The most prominent topic of conversation this off season amongst Bills fans has been the first year progress and the future projection of EJ Manual. While fan bases can often be spastic and find themselves caught up in minutiae during the doldrums of a long off-season away from their beloved sport, this time the long winded debate is certainly warranted. After all, one cannot help but be convinced of the fact that the NFL is a quarterback centric league, now so more than ever. The continued evolution of the passing game, rules favoring offensive explosions and the "seven on seven" culture (referencing the ever earlier teaching and continued practice of the passing game from a young age) have culminated in what we see now, the league’s most important position catapulted to a stature of exponentially higher regard in a few short years.
While the above reasons hold true for most if not all of the NFL, the importance of EJ Manual’s evolution or capitulation to mediocrity is amplified. ‘Savior of the franchise’ draft choices tend to fit that mold. While fans will always perceive a first round quarterback as an anointed savior, after one season I believe the upcoming draft will provide a telltale sign of what exactly the coaches believe they have with their young quarterback. Let me explain. It seems obvious that there is a growing dichotomy in the NFL. Teams built/building in the Seahawks mold, and teams built in the Broncos mold. Now, clearly these are simply top of mind generalizations, but the delineation should be obvious. A stifling defensively driven, offensively running game reliant, managed passing game team, and a passing offense centric team, favoring utility at running back, and compiling a defense leaner on total talent, built from the outside in, hoping to stop the pass and generate turnovers. Now, the current roster haul would lead one to believe that the Bills are, at least in the short term, built more in the likeness of the Seahawks. The hefty majority of top tier talent on the team resides on the defensive side of the ball, coupled with a running back tandem that was heavily involved in read progressions last year, and a tightly managed quarterback. It is easy to surmise that this all was a result of current roster talent from the previous regime (mostly true) and a green starting quarterback (very true). While these are both acceptable assumptions it is why I believe this draft will offer our clearest glimpse yet into exactly what the current staff believes EJ Manual is capable of. "Anything to help EJ" seems to have become the rallying cry of couch draft strategists everywhere, but I contest that "helping EJ" can come in two deliberately different forms.
Let us look at the current constructs of the offense. While possessing no true bell cow back in the mold of a Marshawn Lynch (funny to say that in reference to the Bills), stylistically Fred Jackson and CJ Spiller are very solid fits in Nate Hackett’s offense. Both are apt receivers, and their contrasting running styles complement each other nicely, especially within the confines of a zone running scheme. With a season, and an entire off-season under their collective belts I expect to see the creativity in the scheme, especially referencing the utilization of both backs together, and more option/packaged plays, racheted up in the second year, providing a platform on which mostly Spiller can live up to his (hopefully now tempered) expectations.
The wide receiver situation remains intriguing for the Bills. With the addition of Mike Williams to take the, well mantle isn’t the correct term, but take the split end or X receiver position (weak side, typically isolated and on the line) from TJ Graham, Stevie Johnson and Robert Woods should be rejoicing. Woods, especially in my opinion has a chance to have a markedly improved sophomore season as the move or Z receiver in the Bills offense (The move term did not apply to the Bills offense last year, and agree or disagree there were valid reasons for lack of motion). An apt comparison that will likely draw ire is to Reggie Wayne. Woods is, in my opinion the most talented receiver on this roster. Like Wayne, even at this stage in his career he is a developed and I hesitantly say advanced route runner. His slighter build occasionally gives him fits with physical press man corners, but he is crafty off the line and a burgeoning technician running the route tree. Combine that with above average hands and competitiveness, along with overlooked run after the catch ability and I believe you’re looking at the Bills most productive wideout for the upcoming season. He will especially be aided by having a receiver who can consistently get off of a jam and will have to be accounted for in Williams on the other side.
Stevie Johnson should continue to be utilized in the slot, where he is best suited and which is where he spent the majority of this past season. It’s easy to point out his route running style as unconventional, and it is, freewheeling is even a term that gets thrown around, however I think that demeans his ability. His incredible use of leverage, subtle quickness and patience is an art form that is most prominent from the slot position where he has ample room to work with, and where his long speed deficiencies are masked. Whatever issues the fan base has with him notwithstanding, putting on the tape he is a weapon in any offense that should be feared in the slot. His third down prowess is the reason so many of EJ’s carefully managed reads ultimately had him reading Stevie on option routes down to the back. It’s an incredible cliché to say some guys just know how to get open, it undermines the subtle nuances and awareness necessary to actually be open, which Johnson clearly possesses.
I have not watched Mike Williams closely so I will not speak to exactly what he will bring, outside of assuredly an upgrade to TJ Graham. Graham is not a refined route runner, and to this point in his career does not seem to understand how to properly attack the leverage of the defensive back consistently. Additionally, he possesses a maddening propensity for wide releasing every route against compressed man coverage, tipping his hand immediately, never giving the slightest threat to the inside to push the defender off balance, allowing himself to get boxed to the sideline and completely losing his leverage and spacing in the route, ultimately condensing the throwing radius for the quarterback. He has speed, yet he apparently deems it necessary to attempt to unleash it in an unbridled manner on every snap. Route running, good route running that is, is about exponentially more than speed. Speed is a tool in the route running toolbox and when utilized properly is a great amplifier of it, however, until TJ learns to harness his speed, become more precise in his breaks and technically aware off the line he should not see the field over Williams or Goodwin.
Which brings us to "Flash" Goodwin, the receiver who has, in the eyes of most fans and likely in reality, immense upside that still has the ability to be reached. He is also truly the least known commodity of the receiving corps, a consequence of both injury and utilization last year. Now, was he underutilized when healthy because he was not prepared to be a heavy NFL contributor in the eyes of the coaches? That answer is likely affirmative, however we cannot know except what we can glean from the teams’ personnel decision to play TJ Graham over Goodwin. That Goodwin has not had a clear focus on football until relatively recently and all of the factors that come along with that are not of my interest. So what is it that we do know? Goodwin, despite his stature is a strong, compactly built athlete, and we all are aware of the world class speed. But as mentioned above, speed alone, no matter how rare, will not sustain a receiver in this league. Coupled with speed however, one could notice instances in which he displayed a much better understanding of the subtleties of route running, even on his go routes, which often seemed like he was simply running as straight and as fast as possible. He displayed an understanding of attacking the defenders leverage, and affecting the defenders positioning with his vertical stem in an advantageous way allowing his explosive speed to finish the job. And while speed may seem like the most important part of the equation, the set up in the stem, and stacking of the trailing defender, are two qualities that will allow a deep speed receiver to continually separate from defenders, including those of near equal athletic prowess. Although in Goodwin’s case I’m unsure if one exists. And while the most was made, and for good reason, about Goodwin’s long receptions, perhaps just as encouraging was his route running in the short to intermediate game. In comparison with TJ Graham, he displayed much better ability to throttle down without consistently tipping his hand, which often constitutes a high chest and/or head going into a break, which is why he was a consistent target of weakside isolation hitches (That and the vast respect given by defenders as indicated by their spacing off the line). Additionally, on in-breaking routes he displayed a much better than expected precision in his cuts, which again is difficult for a receiver with this much natural speed to become proficient in, due to a learned propensity of full speed trumps all. While plenty of work is certainly needed, and whether Goodwin will ever be an every down receiver is certainly a debate that can be had, I found his rookie season overly encouraged, and look forward to watching Goodwin play an increasingly important and consistent role in the offense. The combination of a more refined Goodwin represents a scary prospect for defensive coaches, as his deep speed undoubtedly must be accounted for, in theory creating space for technicians Woods and Johnson to operate, and CJ’s elite open field prowess to be displayed, as schemes can no longer focus on condensing the field, thereby inoculating the strengths of the balance of the Bills playmakers.
Lastly, we have Scott Chandler. While it is hard to be anything but appreciative for Chandler’s contributions, especially considering the fact his signing was originally a mid-season bargain bin afterthought, at this juncture and going forward Chandler is what he is, a big bodied plodder, with below average strength for his size and inconsistent hands. Additionally, his ability to get open is almost completely predicated on either play design or his size, as he is neither physical enough nor deceptively quick enough to separate consistently, nor does he possess a better than average understanding of the nuances of route running. Too often does Chandler find himself engaged with the defender on the vertical stem of his route, slowing play development and throwing off rhythm and spacing. Now this is now to say that Chandler does not have a place in this offense, but whether he is ultimately upgraded or not, and how emphatic the upgrade is, I believe revolves around the franchise’s thoughts about EJ.
Which finally brings us to the draft. Even watching minimal tape one can deduct that much of EJ’s discomfort in the pocket, the discomfort that was not self-manufactured, came from up the middle. In an offense that was predicated on short to medium, mostly lateral reads, infused with weak side isolated check with me routes, and pronounced usage of the running backs in read progressions, quick pressure flashing in the middle was often the easiest way of disrupting the pass game. Now, the Bills offensive personnel is not lacking for talent, especially if Hackett and the Bills wish to continue to operate in a similar offensive fashion. However, if they believe EJ has the ability to be a truly upper echelon quarterback in this league, and not simply a middle tier guy that will operate effectively in a tightly managed gameplan, with the athleticism to provide the extra dimension of running ability occasionally and ability to extend plays that can provide big gains (through the ground or in the air) that other quarterbacks simply cannot, it would seem likely to me that Ebron is the logical pick in the first round. If in fact they believe the latter scenario is true I foresee a defender, one at any level actually, taken with the first round pick. Now, from there I believe the Bills focus would likely be very fluid in the proceeding rounds. Additionally, if a player, such as a Jake Matthews is rated exponentially higher than a defender, building a road grading offensive line also marries with the strategy of molding in the likeness of the Seahawks.
While one may posture that you are not helping a young quarterback by drafting defensive talent, especially to a roster that has exponentially more top tier talent on that side of the ball than their counterparts on offense, I believe a contrasting argument can be made. If the Bills wish to continue to build in the mold of the truly stalwart defensive teams, no amount of playmakers or depth is too great, see Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers. This is not to affirm the old adage that "defense wins championships", because both team constructs have their merit. It is simply to say that the Bills have likely chosen theirs and will be tipping their hand. With the exceptional defensive front of the Bills, chock full of pass rushers, I would not be shocked to see the Bills draft a lanky and physical defensive back or a run and chase linebacker with the ninth overall pick. As much variety in scheme and personnel as Pettine utilized last year, this would only afford Schwartz that much more flexibility. Disruption of the passing game, that provided by the defense and not due to inability on the offenses part, typically comes in two very simplified forms, the quarterback is not afforded the proper time and/or spacing in which to progress through his reads and identify the open receiver, or receivers cannot get open due to exceptional defensive back play (hold scheme constant). A combination of both is deadly and won the Super Bowl this past season. And while the cupboard is certainly not bare in the Bills defensive backfield, adding another elite level player will only serve to allow Schwartz to be more multiple in personnel and fronts, more aggressive in technique (not referencing blitzing) and perhaps even less complex schematically, which yes can be a good thing.
This is by no means meant to be a draft prediction, nor am I offering my personal opinion on which way the Bills should be leaning, this is simply an opinion on the signaling this draft will provide and how I believe that predicts the identity of this franchise going forward. Even after a year a franchise knows exponentially more about a player than they did when they originally drafted him, and that can mean confirming their analysis and prediction or forcing them to adjust their strategy moving forward, and this goes for a first round quarterback selection more so than any round/position combination. Should be an interesting and telling weekend.