Pro Football Focus released their annual preseason rankings of all 32 teams for both offense and defense earlier this week. While PFF graded the Buffalo Bills‘ defense out as one of the best in the league they were not nearly as high on the team’s offensive potential. Let’s take a look at the reasoning behind their ranking and see if it matches up with past performance.
The Bills’ defense was ranked sixth behind only Seattle, Kansas City, San Francisco, Denver, and New England. Certainly the defensive side of the ball is where the Bills’ current strength lies, especially along the defensive line. Yet the Bills gave up over 24 points per game in 2013, good for only 20th in the league and they were even worse against the run – allowing over 128 yards on the ground per game, the fifth most rushing yards in the NFL. Where they excelled was against the passing game and their ability to rush the passer. The Bills would set a franchise record in sacks last season, racking up 57, good for second most in the league behind only Carolina and would give up just 204 passing yards per game – fourth best in the league.
PFF felt that the strength of the Bills’ defense is their interior line, led by Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus, and as such they saw fit to award it the highest overall rating. Last season three of the Bills’ interior linemen had at least 25 run stops and Williams alone recorded 69 pressures on the quarterback, good enough to place him among the top five interior linemen in the NFL. PFF classified all 12 starters as at least at the NFL average or above and only three other teams in the league could say the same about their starters. However the loss of weakside linebacker Kiko Alonso could greatly affect this rating especially considering the Bills will attempt to replace Alonso with either a third round rookie – Preston Brown- or a third year player in Nigel Bradham who has only 108 tackles total over his first two years and has been unable to solidify a long term starting role despite being given every opportunity to do so.
PFF does foresee problems in the Bills’ defensive backfield after they lost Jarius Byrd in free agency. The remaining players have not graded out as excelling in coverage. The Bills’ main issue here is their relative inexperience either due to youth – safeties Duke Williams and Jonathan Meeks are just entering their second years after not seeing much playing time last year and Stephon Gilmore is set to start his third season after his second was injury marred – or familiarity with their position as is the case with Aaron Williams, a former cornerback converted to safety. The Bills’ secondary produced 23 interceptions last season, the second highest total in the league but eight of those interceptions were due to Byrd and Alonso, neither of whom will be on the field for the Bills this season. The loss of those two key playmakers along with the uncertain status of Dareus due to a probable suspension by the league could mean this ranking might drop a bit once the season begins.
The Bills’ offense did not make out as well as the defense, ranking just 30th among all teams with only the New York Jets and Jacksonville Jaguars being worse. The Bills’ offensive showing in the 2013 season was certainly not anything to write home about, ranking 19th in total offense while amassing just 338 yards per game. The run game was where they excelled, racking up the second most rushing yards per game (144.2) and that will continue to be their focus again this year as the development of second year quarterback EJ Manuel continues. The Bills’ backfield already contained the versatility and explosiveness of CJ Spiller as well as the reliability of the ageless Fred Jackson. But they also added Bryce Brown and Anthony Dixon this offseason – both of whom have looked solid early on – for extra depth. Their biggest problem here might be figuring out how to get them all on the field. PFF did note that the Bills must get Spiller in space more where he has the ability to force missed tackles in order to make the most of his skill set.
PFF rated the Bills’ quarterbacks and offensive line as ‘poor’, the lowest ranking available. They were not sold on Manuel and believe that there are already signs that he is not the answer at quarterback, noting that Manuel had the ninth lowest accuracy percentage among quarterbacks last year. While Manuel is still having issues with his accuracy it is only fair to point out that his rookie year was riddled with injuries, meaning he never had a full training camp or slate of games to acquire the reps necessary to help him fix that issue. Manuel is starting the process over again and is working on learning offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett’s play book as well as developing chemistry with a new lineup of wide receivers.
The Bills’ poor showing last season in the passing game – 193.9 passing yards per game, 28th in the league – also had to do with the fact that they started three different quarterbacks, including an undrafted rookie (Jeff Tuel) and former practice squad player (Thad Lewis). Unfortunately the Bills failed to improve on that position this year either. As for the offensive line, they gave up 48 sacks last year, tied for fourth most in the league, and while they attempted to address the issue in free agency with the signing of Chris Williams, and in the draft with the selection of Cyrus Kouandijo, Cyril Richardson, and Seantrel Henderson, none of them have really stood out and seized a clear starting role. It could be yet another tough year for the offensive line.
The Bills’ wide receiving corps was similarly rated as below average and it’s possible that only the translation of rookie Sammy Watkins‘ potential into actual production would increase that rank. The position is unsettled after Watkins with former Tampa Bay receiver Mike Williams seeming to have secured the second spot but second year receiver Robert Woods, after showing so much promise in his rookie season (40 receptions for 587 yards and three touchdowns in 14 games), has slid down the receiver chart behind second year slot receiver Chris Hogan who barely played last season. While not quite the question mark that the quarterback position is the Bills’ receiving lineup is anything but a sure thing.
It is clear that Pro Football Focus has diverging views when it comes to the offensive and defensive side of the ball for the Bills. Only time will tell how accurate those rankings actually are.