After a lot of debate and key additions to bolster the Bills offensive attack in 2014, our chances of ending a 14-year playoff drought still hinge largely on one key component: the progress of second-year quarterback E.J. Manuel. From the start of free agency through the end of the draft (and a few trades in between) it has been clear that the main objective of Bills GM Doug Whaley this offseason was to give Manuel the best supporting cast he could. As a result, Manuel should have little excuse to not succeed this season.
Although the Bills were a team heavily geared toward the running attack in 2013, there is little question that a mediocre passing game led the team to struggle at times with their running game (although it was still one of the league’s best). At times the Bills looked too predictable, often running on first down and creating second and long situations. It also did not help that the right side of the Bills offensive line (Right tackle Erik Pears and guards that included Colin Brown and Doug Legursky) struggled for much of the season with pass protection and run blocking.
The first free agent the Bills signed was ex-Rams guard Chris Williams. They followed this up in the draft by taking mammoth Alabama tackle Cyrus Kouandjio in the second round, while later adding depth with guard Cyril Richardson in the 5th round and Miami tackle Seantrel Henderson in the 7th round. Henderson is an interesting pick as many felt he had the talent to be drafted higher but off-field issues saw his stock plummet. This should help Manuel, who missed several games with injuries in 2013, stay up straight.
As will a receiving core that will be bolstered with a pair of big additions. It starts with the jaw-dropping draft-day trade to move up for former Clemson standout Sammy Watkins. If the comparisons to Bengals receiver AJ Green or the Falcons’ Julio Jones come true, those couple extra big plays a game could mean the difference in winning close games (like the season opener against New England in 2013). Along with ex-Buccaneer and Buffalo native Mike Williams, who has proven to be a red-zone target since hauling in 11 touchdowns as a rookie in 2010, the Bills have a talented and deep group that includes second-year man Robert Woods and Olympic sprinter Marquise Goodwin (both 2013 Bills draft picks).
The one area of concern could be tight end, and who will backup Scott Chandler. Tony Moeaki is the most intriguing name, as the former Chief’s 3rd pick from 2010 showed flashes as a rookie, but injuries cost him both his 2011 and 2013 seasons. Lee Smith is a blocker and second-year man Chris Gragg is athletic, but small.
Where the Bills may be deeper than any team in the NFL (definitely in the AFC East) is at running back. Veterans Fred Jackson and CJ Spiller could have big years and they are playing for new contracts so they will have a little extra to prove. The Bills started preparing for life without one or both running backs after 2014, with the addition of ex-Eagle Bryce Brown, who showed flashes of being a big playmaker as a rookie in 2012, as he filled in for injured running back LeSean McCoy. He also had fumbling issues and it seems he was just never given another chance after his last one.
Perhaps one of the Bills more overlooked signings this offseason was Anthony Dixon from the 49ers. An area the Bills struggled in 2013 was short-yardage and goal-line situations. One example was the Kansas City game, where the Bills decided to have rookie Jeff Tuel throw into a crowded end zone, which led to an interception return for a touchdown that changed the complexion of the game. Dixon’s big body on short-yardage could mean more first downs and more points on the scoreboard (not to mention he has a reputation as being a great special teams player).
The Bills weapons are arguably the best in the AFC East. And if they can get consistent play from Manuel this season, 9 or 10 wins and challenging for a playoff spot is not unrealistic.