2013 Buffalo Bills: A talented core lacks elite talent

(NFL.com)

A healthy C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson will point the Bills dull offense in the right direction.

The Buffalo Bills have been the AFC East’s doormat for nearly two decades. Once dominant, the Bills have been reduced to a laughingstock. They are a prime candidate to be shipped north to Canada as a part of NFL expansion. While heading north may still be in the works, the current look of the Bills has changed. A new head coach, quarterback and attitude may be all this team needs to rise out of the AFC’s gutter.

Doug Marrone takes over for Chan Gailey as head coach of the Bills — who finished 6-10 last season. The Bills have offensive standouts in C.J. Spiller and Stevie Johnson, but the drop off is drastic.

Barring anything catastrophic, E.J. Manuel will be the starting quarterback when the season kicks off. Manuel and the Bills were dissected on draft day by analysts and pundits alike when the former Florida State Seminole was selected 16th overall. All Manuel has done is work hard to prove everyone wrong. Kevin Kolb was brought in to compete with Manuel for the starting job, but he suffered a fall in training camp, it opened the door for Manuel. Kolb has had opportunities as a starter in Philadelphia and most recently Arizona — both stints yielding little success. Manuel is perfect for the Bills hurry up style mixed with a touch of the West Coast offense.

C.J. Spiller has arrived and from the looks of it may be around for awhile. Starter Fred Jackson struggled with injuries for most of 2012, but Spiller stepped in to start in seven games. Spiller, a Brian Westbrook clone finished with 1,244 yards, six scores and an NFL-leading 6.0 yards per carry. Spiller was just as effective as a receiver grabbing 43 passes for 459 yards and 2 touchdowns. Jackson should return to the team healthy and will be used primarily on third downs. The Bills are one of the better rushing teams in the league if Jackson and Spiller are both healthy.

The hamstring injury to wide receiver Stevie Johnson may disrupt the chemistry with Manuel heading into the season. Johnson has caught his share of balls from several Bills quarterbacks since 2008. He will more than likely miss the remainder of the preseason — which will allow rookie Robert Woods to get some reps as the No. 1 receiver. Rookie speedster Marquise Goodwin from Texas should see increased snaps as well.

Doug Marrone’s specialty lies in his work with the offensive line. The Bills have a young offensive line, which will only get better. Last season, the group allowed only 30 sacks (10th best) and averaged five yards per carry, also among the league leaders. Center Eric Wood is the lone standout — who could be in line for a Pro Bowl invite.

The Bills have to improve on their 26th overall finish in total defense last season. Free agent Mario Williams led the team with 10.5 sacks, the third highest total of his career. New defensive coordinator Mike Pettine is flirting with a 3-4 hybrid — which places Williams at linebacker or defensive end. It’s time for Marcell Dareus to become a force in the middle of the Bills defense. Dareus has totaled 11 sacks in his first two seasons. The linebackers are young and unproven. Switching to a 3-4 could be a problem for Williams — who struggles in coverage. Second-year linebacker Nigel Bradham is someone to keep an eye on.

The secondary has Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd and a good, young cornerback in Stephon Gilmore. The team re-signed veteran Leodis McKelvin, who will battle for the second cornerback spot. McKelvin doubles up as a return man and should continue to do so with the emergence of Spiller as the team’s No. 1 back. Ryan Lindell was brought back as the team’s kicker, but the Bills drafted Florida State’s Dustin Hopkins — who may unseat the veteran.

The Bills have an opportunity to improve on their 6-10 finish. Their obvious strength is the running game, but they gave up just over 27 points per game last season. If the Bills can get that number to around 19 or 20 and maintain their ability to produce turnovers, a .500 finish is within reach.

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