NFL

Buffalo Bills: 5 Burning Questions

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In 2014, the Buffalo Bills finished over .500 for the first time since 2004 after going 9-7. However, it wasn’t good enough to break the franchise’s playoff drought.

Buffalo hasn’t seen postseason play since the 1999 season.  That’s right, no playoff games in this millennium, the longest current drought in the NFL.

Former New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan is now in charge and he plans to change the culture in Buffalo.

“We are not going to be pushed around,” Ryan said. “We’re going to be the bullies. It’s easy to build your football team the way this community is built, with the same kind of work ethic, the same kind of mentality. We will not be pushed around. We will do the pushing. We will build a bully.”

While all of that sounds good on the surface, Ryan’s ball club must answer the following questions to reach their full potential.

E.J. Manuel or Matt Cassel?

Contrary to popular belief, Rex Ryan doesn’t completely rule out Tyrod Taylor. 

“It’s safe to say we won’t have LeBron at quarterback. Wisdom tells me to let it play it out, we’ll see what happens through the end,” Ryan said. “So you just eliminated Tyrod Taylor, that’s not fair to do. So I think wisdom says let this thing play out and it will all work out in the end.”

Nonetheless, the quarterback battle is likely to come down to E.J. Manuel and Matt Cassel. The Bills picked up Cassel via trade, in hopes of him pushing Manuel.

“I think I’ve been in this league long enough to know that you’ve got to compete in everything that you do,” Cassel said. “You know, you have to earn every opportunity you get, so I know there’s going to be competition. I know that EJ’s here, and he’s a young, talented player. I expect that there’s going to be a competition. Again, you have to go out and earn your opportunity to play in this league.”

With that being said, it’s hard to believe E.J. Manuel isn’t the favorite to be under center this fall.

“Let”s not just throw him out after two years,” Ryan said. “Aaron Rodgers never took a snap for three years. So let’s see where [Manuel’s] going to be.”

During Manuel’s first two years, he’s accumulated a touchdown to interception ratio of 16 to 12 to go along with a dismal quarterback rating of 78.5.

When you couple Manuel’s struggles with the shakiness of Cassel and a inexperienced Taylor, this battle is surely to be determined during training camp and preseason play.

Can Rex Ryan take Buffalo to the next level?

During Rex Ryan’s six year stay with the Jets, the 52-year-old had his fair share of ups and downs. He totaled a record of 46-50, which included back-to-back AFC Championship Game appearances.

As everyone knows, Ryan is a defensive guru and since he’s taking over a defense that was already a Top 5 unit from a year ago, this group could become really special under Ryan’s guidance.

“We want to be the best in history — one of the greatest,” linebacker Nigel Bradham said. “That’s what we’re striving for … the greatest of all time, not just this year or last year.”

What about the other side of the ball?

Well, it’s hard to truly get a feel here because we don’t know who’s starting at quarterback. Having said that, Ryan prefers to attack on the ground anyway.

“We prefer to ground and pound it, we’re going to run it 50 times if we can on you,” Ryan stated.

50 times is a bit excessive, but you get the point Ryan is trying to make.

“We’re not naive enough to think we’re going to be able to get away with that,” Ryan said. “We can spread you out and create some nightmares in coverage. If you want to stop our run by keeping all the big guys in there, then so be it, we’ll be able to hurt you in a lot of different ways outside.”

With dynamic guys like Sammy Watkins and Percy Harvin on the outside, this offense has potential to make some serious noise this season. Bills fans just hope it’ll be able to translate into wins.

Is Stephon Gilmore ready to be on an island?

Buffalo didn’t blitz a lot a year ago, but expect for that to change with Ryan in town and it’s not as if he doesn’t have the right tools to use.

Pass rushers like Mario Williams, Jerry Hughes and Marcell Dareus should be able to thrive in Ryan’s downhill approach. While all of that is fine and dandy, with excessive blitzing from the front seven, it puts a ton of pressure on the back end of the defense.

Stephon Gilmore was a highly touted cornerback out of South Carolina, as he was the 10th-overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft. Gilmore had an impressive rookie campaign, totaling 61 tackles to go along with 16 passes defensed and one interception. The last two years for Gilmore have been riddled with nagging injuries, which has limited his production, but he’s excited for the new challenge at hand.

“I’m glad we’ve got Rex Ryan,” Gilmore said. “I think they’ll be sending a lot of blitzes up front. It’s going to allow me to show the world what I can do on the back end, playing a lot of man-to-man and doing what I do.”

The casual fan probably doesn’t know about Gilmore’s abilities, but defensive backs coach Donnie Henderson knows exactly what the 24-year-old cornerback is capable of.

“He can take one half of the field away,” Henderson stated. “Whatever side he’s on, that side has been eliminated. … I’ll tell you what, look at how many times they throw the ball at him. Look at how many catches are over there, number one. Find out the yardage that’s been accumulated by the receiver.”

Now, it’s time for Gilmore to prove it on the field.

Who relieves LeSean McCoy?

As you may have heard before, when running backs reach the age of 30, things begin to go downhill. Luckily for McCoy, he just recently turned 27, but he’s been carrying a heavy load over the past two seasons.

McCoy totaled 626 carries his last two years in Philly and that’s not even including the 70 catches out of the backfield during that time. As stated before, Rex Ryan intends on running the ball a ton, so how will he go about keeping Shady fresh?

Fred Jackson is the first name that comes to mind, but considering he’s the oldest running back in the NFL, Buffalo may need to go in a different direction.

On paper, it’ll come down to Anthony Dixon and rookie Karlos Williams.

Last year, Dixon earned 432 yards on 105 carries, which equals a 4.1 yards per carry average. Prior to last year, Dixon’s carries year-to-year were 28, 21, and 29 respectively, which makes you believe Williams may be the more promising option.

Throughout early off-season workouts, offensive coordinator Greg Roman was rather excited about the rookie.

“Karlos Williams has been aces,” Roman said. “This guy is getting it and quickly. He’s done nothing but impress in every aspect.”

It’ll be intriguing to see how this development pans out over time.

What can Percy Harvin bring?

When facing the Bills offense, defensive coordinators around the league will tend to load the box and force whoever is at quarterback to beat them. We can pretty much bank on second year receiver Sammy Watkins getting better, but what about the much maligned Percy Harvin?

During Harvin’s seven-year career, he’s played for three different teams and Buffalo will be the fourth. Harvin has shown flashes of the explosive receiver people grew to love dating back to his Florida days, but injuries and issues within the locker room have hindered his overall talent.

Despite his past, Harvin believes the immediate future in Buffalo is bright.

“When I looked at the running game, then I looked at Sammy Watkins on the other side and me on the other side with Robert Woods — it spelled nothing but success for me,” Harvin said. “It looks like me and (Sammy) could face a lot of one-on-one coverage. Throw Big Woods in there. (Charles) Clay. There are just going to be mismatches all over the field.”

If Harvin’s next statement becomes true, Buffalo’s passing attack may be better than most believe.

“The best has yet to come. The world has not seen my best ball yet. That is why coming [to Buffalo] was so important to me,” a confident Harvin stated.

With Tom Brady facing a four-game suspension, it could allow Buffalo to gain some early ground in the much-improved AFC East.


About Mark Gunnels

Mark Gunnels

Mark Gunnels is an NFL columnist for Football Insiders. He has several years of experience covering the NFL and NCAA football. He's the radio color commentator for Lincoln University football. Mark's work has been featured on Sports Illustrated, Fox Sports and Yard Barker.