Around this time a year ago Bills’ fans everywhere were celebrating Rex Ryan’s coronation. The boisterous head coach had made the trip West to Buffalo and accepted the challenge of bringing a franchise haunted by a 15-year playoff drought to the promise land. But with great power comes great responsibility and by mid-December the Bills were once again preparing for a January without football, as has become accustom in Western, N.Y. With an 8-8 record behind them and the off-season officially upon us, the Bills turn their attention towards the roster changes that will allow Ryan to deliver on his promise. Here’s a ranking of the Bills’ top roster needs and three-to-five players available at each position – via free agency or via the draft – that could fill those voids for 2016.
General manager Doug Whaley has remained optimistic that Aaron Williams will return to the field healthy next season after suffering a severe neck injury back in Week Two. Fact of the matter is though nobody knows what to expect from Williams until absorbs that first hit. If he’s able to return to his usual form, great, but there is too much unknown there for Buffalo to be content with what they’ve got. Corey Graham lacks consistency and his struggles in coverage at times this season were clear as day. Bacarri Rambo became a formidable replacement in Williams’ absence – showing flashes of effectiveness – but is a free agent once the new league year begins on March 9 and isn’t necessarily a priority for Buffalo who is tight on cap space. Safety certainly isn’t there top priority but it makes the top five because it’s an area that needs clear improvement.
Potential safety targets:
FA Rodney McLeod, Los Angeles Rams – McLeod is younger (25) and less expensive free agent safety option, than the 31-year old veteran Eric Weddle. He found success in St. Louis, after being signed as an undrafted free agent in 2012. In 2013 he earned a job in the starting lineup at safety and over the next three seasons tallied 233 tackles, 18 defensed passes and 5 interceptions. While McLeod may not be a flashy signing he hasn’t missed a single game over his four-year career, so Buffalo would be adding a very durable player.
Jeremy Cash, Duke – Cash is a two-time All-American safety who showcased his tremendous talent over the last three seasons. 333 tackles, 38 tackles for a loss, 12 sacks, six interceptions and 15 pass breakups later, he’s set to enter the NFL. What makes Cash special is the fact that he can be flexible in where he lines up. In the natural safety position, on the edge or as a linebacker – no matter where he starts out on any given play he eludes blockers well and is a sound tackler. With so many moving parts in Rex Ryan’s defensive scheme having a versatile safety like Cash could be very valuable.
Jayron Kearse, Clemson – Slated as a potential fourth or fifth round pick, Kearse could be available to Buffalo later in the draft if they want to focus on some of their more pressing needs earlier on. There are some concerns with Kearse in regards to his effort. In watching some of his highlights there are numerous occasions where he is lackadaisical in his pursuit of a play, especially when it’s going away from him. His play diagnoses can be a bit slow as well. Nonetheless, Kearse has some up side because of his 6-foot-5, 230 pound stature, which could make a him a solid “in the box” safety. The fact that he went to Clemson should win him some bonus points with Rex Ryan.
4) Defensive End
It’s only a matter of time before the Bills part ways with veteran defensive end Mario Williams after a season that saw him snare just 5 total sacks, spending more time ripping Rex Ryan’s defensive scheme than trying to fit into it. Releasing Williams will open up a big chunk of money estimated at $12.9 million in cap space but also leaves a hole to fill at DE. Even without Williams Buffalo retains defensive forces upfront like DT Marcell Dareus and DE Jerry Hughes – both disruptive in their own right – so there is already some talent there. That foundation is what allows Buffalo the flexibility to part ways with Williams in order to find a younger and cheaper defensive end who will buy into Ryan’s plans.
Some potential replacements for Williams:
FA Quinton Coples, Miami Dolphins – Rex Ryan actually used the Jets’ first-round pick to draft Coples in 2012, who was playing out his fifth-year team-option with New York this season before being cut in November and claimed off waivers by Miami. It’s not hard to believe that Buffalo actually put in a waiver claim for the DE/LB hybrid. Coples was at his best in NY during Ryan’s tenure, piling up 103 tackles and 16.5 sacks between 2012-2014. His 6-foot-6, 285 pound build makes him a powerful edge rusher and his versatility could help bolster the Bills’ front seven. Oh, and he knows Ryan’s scheme, that’s a big plus as well.
FA Akiem Hicks, New England Patriots – Hicks of course was traded to New England at this past season’s trade deadline, but has some familiarity with Rex Ryan’s brother Rob, from playing on his defense for three and half seasons down in New Orleans. That connection could help lure Hicks to Buffalo. The four-year veteran’s best season came in 2013 when he recorded a career-best 56 tackles and 4.5 sacks. He’s shown an ability to get to the quarterback throughout his career. Like Coples, Hicks could really add some durability to the Bills’ defensive line.
Noah Spence, Eastern Kentucky – This former Buckeye was forced to play out his college eligibility at Eastern Kentucky after being banned by the Big Ten for repeated failed drug tests. He thrived regardless, earning the Ohio Valley Conference’s co-Defensive Player of the Year honors with his 22.5 tackles for a loss, 11.5 sacks, 15 QB hurries, three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. In 2013 Spence earned a starting role at Ohio State and led the team in sacks (14.5), before his tenure in Columbus unraveled due to an addiction to the drug Ecstasy. He would miss the Big Ten Title game and Orange Bowl serving a suspension, as well as the first two games of 2014. After testing positive for Ecstasy again that September, he was banned from the Big Ten and forced to watch his team go on to win the National Championship without him. Spence seems to have used the experience to turn his life around, so hopefully those days are behind him, and it’s a good thing because he’s talented.
Carl Nassib, Penn State – His brother Ryan is familiar to western New Yorker’s for having played QB for the Syracuse Orange between 2008-2012, but if Carl comes to Buffalo and helps solidify the defense, he’ll earn a local reputation of his own. Nassib is big, standing in at 6-foot-7, 272 pounds. His 15.5 sacks and six forced fumbles this past season led the NCAA, and he accounted for 19.5 total tackles for a loss. Nassib is still very raw, so he’ll have to come into the NFL with a willingness to be coached, but he’s got the size and athleticism to be successful. As a potential second or third round pick the Bills may be able to wait a few rounds to grab the Nittany Lion.
3) Wide Receiver
Sammy Watkins tore up opposing defenses over the final nine games of the season, (49 receptions, 900 yards, 7 TDs) proving he’s more than ready to be a star wideout in this league. Now, it’s time to get him some help. Last year’s Percy Harvin signing turned out to be a flop given his constant battle with injuries, which limited him to playing in just five games this past season. As a free agent it’s unlikely Buffalo takes another chance on Harvin. In the weeks after the regular season concluded we learned that Robert Woods had played through a severe groin injury most of the season, which likely contributed to his mediocre numbers. Still people expected Woods to thrive as the Bills’ number two receiver this year and didn’t. He, Chris Hogan and Marcus Easley are all viable receivers for depth purposes but not necessarily as complements to Watkins on the other side of the offense. Luckily for Buffalo there several affordable free agent options out there to fill the void as well as a pretty talented draft class of receivers.
Potential receiver targets:
FA Rishard Matthews, Miami Dolphins – In his fourth season in the NFL Matthews ended up surprising some people by hauling in 43 catches for 662 yards and four touchdowns. His big play capabilities were perhaps even more impressive, making catches of 20 yards or more on 10 separate occasions. Matthews isn’t necessarily a flashy free agent pickup, but as far as receivers go this off-season there aren’t really any of those out there on the market. The bigger thing here is that Matthews proved he can thrive as a second option, as he did in Miami opposite the speedster Jarvis Landry.
LoQuon Treadwell, Ole Miss – Considered the top receiver available in this year’s draft the chances Treadwell falls to Buffalo at 19 are iffy. The Bills also have more pressing holes to fill than WR, so should he be there they’ll have a decision to make – snag an offensive difference maker to lineup opposite of Watkins, or address one of their bigger areas of concern. It’s worth noting that as a head coach Rex Ryan has only drafted an offensive player once and that was Mark Sanchez in 2009. With that in mind Treadwell probably won’t be a Bill, but if for some reason they go against Ryan’s status quo they’re getting an excellent passing game weapon.
Braxton Miller, Ohio State – Miller became the talk of the Senior Bowl a few weeks back when he was making defensive backs trip over themselves during practices. That’s helped his draft stock sky-rocket into the second round. In terms of athleticism there may be no one in this year’s draft as gifted as Miller and that allows him to make up for any inexperience concerns there may be surrounding the former QB. Everyone remembers this spin move against Virginia Tech…
Imagine watching that at the Ralph on Sundays. That elusiveness makes him a threat anywhere on the field and also a nice compliment to Watkins, providing that “wow factor” Percy Harvin was expected to supply this past season.
Tyler Boyd, University of Pittsburgh – As a three year starter for the Panthers, Boyd’s production was steady every single year. In his freshman season he broke two freshman records previously held by Larry Fitzgerald for receptions (85) and receiving yards (1,174). One year later he racked up another 1,261 receiving yards and earned First Team All-ACC honors. Then this past season he came up just shy of 1,000 yards (926) but found himself once again on the All-ACC Team. His size is perhaps the one concern with Boyd at 6-foot-2 and 200 lbs, experts are worried about his ability to absorb hits in the NFL. However, there is no reason Boyd can’t bulk up. His quick release off the line and consistent play in college make him a suitable option for the WR2 Buffalo needs.
Leonte Carroo, Rutgers – The best thing about Carroo is that he’s a wideout projected to go in the third round, which is good if Buffalo wants wait a bit to draft a receiver. He measures in at an average 6’0 but he’s got strong hands and big play capabilities. One concern with Carroo is in regards to his off the field behavior, having been arrested for assault back in September and suspended by the team for two contests. No one is more open to giving players with troublesome histories a chance though than Rex Ryan, so it’s something the Bills could potentially overlook considering what he’d bring to the offense.
2) Offensive Line
Depending on Buffalo’s ability to retain both Richie Incognito and Cordy Glenn, this position could become priority number one. Money is tight, so those contract negotiations are something to monitor for sure. Even assuming Whaley does everything in his power to bring them back though, the o-line remains an area that needs improvement, particularly on the right side. In his first season right guard John Miller was generally steady when healthy, so there’s no need to jump ship on him just yet. The hope with Miller is that those injuries don’t become a constant issue, which is something the guard is looking to prevent by becoming leaner this off-season and working on his flexibility. Nonetheless the biggest question mark remains at right tackle where Seantrel Henderson’s future at the position is clouded by the Crohn’s disease he’s been battling. That’s certainly contributed to his struggles at the position and Cyrus Kouandjo has been a dismal replacement. Acquiring an offensive tackle is essential for Buffalo whether Glenn is re-upped or not.
Offensive lineman that could solidify the Bills’ front
FA Mitchell Schwartz – Despite playing in Cleveland, the rest of the league has taken notice of his ability and numerous teams will be in hot pursuit of his services. At 26-years old, Schwartz is young and reliable, having started in every game of his career. The four-year veteran has made it clear he’d like to stay in Cleveland, but what’s unclear at this point is how much of a priority he is for new head coach Hue Jackson. Should they pass on him, the Bills would be wise to try bringing Schwartz up route I-90 about three hours to block for Tyrod Taylor and company. The one concern is that the price tag on Schwartz may be a bit high for Buffalo depending on how much money is left over after attempting to resign key free agents like Glenn and Incognito. In all honesty, their best bet is probably turning to the draft for an offensive tackle.
Taylor Decker, Ohio State – Drafting Decker means Buffalo likely has to snag him in the first round, which is unlikely given Rex Ryan’s first-round history of drafting defensive players. That said, if the Bills are unable to bring back Glenn, tackle instantly becomes their biggest need. Decker is a powerful lineman who can dominate opposing defenders with his strength. In run blocking he does a tremendous job sealing his initial assignment and moving to the next level to pickup another defender. In pass protection he moves well laterally and can use his reach to fend off pass rushers. Decker could start almost immediately for Buffalo, so he’s certainly worth considering at 19.
Jason Spriggs, Indiana – This All-Big Ten second teamer started all four years at left tackle for Indiana, making substantial progress each season. In 431 quarterback drop backs this season, Spriggs was responsible for surrendering only two sacks. At 6-foot-6 and 305 pounds he’s the perfect size for an NFL lineman and shows terrific balance. There really aren’t too many concerns regarding his run or pass blocking ability. He’s swift with his lateral movements along the line and demonstrates great athleticism for a player his size. Spriggs has all the makings of a sturdy tackle that Buffalo desperately needs.
John Theus, Georgia – One positive about this year’s class of offensive lineman is that it’s deep. Buffalo could find above average talent at tackle into the later rounds of the draft. Theus, however, is another top tier tackle the Bills could target, who will likely be available to them in the third round. One thing that makes Theus valuable is the fact that he spent time as a tackle on both sides of the line at Georgia. He’s also durable, having started in 48 of 53 possible games for the Bulldogs over his career. Where he struggles is in he blocking technique, often getting caught flat footed and allowing quicker pass rushers to push past him. Nonetheless, he could add some much needed depth to Buffalo’s offensive front with potential to earn a starting job.
An outside linebacker in particular would be nice, especially because free agent Nigel Bradham’s future remains up in the air, but additions to the line-backing core in general are crucial. The Bills finished 16th in the league in rushing yards allowed this season and it was evident throughout, that the 4-3 backers that thrived under Jim Shwartz had trouble picking up Ryan’s more complicated 3-4 system until it was much too late. There are some viable free agents out there that were successful in Ryan’s defense during his coaching stint in New York, on top of a deep class of linebackers set to be drafted this April. The opportunity is there for Buffalo to really bolster the middle of their defense.
FA Demario Davis, New York Jets – Davis is coming off of a season where he didn’t quite fit new head coach Todd Bowles’ 4-3 scheme and was benched. It was under Ryan’s tenure in New York that Davis was at his best. After being drafted in the third-round of the 2012 draft, Davis went on to pile up 259 tackles, 4.5 sacks an interception and six pass breakups on Ryan’s watch. He added another 90 tackles and two more sacks this season under Bowles. The Jets have made it clear they won’t look to bring Davis back next season, so the door is open for Buffalo to swoop in and pick up a player who understands the defensive scheme. His speed also makes him a valuable pass rusher. Davis very well could be a player the Bills target in free agency and the best part of all is that they won’t have to break the bank to get him.
Reggie Ragland, Alabama – If Ragland is there at 19 there is no question he should be Buffalo’s first-round pick. He’s strong at 6-foot-2, 252 lbs, athletic and versatile – something he showed off in the Senior Bowl by playing outside linebacker. In two years as a starting backer for the Crimson Tide, Ragland recorded 185 tackles, 17.5 of them for a loss, four were sacks and he snared one interception. Not only is he instinctual at sniffing out run plays but he’s shown an ability to successfully drop into intermediate zone coverages and hold his own. There may only be one linebacker entering the draft that’s considered better than Ragland and it’s Notre Dame’s Jaylon Smith who is currently recovering from surgery that repaired the ACL and LCL in his left knee, leaving questions about where he’ll get drafted.
Darron Lee, Ohio State University – Another talented, potential linebacker that could still be on the board at 19 is OSU’s Darron Lee. At 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds he may seem a little undersized for Ryan’s taste, but sub-240 lb backers have proven they can be successful in the NFL. Another Buckeye Ryan Shazier is a perfect example of that, having just finished a solid second season in Pittsburgh listed at 230 lbs himself. Anyway, Lee’s credentials from the college level speak for them-self: 147 tackles, 26.5 tackles for a loss, 12 sacks, three interceptions and three forced fumbles, in just two seasons as a starter. He was also named a Second Team All-Big Ten player this past season. He’s got great speed and would add some nice range to the middle of the Bills’ defense.