Any head coach in the NFL has his work cut out for him turning young athletes into productive professional football players. Buffalo Bills head coach Doug Marrone may have more work to do in that area than any head coach in recent memory.
Marrone, who is in his first year as a head coach at the pro level (and his fifth as a head coach at any level), inherits a young team from departed head coach Chan Gailey with ample amounts of physical talent, but which did not realize its potential on the football field in the past three seasons. Add in a 2013 NFL Draft class with plenty of question marks, and Marrone has a monumental task sitting before him.
GM Buddy Nix, who has been in Buffalo making personnel decisions for all three of Gailey's seasons - and now for the first of Marrone's - has added skilled athletes to the Bills' roster in the past four seasons. That group of players remains skilled athletically, but most have not yet emerged as the type of football player that the team envisioned when bringing them on board. This group is large, even when you pare it down to players picked in the top three rounds:
- Torell Troup has not been able to avoid the injury bug;
- Alex Carrington has yet to settle at one position;
- Marcell Dareus is the only top seven pick from the 2011 NFL Draft that has yet to make the Pro Bowl;
- Aaron Williams struggled at cornerback and is now being moved to safety;
- Kelvin Sheppard might be replaced by a 2013 second-round pick in the starting lineup;
- Stephon Gilmore showed promise, but struggled with penalties as a rookie;
- Cordy Glenn flashed ability as a rookie, but must become much more consistent;
- T.J. Graham showed inconsistent hands and did not produce in a limited role.
That's an awful lot of early-round talent that Marrone will need to develop. It is critically important that Marrone and his coaching staff find starting-caliber players, if not stars, in this group - particularly when it comes to Dareus and Gilmore, who should be franchise cornerstones on defense.
And while we're at it, the only player omitted from that list - C.J. Spiller - needs a much bigger role created for him. Ideally, that will be the easy part of Marrone's job in year one.
The incoming draft class from this past weekend only adds to the task at hand. Two of the team's top draft picks, second-round linebacker Kiko Alonso (the one that might replace Sheppard) and fourth-round safety Duke Williams, have had issues with alcohol in the past, and will need to be monitored closely as professionals. (Character concerns also plague undrafted rookie free agent Da'Rick Rogers, a receiver with big talent and a bigger list of off-field issues.) Third-round receiver Marquise Goodwin split his time between football and track collegiately, so he'll need to be groomed as a full-time footballer.
All of that would be a big enough challenge, but Marrone's biggest challenge of all will obviously be turning quarterback E.J. Manuel into a legitimate NFL passer. Buffalo has never made an investment like Manuel before; Marrone and his offensive coordinator (plus quarterbacks coach), 33-year-old Nathaniel Hackett, must not only hone Manuel's immense physical tools and develop his knowledge of a brand new offense and his ability to diagnose and read a defense, but craft a scheme that limits his weaknesses and accentuates his strengths. There is no more difficult job in the NFL than developing a quarterback, and Marrone's is a high-profile first-round pick with historic significance to the franchise.
Bills fans are, by and large, feeling good exiting draft weekend - and that sentiment is justified. It's highly likely that Marrone shares the sentiment. Let's not underestimate, however, exactly how much player development Marrone must achieve if this physically talented roster is going to become a playoff-caliber football team on his watch. By taking risks and going for broke in the draft this year, the franchise is showing a ton of faith in Marrone's abilities to develop athletes. Here's hoping he's up to the task.