Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per day in reverse order or our initial 2014 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 2, the day before the preseason begins with the Hall of Fame Game in Canton.
There's desperation in the voices of Buffalo Bills fans, and it's understandable.
The NFL is set up for parity, as we know. To go 14 years without a playoff berth in this era means you have to make mistake after mistake after mistake. The Bills have done just that.
I wasn't a fan of the Sammy Watkins trade for the Bills, and many like-minded people shared that opinion. Others didn't, and the trade could turn out great if Watkins is the next A.J. Green. My issue was, the Bills gave up a 2015 first-round pick to move up five spots for Watkins, the type of deal that makes sense if you're one piece from being a contender. The Bills aren't. But Bills fans generally shared the same sentiment in defending the move (and almost all of them did): "We're going for it!" And "it" was not a Super Bowl, or even an AFC East title, but simply a playoff berth.
After waiting all century, Bills fans are more than willing to mortgage the future just to get back in the playoffs. It's hard to blame them either.
The problem is, unless Watkins dominates right away, quarterback E.J. Manuel takes a big step in his second year and many other things go right, the Bills don't look like a playoff team. Stranger things have happened, and as a whole the AFC seems weak, but it would be an upset. And that road got a lot longer when linebacker Kiko Alonso, a supremely talented player who looked like one of the best in the NFL last year as a rookie, blew his ACL working out this offseason. He'll likely be out all year.
And if the Bills don't have a good season, the sad trickle down is that the 2015 first-round pick they gave up to the Browns for Watkins is going to be a really valuable one. Which, ironically, means that if the trade to go for a playoff berth doesn't work out, breaking the playoff-less streak will get even harder.
2013 review in less than 25 words: The Bills went 6-10, but with solid wins against Carolina, Miami (twice), the Jets and Baltimore included. Two overtime losses hurt.
Is the roster better, worse or about the same?: Before Alonso's mishap working out in Oregon, it was a close call. The Bills added Watkins, who could be a star at receiver. They also lost safety Jairus Byrd, who is already a star. Even if that's a wash, losing a defensive cornerstone late in the offseason is such a blow that it probably means the roster takes a step back.
Best offseason acquisition: Cornerback Corey Graham was a solid addition in free agency, as was linebacker Brandon Spikes, but the only answer can be Watkins. If Watkins turns out to be everything scouts say he is, the Bills have a legitimate No. 1 to round out what is looking like a very good, young receiving corps. Watkins showed at Clemson that he can do it all, whether it's run by the defense on a fly route or take a short pass and turn it into a big gain. There's no reason to believe he won't be a special player.
Achilles heel: At this moment, it's quarterback. E.J. Manuel might erase any doubts about that very shortly. And he looked good at times as a rookie. Remember, he went 27-of-39 for 296 yards and orchestrated a last-second, game-winning drive against Carolina in Week 2, and the Panthers proved to be a great defense in 2013.
There are still questions about his accuracy and if he can be a top-flight quarterback in the NFL, so he comes into his second season with questions surrounding him. His progression this season is a huge factor for the Bills.
Position in flux: The Bills have a good problem at running back. While they might have overpaid in a trade for Bryce Brown (sense a theme?), sending Philadelphia a conditional fourth-round pick in 2015 that can become a 2016 third-rounder based on Brown's performance, they now have great depth in the backfield.
C.J. Spiller was off to a great start, rushing for 103 yards against Carolina, the only back to gain 100 yards rushing against the Panthers all year, but a high ankle sprain in Week 4 affected him the remainder of the season. Fred Jackson keeps churning along, as he had 890 yards and nine touchdowns last season. With three capable backs, the Bills will have to figure out how to keep them all happy.
Ready to break out: The attention will be on Watkins, from fans and defenses. That works out very well for Robert Woods, and maybe Marquise Goodwin. Woods, a second-round pick last year out of USC, finished strong, with 14 catches for 258 yards in December. Then there's Goodwin, a phenomenal athlete out of Texas who had three touchdown receptions of 40-plus yards last season. He also had a breathtaking kickoff return for a touchdown in the preseason. He can be a perfect big-play guy for the Bills.
Stat fact: The Bills' defense was really good last year. They ranked fourth in Football Outsiders' DVOA metric. They were fifth in Advanced Football Analytics' efficiency ratings. They gave up the third lowest quarterback rating (74.9) and tied for the fifth-lowest yards per passing attempt allowed (6.5). Starting with a very talented line up front, this was perhaps the league's most underrated defense in 2013.
Schedule degree of difficulty: Oddly, the Bills are the only team in the NFL whose 2014 opponents combined for a .500 record last year. So they're in the middle of the pack, of course, in strength of schedule. The biggest stretch for the Bills will be in November. After the bye they have three home games in four weeks, against Kansas City, the Jets and Cleveland. They need to win some there, because December includes games against the Packers, Patriots and Broncos.
This team’s best-case scenario for the 2014 season: Last year, they would have been 8-8 had both overtime games gone their way. They had some quality wins, which shows they can be competitive every week. The defense is still legit, even without Byrd and Alonso, and there are a lot of potential playmakers on offense. It's not too crazy to think they could finish second in the AFC East, and maybe that's just enough to get them a wild card.
And here’s the nightmare scenario: As great as Watkins may be, most rookie receivers don't dominate right away. Spiller hasn't been an example of health in his career. If Manuel doesn't take a step forward, the defense misses the playmaking ability of their two lost stars, and the offense is among the worst in the NFL again, it'll be hard to have a winning record. And then next offseason they'll watch the Browns take a big-time prospect with their first-round pick.
The crystal ball says: The Bills might be too low in our preseason rankings, but the sticking point is that the offense had such a long way to go and the defense lost two great players. Maybe Preston Brown fills in seamlessly for Alonso and Watkins, and Spiller transform the offense, but most likely it'll be another year without a playoff berth for the Bills, no matter how bad their fans want to end that streak.
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