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A look at the Bills as they look ahead to 2014

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Posted: Thursday, January 2, 2014 10:30 am

With 12 of the NFL’s 32 teams preparing for the playoffs beginning this weekend, the Bills are home for the 14th straight year.

There are Buffalo fans in high school who have never known their favorite team to be in the playoffs.

So is there any more reason for optimism in 2014?

Here’s a look at the Bills as they head into the off-season looking ahead to free agency two months from now and the draft in April.

COACHING — Since Doug Marrone took the job a year ago, he’s talked persistently about “changing the culture” (read: losing) of this team. And, 6-10 record aside, the former Syracuse coach and NFL coordinator, has done that. There’s a different attitude at One Bills Drive, and not just with the players.

He hired a staff of 21 assistants, 10 of whom were NFL rookies.

Nathaniel Hackett, the 34-year-old offensive coordinator, took some heat for his play-calling, but few in his position aren’t criticized at some point.  Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s unit had some glittering moments and some disastrous ones, but most observers were onboard with its aggressiveness as contrasted to Dave Wannstedt’s  read-and-react approach.

Marrone has already fired wide receivers coach Ike Hilliard over philosophical differences and, given the uneven performances of his special teams, Danny Crossman’s future will also be assessed.

But, for a first-year head coach, Marrone’s decision-making was generally good and the mistakes some felt he made in choosing his staff never really materialized.

QUARTERBACK — Last year’s first-round draft choice, EJ Manuel, will be the starter ... barring injury, which of course, is a big question. Three knee problems in four months left him only 10 starts (4-6 record), though at times he showed enough to be the franchise guy.

Backup Thad Lewis turned out to be an inspired and inexpensive trade acquisition from Detroit. He filled in reasonably well, logging a higher passer rating than Manuel while going 2-3 as a starter.

Off-season free agent acquisition Kevin Kolb missed the season after suffering another concussion in an exhibition game and given his history with that injury, it seems unlikely he has a future in Buffalo.

Don’t be surprised if the Bills try to upgrade the backup position.

RUNNING BACKS — Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller combined for over 1800 rushing yards, but the former, who will soon be 33, accounted for nine of their 11 touchdowns.

Jackson is elderly by running back standards, but since his NFL career began later than most of his peers, he’s taken less pounding and seemingly has a good year or two remaining.

Spiller, meanwhile, hasn’t really delivered on the promise that caused the Bills to take him in 2010’s first round, even though his numbers are respectable.

RECEIVERS — The Bills overpaid for Stevie Johnson, who’s the No. 1 wideout only in his own mind. He’s a 2 or 3 at best.  In 12 games this season, he had 52 catches and only three touchdowns, hardly what you expect from the top guy.

However, second-round draft choice Robert Woods is the real deal and three of third-round pick Marquise Goodwin’s 17 receptions went for scores. Even T.J. Graham, after a disappointing rookie season, picked up his game in Year 2.

Scott Chandler had the most catches and yards by a tight end in Bills’ history, but he had some drops and a killer fumble helped cost the Falcons game. At very the least, this position needs a viable No. 2 who’s an actual pass-catcher.

OFFENSIVE LINE — Center Eric Wood is solid and a team leader and left tackle Cordy Glenn quietly does a good job at this unit’s most demanding position. However, both guards — Doug Legursky and Kraig Urbik are no better than pedestrian — and right tackle Erik Pears is the weakest link on the starting five.

DEFENSIVE LINE — Almost inarguably, this is the Bills’ best collective unit with starting tackles Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus, plus ends Mario Williams, Jerry Hughes and Alan Branch with Alex Carrington returning from injured reserve. 

Buffalo’s DL accounted for 43 of the franchise-record 57 sacks recorded this past season.

LINEBACKERS — Kiko Alonso, in the middle, might just be Buffalo’s best draft pick since Jairus Byrd in 2009. He made 159 tackles, to easily top the team, and a figure among the NFL leaders. He added four interceptions, 11 tackles for loss, five defensed passes, two sacks, two recoveries and one forced fumble.

Trade acquisition Manny Lawson, outside, was third on the team in tackles and had four sacks to top the linebackers. But on the weak side, Arthur Moats and Nigel Bradham were mostly invisible combining for no big plays (sacks, interceptions, forced fumbles or recoveries).

Clearly Buffalo needs another outside backer.

SECONDARY — This might be the Bills’ second-best unit ... with all due respect to running back.

Byrd, despite the drama over the franchise tag and his contract, is a Pro Bowl-level free safety, though he didn’t deserve it this year.

And Aaron Williams, a bust in two seasons as a cornerback, was impressive at strong safety while Da’Norris Searcy and Jim Leonhard are quality backups.

At corner, Stephon Gilmore was slowed by a broken wrist suffered in preseason, but improved his play late in the year. And, on the other side, despite myriad detractors, Leodis McKelvin performed pretty well. His ball skills are suspect (one interception), but he might well have been Buffalo’s best corner, though undrafted rookie Nickell Robey (three sacks, interception, forced fumble, recovery, eight tackles for loss) has to be on the field somewhere.

SPECIAL TEAMS — Dan Carpenter, the former Dolphin, was a revelation. Signed when sixth-round draft choice Dustin Hopkins went on injured reserve in preseason, he was spectacular. Carpenter went 33-of-36 on field goals (two of the misses from 50 yards or more) and was perfect on extra points. Hopkins will have a hard time winning that job next August.

Former Bills’ punter Brian Moorman was signed after starter Shawn Powell was waived for inconsistency. Moorman’s gross average (41.2 to 46.1) wasn’t as good as  Powell’s, but his net (including return) was better (36.6 to 35.2).

Still, he will be 38 next month, his numbers are receding and Buffalo already cut him once.

But the Bills’ real problem has been on the return and coverage teams as Buffalo was last on kickoff returns, 29th in punt returns and 25th covering punts.

Marrone, had no complaint, obviously, on kicking and was OK with the punting, but admitted the Bills were lacking in personnel on the coverage and return teams.

And, over the next 3-plus months, we’ll find out how general manager Doug Whaley will deal those and all of the above shortcomings.

(Chuck Pollock, the Times Herald sports editor, can be reached at cpollock@oleantimesherald.com)

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