Rex Ryan arrived in Buffalo to a familiar scene, staring at an imbalanced roster with most of the talent on the defensive side of the ball.
After a March spending spree, however, the Bills are now one of the most fascinating teams in the league.
Hall of Famer Andre Reed proclaimed this week that the Bills have the talent to "make a run at New England" after adding a trio of impact players to an offense that stunted the organization's playoff hopes in 2014.
Buffalo isn't the only city with expectations of a high-scoring renaissance.
Let's take a look at the five most improved offenses since the end of the 2014 season:
1. Buffalo Bills
Additions: LeSean McCoy, Percy Harvin, Charles Clay, Matt Cassel, Richie Incognito, Jerome Felton and Tyrod Taylor
NFL Media analyst Bucky Brooks has outlined the reasons to expect new coordinator Greg Roman's offense to spark a legitimate playoff run this season. Minus a reliable quarterback, Roman will orchestrate a run-centric offense with McCoy, bruising lead blocker Felton and savvy veteran Fred Jackson. The 49ers ranked eighth, fourth, third and fourth in the past four years on the ground under Roman.
In Harvin and Sammy Watkins, Roman has the benefit of two explosive weapons to draw up creative misdirection runs and gadget plays that will frustrate defensive coordinators. Throw in tight end Charles Clay and possession receiver Robert Woods, and the Bills might have more weapons than any offense in the league.
This collection of playmakers can stretch the field horizontally like few we've ever seen. The question is whether they can beat defenses vertically.
Buffalo Bills: A
Whether you're a lover or hater of the Buffalo Bills, one thing is for certain: They've absolutely aced the offseason thus far. Does that mean they'll make the playoffs for the first time since 1999? No. But on paper, they're closer now than they've been in a long while.
The first major transaction was the hiring of Rex Ryan as new head coach, replacing Doug Marrone. Ryan is a brilliant defensive mind who should have that side of the ball humming from day one. He brought in Greg Roman to run his offense, and the unit should be improved. The likely new quarterback is Matt Cassel, who was brought in via a trade with Minnesota.
The trade for Eagles running back LeSean McCoy was a blockbuster and should greatly help the club's ground attack. The Bills also re-signed defensive end Jerry Hughes, who tallied 10 sacks in each of the last two seasons.
Other players signed were receiver Percy Harvin, tight end Charles Clay and quarterback Tyrod Taylor.
If Cassel can play even decent football—or if incumbent passer EJ Manuel can finally put it all together—the Bills will have a real chance to make the postseason.
Buffalo Bills Will Draft Defense in Round 2
So far, the Buffalo Bills' offseason has literally been all about offense. They have acquired eight new players since February, and every one of those players lines up on the side that possesses the ball.
That's not without reason—the Bills defense ranked fourth in the NFL in both yards allowed and points allowed this past season, while their offense ranked 26th in yards gained and 18th in points scored—and it could be said that the team should continue to focus on rebuilding its offense in the draft. A top guard prospect such as Duke's Laken Tomlinson or South Carolina's A.J. Cann would be a smart choice for the Bills at the No. 50 overall pick.
That said, the Bills aren't going to ignore their defense altogether this offseason. So with no first-round pick, and only two total picks in the first four rounds, it's likely Buffalo will look to add more talent to its defense with its second-round pick. (For what it's worth, the New York Jets drafted a defensive player with their first pick in each of their final five drafts led by new Bills coach Rex Ryan.)
By addressing most of their major offensive needs in free agency, the Bills have put themselves in position to draft the best defensive player available at the No. 50 overall pick.
Their area of greatest need on their defense, though, is to add another interior defensive lineman as they switch back to a 3-4 scheme. Potential fits to play as a 3-4 defensive end include Ohio State's Michael Bennett, Iowa's Carl Davis and Arizona State's Marcus Hardison.
Buffalo could also use the No. 50 overall pick to add another outside linebacker, such as Mississippi State's Preston Smith or Louisville's Lorenzo Mauldin, or take a chance on a safety such as Samford's Jaquiski Tartt or Virginia's Anthony Harris.
Will the Bills draft a quarterback?
One of the reasons that general manager Doug Whaley and new head coach Rex Ryan have been so busy this offseason with trades and free agency is the fact that Buffalo won't be circling any names on draft cards in both the first and fourth round. The Bills used those picks one year ago to move up to the No. 4 spot to grab Clemson wideout Sammy Watkins.
Still, does that mean the team might not look at a quarterback somewhere along the way? The Bills have 2013 first-rounder EJ Manuel, who has made just 14 starts in two seasons, and dealt for veteran journeyman Matt Cassel, who has some wear and tear on him as he joins his fourth NFL team.
The team needs some offensive line help, and that would seem to be the play in Round No. 2. But don't be shocked if the Bills grab a signal-caller with potential in the third round.
Biggest need: Offensive line -- The Bills' difficulty in valuing assets has prevented them from addressing their real needs. Their shortsighted trade of this year's top draft pick makes it unlikely they will find their 2015 quarterback in the draft. And the resources now tied up in LeSean McCoy and Charles Clay could have helped address the Bills' other glaring offensive weakness: an offensive line that ranked just 26th in adjusted line yards (a Football Outsiders run-blocking metric) in 2014. The Bills should be looking to draft both a guard and a tackle.
Quiet need: Additional draft picks -- No team has a worse draft position for 2015 than the Bills, who have just two picks in rounds 1-4. The Bills need to leverage the assets they have on defense to get the present or future draft picks that might finally get them their quarterback.
Not a need: Defense -- In 2014, the Bills had the NFL's best pass defense and second-best defense overall. But the Bills have had a top-10 defense seven times in the past 15 years, and their offensive shortcomings have kept them out of the playoffs every year. Buffalo has an astounding $40.6 million in 2015 salary-cap space going just to its front four.
*--Andrew Healy, Football Outsiders
Ronald Darby, CB, Florida State (Day 2): Darby occasionally gets caught out of position and he intercepted only two passes over the past two seasons, so he's not a ball hawk. But he has the confidence, speed and fluid hips to hold up on an island, making him a good fit for Rex Ryan's aggressive scheme. He's got the talent to push Leodis McKelvin for playing time and eventually replace him as the starter opposite Stephon Gilmore.
Benardrick McKinney, ILB, Mississippi State (Day 2): At 6-foot-4 and 246 pounds, McKinney has the burst, length and top-end speed to make an immediate impact at the NFL level. He's also versatile enough to line up on the inside or the outside in Ryan's scheme, which should make him that much more attractive for the Bills.
Nick Boyle, TE, Delaware (Day 3): While he doesn't have the speed to threaten down the seam or after the catch, Boyle is a throwback mauler with the power to move defenders off the ball, and he catches the ball well enough to develop into a reliable possession receiver and red zone target. He provides things new pass-catching TE Clay doesn't.
--Steve Muench, Scouts Inc.
1. They're not going to trade back into the first round: The Bills are without a first-round pick, having dealt it to Cleveland in the Sammy Watkins trade last May, and they're not moving back into the first round this spring, general manager Doug Whaley told me at the NFL owners meetings. With a league-low two picks in the first 150 selections and just six picks overall, the Bills don't have the flexibility to move up the board.
2. Don't rule out the Bills taking a quarterback at No. 50: There is a significant drop-off in quarterback prospects after Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota, but Whaley said last month that it wasn't "as steep as a lot of people are saying." He feels there could be a "run" on quarterbacks in the second or third round, where the Bills pick at No. 50 and No. 81. Even with EJ Manuel, Matt Cassel and Tyrod Taylor already set to compete this summer, Whaley is open to rolling the dice on a second- or third-round quarterback.
3. Expect the offensive line to be high on Bills' list: The Bills dished out more guaranteed money ($91.5 million) than any other team this offseason, but one position they weren't able to address was their offensive line. They missed out on signing Bryan Bulaga, who rejoined the Green Bay Packers, and they are now looking to fill the void through the draft. Whether it's a guard or tackle, the Bills won't hesitate to pluck a big man off the board with their second- or third-round pick if the value is there.
--Mike Rodak, NFL Nation Bills reporter
Needs Entering Offseason: QB, pass rusher, RB
Many believe the Bills have become a legitimate contender by trading for RB LeSean McCoy, a deal that might enable Coach Rex Ryan to rely on his defense and running game as he once did during his highly successful early years with the Jets. The QB situation remains unsettled even with Matt Cassel and Tyrod Taylor brought in to go with EJ Manuel. The Bills don't have a first-round pick and won't be in the running to land one of the draft's top QBs, Jameis Winston or Marcus Mariota. But it will be interesting to see if they make a move for one of the draft's next-tier QBs such as Brett Hundley, Bryce Petty or Garrett Grayson.
Round 2, Pick 50: Carl Davis, defensive lineman, Iowa
The Bills have addressed plenty of needs this offseason, so now Rex Ryan can focus on finding the types of players he likes to use in his defensive scheme. In this mock draft, the best-case scenario plays out, and Iowa defensive lineman Carl Davis is still on the board. The Bills will be hosting the 320-pound lineman on a pre-draft visit, and he's versatile enough to plug a few different spots on the defensive line. Davis is still growing as a player, too.
Round 3, Pick 81: Ali Marpet, offensive lineman, Hobart College**
Whaley has mentioned the concern he has over the offensive line, and who could blame him? The Bills added Richie Incognito, but he's been out of football since 2013. Other than him, Buffalo is left with largely the same cast of characters from an underwhelming group in 2014. Guard is the most pressing issue, and while the Bills invested three draft picks in the offensive line a year ago, it's probably time to go back to the well.
Ali Marpet may come from a small school but he has looked the part during the pre-draft process. Marpet more than held his own at the 2015 Senior Bowl and looked like one of the draft's most athletic offensive linemen at the NFL Scouting Combine. His versatility would make him a valuable addition to an offensive line that could use competition at every spot. He's been in our Bills' mocks before, and it's mostly due to his versatility.
Round 5, Pick 155: Norkeithus Otis, edge rusher, North Carolina
The Bills could use a strong-side linebacker for Ryan's defense. Right now, Manny Lawson and Randell Johnson are the only two players on the Bills' roster that fit the mold Ryan has traditionally used at that position. Norkeithus Otis from North Carolina is an athletic fit for the role. Otis has impressive tools but never quite put it together consistently for the Tar Heels. That's why he's available in the fifth round. But maybe Ryan can get the most out of him.
Round 6, Pick 188 (From Minnesota Vikings): Clayton Geathers, safety, UCF
Lost in all of the Bills' free agency madness was the fact that strong safety Da'Norris Searcy won't be back in Buffalo. Searcy was one of Buffalo's most improved defensive players in 2014, and while Duke Williams appears to be a logical successor, it's not a bad idea to find some depth at the position.
Round 6, Pick 194: Nick Boyle, tight end, Delaware
Bills offensive coordinator Greg Roman likes to utilize multiple tight ends in his offense, so it wouldn't be a surprise to see Buffalo go after another tight end in the NFL Draft even after signing Charles Clay to a big deal in free agency. While Clay can play the "move" role on offense, Delaware's Nick Boyle is in the mold of a traditional in-line tight end. His blocking skills would come in handy right away.
Round 7, Pick 234: Chris Bonner, quarterback, Colorado State-Pueblo
The Bills may not have room for a developmental quarterback on the roster right now, but it's not a bad idea to keep investing in the position until they find an answer. Colorado State-Pueblo quarterback Chris Bonner is the ultimate project quarterback. He's 6-feet-7-inches tall and has a strong, powerful throwing arm. At times, he's shown solid anticipation and pocket movement as well. Physically, he might be more talented than any quarterback in Buffalo right now.
50) - DT Carl Davis, Iowa
- While it's true that the defensive line is the strongest grouping on the roster, the Bills have the opportunity of adding a very talented player that fits whatever scheme the Bills may run. Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus are as good as they come, but how long will Kyle Williams still be playing at a high level? Carl Davis can play five-technique in a 3-4, he can play defensive tackle and could even dabble at nose tackle. Defensive line depth was an issue last year, but it was never exposed. This is a smart pickup of a player that has first-round potential and talent.
81) - OT/G Donovan Smith, Penn State
- Just as it goes with the options the Bills currently have on the offensive line, Donovan Smith will offer the Bills flexibility of playing either inside or outside. In his college career, Smith played on the outside but many believe his best fit would be at guard. He will supply, at worst, a solid swing backup to the offensive line with the potential to start down the line. He would make one of the high-priced guards (Chris Williams, Kraig Urbik) expendable.
- Buffalo Bills
Their biggest hole is the most important: The Bills have the defense, offensive weapons and coaching staff in place to wrestle the division away from the Patriots. However, at the most important position in sports -- the quarterback -- sits a 75-point-font question mark.
Rex Ryan will lead a battle royal of quarterbacks into training camp: Matt Cassel, Tyrod Taylor, EJ Manuel and Jeff Tuel. All leave a lot to be desired. That Taylor even has a shot at the opening day gig tells nearly the entire story. Cassel could be the calming, no-mistakes signal-caller Buffalo needs, but he hasn't played more than nine games in a season since 2010. Manuel has been a huge disappointment since being drafted in the first round and not winning the gig could doom his career. And Jeff Tuel is Jeff Tuel.
The Bills beefed up the surrounding talent, and the addition of LeSean McCoy will give the ground game legs to lean on. But at some point Buffalo will need to ask one of its quarterbacks to win a game. Whether they can remains a mystery.
We've been over the quarterback question, so let's look at the other positions to upgrade.
» Add offensive line help: Nothing short circuits a questionable quarterback like shoddy line play. Richie Incognito was brought in to upgrade the guard position, but he's been out of football for more than a year. The other guard, Chris Williams, played just three games last season before going on IR. For a run-first offense, starting Seantrel Henderson at right tackle could provide some sleepless nights.
» Fly in a veteran safety: With Da'Norris Searcy gone, Duke Williams is set to step into a starting role. There is a need for depth with Bacarri Rambo and Jonathan Meeks as the backups. Free agent Dawan Landry visited Buffalo and knows Ryan's system from New York. He could be brought in as a stopgap while the younger players wet their feet in the scheme.
» Bring in linebacker aid: With the trade of Kiko Alonso to Philadelphia, the Bills sit with starters Nigel Bradham and Preston Brown on the inside. Buffalo will look to add depth at the position either in the draft or with a low-level veteran signing later in the summer.