2) Buffalo Bills' defensive line
If Jim Schwartz was able to help the Bills' defensive line terrorize opponents without heavy blitzing, imagine how much chaos this D will create with blitz master Rex Ryan at the controls. Ryan's high-pressure tactics will produce more one-on-one chances for Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes on the edges, with linebackers and defensive backs joining the pass rush as fifth and sixth defenders at the point of attack. Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus are imposing defenders on the interior with the capacity to blow up runs or disrupt passing games with frenetic playing styles. Dareus, in particular, is a dominating force -- with 28.5 sacks in four seasons, including 10 in 2014. Considering the success the Bills' front line enjoyed under Ryan protégé Mike Pettine in 2013 (the unit accounted for 41 of the Bills' AFC-high 57 sacks), the return to a hybrid scheme should keep the group playing at a high level this season.
2) Buffalo Bills
Blue chips (8):TE Charles Clay, DT Marcell Dareus, FB Jerome Felton, CB Stephon Gilmore, WR/KR Percy Harvin, RB LeSean McCoy, DT Kyle Williams, DE Mario Williams.
On the rise:WR Sammy Watkins, S Aaron Williams.
If the Bills could somehow play without a quarterback, they would be favorites to represent the AFC in Super Bowl 50. That's right -- I'm saying Rex Ryan's bunch would be the odds-on pick to win the conference crown, based on the ultra-talented roster that is at his disposal heading into 2015. Buffalo returns a defense that features the top front line in football with Dareus, Kyle Williams, Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes wreaking havoc on foes at the point of attack. In addition, the Bills boast a solid secondary with a standout cover corner (Gilmore) and an emerging stud at safety (Aaron Williams). Given Ryan's clever scheming and aggressive mentality, this defense should absolutely terrorize opponents. Offensively, the Bills could sport their most explosive unit since the "K-Gun" overwhelmed opponents in the early 1990s. McCoy becomes the centerpiece of an offense that can win with power (run game) or finesse (aerial attack) under the direction of new coordinator Greg Roman. The young receiving corps features a number of playmakers (Watkins, Harvin and Clay) with the potential to ring up big numbers on the perimeter. If the Bills can get anything from the quarterback position, the interminable playoff drought should come to an end in 2015.
2. Rex Ryan, Buffalo Bills—The Bills and their fans have a case of Rex Mania so far, and there are finally some reasons for real optimism in Buffalo, where the NFL's longest current playoff drought now stands at 15 agonizing seasons. Consider this: In 2008, the Jets went 9–7 in the AFC East, but failed to make the playoffs and fired coach Eric Mangini, hiring Ryan to replace him. That decision produced two consecutive AFC title game appearances for New York, and four playoff victories in Ryan's first two seasons, despite a defense-led Jets team that featured a game-manager-type quarterback in Mark Sanchez.
See the similarities? The Bills went 9–7 last season in the AFC East, failed to make the playoffs, saw coach Doug Marrone depart, and hired Ryan as his replacement. It's a deep and potentially dominant defense that also leads the way in Buffalo, and the hope is that veteran Matt Cassel or third-year pro EJ Manuel can provide just enough steady quarterbacking to keep the Bills in games. And with the likes of LeSean McCoy, Percy Harvin and Charles Clay added to the roster, Cassel and Manuel aren't lacking for weapons.
On paper at least, this is Buffalo's best team this century. And while I get all the doubts about Manuel taking this team to the playoffs, let's not sell Cassel short. He twice went 10–5 as a starter, helping the Tom Brady-less Patriots to an 11–5 record in 2008 and Kansas City to a 10–6 AFC West title in 2010. If he isn't asked to do more than he's capable of, he can move the chains and win some games. The Bills have a formula I can see producing a wild-card berth this season, just like Ryan's first couple of over-achieving Jets teams managed.
Playoff chances: 50 percent.
No. 9 – DT Marcell Dareus
AGE (as of July 31): 25
CAREER NUMBERS: 28.5 sacks, 139 tackles
ACCOLADES: Two-time pro bowler, 2014 NFL All-Pro
REASONS FOR OPTIMISM: Dareus has raised the bar for NFL defensive tackles, collecting a minimum of 5.5 sacks in every campaign. In fact, Dareus boasts 17.5 sacks in the past two years. Against the Lions last season, Dareus had a monster game with 3.0 sack and five tackles while leading Buffalo to a crucial road win. The Dareus-led Bills defense ranked fourth in scoring last year, holding the opposition to fewer than 20 points eight times. Digging deeper, for Weeks 1-6 last year, the stout Buffalo defense didn't allow a single opponent to post 100 team rushing yards.
Buffalo traded linebacker Kiko Alonso for running back LeSean McCoy this offseason. One reason is the Bills have the luxury of depth at the position. One NFL scout pointed out to FOXSports.com that Powell has starter ability and that Buffalo's defense is 'stacked across the board.' Head coach Rex Ryan dumped praise on Powell last week. "He has been the most impressive to me. He's smart and picks things up quick," Ryan said.
Buffalo Bills: B-plus
Re-signed: DE Jarius Wynn, DE Jerry Hughes, DT Kyle Williams, WR Marcus Easley
Veteran additions: DE Alex Carrington, TE Charles Clay, FB Jerome Felton, FB John Conner, WR Justin Brown, WR Percy Harvin, G Richie Incognito, QB Tyrod Taylor, QB Matt Cassel, RB LeSean McCoy
Veteran subtractions: ILB Brandon Spikes, RB C.J. Spiller, OT Chris Hairston, S Da'Norris Searcy, OG Erik Pears, ILB Keith Rivers, QB Kyle Orton, OLB Larry Dean, TE Lee Smith, TE Scott Chandler, OLB Stevenson Sylvester, LB Kiko Alonso
Draft picks: 2-Ronald Darby (DB), 3-John Miller (G), 5-Karlos Williams (RB), 6a-Tony Steward (LB), 6b-Nick O'Leary (TE), 7-Dez Lewis (WR)
Analysis: How much better can a 9-7 team become without necessarily upgrading at quarterback?
"There's been a lot of speculation surrounding Greg Roman and how good of a coordinator and developer he is," Riddick said. "Now we find out for sure. They have not thrown in the towel on EJ Manuel. If they can bring him along, they are legitimate."
The Bills scored no lower than the B grade I gave them. The financial price they paid for McCoy seemed excessive. The manner in which they lost coach Doug Marrone after a promising season also stood out as a negative to me, although the excitement surrounding Rex Ryan seems to have mitigated concerns in Buffalo. Riddick lauded the Bills for taking care of their own players, notably Hughes. He liked the fact that McCoy had reason to be motivated.
"The moves they made are really good moves and they are win-now moves, not win-down-the-road moves," Polian said. "That is the right thing to do because that team has some age on it in key spots. But the question is, who plays quarterback, and at what level?"
As Yates put it: "They will be a butt-kicking front seven with an athletic secondary, and on offense they have very intriguing weapons. ..."
MM:"Free agency's done, the Draft is done but when you're talking about the Buffalo Bills offseason, it all starts with Rex Ryan so let's go back, we'll grade this team's entire offseason and it starts there with Rex coming in as Head Coach. I'm giving that an A. You get a coach who's proven with the Jets. He never had a great offense. I think in Buffalo, he's going to have more talent to work with and you need that fiery, passionate leader. They already have one of the best defenses in the NFL. You'd have to imagine that maybe they might have the best now that Rex is calling the shots ..."
Key Additions:RB LeSean McCoy, TE Charles Clay, WR Percy Harvin, FB Jerome Felton, QB Matt Cassel, QB Tyrod Taylor, OG Richie Incognito, OG John Miller, CB Ronald Darby
Key Losses:ILB Kiko Alonso, SS Da'Norris Searcy, RB C.J. Spiller, TE Scott Chandler, ILB Brandon Spikes
It's questionable whether the Buffalo Bills' additions at quarterback—Matt Cassel and Tyrod Taylor—will actually make them better at that position, where 2013 first-round pick EJ Manuel has failed to establish himself as a capable starter. The offensive talent around the quarterback, however, has clearly improved.
The Bills made the first big splash of the offseason when they traded inside linebacker Kiko Alonso to the Philadelphia Eagles in a straight-up deal for running back LeSean McCoy. Losing Alonso, the 2013 PFWA Defensive Rookie of the Year, is a significant loss for the Bills defense. That said, the trade netted the Bills one of the NFL's top offensive playmakers, and a clear upgrade over C.J. Spiller.
Lacking a quarterback who can consistently throw the ball with accuracy downfield, the Bills needed playmakers who can create themselves on runs and short-yardage throws. By trading for McCoy as well as signing Percy Harvin and Charles Clay, the Bills have given their quarterback—whoever that ends up being—a significantly more dangerous group of weapons to work with.
The Bills could have done more to address their biggest need—upgrading at the guard position—but they at least added two players in veteran free agent Richie Incognito and third-round draft pick John Miller who have enough talent and skill to compete for starting spots right away.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Bills took a step back by trading Alonso and losing Da'Norris Searcy, which leaves them with a question mark at strong safety. That said, the Bills really needed to focus on upgrading their offense this offseason—which they did—while their defense should continue to be one of the best in the NFL.