The 4-7 Buffalo Bills are a day away from embarking on a bye week, and we'll be spending the last week without a game until the new year in a ponderous state of mind for this week's mailbag post. Many thanks to the dozens of you that submitted questions for this feature; please keep that up either via email or via Twitter.
Let's get right to this week's trio of questions, shall we?
Aside from the obvious name, which upcoming Bills free agents have the most riding on these last five games?
I don't know why you'd toss aside the obvious name, because if it's obvious, it's really important: Jairus Byrd has more riding on these five games than any pending free agent by a country mile. He's already accumulated three interceptions and a sack in six games since his return to the lineup, and if he can continue to feast on some average quarterbacks and iffy teams down the stretch, he'll have proven his worth to the team. Byrd is worth a lucrative long-term contract extension; perhaps if the Bills see him produce for a long stretch in Mike Pettine's defense, they'll be more willing to pay up than they were last off-season.
Scott Chandler is a pending free agent, as well. Tight end is a position that many fans have keyed in on as a spot ripe for off-season change, but Chandler's a solid and consistent football player that hasn't produced much of late, but could make a late push for a new deal.
Two nominal starters on defense are worth watching, as well: Alan Branch is a useful run-down defender, but his contract status may depend on how negotiations go with Alex Carrington. His cause isn't helped much by solid rotational play from Corbin Bryant and Stefan Charles, either. Arthur Moats' rookie deal is set to expire, as well; he's a valued special teams player and has been okay in the base defense, so he might be worth keeping around even if he's pushed into a reserve role this off-season.
Buffalo's defense has been pretty good this year, but depth is a concern. What do you think is their biggest need area going into the off-season?
I mentioned in last week's mailbag post that I thought that the linebacker position was in need of another three-down player. Right now, the Bills are using the aforementioned Moats in that role in the base defense, with Manny Lawson getting some nickel work next to Kiko Alonso and Da'Norris Searcy lining up there (sort of the way Bryan Scott used to) in dime packages. They're getting by just fine for now, but if "hybrid" is the true goal for Pettine, they'll want that second linebacker that can cover and rush on occasion. Right now that player is Lawson, but he's not a great long-term fit for that specific role because he gets by more on length than athletic ability in space. He's a great fit as the SAM linebacker in the base defense, but I'm thinking more along the lines of a Demario Davis type - an inside linebacker by trade that can drop into coverage and blitz off the edge. Alonso does both of those things now, as well.
Aside from that, they're in pretty good shape, provided they can keep Byrd (and since they can use the franchise tag again, he's not likely to depart) at safety and either Carrington or Branch along the defensive line (Carrington would be ideal, both even more so). They have a nice trio of edge rushers in Mario Williams, Lawson and Jerry Hughes. Corner depth is a need for every team, but the Bills' top three is in good shape with Stephon Gilmore, Leodis McKelvin and Nickell Robey. Really, I think their one weak area is that second linebacker spot.
Thanks for the question, Gerry!
What's on the All-22 agenda for the bye week?
This is a great question, and not just because it's so conversational. Mailbag questions are at their best when they're simple!
I have a few ideas in mind for All-22 posts not just during the bye week, but early next week (though we'll obviously get back into looking at Atlanta about a week from now); how about I run those ideas by you, and y'all can let me know which ones you'd rather see? Thanks for the question, Adam!
- EJ Manuel: I had been planning on waiting to do player-specific posts until the off-season, but the bye week might be a good time to assess where Manuel is at in his development. Specifically, in conversing with a friend recently, I came to the realization that I couldn't remember one "wow" throw from Manuel this season - a throw that genuinely got me excited about his potential as an NFL starter. That doesn't mean that said throw(s) doesn't (don't) exist, however; I thought I might scan through Manuel's seven games to single out Manuel's best reads and throws from the 2013 season.
- O-Line: Buffalo has been pretty bad running the football for the last five weeks - they've been held under 100 yards as a team four times, with a 241-yard outburst against Kansas City the clear outlier - and C.J. Spiller, in particular, has been corralled. We've talked a bit about the play-calling and Spiller in previous All-22 posts, but I wanted to take a much closer look at the line to see what's going on up front.
- Defensive personnel: The Bills really got after Geno Smith and the Jets on Sunday, in case you've forgotten. It might be fun to pick out one game (hint: that game) to take a look at the total number of personnel packages, formations and play calls (including rushes and coverages) that Pettine used as he and his players were teeing off on an opponent.
I'm always open to suggestions for All-22 posts, as well, though I'll remind again that I'm trying to hold off on player-specific posts until the off-season. Also, as usual, I'll hop around the comments section throughout the day (or multiple days, as the case may be) to field more inquiries and join the discussion.