The Buffalo Bills were arguably a much better team than people thought they were in 2013. They won several close games, while playing some quality teams down to the wire despite being without their starting quarterback for a good part of the year. And even when they did have him under center, he was still a rookie.
In the end. E.J. Manuel handed in a mixed bag for his first NFL season. Still loaded with physical ability and upside, Manuel shined at times as a rookie, while also looking all too often like the raw prospect everyone had painted him to be.
Buffalo has some things to work on before the 2014 season rolls around, but nothing is quite as key as Manuel developing into the passer head coach Doug Marrone thought he’d be. Whether or not he can actually do that is still very much up in the air, so let’s focus on what the Bills can actually control as we break down their needs in preparation for May’s draft:
Offensive needs: WR, TE, OL
The need on the offensive line is arguably more about depth than anything else at this point, unless you feel the signing of Chris Williams doesn’t eradicate the need for more guard help (I really don’t). Guard isn’t a major need and won’t require an early round pick, though, so perhaps the Bills grab one in the middle to late rounds. But if they don’t, it’s not the end of the world. If some guys they love don’t fall to them at the ninth spot to start the draft, they could just grab the best player available if a stud tackle is there. Tackle isn’t an insane need, but they could upgrade at right tackle with a middle to late round pick if they wanted to. Overall depth on the offensive line is something they can focus on after they make a few splashes however.
With their defense looking solid, those splashes are likely to come at wide receiver and tight end. Stevie Johnson is growing less reliable due to injuries, while there has been talk his days with the Bills are numbered. Trading for Mike Williams alleviates this need a little, but Williams is more of a red-zone guy. He isn’t a freak athlete and doesn’t make huge plays consistently. Buffalo could still stand to add major talent here, and picking at nine overall, both Marqise Lee and Mike Evans could easily be there. If they don’t grab a receiver in round one, they could target guys like Brandin Cooks, Allen Robinson or Jarvis Landry in the next couple of rounds if they slide a bit.
Eric Ebron is starting to look like a nice splash pick for the Bills at the ninth spot. He’s a freak athlete and even a willing blocker, giving him a complete game out of the gates, meaning he’d be a major upgrade over Scott Chandler. Chandler was brought back in case the Bills couldn’t land an upgrade, and is still a useful weapon thanks to his size and red-zone ability. However, Ebron is an elite talent and would make the offense more dynamic. If the Bills don’t take a tight end with their first pick, perhaps they snag a falling Austin Seferian-Jenkins in round two. Notre Dame’s Troy Niklas would be another option.
One other need is quarterback. The Bills say they’re backing E.J. Manuel, so don’t call for a franchise passer in the first round (although I get the sense a lot of Bills fans would love it). However, Kevin Kolb is gone and they could grab a young passer to groom to be Manuel’s main backup. This wouldn’t be necessary until the later rounds, where a potential gem like Logan Thomas could be lurking.
Defensive needs: S, DE, CB
Buffalo simply needs depth at corner. Stephon Gilmore should develop into a stud and he kind of is already, so they just need to add another body or two to round out their depth. Safety is a much more pressing need, as star safety Jairus Byrd didn’t feel treated or paid properly and bolted for New Orleans. There is talk Buffalo could just promote from within, but that’d be foolish. There are two flat-out stud safeties in this draft and at least 3-4 more that could turn into solid starters at the next level. I’m not sure the Bills would reach for one in the first round, but guys like Craig Loston and LaMarcus Joyner could be options in round two.
The other spot to get help on defense has to be defensive end. Jerry Hughes is supposed to lock down the side opposite of Mario Williams, and anyone fully buying into him long-term needs to think again. He’s talented and has upside, but I just don’t trust him. At the very least, Buffalo could use another rotational piece, while they could need the new kid they bring in to take over for Hughes as early as this season if he bottoms out. That could have them thinking pass rush in round one, where it’s possibly guys like Khalil Mack and Anthony Barr are still hanging around. That’s not a given, though, so look for the Bills to wait on this position and grab a guy like Trevor Reilly or Scott Crichton in round three, if available. These are high motor guys who can really get after the quarterback and are probably perfect fits for Buffalo’s scheme.
The only other glaring need would have been linebacker, but the signings of Brandon Spikes and Keith Rivers seem to have nullified that need. With that said, C.J. Mosley could still be tempting at nine, while someone like Stanford’s Shayne Skov would be a nice add in the middle rounds.
The Bills are in a better place than many seem to think. Obviously their future hangs on the development of quarterback E.J. Manuel. But beyond him, they have a decent offensive line, a nice duo of running backs, potential at wide receiver and a very solid defense with upside. If they fill some holes, add a play-maker or two on offense and Manuel ends up being who they thought he was, they could take a big leap in 2014.