacker. However, his ACL tear has thrown a wrench into that and now the Bills are left trying to replace last year's defensive rookie of the year candidate.
In the offseason, the Bills signed linebacker Brandon Spokes, who was going to team with Alonso to solidify the run defense. Now, though, Spikes will be relied upon to replace Alonso in the middle. Those are big shoes to fill for Spikes, who isn't nearly as good against the pass as he is against the run.
Keith Rivers is expected to start at the strong side and Nigel Bradham will be on the weak side, rounding out the new-look group. Rivers, like Spikes, signed as a free agent in the offseason. Bradham, meanwhile, has been with the Bills the last two seasons, but started only two games a year ago. Rivers, an six- year veteran has just three career sacks, 275 tackles and two interceptions. But he is a tested linebacker with 47 career starts in 62 games.
Still, this group has a lot to prove, but can thrive given the defensive line unit.
DB: Here is another unit that can benefit from the strong defensive line. With the high amount of pressure on opposing quarterbacks, the DBs can play tight early and jump routes.
The loss of Byrd will hurt this unit, which didn't use the draft or big-time free agency signings to replace him. Instead, the Bills are hoping that Da'Norris Searcy can step up. Searcy did have 3 1/2 sacks, 71 tackles and an interception in 16 games (seven starts) a season ago. He will have to continue that over the course of a a full season this year for the Bills to keep pace.
Leodis McKelvin and Stephon Gilmore will man the corner positions with Aaron Williams taking the other safety spot. They are an athletic unit who can hold their own and it will be interesting to see if they can take the next step.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The Bills have a strong kicker in Dan Carpenter and punter in Brian Moorman. Carpenter hit 33-of-36 field goal attempts last season with his long coming from 55 yards. The seven-year veteran has missed only one of his 187 PATs.
Moorman also helps the squad, making the field longer for opposing teams. He pinned teams inside the 20 16 times last season and had only four touchbacks. In his 14-year career, he has had only two punts blocked.
McKelvin and Marquise Goodwin will make up the punt and kicker returners, respectively.
COACHING: In his second season, Marrone has some weapons now to turn to on offense. A former offensive coordinator for the Saints (2006-08) before serving as head coach at Syracuse from 2009-12, offense is his forte. Even though, offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett calls the plays, Marrone does have plenty of say in the offense. Now with a healthy quarterback, legit No. 1 wide out and a solid running game, it will be fun to see what Marrone and Hackett have up their sleeve.
On the defensive side, exit Pettine to Cleveland, but enter a seasoned NFL veteran coach in Jim Schwartz, who served as head coach of the Detroit Lions the last four seasons. He give Marrone another experienced mind to bounce ideas off of, while also keeping a strong defensive unit working together in a familiar scheme.
Marrone did a great job getting a lot from a little last season. Let's be generous here in grading this trio.
THE SKINNY: While the Bills did a fantastic job putting the pieces in place for long term success, the offensive play makers in Manuel and Watkins are still too young and untested to expect a huge improvement over last season. The running game will definitely help Manuel and the defensive line should help the rest of the defense. However, in a tough division that includes the Patriots, it's hard to see too much on an improvement over last season.