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End of Season Review
Well that was a disappointing season. We entered the year with a new franchise quarterback and a lot of exciting talented young players. We exited the year with plenty of questions about our franchise quarterback and not a lot of progress made.
I’ve made my stance known on EJ Manuel since well before the 2013 draft. I never thought he had the ability to put everything together and play into his athleticism. I would love if he does, but I haven’t gotten my hopes up after a year where he struggled to put proper touch on short and long passes, struggled to place passes in front of his receivers, struggled to read defenses quickly, was generally hesitant running the zone read, and dealt with three separate knee injuries, missing valuable practice time.
My plan moving into year two of the Marrone/Manuel regime is to build the best support structure I can for EJ. I want him to have a great receiving corps, good protection up front, and a deep defense that doesn’t lose a step from last year’s exciting unit. I want to give EJ every chance I can to show that he is the future of Buffalo’s franchise. If he fails, I want this team to be in position to move on and target Marcus Mariota, Brett Hundley, or Bryce Petty in next year’s draft. If he succeeds, we’ve finally made the freaking playoffs.
Front Office and Coaching Staff
I’m keeping things intact for how they were after Mike Pettine’s exit. Yes, that includes Danny Crossman staying as special teams coordinator. I don’t want him to stick around, but I think it will help Marrone grow as a coach if he learns to recognize if his handpicked guys aren’t doing the right job, rather than having his guy get fired by someone else. Just like with EJ Manuel, it’s time for Danny Crossman to put up or shut up. I’m going to bring in one or two more guys who are known for special teams experience (including a training camp punter), and we’re going to give him more talent to work with. If the special teams are an issue in 2014, even if it’s noticeable during training camp, Marrone will have learned his lesson about nepotism and hire a replacement.
As much as I would love to see Byrd stick around on this team, I just don't think it's realistic anymore after the way negotiations played out last year. Buffalo could offer a long term deal, but all Eugene Parker has to do is talk about how teams like the Browns and Raiders have $50 million in cap space and they'd rather try for a better deal over there. Tagging Byrd won't work, because we'll be back to the same place we were last year, except this time Byrd will walk because he'll become too expensive to retain. So Byrd is getting traded - but he's not the only player!
Jairus Byrd and Jerry Hughes traded to the Cleveland Browns for picks #35, #71, #102, and a 2015 conditional pick
This is a package deal. Buffalo sends one of the top 3 safeties in the league to Cleveland (who needs a replacement for free agent TJ Ward), plus a 10-sack pass rusher on a very team friendly contract to join the defensive coaching staff that made him so successful. He can have a big impact and help emerge as a leader to explain the system.
There’s a pretty significant cost for Cleveland to get these two players. They want to keep both first round picks if possible, and one of their day two picks, in order to have the option to trade up for the QB of their choice. I offer to let them give their second round pick, a third round pick (keeping their other third round pick), and a fourth round pick, as well as a conditional pick based on the performance of both players. The pick would range from a 4th rounder if both players underperform in 2014, up to a 2nd rounder if they both play up to expectations. This trade gives Buffalo more versatility in the draft, allows them to potentially have an extra day two draft choice next year, and gives Cleveland two guys who can lead the defense, teach Mike Pettine's system, and help turn around the team there. This is very similar to the situation seen in Rex Ryan's first year as head coach of the Jets, when he signed Bart Scott and Jim Leonhard, both former Ravens, to start up the defense on his new team. Word on the street is that Pettine is a big fan of having Byrd on his team, and I think Buffalo gets this deal done.
Cost of trade: Buffalo saves $1.1 million in cap space by sending Jerry Hughes to Cleveland
For the most part, I don't care to re-sign Buffalo's free agents. But these guys get a call:
Alex Carrington is very unfortunate to have torn that quad right before his contract year. Eugene Parker is probably furious that he missed out on that commission. I offer Carrington the chance to build up his value with a good faith contract – 2 years, $5 million. The first year of the contract will exceed the entire value of his first 4 years in the league, and it gives Buffalo the chance to negotiate an extension if things work out. I frontload this contract at $3 million in year 1, and $2 million in year 2.
Chris Hogan showed flashes in 2013 – very few flashes, but they were there. More importantly, he played 47% of special teams snaps and did a good job there. My plan is to allow him to compete with Marcus Easley and TJ Graham for two back of the roster spots. Graham has more receiving experience, and Easley and Hogan have the special teams expertise. For the 3-year veteran minimum, he comes back ($0.65 million)
Cost of re-signings: $3.65 million
Letting them walk
Jim Leonhard is gone. Thank goodness.
Arthur Moats has done very little to distinguish himself in Buffalo since the Brett Favre hit 3 years ago. He never emerged as a starting-level player, and he didn’t get a mention in Brian’s recap of the special teams snap counts. Sorry Moats, you’ve been crossed (off the depth chart).
I would love to keep Frank the Tank (Summers) on this football team. His blocking is great and he would cost me the veteran minimum. But his lack of special teams versatility kills him. I think I can find someone else.
Kevin Kolb, I hope you don’t play football again. Nothing personal; actually, it is personal - concussions are scary and you don’t want to mess around with those. Buffalo gets $3.1 million back from that contract.
Erik Pears, we’re done here. You’re paid too much and not very good. $2.9 million gets returned in cap space.
Doug Legursky, the best quality you have is not being Colin Brown. That isn’t a good quality. $1 million into Buffalo’s wallet.
Cost of cuts: Buffalo gets back $7 million in cap space from the veteran cuts
Two players are coming up who need to be taken care of on the contract front - Marcell Dareus and Aaron Williams. Dareus can wait another year, because he has that 5th year option on his contract, which I'm picking up. Williams doesn't get that extra year, so I want to work out an extension now in good faith to show that if you're willing to cooperate, I will pay you lots of money.
Buffalo signs S Aaron Williams to a 5 year, $32 million contract extension
Is this a bit pricey? Maybe. It's still cheaper than the franchise tag was for Byrd last year, and Aaron Williams is on the verge of being a Pro Bowler after only his first year at safety. I'll make his annual salary $5 million, guarantee the first two years, give him a $5 million signing bonus prorated over the 5 years of his extension, and a $2 million roster bonus applied this year. His salary remains the same for 2014.
Cap room heading into free agency
With initial cap space of $21.9 million (including allocations for the rookie draft class), Buffalo gained $1.1 million in the Hughes trade, spent $3.65 million on re-signing players, and gained $7 million cutting three veterans. The Bills spent $2 million this year as part of their Aaron Williams contract extension. Those moves leave them with $24.35 million on hand during free agency.
My goal in free agency is to build depth on this team. I want to especially address the defense here, which I feel already has adequate talent and just needs a few problem areas fixed (holes at DE and MLB). My main targets are a backup CB, a DE who can start, and an MLB who can compete for a starting job.
Buffalo signs DE Willie Young to a 4 year, $16 million contract
First, I get a player who could potentially start at DE opposite Mario Williams, and a guy who's familiar with the Jim Schwartz defensive system. Young is a former 7th round pick who played decently this season as a starter in Detroit, and I believe his career trajectory is on an upswing. I already signed Alex Carrington, but Jim Schwartz used a lot of rotation on the defensive line as a DC, and I'd like to use Carrington around the line as a backup everything. I build this contract with a $3 million annual salary, and a $4 million roster bonus paid out this year. So the cap hit is $7 million in 2014.
Buffalo signs LB Akeem Jordan to a 2 year, $5 million contract
The next guy I get is a linebacker to compete for the starting MLB position. I’m moving Kiko Alonso to WLB, where he should be freed up from blockers to flow to the runner. So I want a stout guy up the middle to take on blockers and plug up the running game. Jordan has limited athleticism, but he is strong against the run and is a disciplined tackler. As a bonus, he does plenty of work on special teams, so we’ve found one of our "core players" for that spot. Jordan has never had a long term contract in his career, and though he had a bit of a career renaissance this year in Kansas City, he was still only paid $735,000. I offer him a decent chunk of change to compete to be a starter – and the short contract length makes him a free agent in his age 29 year. He might want to seek his next contract before he’s 30. I backload this contract, paying $2 million this year and $3 million next year.
Buffalo signs CB Jabari Greer to a 3 year, $12 million contract
For the veteran presence at cornerback, I go back to our good friend Jabari Greer. Greer is getting up in age, now 32 years old. He tore his ACL back in November and is still in the rehabbing process, having been cut from his contract with New Orleans recently. In Buffalo, he could rehab during the offseason and eventually ease in as the primary backup outside back and he could compete for the nickel position. Because Greer is 32 and coming off injury, I want to give him a contract long enough to keep him around until he chooses to retire, and one that isn’t cost prohibitive. I only guarantee the first year’s salary of the contract, worth $4 million.
Cap room after free agency
With $2 million committed to Jordan, $7 million to Young, and $4 million to Greer, I have spent $13 million on free agents. That leaves me with $11.35 million in cap space after the draft, which leaves me plenty if I need to sign a replacement player or to carry over to the next offseason.
As I said at the beginning of my plan, the goal is to build the best team possible around EJ, and a lot of that hinges on the draft. I want to give him top targets at wideout and tight end and build up the offensive line. At the same time, I can’t neglect the defense. Let’s head in:
As for the first 8 picks, I don't think the order matters, but I know that these players should be gone:
The five non-QBs are clearly in a tier of their own, and there are enough teams needing a QB to expect those three players to be gone.
With the 9th pick, the Buffalo Bills select Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M
I said the Bills were going to give EJ some help, and it starts right here with Mike Evans. Evans is a huge target, a strong blocker, open even when he's covered down the sidelines, and he has a serious drive for winning. He could start opposite Robert Woods on the outside immediately.
With the 35th pick, the Buffalo Bills select Troy Niklas, TE, Notre Dame
At 6'6" and 270 pounds, Niklas looks exactly like the ideal tight end. He has lots of core strength and is a good blocker who will get better as he improves his consistency. He's comfortable running routes, uses his body well to get in position for catches, and is deceptively fast. Niklas becomes the starter at tight end, and combined with Evans makes a huge pair of targets on the field.
With the 41st pick, the Buffalo Bills select Deone Bucannon, S, Washington State
This 6'1" 215 pound safety has been a bit of a sleeper behind the Pryor/Clinton-Dix hype, but people should be talking about him more. He is a really hard hitter, a good form tackler, and is always in on the play no matter where it goes or where he started. He's comfortable in coverage, explosive and rangy, though he gives receivers a bit too much cushion in man. He could start at strong safety and let Aaron Williams play center field, or he has the range to be a "hybrid" safety with both responsibilities.
With the 71st pick, the Buffalo Bills select Trai Turner, OG, LSU
Trai Turner is a redshirt sophomore guard with a lot of core strength and outstanding mobility - he came in third at the 40 yard dash behind Taylor Lewan and Greg Robinson, and you can tell how agile he is on tape. He can start at LG from day 1, and as his technique is refined he'll get better and better.
With the 73rd pick, the Buffalo Bills select Billy Turner, OT, North Dakota State
Buffalo keeps adding to the line with another Turner (no relation). Billy has great size at 6'5" 315 pounds, great strength and agility, and a rudimentary understanding of technique and footwork. He's a bit of a waist bender right now, which causes him to struggle with leverage. That's the sort of thing that's correctable, and even factoring that in Turner played well in Senior Bowl practices against FBS level opponents. He could eventually become a good starting LT - and he has the gritty playing attitude to be a great starter on the right side. He'll compete to start.
With the 102nd pick, the Buffalo Bills select James Hurst, OT, North Carolina
Yup, we're taking another lineman! Offensive line is especially deep in this draft, and there is some serious talent available even on day three (I'm sure a hundred other analysts have already said that sentence). James Hurst broke a fibula in his final college game, and has missed out on the whole offseason workout process. He weighed in under 300 pounds at the Combine, so it looks like he needs to "redshirt" for an offseason or so once his bone is set so he can gain back some bulk. Buffalo can offer that flexibility, with Glenn, Turner, and Hairston available to immediately compete for the 2 starting spots and the swing position. If Hurst recovers quick enough, he can compete to start at RT. He has good talent and started multiple seasons at left and right tackle in his college career, so he'll be projectable to start at G or T in the future.
With the 105th pick, the Buffalo Bills select Jordan Zumwalt, LB, UCLA
We go back to defense with this pick in Jordan Zumwalt. Zumwalt is the type of player who might become a fan favorite because he hits really hard (and clean for the most part) and swears like a sailor (look for the video of him running the 40 yard dash). He knocked Logan Thomas unconscious during a game this year, and Thomas is 6'6" and 250 pounds. Zumwalt has good burst, and anticipates the snap well. He takes on blocks effectively, and is versatile enough to play any LB position (he even played some DE at UCLA). He also has special teams experience from college, so he can be one of the new core guys there. At 6'4" and 235 pounds, he has room to bulk up, so in that respect he's a bit like a slightly less athletic, one year younger version of Kiko Alonso. On this team, he can compete for the starting MLB and SLB spots with Akeem Jordan and Manny Lawson, respectively.
With the 137th pick, the Buffalo Bills select Isaiah Crowell, RB, Alabama State
Next, we take a chance on a running back with some questions in his past in Isaiah Crowell. Crowell is a super talented player with good vision and patience. He's fast, powerful, squeezes through the smallest gaps in the defense, and is about as easy to tackle as Marshawn Lynch. He was a star recruit at Georgia, until the summer of 2012 when he was arrested during a traffic stop where a stolen gun was found in his car. Crowell told police he was unaware of the weapon, and he was known to loan his car out to friends to use, but the incident raised concerns even after charges were dropped, and so he transferred out of Georgia to Alabama State. A year and a half later, Crowell has a son, says the incident was a "childish mistake" and he wants to move on, though he also wants to keep it in his mind to remind him of what could have been if he stayed at Georgia. In the 5th round, the Bills can afford to take a chance on Crowell, and with Fred Jackson and CJ Spiller mentoring him, he should be able to find a place as a physical running back in the Buffalo offense.
With the 169th pick, the Buffalo Bills select Russell Bodine, C/G, North Carolina
For their 6th round pick, the Bills add a teammate of their 4th round tackle James Hurst in Russell Bodine. Bodine is a redshirt junior who started two seasons on the UNC line, mostly at center with some left guard thrown in there. He has a crisp snapping motion and a lot of core strength, putting up 42 bench press reps to lead the Combine this year. He still needs to improve his vision presnap and postsnap, as I noticed the line not picking up blitzers as often as it should. He's also not as mobile as you'd like an interior lineman to be. He struggled to effectively get in position on screen plays (although so did all the other UNC linemen, so maybe it was coaching rather than skill). He also is kind of "all over the place" when using his hands while blocking, and that saps a lot of his leverage. Technical flaws negate the core strength which he has shown in workouts.
As a 6th round prospect, Bodine is a backup with upside. He's big at 6'3" 310 pounds and clearly has the strength to anchor, which you want from a center. But he needs refining before he could be ready to start. He slots in as one of the primary interior backups.
With the 201st pick, the Buffalo Bills select Pat O'Donnell, P, Miami
Much like they did the last two years, I'm going to have Buffalo use a pick at the tail end of their draft to get a specialist with upside. O'Donnell is a very athletic punter who ran a 4.62 40 at the Combine and put up 23 reps on the bench press. He's also one of the best punting prospects in the draft, who was also used as a kickoff specialist and got touchbacks on nearly half of his kickoffs, demonstrating good leg strength. He will challenge Brian Moorman for the starting job. And if he loses, he can at least run in Moorman's 5k.
Post Draft Moves
Right now my team is looking pretty good, but there is still a hole at fullback and I want to select a couple guys for the practice squad. So here are my UDFA targets!
Jay Prosch, FB, Auburn
At 6 foot even and 256 pounds, Prosch is a big, sculpted blocker who paved the way for Tre Mason at Auburn. Prosch was very good at what he did, and showed some flashes of amazing talent at lead blocking, although like most draft prospects it was inconsistent. He wasn't used outside of blocking at Auburn, so though he looks like an athlete his speed, hands, and running ability are unknowns. He also wasn't invited to the NFL Combine, which hurt his publicity somewhat. With only 3 fullbacks being drafted last year, it's entirely possible in a very deep draft Prosch goes unpicked, in which case I add him to the roster. He becomes the starting fullback and will play on special teams as well.
Branden Oliver, RB, Buffalo
The guy who went to the local school also wasn't invited to the Combine, which is a shame because he needed all the publicity he could get. Oliver is small but powerfully built, and has strong legs that run through most tackles. He's a very shifty runner and has great field vision. He'll go on the practice squad and be used as insurance in case one of Fred Jackson, CJ Spiller, or Isaiah Crowell is no longer part of the team in the future.
Shaquil Barrett, OLB/DE, Colorado State
Another player who was uninvited at the Combine! Barrett, at 6'2" 250, is a bit of a tweener best suited as a 3-4 OLB, but he could play as a wide-9 DE or possibly 4-3 SLB/MLB as well. The reason I like him is that he plays well in spite of his squat measurables. He's a high motor guy who is very good at setting the edge in the run game. He has good strength to handle tackles, and has a variety of pass rush moves. I get a Courtney Upshaw vibe from him, so I sign him to the practice squad to see if he sticks.
Preston Brown, MLB, Louisville
Brown is one of those linebacker prospects who don't have great measurables, but are strong at the point of attack and have good knowledge of the play. He's strictly a middle linebacker, and his job would be to take on blocks and seal the running game. I keep him around as a guy who could eventually take over the Akeem Jordan role, as a special teamer and 2-down run stopper at MLB.
Luke Lucas, OT, Kansas State
As my last addition to the practice squad, I grab a developmental tackle. Lucas measured in as a giant, at 6'8" with arms longer than 36 inches, but didn't work out at the Combine. We already go 2 deep on each side of the line after the draft picks, but it never hurts to get a guy who could develop into something better down the line.
Future Outlook (tl;dr)
Front office changes:
Trade Jairus Byrd and Jerry Hughes for a second, third, fourth, and conditional 2015 pick. Re-sign Alex Carrington and Chris Hogan. Let everyone else leave. Cut Erik Pears, Kevin Kolb, Doug Legursky. Give Aaron Williams a 5 year extension.
Sign Akeem Jordan, Jabari Greer, and Willie Young.
Add Mike Evans, Troy Niklas, Deone Bucannon, Trai Turner, Billy Turner, James Hurst, Isaiah Crowell, Russell Bodine, Pat O'Donnell.
Sign Jay Prosch to active roster. Add Branden Oliver, Preston Brown, and Shaquil Barrett to practice squad.
|QB||EJ Manuel||Thad Lewis||Jeff Tuel|
|RB||CJ Spiller||Fred Jackson||Isaiah Crowell||Branden Oliver|
|TE||Troy Niklas||Lee Smith||Tony Moeaki||Chris Gragg|
|WR1||Mike Evans||Stevie Johnson||TJ Graham||Chris Hogan|
|LT||Cordy Glenn||Chris Hairston||Luke Lucas|
|LG||Trai Turner||Mark Asper|
|C||Eric Wood||Russell Bodine|
|RG||Kraig Urbik||JJ 'Unga|
|RT||Billy Turner||James Hurst|
|WR2||Robert Woods||Marquise Goodwin||Marcus Easley|
|DE1||Mario Williams||Alex Carrington|
|DT1||Kyle Williams||Stefan Charles|
|DT2||Marcell Dareus||Alan Branch|
|DE2||Willie Young||Shaquil Barrett|
|WLB||Kiko Alonso||Nigel Bradham|
|MLB||Akeem Jordan||Jordan Zumwalt||Preston Brown|
|SLB||Manny Lawson||Ty Powell|
|CB1||Stephon Gilmore||Jabari Greer||Ron Brooks|
|SS||Deone Bucannon||Jonathan Meeks||Da'Norris Searcy|
|FS||Aaron Williams||Duke Williams|
|CB2||Leodis McKelvin||Nickell Robey|
|P||Brian Moorman||Pat O'Donnell|
On offense, we have two starters replacing lousy veterans on the offensive line with the Turners Trai and Billy, plus two new backups with James Hurst and Russell Bodine, for tackle and interior line, respectively. Mike Evans and Troy Niklas add size and power to the skill positions, giving EJ easy targets, while Stevie Johnson, Robert Woods, Marquise Goodwin, and TJ Graham are an excellent mix of secondary targets.
On defense, we lost Jairus Byrd and Jerry Hughes, but got 3 picks in a deep draft to replace them (and it's entirely possible we would've not re-signed either one long-term), as well as a day 2 pick in 2015, which could be useful for trading up. We replaced Byrd with Deone Bucannon, who can start immediately and has plenty of upside, and replaced Hughes with a better scheme fit in Willie Young. Jordan Zumwalt is a future starter at MLB or SLB, and Akeem Jordan can start right away.
The special teams core was kept intact and given a talent infusion. Marcus Easley, Chris Hogan, Ron Brooks, Duke Williams, and Jonathan Meeks can all play big roles on teams. Zumwalt and Prosch add special teams upside, as does Akeem Jordan. We add a punter who can hopefully dethrone Brian Moorman, and Dustin Hopkins is ready to go as the starting K.
The offense is given a major talent infusion and the defense is reloaded. This is a team that has been built up to give EJ Manuel the chance to prove he's a franchise QB and lead the team to the playoffs.