With the official start date for the 2014 NFL season set to begin on March 11th, the Buffalo Bills have several pressing matters to consider if the franchise is to make the playoffs for the first time in 15 years.
One move that is necessary is to work out a long-term deal with safety Jairus Byrd or keeping him for an additional year with the franchise tag for the second year in-a-row. While the front office is largely concerned with draft and free agency preparation, there are several offensive players on the roster that will need to step up in 2014.
QB: EJ Manuel:
It starts with the Bills’ young quarterback Manuel who struggled with injuries and uneven play in his rookie season. As the one quarterback taken in the first round in 2013 there was even more pressure to perform and now more than ever rookies at the position need to find success quickly thanks to the first year performances of Andrew Luck, Cam Newton, Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin III. Fans are now becoming more impatient when those high expectations are not met.
Initially the Bills intention was to create a quarterback competition between Kevin Kolb and Manuel, yet that ended quickly when Kolb got lost for the season after suffering his third concussions in as many years.
Manuel got thrown into the fire and his learning curve was further shortened by a preseason knee surgery after sustaining a sprained MCL. Knee injuries plagued him through out the season and caused him to miss five games which never allowed him to find any rhythm with his receivers and the offensive line struggled to protect him.
The fact that he endured three different knee injuries is the biggest concern heading into his second season as his durability gets questioned. It’s too early to come to a conclusion whether Manuel will become a franchise quarterback. Last season he completed 58.8 percent of his passes, threw for 1,972 yards with 11 touchdowns and nine interceptions, achieved a 77.7 passer rating and a 42.3 QBR.
For a successful 2014 season Manuel’s health and ability to make a giant leap forward in his second season will help the Bills become a playoff contender. He did showcase that in his second game of the season as he threw for 296 yards against one of the best defenses in the NFL in the Carolina Panthers and completed 69.2 percent of his passes in that same game while throwing for a touchdown. In his ninth start struggled against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers completing 54.6 percent of his passes and throwing four interceptions.
WR Stevie Johnson:
Johnson is about to enter his seventh year in the league and his play was inconsistent at best last season. The Bills no.1 wide receiver will enter year three of a five-year that he signed in March of 2012. The Bills might entertain the idea of drafting Sammy Watkins at no.9 if he’s available and moving Johnson to the team’s no.2 receiver. His contract costs Buffalo $8.5 million in 2014 and is on the inexpensive side when it comes to wide receivers that are deemed solid.
Though it’s a fairly significant cap hit for a player that has had health and other issues for the past couple of years. Johnson played just over 60% of all offensive snaps last year and missed four games due to various injuries. At 27 years-old his best years aren’t behind him and the question becomes whether he will meet the expectations of the franchise in which over three seasons he averaged 79 receptions, 1,041 yards and eight touchdowns.
In 2013 recorded 52 receptions for 597 yards and three touchdowns. When Johnson wasn’t on the field it gave rookie Robert Woods an opportunity to flourish.
One thing that the Bills need to see from Johnson is to showcase his ability to catch the football had too many drops. He also tends to lose focus and fumbled the football late in a game against the Atlanta Falcons, which resulted in a loss and took Buffalo out of the playoff race. Also, has shown maturity issues the past several season and if he can clean that up he will play a vital role or if not he may find himself released.
RB CJ Spiller:
The fifth year running back is quite possibly the Bills most dynamic weapon and unfortunately didn’t play like it in 2013. He suffered a high ankle sprain that seemed to affect him throughout the season and coupled with an underachieving offensive line, Spiller will need to return to his 2012 form in order for the Bills to have a successful 2014 season.
Last year Spiller ran for 927 yards on 201 carries, averaging 4.6 yards per carry and two touchdowns. He also caught 33 passes for 185 yards. During the 2012 season he ran for 1,244 yards on 207 carries Compare that to the season before in which he rushed for 1,244 yards on 207 carries and six touchdowns while averaging 6.0 yards per carry.
His 6.0 yards per carry tied him with Adrian Peterson for tops in the NFL.
Spiller also caught 56 passes for 459 yards and two touchdowns.
What allows for his success is his elusiveness as he’s got great speed, vision, ability to cut and will not shy away from contact. Running back Fred Jackson is a nice complement and stepped up admirably in his place 207 carries for 896 yards and nine touchdowns), Jackson is 33 years-old and is not nearly the explosive weapon that Spiller is.
It is contingent upon Doug Marrone and Nathaniel Hackett to properly utilize their running backs effectively to return to their 2012 levels of play.