Fresh off their first winning campaign since 2004, the Bills’ offseason began with unexpected departures at head coach and quarterback. New owners Terry and Kim Pegula reacted to those exits by flexing their financial muscle in upgrading both the coaching staff and the roster. Thanks to the myriad changes the Bills have undergone from the top down, enthusiasm is in no short supply for their success-starved fans – who purchased a franchise-record 57,500 season tickets in hopes of witnessing the team end its 15-year playoff drought (an NFL worst) in 2015.
- Charles Clay, TE: Five years, $38MM. $24.5MM guaranteed.
- Jerry Hughes, LB/DE: Five years, $45MM. $17.625MM guaranteed.
- Percy Harvin, WR: One year, $6MM. $5.9MM guaranteed.
- Jerome Felton, FB: Four years, $9.2MM. $3.6MM guaranteed.
- Marcus Easley, WR/ST: Four years, $7MM. $2.2MM guaranteed.
- Tyrod Taylor, QB: Three years, $3.35MM. $1.5MM guaranteed.
- Jarius Wynn, DE: Two years, $2.2MM. $250K guaranteed.
- Richie Incognito, G: One, year, $1.45MM. $100K guaranteed.
- Alex Carrington, DL: One year, minimum salary benefit. $80K guaranteed.
- Michael Buchanan, LB/DE: Two years, $1.285MM.
- John Conner, FB: One year, minimum salary benefit.
- Andre Fluellen, DT: One year, minimum salary benefit.
- Wayne Hunter, T: One year, minimum salary benefit.
- Matthew Mulligan, TE: One year, minimum salary benefit.
The Bills set out to improve their offense via free agency after finishing 26th in the league in yardage in 2014. Their first move was to to sign guard Richie Incognito in an attempt to repair a horrible offensive line. Incognito sat out the lion’s share of 2013 and all of ’14 because of unbecoming off-field conduct with the Dolphins. To his credit, the 31-year-old was a solid lineman prior to his short-term ouster from the sport, and he shouldn’t have much trouble serving as an upgrade over the dreadful guard play Buffalo received last season.
Accompanying Incognito are a couple more familiar faces from the AFC East: ex-Dolphins tight end Charles Clay (Incognito’s former and current teammate) and erstwhile Jets receiver Percy Harvin. The latter’s production hasn’t been much to write home about since his reign as a feared playmaker with the Vikings from 2009-12 ended. Still, the more options the better, and Harvin gives the Bills a field-stretching complement to go with young star Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods – not to mention a potentially dangerous gadget for new offensive coordinator Greg Roman.
As for Clay, the Bills succeeded in stealing him from Miami, which placed the transition tag on the 26-year-old before concluding that a five-year, $38MM offer sheet was too rich for its blood. Clay broke out in 2013 with career highs in receptions (69), yards (759) and touchdowns (six). He followed that with 58 catches last season and ranked as the 14th-best tight end in the league out of 67 qualifiers, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Elsewhere on offense, the Bills are hoping two less-heralded additions (fullback Jerome Felton and quarterback Tyrod Taylor) pay major dividends. The Bills’ questions along the offensive line don’t bode well for their desire to build a dominant running attack, but having another capable blocker in Felton – who contributed somewhat to Adrian Peterson‘s past success – should help. And while the chances of Taylor turning into a viable starting QB after signing for a relative pittance are quite low, his odds of winning the job aren’t bad. In terms of playing style, the 25-year-old is the closest thing the Bills have to the 49ers’ Colin Kaepernick – whom Roman coached in San Francisco. Moreover, the former Raven and Joe Flacco backup has a fan in new Bills coach Rex Ryan.
“I actually tried to trade for [Taylor] when I was with the Jets,” Ryan told Toronto’s SportsNet 590, per ESPN’s Mike Rodak. “I’m not gonna say he’s Russell Wilson, but he’s got a little of that in him, where he’s able to run zone reads and pull the ball down and be effective.”
The Bills don’t know what they’ll get from Taylor, but they’re confident Jerry Hughes will continue as a menacing pass rusher. Otherwise they wouldn’t have re-signed him for $45MM. Hughes, who struggled with the Colts from 2010-12, has flourished in Buffalo since joining the team in a 2013 trade. Hughes tallied 19.5 sacks the last two years while playing both defensive end and linebacker. He’ll work as a linebacker this season and should once again be a double-digit-sack threat in Ryan’s quarterback-attacking scheme.
- Scott Chandler, TE: Released
- Chris Hairston, T
- Larry Dean, LB
- Kyle Orton, QB: Retired
- Erik Pears, T
- Keith Rivers, LB: Released
- Da’Norris Searcy, S
- Lee Smith, TE
- Brandon Spikes, LB
- C.J. Spiller, RB
- Stevenson Sylvester, LB
Even though he’s not the most talented player they lost during the offseason, the Bills could end up hit hardest by the departure of Kyle Orton, who retired after 10 seasons. The 32-year-old wasn’t exactly stellar last season, his only one with the Bills, but he did eclipse the 3,000-yard mark and toss 18 touchdowns against 10 interceptions. It’s not unreasonable to think those numbers will be superior to the ones the Bills’ QBs put up this year. It’s also not unreasonable to think the team would be in better hands right now with Orton entrenched as the starter entering training camp, as opposed to the oncoming three-man battle among Matt Cassel, EJ Manuel and Taylor. That’s less a statement of praise for Orton than an indictment of Cassel, Manuel and Taylor.
The Bills’ biggest loss as far as name recognition goes is running back C.J. Spiller, whom they let walk in free agency after he totaled just 425 yards (300 rushing, 125 receiving) and one touchdown in nine games last season. Spiller, Buffalo’s top pick in 2010, had moments of brilliance as a Bill but fell short of expectations overall. With LeSean McCoy in the fold, the Bills are unlikely to miss Spiller going forward.
Defensively, the Bills are hoping the losses of linebacker Brandon Spikes and safety Da’Norris Searcy aren’t felt. Spikes played in just 46 percent of snaps last season because of his unreliability in pass coverage, but he’s a fantastic run defender who helped the Bills go from 28th against opposing ground games in 2013 to 11th in his lone season with them. Searcy turned a breakout 2014 (65 tackles, three interceptions, two forced fumbles) into a $24MM deal with the Titans. Without Searcy, the Bills are betting they’ll be fine at safety with a duo of Aaron Williams and Corey Graham.
Extensions and restructures:
The Bills’ lone offseason extension went to longtime defensive stalwart Kyle Williams. The four-time Pro Bowler has been a member of the Bills since they drafted him in 2006 and, if he sees his extension through, will be with them for at least three more seasons. Williams is entering his age-33 season but hasn’t shown signs of decline, as Pro Football Focus (subscription required) rated him seventh out of 81 qualifying D-tackles in 2014. He’ll continue to be an integral part of a line that features fellow linchpins Marcell Dareus and Mario Williams.
- Acquired RB LeSean McCoy from the Eagles in exchange for LB Kiko Alonso.
- Acquired QB Matt Cassel and a 2015 sixth-round pick from the Vikings in exchange for a 2015 fifth-round pick and a 2016 seventh-round pick.
The Bills addressed their anemic ground game in a big way when they acquired McCoy, a three-time Pro Bowler who surpassed the 1,300-yard plateau three times in six years as an Eagle and proved to be one of the league’s premier workhorses during that time span. However, adding McCoy cost the Bills an outstanding linebacker in Kiko Alonso, who burst on the scene as a rookie in 2013 before missing all of last season with a torn ACL.
Obviously, given that Buffalo had an excellent defense last year without Alonso and has terrific, similarly aged LBs in Nigel Bradham and Preston Brown, the team felt losing Alonso permanently was worth what should be a marked upgrade to its offense. One has to wonder, though, if McCoy will be as effective as he was in Philadelphia. The soon-to-be 27-year-old has plenty of tread on his tires, having accrued 300-plus carries in back-to-back seasons and nearly 1,500 during his career, and won’t have the benefit of running behind a top-level offensive line (the Eagles had the best run-blocking O-line in the league last year, according to Pro Football Focus – which ranked the Bills last in the same category).
Distributing the ball to McCoy could be Cassel, an 11th-year man whose play has been woeful since 2010. As a member of the Chiefs that year, Cassel threw 27 touchdowns against a meager seven interceptions, helped lead Kansas City to the playoffs, and made the Pro Bowl. Aside from that season and 2008, when he played well for the Patriots in place of an injured Tom Brady, Cassel has fared poorly as a starter. He was the Vikings’ No. 1 quarterback going into 2014 and had a lousy three-game stretch before suffering a season-ending foot injury. But Buffalo’s hope – if Cassel wins the job – is that surrounding the 33-year-old with a talented cast of playmakers and a fearsome defense will help mask his deficiencies. That better prove true for Cassel’s sake, as Rodak reported last month that he’s not a lock to make the Bills’ roster. An uninspiring summer showing could send him looking for work elsewhere.
- 2-50: Ronald Darby, CB (Florida State): Signed
- 3-81: John Miller, G (Louisville): Signed
- 5-155: Karlos Williams, RB (Florida State): Signed
- 6-188: Tony Steward, OLB (Clemson): Signed
- 6-194: Nick O’Leary, TE (Florida State): Signed
- 7-234: Dezmin Lewis, WR (Central Arkansas): Signed
Although the Bills had the third-ranked pass defense and sixth-most interceptions in the league last year, that didn’t stop them from using their top pick on Ronald Darby. The ex-Florida State Seminole will join Stephon Gilmore and Leodis McKelvin at the cornerback position and allow the Bills to move Graham to safety. Darby should reach his potential under Ryan, who is an advocate of fast, physical corners capable of handling one-on-one situations. Regarding Darby, Bills general manager Doug Whaley said (per Sal Maiorana of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle), “He’s physical, not only with the ball carriers, but as a press guy and Rex is a big press guy.”
Unlike Darby, third-rounder John Miller isn’t entering into an overly promising group of players at his position. Outside of signing Incognito, the Bills didn’t do anything prior to the draft to upgrade at guard. That’s good news for Miller, the leading candidate to start at whichever guard spot Incognito doesn’t occupy. Miller started 47 games at left guard during his career at Louisville and quickly won the favor of his new coach during offseason workouts. “He might be the opening guy there. He’s been very impressive,” Ryan said, according to WGR 550 (audio link).
- Hired Rex Ryan as head coach to replace Doug Marrone, who opted out of his contract.
- Hired Greg Roman as offensive coordinator to replace Nathaniel Hackett.
- Hired Dennis Thurman to replace Jim Schwartz.
- Hired former Bears OC Aaron Kromer as offensive line coach.
- Exercised 2016 fifth-year option for CB Stephon Gilmore ($11.082MM).
- Claimed QB Matt Simms off waivers from the Jets.
- Claimed WR Justin Brown off waivers from the Steelers.
- Signed 10 players to reserve/futures contracts.
- Signed 12 undrafted rookie free agents following the draft.
Buffalo’s offseason got off to a peculiar start when Doug Marrone opted out of his contract after just two years as its head coach. Marrone went 15-17 during his tenure, including a 9-7 mark in 2014, and hoped to parlay that into another head coaching job elsewhere. His gambit backfired, though, as he ultimately had to settle for an assistant’s role in Jacksonville. The Bills interviewed at least a dozen candidates to succeed Marrone before giving $27.5MM to Ryan, who coached the division-rival Jets from 2009-14 and helped lead two smash-mouth squads to AFC championship games. Ryan is no stranger to less-than-ideal QB situations and he’s inheriting another in Buffalo, where he hopes to mimic his early success with the Jets and win with a team built on a prolific running game and a suffocating defense.
Ryan will attempt to execute his plan with an accomplished offensive coordinator in Roman. The former Niners O-coordinator should acquit himself better than Marrone’s protege, the in-over-his-head Nathaniel Hackett. On the other hand, defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman has a harder act to follow in replacing Jim Schwartz. The Bills finished last season fourth in both yards and points allowed and third in takeaways. They’ll try to match or better that while transitioning from Schwartz’s 4-3 scheme to the 3-4 of Ryan and Thurman. Bear in mind that the Bills operated under a scheme similar to Ryan’s when one of his disciples, Mike Pettine, ran their defense in 2013. That year, they were 10th in yardage surrendered and third in takeaways. So, given that and the talent the defense possesses, Schwartz’s exit shouldn’t prove deleterious.
One of the defenders at the disposal of Ryan and Thurman will be Gilmore. The Bills exercised his fifth-year option, ensuring he’ll be a pillar of their defensive backfield for at least two more seasons. The 2012 first-round pick intercepted a career-best three passes last season and finished an impressive 26th out of 108 qualifying corners in Pro Football Focus’ grading system (subscription required). That was a vast improvement from the previous two years, when he ranked in the 70s.
Top 10 cap hits for 2015:
- Mario Williams, DE/OLB: $19,400,000
- Marcell Dareus, DT: $8,060,000
- Kyle Williams, DL: $6,950,000
- Eric Wood, C: $6,650,000
- Jerry Hughes, DE/OLB: $6,175,000
- LeSean McCoy, RB: $5,500,000
- Charles Clay, TE: $5,000,000
- Leodis McKelvin, CB: $4,900,000
- Matt Cassel, QB: $4,750,000
- Sammy Watkins, WR: $4,530,819
On paper, this year’s Bills team is the most talent-rich squad the franchise has had in a long time. The problem is that the game’s foremost position, quarterback, looks primed to weigh them down yet again. They’ve missed the playoffs for the entire 21st century because they’ve gotten nothing from a slew of failed passers. Whether it’s Cassel, Manuel or Taylor, someone has to grab the reins and perform respectably in a game manager role. That would allow the Bills to finally break their playoff drought on the strength of a better coaching staff, a big-name running back and a loaded defense.