Will the Bills Make The Playoffs? – An Analysis Of Their Depth Chart

When the 2013 Buffalo Bills take the field this Sunday against the New England Patriots, they will begin their attempt at transforming themselves from an AFC East doormat to a playoff contender. It seems every year Buffalo Bills fans lure themselves into thinking, “this is the year!” The year they finally make the playoffs, that is.

When I look around the league, I see a lot of parity; but I also see certain common characteristics amongst teams that “get over the hump” and go from a perennial loser to a playoff team. These characteristics, in this author’s humble opinion, are as follows:

1. An above-average quarterback.

2. Coaches that will adapt their system to their players’ strengths and adequately hide their players’ weaknesses

3. Quality depth.

4. Luck (no, not the Indianapolis Colts quarterback….although he would certainly help).

#1 and 2 above, as it pertains to the Bills, is a relative unknown since they are sporting a rookie NFL head coach and offensive coordinator along with a rookie quarterback. My love for defensive coordinator Mike Pettine and his aggressive, multiple-front, hybrid defense has already been established on this website, so I won’t bore you with more of that. #4 is self-explanatory.

Do the Bills have quality depth behind their starters? Before we answer that question, let’s breakdown why quality depth is important in the NFL. It seems like a no-brainer, yet most bottom of the roster signings go relatively unnoticed by most fans. The best general managers focus on improving their roster as much as they can, at all times.

The reality of today’s NFL is that every team will suffer injuries. Every team will, at some point in the season, have to start a back-up because of an injury or suspension etc. to their starter. When the NFL draft is completed and before training camp begins, every NFL fan has hope in their hearts for their respective teams. Everything looks pretty darn good on paper.

Their team has, seemingly, addressed all of its holes in the off-season via free agency, the draft, and maybe even a trade or two. That deep threat wide receiver that the team sorely needed last year? Well your favorite team took care of that in free agency. That pass rush and second corner they needed? They drafted a defensive end with their first pick and a corner with their second in the draft.

But then training camp starts and your starting middle linebacker gets popped for PEDs and is suspended for the first four games. The team also loses their slot receiver to a season-ending injury. By the end of the second preseason game, the backup quarterback could miss half the year and that high-prized free agent deep threat receiver might have a lingering foot issue for most of the season. You get the idea.

An NFL team’s success is greatly dependent on the components I listed above. I can’t tell you what percentage of each component you need or if you even need all four components. But I do know that the best general managers always make sure their roster is stacked with quality depth – players that can come in for a few games and replace the starter and “hold the line”, so to speak. Every now and then there’s a very good, starting caliber, player who is simply buried on the depth chart. That’s a bonus. But mostly, general managers are looking for quality place-holders who won’t be a liability on the field while the starter is out.

Another reason you want quality depth on your team – they play special teams. Special teams, to me, are like the gaskets and washers in a very well-made engine. You don’t want leaky ones or all the fine engineering and raw material you spent on your world-class engine will be for naught.

With that in mind, let’s examine whether the 2013 Buffalo Bills have the depth to sustain any missed games from their starters to break their 13 year and counting playoff drought.

OFFENSE

Quarterbacks:

Starter

E.J. Manuel (R)

Backup(s)

Jeff Tuel

Coming into the draft, EJ was considered a raw prospect who would need time to develop. Welcome to the NFL rook. Manuel will be thrust into the starting lineup, but that is not to say that he hasn’t earned it because he certainly beat out Kolb in the preseason. However behind EJ, the Bills are going forward with an undrafted free agent so to say the Bills are woefully thin at quarterback behind EJ is an understatement.  Tuel did show an ability to grasp Nate Hackett’s system in training camp and preseason so there is that little bit of silver lining.

Grade: D

Running Backs:

Starter

C.J. Spiller

Backup(s)

Fred Jackson

Tashard Choice

With a former first round pick as their starter, and a former starter and MVP candidate just two years ago as the primary backup, the Bills have great depth at running back on paper. But Fred Jackson has lost a step since 2011, though he is still serviceable. Choice is the classic 3rd running back you would want – jack of all trades, master of none. He can fill-in in a pinch and he is experienced.

Grade: B

Wide Receivers:

Starters

Stevie Johnson

T.J. Graham

Robert Woods (R)

Backup(s)

Marquise Goodwin (R)

Marcus Easley

Chris Hogan

The Bills are very young and raw, yet talented, behind Stevie Johnson. T.J. Graham is the second-most experienced player on their depth chart at wide receiver, and has shown signs of a step forward from last year. Woods is probably the most polished receiver to come out of this draft class. Goodwin is a raw speedster who will primarily stretch the field and contribute on special teams. Easley has a chance to be a real contributor as he’s technically in his fourth year in the league but hasn’t caught a single pass due to injuries. Hogan is a training camp standout and undrafted free agent – he is a very good route runner and he’s a good special-teamer.

This unit is unproven in the middle but in this offense there won’t be too many complicated route combinations and I’m optimistic.

Grade: C+

Center/Guard:

Starters

Eric Wood

Kraig Urbik

Colin Brown

Backup(s)

Doug Legursky

Sam Young

Wood is excellent when healthy, but he’s had bad luck with health, so depth is especially important on the Bills’ interior offensive line. Urbik is a quality starter. Colin Brown should be a backup, but will start. The interior depth comes down to Legursky and Young; the former suffered an injury in the fourth preseason game that was initially thought to be season-ending and the latter is an inconsistent journeyman.

One thing to keep in mind is that with the offensive scheme predicated on quick, short throws and a mobile quarterback at helm, the offensive line won’t need to be as good as say, Joe Flacco’s, in pass protection.

Grade: C-

Tackle:

Starters

Cordy Glenn

Erik Pears

Backup(s)

Thomas Welch

Glenn held his own last year at left tackle, though some would argue he would be an all-pro at guard. Pears is an inconsistent right tackle who will flash well from time to time. Welch will be the swing tackle on game-days and he has proven to be solid thus far. He has the skill set to play on either side and has shown the potential to be a starter down the line – for this unit, I’d prefer someone with more left tackle experience given that there is a chance Glenn is moved inside to left guard if Colin Brown struggles.

Grade: C

DEFENSE

Pettine will be running a hybrid front defense that loves versatility in its players. He’s looking for corners who can play man, blitz, and support in the run; safeties and linebackers who can play zone, in the box, blitz, and cover tight ends or slot receivers; pass rushers that can also drop back in coverage; defensive ends that can also play in a two-point stance and drop back in coverage occasionally, and defensive tackles that can also defensive end in a one-gap look or nose tackle in a two-gap look. The idea is to slow down the quarterback pre-snap and disguise where the pressure is coming from. In a scheme like this, the players in coverage will often be in one-on-one man coverage with very little safety help – so if the blitz doesn’t get there, some receiver is bound to be open. The principle it will rest on is that, more of than not, the blitz will either get there or force an errant throw resulting in a turnover. Essentially, it is the exact opposite of what Wannstedt ran last year. Without further ado, let’s examine the defensive depth.

Cornerback:

Starters

Stephon Gilmore (inj)

Leodis McKelvin

Justin Rogers

Ron Brooks

Backup(s)

Brandon Burton

Nickell Robey

Gilmore, who was poised to take a major step forward this year, is injured and out at least until week 6. McKelvin is the oft-maligned and inconsistent former first-rounder who received a new contract this year. With Gilmore out until October, McKelvin will likely cover the opposing top receiver in those games. I’m very nervous about him, but man coverage is his strength. Behind him are a host of players with decent size but have struggled through most of camp and preseason and at least one of these guys will be on the field as the #2 corner till Gilmore’s return.

As mentioned above, with the Bills blitzing this much, the corners will exposed on most plays. Given the lack of depth here, I expect Pettine to dial it back a little bit and provide more safety help as a blanket. If not, then opposing quarterbacks could have a field day against this secondary if the blitz doesn’t arrive in time. Rogers and Brooks are best suited to play Nickel where they’d be guarding quicker slot receivers or blitzing and they’ve been solid contributors on special teams. Burton is an interesting prospect but he hasn’t done much since being drafted by the Vikings in 2011. And Robey should never play any position but Nickel, and even that I don’t feel particularly confident about him.

I’m very concerned about the corner depth on this roster. If McKelvin goes down, things can go from bad to worse very quickly.

Grade: F

Safety:

Starters

Jairus Byrd (inj)

Aaron Williams

Da’Norris Searcy

Backup(s)

Jim Leonhard

Duke Williams (R)

Jonathan Meeks (R)

Byrd has been diagnosed with plantar fasciitis which could linger for a month or two, if not more. He’s very questionable to start the season, and given their contract dispute and attempts to orchestrate a trade, I wouldn’t be surprised if he shuts himself down for a few weeks. Behind him, the most experienced player is recently-signed Jim Leonhard. A. Williams, who struggled as a corner last year has been switched to safety this year, and while his versatility will certainly help, he’s yet to play in an NFL regular season game at his new position. Searcy is best suited for an in-the-box role and has some special teams experience but  has proven to be a total liability in coverage so far. The rookies D. Williams and J. Meeks will play sub-package roles and mostly special teams.

I would feel a lot better about this unit if Byrd were healthy. But with a weak cornerback unit, I am fairly concerned about the safety depth as well. I like the Leonhard signing as he is a dependable player that has flashed as a playmaker and is familiar with Pettine’s scheme when he was with the Ravens and the Jets. The rest of the unit is brand new to the scheme, two of whom are also brand new to the league – not a good look.

Grade: C-

Outside Linebacker:

Starter

Manny Lawson

Backup(s)

Marcus Dowtin

Lawson is a former first-rounder from 2006 who’s received extensive action with the 49ers and the Bengals. He was a misfit in the Bengals’ 4-3 scheme is better suited for a 3-4 Hybrid front such as the Bills are running.  If he pans out, he will turn out to be a major free agent signing for the team; so far Lawson’s been all over the field in training camp and preseason. I’m cautiously optimistic about him.

Dowtin is a former Pettine disciple and was a solid special teamer who has yet to start a game in the NFL. He’s an athletic linebacker who moves more like a safety and will probably be one of the better special teams contributor. But if Lawson goes down, it’s doubtful he would man this spot without help on running downs.

Grade: C-

Pass Rusher:

Starter

Mario Williams

Backup(s)

Jerry Hughes

While many expect Mario to be a relative misfit in this scheme, I think he’ll be just fine with his hand off the ground. In his final year with Houston, they ran a traditional 3-4 scheme and Williams had five sacks in five games. He’s had various injuries over the past three years but still managed to be productive. If he can finally stay healthy, he could have a monster year in this scheme. But, in the words of Joe Namath, “if” is “such a small word with such big implications.”

So spelling him will be former first rounder Jerry Hughes whom the Bills acquired in a trade this off-season with the Colts. Hughes has shown very well thus far in the off-season and he was another victim of a misfit in his last team’s defensive scheme. He’s not going to do well if asked to play defensive end and set the edge against the run against big, mauling offensive tackles. He’s another player that I’m cautiously optimistic on but isn’t quite ready to take on a starting role yet.

Grade: B-

Middle Linebacker:

Starters

Kiko Alonso (R)

Nigel Bradham

Backup(s)

Arthur Moats

Jamaal Westerman

Alonso will be a 3-down linebacker in the middle of that defense. He can shed blocks and play well against the run, and he can drop back in coverage. His biggest strength is his playmaking ability along with his versatility – characteristics Pettine loves in his players. He will take his lumps just like any other rookie, however. Bradham will also be on the field most downs and he’s a very athletic player with good size and some experience from last year. He’s had some lapses in coverage and this will be his first year starting, which essentially makes the starting unit very inexperienced. Whether they’ll be able to handle their own once the bullets start flying remains to be seen.

Moats is a quality reserve who will likely rotate in quite a bit in this defense. He doesn’t have ideal size or speed but he has a nose for the football and has flashed as a pass rusher. He is another player that will greatly benefit from this scheme, although he probably shouldn’t be asked to cover too many players one-on-one. Westerman is more of a pass rusher than a cover linebacker, and he’s another Pettine disciple from the Jets. His experience in the scheme will be beneficial should Alonso or Bradham miss any games, but he’s also a liability in coverage.

Grade: C

Defensive Line:

Starters

Kyle Williams

Marcell Dareus

Alex Carrington

Backup(s)

Alan Branch

Jay Ross

Corbin Bryant

This is, by far, the most talented group on this team. Williams is a 2-time pro bowler and an all-pro who has played multiple positions on the defensive line in his seven years with the Bills. Asides from maybe Byrd, he was their best player last year. Dareus is a top-5 pick who has flashed great potential but consistency has been his issue. He’s in his “prove-it” year three and hopefully he can put it all together. Carrington has been a victim of a player playing out of scheme the past few years. At one point the Bills asked the 6’5″, 300 lb lineman to play outside linebacker. I think he’s yet another player who has finally been put in a position to succeed as a defensive end/tackle in this defense. He’s had a great camp and preseason and will look to carry that into the regular season as a full-time starter for the first time.

Branch is a big, versatile lineman who has started and produced well as a one-gap lineman but can hold his own in a two-gap system. Ross is an undrafted free agent signee, and a relative unknown. He’s had a great camp this year but he hasn’t produced in his lone NFL season last year as he was buried on the depth chart. Bryant is in the same boat as Ross, and has had an average camp thus far.

This unit will rotate at a higher frequency than other units but given the physical nature they still need quality depth here.

Grade: C

Conclusion:

This is year one of the roster makeover under a new general manager and head coach so they don’t have their fingerprints on all 53 players just yet – after all, they are stuck with certain players from the previous regimes that don’t necessarily fit what they’re looking for.

Overall, this team is in deep trouble at quarterback, cornerback, and safety, behind the respective starters. The depth behind their starting offensive line, linebackers, and defensive line is questionable. Their strongest depth is at running back, while the depth at receiver and pass rusher is acceptable.

Essentially, this team needs get lucky and avoid injuries at most positions to make the playoffs – assuming the coaching and quarterback play is solid. Realistically, I’m expecting a 6 or 7 win season with another year to build up their quality depth.

 

 

 

Comments

  1. Really? Running back depth is a B and O-line is C-? Only 1.5 grades separate them? That’s insane. They have one of the best backfields in the league, and almost no decent backups on the O-line.