Ranking the 7 Biggest Upgrades Buffalo Bills Made This Offseason
The Buffalo Bills are almost through their first week of practice with their first preseason game on August 2 quickly approaching. There is certainly excitement starting to build around this team and as general manager Doug Whaley said, per Mark Gaughan of The Buffalo News, "We're not the Bills anymore."
This is due in large part to the work by Whaley and the rest of the Bills' front office over the past few months. They have been active in free agency and the NFL draft to find the talent that can put this team over the hump and into the playoffs.
I have ranked the Bills' seven biggest upgrades from this offseason based on what talent the team had last year, how they have looked in training camp so far and their potential impact on the 2014 season.
7. Seantrel Henderson
The seventh player on this list was the Bills' seventh-round pick in the NFL draft a few months ago. Left tackle Seantrel Henderson had numerous questions surrounding him, but there was certainly no question about his potential.
Starting left tackle Cordy Glenn has been battling an illness since the start of training camp and has not had a chance to get on the field. This opened an opportunity for Henderson to show he can contribute and be a part of this team.
The ideal situation, though, is that Glenn is able to get healthy and get back on the field quickly because Henderson is not an upgrade from Glenn last year. However, having a player like Henderson as the backup left tackle would certainly be an upgrade from last season. If Glenn does miss extended time or is hurt at some point in the season, Henderson would be an adequate replacement.
6. Chris Williams
The left guard position was awful a season ago with Colin Brown and Doug Legursky, which makes the free-agent signing of Chris Williams an easy choice for this list. The Buffalo Bills covet big offensive linemen like Williams (6'6", 320 pounds) compared to Legursky (6'1", 315 pounds).
The addition of Williams will allow the team to move Legursky down on the depth chart and should fill the role of backup G/C, where he is better suited. Williams has had a quiet but steady training camp so far, but Joe Buscaglia of WGR 550 did mention his play after the fourth day of practice. Buscaglia wrote, "Left guard Chris Williams also won both of his attempts, standing up Kyle Williams and then keeping Ikponmwosa Igbinosun at bay."
The addition of Williams to the offensive line should provide much better play from left guard this coming season and hopefully keep EJ Manuel clean and give the team's running backs more room to work.
5. Cyrus Kouandjio
Cyrus Kouandjio should be much higher on this list, but the play of Erik Pears so far in training camp keeps him at No. 5. After Pears' lackluster performance last year and the Bills using a second-round pick to draft Kouandjio, it seemed to be a foregone conclusion that the rookie would be starting very early in the season.
ESPN's Mike Rodak wrote about the battle brewing at right tackle:
How about right tackle? At the beginning of OTAs, Marrone said he wanted to throw second-round pick Cyrus Kouandjio into the mix with the first team, leading to reps with the top unit. Those dwindled by the end of spring practices and we've seen Erik Pears exclusively with the first team so far in camp. Asked if that was a reflection more on Pears or Kouandjio, Marrone said it was a "little bit of both," adding that "Cyrus is coming along. Again, the closer you are to the ball, the tougher it is to play in this league." Pears started 16 games last season but dealt with an injury. At 32, his job appeared to be in jeopardy this summer but he's been holding off Kouandjio to this point.
If Kouandjio is not able to win this job from Pears, it certainly could be viewed as a disappointment. It seems like this is one battle that will be dragged out for the remainder of camp.
4. Mike Williams
Even though Mike Williams will probably end up third on the depth chart and spend most of the season splitting time with Marquise Goodwin, he provides the team with an element it was missing last year. There is no arguing the Bills had unbelievable speed at the position, but they had no size, and this is why Williams is an upgrade.
Last year, when the Bills got in the red zone, the offense struggled, and according to Team Rankings, the Bills finished 29th with a touchdown percentage of 47.73. Williams should help in this category in 2014 because even though he is 6'2", he has an incredible ability to attack the ball at its highest point, which makes him play much taller.
In a recent article by Chris Brown of BuffaloBills.com, Williams was asked about his knack for snatching these high passes and he said, "I kind of made a little joke in the meetings earlier I told [Manuel] to throw it in the clouds and I’ll go get it.”
3. Bryce Brown
The trade for Bryce Brown during the NFL draft made it seem as if the Bills were protecting themselves if C.J. Spiller or Fred Jackson, or even both, left after the 2014 season. If the first few practices of training camp mean anything, the coaching staff expects Brown to contribute this season.
In Peter King's "Five Things I Think I Think" on MMQB, the second topic he mentions is how much the coaching staff likes Brown and believes "he will have the chance to run the ball early and often for this team."
This may be a surprise considering the Bills do have Spiller and Jackson already on the roster, and seemingly ahead of Brown on the depth chart. However, I don't think it's a knock on either of those guys, but rather the Bills are planning on running a lot, and having three quality backs, like this offense does, gives them that opportunity.
2. Brandon Spikes
These next two players really could be 1A and 1B on this list because the impact they will have on their respective sides of the ball will be pretty similar. Middle linebacker Brandon Spikes was brought over from New England because of his run-stuffing ability, an area the defense really struggled in last year.
The defense ranked 10th in yards given up (333.4) but finished last year 28th in rushing yards given up per game (128.9). The additions of Jim Schwartz as defensive coordinator and Brandon Spikes made it clear the front office wants to improve against the run.
The impact of Spikes may not be limited to just the run game now that Kiko Alonso is out for the season. The defense is trying to figure out how to fill the void left with Alonso's absence, particularly in the nickel formation.
Joe Buscaglia noted Spikes has started to get some looks in the nickel:
Without Kiko Alonso in the lineup the Bills are mixing and matching personnel with the first unit to see what the best combination is of linebackers in nickel coverage. Keith Rivers, Nigel Bradham and Preston Brown were all expected to get looks in that respect, but middle linebacker Brandon Spikes was always thought to be the one that would come off the field in that scenario. Noted as a solid run defender and also someone that has had struggles in coverage in the past, the nickel isn’t a fit for him — at least not on paper. For a few plays during team drills though, Spikes was in the nickel look as one of the two linebackers on the field. His athleticism wasn’t tested in these looks, but the Bills are weighing all their options.
The run game is where Spikes will earn his paycheck and have an immediate impact, but if he is also able to demonstrate an ability to defend the pass, then the defense is going to be that much tougher.
1. Sammy Watkins
While Spikes is the biggest upgrade on defense, there is no denying the fact that Watkins is the biggest upgrade on the offensive side of the ball. The rookie wide receiver has been stealing the show at training camp, and MMQB's Peter King left Bills training camp impressed.
The sad part is King didn't even get to see Watkins' best play of training camp, captured by WGR 550's Sal Capaccio. Now I know this was in practice and no pads or defense, but the athletic ability on display here is truly impressive.
The one person who has to be loving this more than anyone is EJ Manuel, whose job has gotten a little bit easier entering this season. Everybody in western New York hopes the chemistry shown between Manuel and Watkins so far in practices will translate to preseason games and eventually the regular season.
The threat of Watkins on the field should open up opportunities for the other skill players in this offense like Robert Woods, Mike Williams and the trio of running backs. Defenses are going to have to dedicate more attention to the rookie wide receiver and account for him at all times. This should give the other players favorable matchups that they will need to exploit for this offense to be successful.