- Rex Ryan, Buffalo (1999):** The Bills went 9-7 under Doug Marrone in 2014, but I think Ryan reproduces his early success in New York and rides a deep and potentially dominant defense to a playoff berth in year one.
The Bills boldly moved up a few spots in the 2014 NFL Draft to pluck Sammy Watkins with the fourth overall pick -- and the rookie pass catcher didn't disappoint, posting 982 receiving yards and six touchdowns as Buffalo's designated playmaker. Although critics would suggest the team could've stayed at its original position (No. 9) and still landed a Pro Bowl-caliber receiver (see: Odell Beckham, who went to the Giants at No. 12), the fact that the Bills identified their guy and got positive results from him should earn them a solid review. They also received better than anticipated production from linebacker Preston Brown and offensive lineman Seantrel Henderson when they were pressed into action due to injuries and inconsistent play by those above them. Offensive lineman Cyrus Kouandjio is an unknown commodity at this point, but if he develops into a serviceable starter, this class could play a pivotal role in Buffalo's re-emergence as a playoff participant under a new regime. Grade: B
Combine focus: The lack of a first-round pick in 2015 -- it was surrendered to the Cleveland Browns in the deal that resulted in Watkins -- prevents the Bills from addressing their quarterback situation in the draft. Still, the team can add a few pieces to enhance an offense that's on the cusp of leading a playoff run. The offensive line needs some work along the interior, meaning Buffalo should take an extensive look at guys like Duke's Laken Tomlinson, South Carolina's A.J. Cann and Florida State's Tre' Jackson. Additionally, the Bills could explore the possibility of adding a dynamic tight end, like Minnesota's Maxx Williams and Miami's Clive Walford.
Offseason To-Do List**
Developing QB EJ Manuel
Re-sign DE Jerry Hughes at right price
Continue improvement within division
The good news this past season was that the Buffalo Bills finished 9-7, the team's first winning record since 2004, and did not end up in the AFC East basement for the first time since 2007.
Of course, the bad news is that the franchise is now on its eighth head coach since 1998. That would be Rex Ryan, late of the New York Jets and hoping to lead this club to its first playoff berth since 1999 and perhaps a division title for the first time since 1995.
The defensive personnel include Mario Williams, Marcell Dareus, Kyle Williams and perhaps Jerry Hughes, who must be re-signed. The return of a healthy Kiko Alonso (who missed all of 2014) would be a boost to the linebacking corps. This past year, the Bills forced 30 turnovers for the second straight season and led the NFL with 54 sacks.
Offensively, new coordinator Greg Roman has some work to do with young quarterback EJ Manuel or perhaps another signal-caller.
Just in case you thought Ryan wasn't getting ready to put his rough-and-tumble stamp on the team, think again. Jim Corbett of *USA Today* documents the team's signing of controversial offensive lineman Richie Incognito. This will be interesting, to say the least.
With the offseason underway, Around The NFL explores what's next for all 32 teams.
Former Jets coach Rex Ryan has replaced Doug Marrone, who settled for the offensive line coaching job in Jacksonville after opting out of his contract. Former 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman, hailed as one of the NFL's best minds two years ago, should be an upgrade on the offensive bosses Ryan had in New Jersey.
Although Ryan is excited to work with 2013 first-round draft pick EJ Manuel, he has also vowed to explore all avenues to add competition at quarterback. Ryan lacks a first-round pick this year as a result of last offseason's Sammy Watkins trade with the Browns.
The Bills have already forayed into free agency, signing veteran guard Richie Incognito for Roman's power-running scheme.* *
Biggest free agents
» DE Jerry Hughes: One of the most productive pass rushers on the market, Hughes has generated 120 combined sacks, hits and hurries over the past two seasons, per Pro Football Focus -- just shy of All-Pro Mario Williams' total of 129. It's a good sign that he was just as productive in Jim Scwhartz's system as he was in Mike Pettine's the year before. Hughes has expressed interest in re-signing, but will not give Buffalo a hometown discount.
» RB C.J. Spiller: Spiller is enthusiastic about the Ryan era, but has also talked up a reunion with Chan Gailey, who is now running the Jets offense. One of the NFL's most explosive playmakers when healthy and used correctly, Spiller is a better fit for Gailey's offense than Roman's.
» LB Brandon Spikes: Purely a run-stuffer, Spikes played roughly half of the defensive snaps last season. With Preston Brown and Nigel Bradham emerging as quality starters and Kiko Alonso returning from reconstructive knee surgery, Spikes is likely viewed as a luxury rather than a necessity.
Other key free agents: Erik Pears, Da'Norris Searcy, Marcus Easley, Jarius Wynn* *
Offseason crystal ball
Of the key free agents, Hughes seems the most likely to return. Ryan's comments suggest the Bills will import a veteran place-holder at quarterback, such as Mark Sanchez or Michael Vick, while also pulling the trigger on a second- or third-round signal-caller if a draft prospect catches their fancy.
The defense is already championship caliber. After failing to develop a quarterback in six years with the Jets, Ryan must prove for the first time that he can coach more than one side of the ball.
50 – TE Clive Walford, Miami
79 – DT Grady Jarrett, Clemson
BILLS SOLUTIONSBy Andy Staples**
... If the Bills decide against drafting a quarterback early, they might be able to grab their tight end at No. 50. Clive Walford, a versatile 6-4, 258-pounder who led Miami in catches (44) and finished second on the team in receiving yards (676) could still be available. Buffalo might then be able to pick up a pass-rushing outside linebacker in the third round. There are no perfect prospects at this point. Washington's Hauoli Kikaha led the nation in sacks with 19, but how many of those came because defensive tackle Danny Shelton—who probably will be drafted in the first round—occupied two or three blockers? Like Kikaha, Louisville's Lorenzo Mauldin was a defensive end in college but could be athletic enough to be a quality outside linebacker in the NFL.
Buffalo has two fifth-round picks. If he's still available, the Bills may want to consider picking up Yale back Tyler Varga. He can play tailback or fullback, and his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield could allow him to play an H-back role. Varga is the type of guy Stanford loved to use when new Buffalo offensive coordinator Greg Roman worked there.
- Buffalo Bills. Clive Walford, TE, Miami. Every year, tight end is mentioned as a priority for the Bills in the offseason. And every year, the team decides it's OK at the position with Scott Chandler. Eventually, the Bills need to try to get more athletic. Walford gives them that, along with the ability to block.