NFL 2014 Preview: Buffalo Bills

EJ Manuel (Bill Wippert/AP)

Sportsnet is breaking down everything you need to know about each of the 32 teams—including why you should or shouldn’t be rooting for them this season—in the month leading up to NFL kickoff on Sept. 4. Today, the Buffalo Bills.

Last year’s record: 6-10

Coach: Doug Marrone

2014 is about… Snapping their 15-year post-season drought. The Bills haven’t played a game in January since 1999’s infamous Music City Miracle, an event that haunts the fan base to this day. The NFL’s longest playoff slump is now entering the midway point of its second decade, and Buffalo has done everything in its power to bring it to an end, but to no avail. This season they’re playing in honour of late owner Ralph Wilson, and what better way to end the drought.

Core players: Sammy Watkins (WR), Mario Williams (DE), Kyle Williams (DT), EJ Manuel (QB).

But they lost… Kiko Alonso (LB), who suffered a season-ending knee injury earlier in July, which is a devastating loss for the Bills. Last season’s defensive rookie of the year runner-up was Buffalo’s biggest difference maker on defence. He led the team in tackles (159), tied for the lead in interceptions (4), and made plays all over the field. Alonso can’t be replaced. Another defensive star the Bills will be without this season is Jairus Byrd (S), lost in free agency to the New Orleans Saints. Like Alonso, Byrd is a tremendous playmaker but there was no chance the Bills could’ve re-signed him for the amount he demanded. Stevie Johnson, Buffalo’s leading wide receiver the last four seasons, is also gone but the Bills have done well to plug that hole.

Yeah, but they got… Sammy Watkins and Mike Williams, two wide receivers who will step in and make an immediate impact in week one. The Bills took a big risk moving up in the draft to take Watkins with the fourth overall pick, but it has the potential to pay off in a big way. Watkins was the best receiver available, bar none. The Clemson product is big (six-foot-one), fast (4.39 in the 40-yard dash), has great hands and the potential to develop into Julio Jones–type receiver.

Williams, who played under Marrone at Syracuse, has had his share of struggles but has also shown huge potential in four NFL seasons. The additions of Brandon Spikes (LB) and Keith Rivers (LB) should help ease the pain of Alonso’s injury a bit, while Bryce Brown (RB) has been brought in with high aspirations should Fred Jackson break down or trade rumours regarding C.J. Spiller prove true.

Growing from within: The Bills had arguably the best all-around rookie class last season and will expect those players, now sophomores, to take that next step. Robert Woods (WR) and Marquise Goodwin (WR) showed flashes last season, and, teamed with Watkins and Williams could help comprise the AFC East’s most versatile and dangerous receiving corps. That depends entirely, however, on the play of EJ Manuel (QB). A first-round pick (16th overall) last year, Manuel’s season was marred by injuries and inconsistencies. The Bills have given Manuel the weapons to succeed, now he’s got to prove he can run the offence. Marcell Dareus (DT) continues to make more bad headlines than good ones; if he doesn’t get his act together soon, his time in Buffalo could quickly run out.

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Why this team? Because the Bills have the potential to be an exciting, dynamic young team. Because Buffalo boasts arguably the NFL’s best running back duo in Spiller and Jackson, a talented group of receivers and a potential franchise QB in Manuel. Because—despite the absence of Alonso—the Buffalo defence still has some impressive pieces, especially along the defensive line in the Williamses (Mario, Kyle and Aaron at safety). Because if Buffalo can get it all together, they might be able to put the heat on Tom Brady and the Patriots.

Why not? Notice how many times I’ve used the words “could” or “potential.” That’s why. Because no matter how much improvement the Bills have shown off-season after off-season, they always find a way to be the same old Bills; on the outside of the playoff picture looking in. Also, the team’s future in western New York is a major question mark. Who knows where this team will be after the lease at the Ralph runs out?

Perfect for fans of… The Toronto Blue Jays. Since their glory days in the early 1990s, these franchises have done nothing but disappoint their fan bases. Owners of the second (Jays: 21) and third (Bills: 15) longest post-season droughts in North American sports, the Jays and Bills are always “one piece away.” Despite these droughts, fans hold out hope that this will be the year that things are different. They never are.

How much hope? 4/10. Sorry again Bills fans, but not this year. As long as Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are together, the AFC East will be in the hands of the Patriots. And the Jets shouldn’t be counted out either. That puts the Bills in a race for third with the Dolphins, and winning that race means nothing. Maybe this will be the year, but probably not.

Will you be mocked for front-running? Most likely, but it’ll be more like, “Why did you choose that group of losers?” instead of the bandwagoning type of mockery.

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