The NFL season is approaching and Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams, counting down our power rankings with one team a day until No. 1 is unveiled on Aug. 4, when the preseason kicks off with the Hall of Fame Game in Canton. Go to our Facebook page after you read the preview for all airing of grievances; we’ll have a daily discussion there to go with each preview.
Many NFL experts and analysts predicted the Buffalo Bills to break their long playoff drought in 2012. Peter King of Sports Illustrated predicted a 9-7 record and wild-card berth, which meshed with the 9.7 wins and 54.8 percent post-season odds projected for the Bills in the Football Outsiders Almanac 2012. Of course, the Bills would once again fall short of everyone's expectations.
The Bills started the season with a 3-3 record, which had them tied for the lead in the AFC East, but would lose seven of their final 10 games to finish third in the division and outside of the playoffs for the 13th consecutive season. On the day after the regular season finale, head coach Chan Gailey was relieved of his duties and an extensive job search, led by CEO Russ Brandon, resulted in the hiring of Syracuse head coach Doug Marrone.
Changes within the Bills organization were not limited to the coaching staff. A few weeks after the 2013 NFL draft, general manager Buddy Nix stepped down to assume a "special assistant" role in the front office. As expected, assistant general manager Doug Whaley was promoted to replace Nix. The 41-year-old Whaley is a widely respected personnel executive who was involved in the search to hire Marrone and had received a contract extension from the Bills in February.
With no playoff appearances since the Clinton administration, some Bills fans in western New York have grown impatient. Unfortunately for them, the playoff drought might continue for another season or two as Brandon (who is incorporating analytics into the team's decision-making process), Whaley and Marrone will need time to turn this team into a consistent winner again.
Is the roster better, worse or about the same?: The Bills made slight improvements to their roster during the 2013 offseason. More importantly, they went about it the right way, avoiding the free agent market and focusing on the draft and retaining their own players. The Bills had a solid draft, acquiring their quarterback of the future in E.J. Manuel and two potential play-makers in wide receivers Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin. On defense, the Bills got an instinctual, sideline-to-sideline inside linebacker in second-round pick Kiko Alonso.
Best offseason acquisition: Former USC wide receiver Robert Woods was one of the top five receivers available in the 2013 NFL draft and the Bills were wise to grab the productive wideout in the second-round, No. 41 overall. In 38 games over three seasons with the Trojans, Woods caught 252 passes for 2,930 yards and 32 touchdowns. Though his 11.6 yards per catch average and 65 percent catch rate in college suggest he's strictly a possession receiver, Woods ran a 4.43 in the forty yard dash and should be a threat after the catch.
Biggest hole on the roster: : The Bills are going back to a 3-4 defense under Mike Pettine and will eventually need better outside linebackers. The projected starters are Mark Anderson and Manny Lawson, two players who combined for three sacks for their respective teams last season (Anderson had one for the Bills, Lawson had two for the Cincinnati Bengals). Behind Anderson and Lawson on the depth chart is former Indianapolis Colts first-round pick Jerry Hughes (five sacks in three seasons) and 32-year-old, safety-turned-linebacker Bryan Scott, who has one sack over the last two seasons in a reserve role. This is certainly an area that Whaley will have to address next offseason.
Position in flux: : In March, the Bills pulled the plug on the Ryan Fitzpatrick experiment and replaced the former Harvard star with Kevin Kolb. A 2007 second-round pick out of Houston, Kolb's potential was enough to secure lucrative contract extensions from both his original team, the Philadelphia Eagles, and the Arizona Cardinals, who were desperate enough for quarterback help in the post-Kurt Warner era to trade Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and a second-round pick to get Kolb from the Eagles. Kolb will open the season atop the quarterback depth chart, but will have to play well early and remain healthy (a minor bugaboo for Kolb thus far in his career) to stave off first-round pick E.J. Manuel.
Player you may not have heard of yet, but will soon: The Bills used a fourth-round pick in 2012 on LSU cornerback Ron Brooks, who opened the rookie season on the "injured reserve - designated for return" list. Brooks returned in November, playing in 161 defensive snaps while totaling 13 tackles with four passes defensed. The 5-foot-10, 188-pound cornerback has the inside track on the nickel cornerback role, but only Leodis McKelvin is ahead of him on the depth chart and Brooks could push for the starting job opposite 2012 first-round pick Stephon Gilmore.
Stat fact: The Bills' special teams unit led the NFL with a 17.1 yard average on punt returns, a performance that contributed to the decision to re-sign Leodis McKelvin to a four-year, $17 million contract on March 11. On the flip side, the Bills' punt coverage team allowed a league-high 14.8 yards per punt return.
This team’s best-case scenario for the 2013 season: Under Pettine, the defense adjusts quickly to the 3-4 system and improves against the run and on third down. Kolb remains healthy and is consistent while Spiller tops 1,500 rushing yards and is around double-digits in touchdowns. The New England Patriots fall back to the pack in the AFC East and the Bills win 10 or 11 games to make the playoffs for the first time since 1999.
And here’s the nightmare scenario: Kolb struggles or gets hurt, pressing Manuel into a starting role before he's ready, potentially hindering his long-term development. The defense backslides and the Bills miss the playoffs for the 14th consecutive season. This might not actually be a "nightmare" scenario, though, as expectations for the 2013 Bills should be somewhat tempered as this is the team's first season under Marrone.
The player who could swing this team’s season one way or another: In the first two weeks of the 2012 season, running back C.J. Spiller showed one of the most dynamic offensive play-makers in the game, totaling 364 yards from scrimmage (292 rushing, 72 receiving) and three touchdowns before suffering a slight shoulder injury. Spiller's playing-time would be reduced upon his return, but he still finished eighth in the NFL in rushing (1,244 yards), led the NFL with a 6.0 yards per carry average, was second in the league behind Adrian Peterson in runs of 20+ yards (12, well behind Peterson's 27), and was third among NFL running backs in Football Outsiders' DYAR (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement) metric. Spiller's playing-time percentage will certainly increase over the 56.3 percent from 2012.