Experts' Picks (Consensus: third)
|DIVISION FINISH: 3 Uncertainty at quarterback keeps the Bills behind the Dolphins in the standings, but they have the talent at skill positions to finish ahead of the Jets.|
|DIVISION FINISH: 4 Doug Marrone's fast-paced offense will be fun to watch, but the Bills could give up a lot of yards and points on defense.|
|DIVISION FINISH: 2 With a more exotic defense and a more imaginative offense, the arrow is pointed the right way in Buffalo.|
|DIVISION FINISH: 4 Once rookie quarterback EJ Manuel is healthy, he'll learn as this team takes its lumps.|
|DIVISION FINISH: 3 EJ Manuel's knee injury was a big blow for the rookie and the Bills.|
Five things you need to know about the Bills:
1. Same old faces, brand new team: The Bills entered last season with high expectations, fresh off inking defensive end Mario Williams to a $100 million contract. They ended up being a disappointment, finishing in the AFC East's basement with a 6-10 record. This season, rookie EJ Manuel (when he gets healthy) will replace Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback, Doug Marrone is now the head coach, and Doug Whaley has taken over at general manager. There's a new philosophy on both sides of the ball, and while much of the team's personnel remains in place from last season, there's hope the scheme change will bring better results on the field.
2. Big-play ability on offense: Nathaniel Hackett followed Marrone from Syracuse to Buffalo this offseason, and the NFL's second-youngest offensive coordinator will bring a speed-based offense to the Bills. Hackett wants to ramp up the tempo, getting plays off with 20-25 seconds left on the play clock. He has weapons on offense to play with. In addition to holdovers C.J. Spiller and Steve Johnson, the Bills selected a pair of receivers high in April's draft. The reality, though, is that Hackett may need to temper expectations on offense as he develops Manuel at quarterback. There's big-play potential from this offense, but a heavy dose of Spiller may be the best bet initially.
3. Pettine provides hope for defense: Talk to most Bills observers and they'll rail against last season's defense. It's fair criticism, as Buffalo's defense allowed 27.2 points per game in 2012, one of the worst marks in the NFL. Marrone brought in former New York Jets defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, and he has transformed what had been a conservative Bills defense into an attacking, pressure-based scheme that has people around the Bills excited. Whether that hope translates into reality is yet to be seen. Pettine, beyond pressuring quarterbacks with his blitz-heavy schemes, will have to ensure his run defense is up to snuff.
4. Top-heavy roster a concern? The Bills have arguably the best players in their division at several positions: running back (Spiller), wide receiver (Johnson), pass-rusher (Williams), cornerback (Stephon Gilmore) and safety (Jairus Byrd). However, all those players were in the mix last season and the team still struggled. Injuries are inevitable in the NFL, and they hit the Bills hard last season. Although Buffalo might have serious talent at the top of its roster, it lacks depth at most positions. The Bills' second cornerback spot will be one to monitor, as will be their pass-rushers behind Williams.
5. Gilmore a name to watch: While Byrd has grabbed national headlines most of this offseason for his decision not to sign his franchise tender and instead sit out training camp, there is another up-and-coming player in the Bills' defensive backfield. Gilmore, a first-round pick in 2012, had a strong finish to his rookie campaign and has picked up where he left off last season. With the Jets shipping Darrelle Revis out of the division this offseason, Gilmore is at the top of the heap among cornerbacks in the AFC East. If he takes the next step this season, Gilmore will begin receiving more attention as one of the NFL's best at his position.
-- Mike Rodak, ESPN.com
Inside The Numbers
C.J. Spiller needed 207 rushes to eclipse 1,200 rushing yards last season. In the history of the NFL, no player has reached 1,200 yards on fewer rushing attempts.
Spiller did the majority of his damage between the tackles, averaging 6.1 yards per rush, highest among running backs. In fact, Spiller is the only qualified running back in the past five seasons to average more than 6.0 yards per rush between the tackles.
Despite a listed weight of 200 pounds, Spiller was one of seven running backs to average 2.0 yards after contact on those runs last season. The other six running backs had an average weight of 223.5 pounds.
• Bills quarterbacks posted a 52.2 Total QBR on passes thrown more than 20 yards downfield last season, fourth worst in the league and 39.9 rating points lower than the NFL average. EJ Manuel improved his deep ball in 2012 at Florida State, increasing his completion percentage on those throws by 14.5 percentage points from 2011. Manuel had 10 more completions on such throws in 2012 (30) than he did in his previous two seasons combined (20).
• Despite using three-plus wide receiver sets most in the NFL last season, Bills wide receivers recorded the sixth-fewest receiving yards (2,152). Only three teams (Vikings, Patriots, Chiefs) had fewer 30-plus-yard plays from their wide receivers in 2012.
• The Bills' defense allowed the most rushing yards (1,741), touchdowns (16), 20-plus yard plays (15) and first downs (99) on rushes between the tackles last season.
-- ESPN Stats & Information
ESPN The Magazine: Non-QB MVP
RB C.J. Spiller (9.4 avg. AV since 2010)
Even with the NFL's ninth-worst passing game, Buffalo's offense was only slightly below average in 2012 (minus-4.3 percent DVOA), which is a credit to Spiller, who led all qualified RBs in yards per touch (6.8) in 2012.
-- Pro Football Reference