Since the disappointing finish to last year’s campaign, the Buffalo Bills have been moving and shaking their organization from the top down in an effort to break their now 13-year playoff drought. A lot has happened, and most of you have a pretty good idea of the major transactions the Bills have conducted since the end of the 2012 regular season. If you don’t, then take a look here.
To highlight some of the major transactions, the Bills fired Chan Gailey and his staff, elevated Russ Brandon to President of the franchise, hired former Syracuse head coach Doug Marrone in the same capacity, drafted a quarterback in the first round of the draft, Buddy Nix stepped aside as GM and Doug Whaley was promoted to GM.
Like I said, a lot has happened.
I am not going to go through each move and evaluate it, rather I will talk about the ones that I think will influence the 2013 season the most (in my humble opinion, of course).
In no particular order, here it is.
Promoting Doug Whaley
The Bills essentially poached the talented and young Mr. Whaley from the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2010 when Buddy Nix took over the GM post in Buffalo. Whaley represents a serious injection of youth and energy at the top of the organization. He was highly sought after and Bills fans should consider themselves lucky to have him at the helm.
Whaley has been given complete control of the 53-man roster and everything that goes along with it. He’s proven to be an excellent talent evaluator. If the Steelers’ front office is any indication, I expect much more sound drafting from the Bills while they extend their own players and play a minimal role in free agency. That means, likely, no more Mario Williams type signings in the near future — which honestly is a great thing. Over-spending in free agency is a recipe for disaster usually. Just ask the Washington Redskins or in a couple of years, the Miami Dolphins.
Even though Nix was the GM when quarterback EJ Manuel was picked as the future of the franchise, Whaley’s endorsement was a big reason for it — the two of them will either flourish or fall together. His next big test will be how he handles the Jairus Byrd negotiation. Granted, Jim Overdorf — the Senior V.P. of Football Administration — is the one who will be directly negotiating with Byrd’s agent, Whaley will certainly have say in the matter.
The free safety is, arguably, the best defensive player on the Bills’ roster and he has been franchise tagged for the upcoming season. The sides have until July 15 to hammer out a long-term deal, or Byrd will either play on the one-year franchise tag. If it’s the latter, there could be an extended holdout throughout training camp and into the season.
Hiring Mike Pettine as Defensive Coordinator
How the Bills managed to poach away a defensive coordinator of a successful defense within their division is beyond me. Either the opportunity was too good to pass up, or Mike Pettine saw the writing on the wall and chose to unhitch his wagon from lame-duck coach Rex Ryan and start his own legacy. Either way, I’m very happy to see an aggressive coordinator calling the plays in Buffalo.
But is he as aggressive as we think? The Jets blitzing percentage from 2009 to 2012 (the years Pettine held the defensive coordinator title) is as follows:
2009: 52.4-percent (first in the NFL)
2010: 44.8-percent (third in the NFL)
2011: 32.8-percent (12th in the NFL)
2012: 34-percent (11th in the NFL)
Statistics courtesy of NFL.com.
Ryan called the defensive plays in 2009 and ’10. Pettine took over the play calling in 2011. Interestingly enough, as NFL.com’s Bucky Brooks outlined, “The unit’s effectiveness gradually declined over the past two years finishing fifth and eighth in total defense.”
Of course, losing one of the best cornerbacks in the league probably had something to do with the 2012 drop in ranking. No shutdown corner leads to the inability to leave defensive backs on an island, which leads to the inability to blitz as much.
Still, Pettine’s defensive background and schemes he drew up in New York and Baltimore before that are much more creative and aggressive than Dave Wannstedt’s vanilla 4-3 scheme that yielded one of the worst defenses in the NFL despite very talented defensive personnel. Pettine now gets that same talented defense and can hopefully use them much more effectively in confusing opposing offenses, which is a must when you play Tom Brady twice a year.
The fact that the Jets have had success against New England the past few years should also be a welcome sight to Bills’ fans. Pettine might end up being the best offseason acquisition that impacts the upcoming season.
Drafting EJ Manuel
The Bills needed a franchise quarterback, and they weren’t shy about it even before the draft. But, many pundits called this quarterback class mediocre at best, with no true elite prospects. The Bills, however, felt different and chose Manuel with the 16th-overall pick. Now, they had a shot at drafting him at eight overall — their original pick — but chose instead to trade down eight spots and secure an additional second-round pick. So, obviously, the Bills had their reservations about this quarterback class as well.
NFL Network’s Mike Mayock called Manuel “a ball of clay” after the Bills announced the pick, and that’s exactly what he is. He has elite athletic attributes, everything you look for in a quarterback. He has great size at 6’5”, 237 pounds, can make all the NFL throws, and can also tuck the ball and use his 4.59 40-yard dash speed, if needed.
On paper, he’s in the same mold as Cam Newton or Colin Kaepernick. But he is not nearly the polished passer Newton was coming in the draft, nor does he have the benefit of sitting behind a veteran quarterback and an elite defense for a whole season like Kaepernick did.
The Bills’ 2013 season will be decided by the quarterback play and how well Pettine can use the defensive tools at his disposal. Offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett has been known to be equally creative and aggressive in his scheming and play-calling as Pettine on defense. It will be fun to watch what he does with a ball of clay like EJ Manuel.
Drafting Linebacker Kiko Alonso in the Second Round
The Bills will be using some kind of hybrid defense this year, and versatility is a premium in a defense like this. Kelvin Sheppard was a bad fit since he was more of a run-stopper and a liability in coverage. Alonso is a solid all-around linebacker that has shown good coverage skills and excellent athleticism and versatility. He was a first round prospect that fell to the second round due to certain character concerns which were alcohol related.
Adding Alonso to the roster, along with moving Nigel Bradham to the middle, will give Pettine a couple of versatile linebackers who can play sideline to sideline, cover running backs, tight ends, or slot receivers. They also have the ability to blitz on any given play.
Buffalo has a stellar defensive line on paper that underachieved for the most part last year. With Pettine’s creativity, this unit has a real chance at a bounce back season, which means the linebackers will benefit from better line play and the secondary will benefit from the front seven creating more havoc for the opposing quarterback.
Landing Wide Receiver Da’Rick Rogers as an Undrafted Free Agent
Rogers was a former teammate of first-round pick Cordarrelle Patterson and second-round pick Justin Hunter at Tennessee. In fact, in some circles, he was considered the most polished receiver of the three and a round-two wide receiver at worst. However, Rogers blew his chances at Tennessee by failing multiple drug tests, and finished up at Tennessee Tech.
If Rogers can keep his nose clean and his ear to the playbook, he can end up with a significant role on the offense. His addition, along with second round wide receiver Robert Woods has bolstered a once-depleted wide receiver corps. Rogers represents a worthwhile gamble to Buffalo, and head coach Doug Marrone has already made it clear that he is on a short leash.
Hiring Doug Marrone as Head Coach and Nathaniel Hackett as Offensive Coordinator
I am reserving judgment on the hiring of Doug Marrone and Nathaniel Hackett as head coach and offensive coordinator, respectively. I like the fact that the Bills were aggressive in their search and weren’t afraid to think outside the box and consider college coaches. Marrone was, reportedly, highly sought after by Browns and Eagles, in addition to the Bills.
Marrone brings some much-needed energy to a franchise in dire need of fresh blood. But at the core, he’s a disciplinarian who won’t flinch when it comes to holding his players accountable. Whether he’s a good hire or not remains to be seen, but I like that fact that he has NFL experience with the Saints and the Jets and head coaching experience at Syracuse. I was tired of the Bills swinging and missing with NFL retreads. At least Marrone gives fans the allure of the unknown.
Marrone brought over offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett from Syracuse, who had a reputation as an aggressive and creative play-caller. The Syracuse offense, which was reportedly made over just two weeks before the 2012 season started, featured an up-tempo, no-huddle offense and broke several school passing records. Together, they will be charged with unleashing C.J. Spiller and developing EJ Manuel as a quarterback.