It did not take very long for the Bills to make a splash in the 2014 NFL Draft. Feeling the pressure to make the playoffs for the first time since 1999, the Bills traded from 9 to 4 to draft skilled wide receiver Sammy Watkins. Although Watkins was easily the best offensive skilled player in the draft and one of the best receivers since AJ Green, the Bills sacrificed two first round picks and a fourth round pick in 2015. The trade for Sammy Watkins puts a lot of pressure on the Bills and specifically EJ Manuel to perform at a high level and immediately win. If the Bills have another poor season, they could forfeit a top ten selection in a draft that has many franchise quarterbacks. Along with adding Watkins, the Bills are trying to make Manuel’s job easier by trading for wide receiver Mike Williams. Although Williams is frequently injured, he is a big play receiver that can stretch the defense. Since the Bills have an above average defense, the Bills will have a chance to win a lot of games if Manuel can improve his game and CJ Spiller returns to his dominant form.
On defense, the Bills were faced with the challenge of replacing Pro-Bowl safety Jairus Byrd, who signed a monster deal with the New Orleans Saints. The Bills were able to sign Cory Graham, but he does not possess the same skill or ball hawking ability like Byrd. Although the were unable to replace Byrd with one player, they are hoping that each player will take a step forward. The Bills made an effort to improve and add depth to their linebacking core through the additions of Brandon Spikes, Keith Rivers, and rookie Preston Brown. Rivers and Spikes have a lot of talent, but have yet to establish themselves as consistent starters in the NFL.
The success of the offense and ultimately the team will come down to the performance of EJ Manuel. Outside of Manuel, the Bills have one of the most exciting offenses in the league with CJ Spiller, Fred Jackson, Robert Woods, Sammy Watkins, and an average offensive line. If Manuel can take a step forward, like other second year quarterbacks, the Bills can possess a very potent offense. Since Manuel has great weapons at his disposal, he does not have to make perfect passes. He will have the luxury to throw short passes and give his playmakers the opportunity to use their speed to collect yards after the catch. Manuel needs to realize his role on the team and not lose games for Buffalo. The Bills’ coaching staff should recognize that Manuel has yet to complete a full season and give him opportunities to gain confidence.
The most important player on the Bills’ defense will be one of the newcomers, Brandon Spikes. Spikes will have the responsibility of replacing Kiko Alonso, who is out for the season. Although Alonso has only played 16 games in his career, he was the Bills’ most consistent player as he recorded 159 tackles, 2 sacks, 4 interceptions, and 2 forced fumbles. Although it is unfair to think that Spikes can replicate Kiko’s numbers, he needs to be at least an adequate middle linebacker. Spikes will be incredibly important for the success of the defense because they do not have another tackling machine on their roster. Spikes may have to reinvent himself because he was in Bill Belicheck’s “dog house” at the end of the season and was placed on IR. Although the Bills will become one of the best pass defending teams in the league with their great pass rushers, Mario Williams, Jerry Hughes, Kyle Williams, and Marcell Dareus, and secondary, Aaron Williams, Stephon Gilmore, and Leodis McKelvin, the Bills’ defense will be suspect and abused if they cannot stop opposing team’s running attacks.
If Manuel is able to play more games this season than last season, 10, the Bills should be an improved football team. Last year, they were forced to rely on the “talents” of Jeff Tuel and Thad Lewis, which resulted in a record of 2-4. The Bills should be hopeful that Manuel can lead the Bills to at least 8 wins because he was 4-6 last year and will be blessed with more experience and talented weapons this year. Besides the addition of Watkins and Williams on the outside, Spiller should have a significantly better campaign. Last season, he was constantly plagued by leg injuries, which took away some of his agility and held him to less than 1000 yards and only 2 total touchdowns. When Spiller is healthy, he is one of the most dynamic running backs in the league because he has home run talent and the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. Although many are confident that the Bills’ offense will take a step forward, their defense is expected to play worse without their stars Jairus Byrd and Kiko Alonso. The defense is expecting huge seasons from the front four, although Kyle Williams and Mario Williams will be over 30 before the season terminates. The defense is expecting a huge season from the duo because they need them to apply pressure on the quarterback and stop the run. In order to replace Byrd’s tackling and turnovers, Gilmore, Searcy, and McKelvin need to improve their coverage abilities and force more turnovers like the departing Byrd. Although I depict the defense negatively, the defense should remain a top 15 defense and continue to stop opposing passing games.
One potential fantasy superstar for the Bills will be the fourth overall pick, Sammy Watkins. As I mentioned earlier, Watkins is the best rookie wide receiver since AJ Green, who has become one of the best in the league. Manuel has yet to develop a strong connection with any of his current wideouts. During the first preseason game, Watkins caught three passes and it is likely that the Bills will center their offense around him and CJ Spiller. Currently, Watkins is being drafted in the middle to late rounds. Owners should draft him and place him on the bench for the first few weeks, until he matures into a number one wideout.
pics and stats from ESPN.com