Sorry Breyon and Johnny Football fans, but our hope does not lie in Johnny Manziel, even if he is available when the Bills draft on May 8th.
They say that it is always the darkest before the dawn, and there has never been a darker time in our beloved Bills history than this offseason. The 2013 season started with the promise of rebuilding with the 16th pick in the draft. Buffalo not only selected a quarterback for the first time in their history with their first 1st round pick, they also grabbed Kiko Alonso with a pick acquired from the Rams. That’s a great start to a rebuilding franchise.
Now I know some people are not convinced that EJ Manuel is our franchise guy, but our front office does and that is all that matters. It’s clear that EJ has their full support. Normally when franchises draft a QB in the early rounds of the draft it is to be an immediate starter. This was Buffalo’s plan and the Bills gave him the ultimate vote of confidence this off-season by not bringing in veterans like Mike Vick or Matt Schaub to compete with EJ. Instead, Buffalo’s quarterback roster consists of Thad Lewis, Jeff Tuel and Dennis Dixon. If that’s not a gesture of giving the reins to our franchise QB, then I don’t know what is.
Manuel’s rookie season was quite the roller coaster ride. He started off looking great, competing with the Patriots down to the wire in Week 1 and even leading a comeback victory against Carolina in Week 2. But things started to look ugly in his first go around with the Jets, the Ravens and Pittsburgh. Injuries certainly didn’t help either. EJ was already dealing with a knee injury in the preseason, and injuring his other knee against the Browns shook him.
Overall the Bills fared decently in many games, even with Thad Lewis and Jeff Tuel at the helm. That said, the team was obviously a couple pieces away from competing against the elites of the league, as evidenced in Buffalo’s games against New Orleans Saints and Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Bills finished their season with a sub-par record and that seemingly kicked off Buffalo’s spiral into darkness. After the disappointing season, our beloved HOF QB Jim Kelly announced that he had a cancer recurrence, and soon thereafter, our only owner, Ralph Wilson Jr., passed. This set Bills fans into a spiral of uncertainty as without an owner, we were unsure of the team’s future in Buffalo. Not only have we been one of the few teams talked about for possible relocation, we also sold one of our home games to our neighbors up North once a year.
And then came lawsuits. Lawsuits by a “Bills fan” who doesn’t like too many text messages and the Jills’ lawsuit over wages and mistreatment. I don’t remember a more chaotic off-season for a team desperate for any kind of success.
The darkness was almost too much to bear, but Ralph Wilson Jr. gave the Bills one last great gift. That same lease that gives a one time opt-out opportunity is also the same lease that forbids any owner from buying the team that intends to move the Bills outside of Western New York. Whoever our next owner is has to keep the Bills in Buffalo, and that has been the answer to one of our deepest fears. Our city has a bond to our team like no other, and if our team was ripped away from us and relocated it would be like ripping the hearts out of each and every Bills fan. But Ralph Wilson Jr. did not want that to happen, and that lease is our guarantee that it won’t. Now that our darkest fear is relieved, the next step is making the playoffs. Having a playoff team is something that Bills fans haven’t had the luxury of enjoying since that forward lateral on January 8, 2000.
Now we see that first light of a new day. No matter who the next owner is, we have Russ Brandon and Doug Whaley and Coach Marrone already in place. Last year they showed that they knew how to draft. Buffalo was able to trade back to get their franchise QB. They also got a potential perennial Pro Bowl linebacker in Kiko Alonso, something the Bills haven’t had since London Fletcher in 2007. The Bills also added talented wide receiver Robert Woods to their receiving corps as well. On undrafted free agent front, Buffalo got Nickell Robey. Robey was one of the most pleasant surprises in 2013, as he showed promise as a lockdown nickelback.
Coming off of a season with the most sacks in Bills history, the defense looks like it needs only one or two players to become a top 10 defense. Our rookie QB has had the whole offseason to rehab his knee and C.J. Spiller will also be 100 percent after battling a high ankle sprain all season. But our front office wasn’t satisfied with last year, so they went out and signed Brandon Spikes from the hated Patriots, and got a big target for EJ in Mike Williams. The Bills are setting up their run defense and EJ for success. Now we can only get better, as this draft has the promise to be the most talented and deepest in a long time.
Let’s breakdown the Bills’ roster first. They have no need to draft a quarterback, running back, wide receiver or defensive lineman with their first pick. No matter what your opinion is, the Bills aren’t drafting anyone to start over EJ, CJ, Stevie Johnson, Robert Woods or Mike Williams. Nor is there an immediate need to upgrade Mario Williams, Kyle Williams or Marcell Dareus. I am no expert on the wide-9 defense, but I feel like we have the pieces already in place to play whatever defense Jim Schwartz wants to run. Buffalo’s strategy for this pick is simple. Best available, whoever that is. The only positions I would see the Bills targeting, in order of importance, would be OL, TE, CB and LB. This would give the Bills a draft board that would look like: Jake Matthews/Greg Robinson, Taylor Lewan, Zack Martin, Eric Ebron, Justin Gilbert, Darqueze Dennard and Anthony Barr. That is such a wide selection of elite talent that it would be hard to make a bad pick with your eyes closed throwing at names on a dart board.
I think a lot of Bills fans wouldn’t like a tackle because it’s not a “sexy pick,” and I agree that it’s not sexy. But you know what is? EJ Manuel staying on his feet throwing a 30 yard touchdown pass to Stevie Johnson. Also, defense is never a “sexy pick” either, but the idea of putting another elite cornerback opposite Stephon Gilmore is something hard to pass up. Eric Ebron is the only name I would consider as one of those “hot” names, but I am unsure that picking a tight end so high with so much other talent is a good idea. Plus there are guys such as Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Jace Amaro, Troy Niklas and C.J. Fiedorowicz available in round two and three if the Bills want to address the tight end position. I would be fine with taking Anthony Barr as well, as a linebacker core of Kiko Alonso, Brandon Spikes, and Barr, in addition to our defensive line, would make the Bills’ front seven one of the most intimidating in the league.
I refuse to make a prediction for the Bills, because I will leave it up to the front office to decide. If any combination of those players is available, I would have no problem with our first round selection. Our new hope comes from the fact that we are in the best position to draft as we have ever been. This draft is deep. We can get a serviceable replacement for any position we did not take in the first round, in the second and third. No matter who the Bills take, we are set up to compete in the AFC East. To be quite honest, the AFC East is set up to go from joke to cream of the crop, much like the NFC West did. The competition from the top down is strong in the AFC East. We must first compete with our hated rivals, the Patriots, and it is always hard to beat Brady no matter what team you are. The Dolphins were surprisingly good last year, and Ryan Tannehill and Mike Wallace could explode this season if their chemistry has improved. The Jets were not shy in making moves this offseason either, signing Chris Johnson and Eric Decker. The AFC East is poised to be one of the best divisions in the NFL this year.
Nothing is given in the NFL, but at least this year the Bills look like they can compete with almost anyone. After the decade of losing and a chaotic offseason, I believe the Bills are due for some kind of good karma. It’s a new time and a new hope for the Buffalo Bills.