After a long off-season and what at times felt like an even longer training camp and pre-season period, we are finally just a couple short days away from the opening of the 2014 Buffalo Bills season in Chicago. The past few months have had plenty of ups and downs and compelling storylines that have rose from them as the team enters the season. This week, I sat down with one of the newest members of the NFL.com team, Buffalo’s own Chris Trappaso, to get his perspective on recent news, the current makeup of the team and what he expects to see as the 2014 season kicks off.
716SportsGuy: Chris, thanks very much for taking the time to answer some questions for Bills Mafia and congratulations on the new gig at NFL.com. I want to begin with what was obviously the biggest topic of discussion from this past weekend, the Kyle Orton signing. What was your reaction to that news?
Chris Trapasso: Thanks a lot, happy to do it. I thought it was a good move for the Bills to make because the overwhelming consensus regarding the Bills’ quarterback depth was that it was an area of concern, especially with Thad Lewis being cut, Jeff Tuel underperforming and then Jordan Palmer being brought onto the team and playing a game just hours after that, which was a bit of a disaster; so I think that anytime you can get a really good backup like Kyle Orton it’s very important. You obviously want your starter to be the guy that’s going to play all 16 games, but when you have a young quarterback, you want to have that experienced backup behind him. And I think this was a calculated move by Doug Marrone; he wanted a quarterback who has played meaningful games in this league and is very experienced, but maybe not a guy who is ‘dying’ to be a starter. I think they got the best of both worlds in Orton in terms of what both Doug Marrone and Doug Whaley said they wanted.
716SportsGuy: So you don’t view the Orton signing as an indictment on EJ Manuel at all?
Chris Trapasso: No, I don’t think so at all. If the Bills didn’t sign him and went into the season with a Jordan Palmer or Jeff Tuel as the 2nd string guy, the consensus would be that the Bills don’t have a viable backup or contingency plan and they probably would have been criticized for that. Their job is to assemble the best team possible. And, sure, they’re paying him a lot, but he turned down $3 million from the Cowboys and sort of went into a retirement mode for a while; so I think he was driving a pretty hard bargain and wanted to get paid quite a bit of money to go anywhere. Doug Marrone did say that they had been in talks with Kyle Orton for quite a while, so I think maybe that second year was a sticking point for Orton, where he wanted that job security going into next season as well. So no, I don’t think the signing was an indictment of EJ Manuel; I think anytime that you have the opportunity to add a solid player like Kyle Orton onto your roster, it’s a pretty solid move.
716SportsGuy: Sticking with the news from this week, any cuts that surprised you at all or was everything pretty much as expected?
Chris Trapasso: I think the obvious one was Landon Cohen because of the strong pre-season that he had, but keeping 5 or 6 defensive tackles is kind of a luxury that you don’t see many teams exercise. And it’s not like Cohen can play outside at defensive end like I think both Stefan Charles and Corbin Bryant have the ability to do if necessary. Those guys are a little more versatile. Cohen made a lot of plays, particularly showing a great burst off the snap and ability to read the quarterback’s cadence and get off the ball very quickly many times, but I think his lack of versatility really hurt him at the end of the day. So that was probably the most surprising for me, though I wouldn’t really call it a ‘stunner’. I’ll also say that I think it was a smart move by the Bills to keep Jeff Tuel on the practice squad, primarily because of his knowledge of the playbook and what the offense is trying to do. He’s essentially where Manuel is in terms of knowledge of the playbook since they’ve both been in town for two years, so I think that was a smart move by the Bills to bring Tuel back in that capacity after initially cutting him.
716SportsGuy: We were just talking a bit about Landon Cohen and some of the depth at defensive line; I want to shift over to the offensive line now. There has been a lot of shuffling throughout training camp due to injuries and the play of certain guys. What is your perception of the offensive line group heading into the regular season?
Chris Trapasso: I think for Doug Marrone it’s probably been pretty frustrating at times. The offensive line is of course his ‘baby’ so to speak; he was an offensive lineman in the league and he was an offensive line coach throughout much of his coaching career. So it’s probably been frustrating for him. Going into camp, I think right guard was the biggest spot along the line that was probably ‘up for grabs’ because Marrone didn’t seem to be too happy with Kraig Urbik last season. Then your star left tackle is out for most of training camp, Chris Williams gets hurt and your 2nd round pick doesn’t play up to his 2nd round-status right away like the front office probably expected him to when they drafted him. These factors forced Doug Marrone to do a lot more shuffling than I think he expected.
At tackle, I do think there is a little worry for the Bills because throughout the two pre-season games Cordy Glenn played, I didn’t see him play up to the level that he reached last season when I thought he was a top-10 left tackle in the league. I know it’s just pre-season, but I think his role along the offensive line is so important that if he takes any type of step back this season, it will have a pretty significant ripple effect along the rest of the line. If he can return to the form he showed last year, it will be huge for both EJ Manuel and the Bills’ run game. As far as Seantrel Henderson, although he was a top recruit coming out of high school and into Miami, I didn’t really see him show that elite athleticism or really dominate when I watched his college tape. I think Doug Marrone has done a really good job of motivating Henderson and improving his technique throughout the off-season and I think he also lost a little weight which has allowed him to be a little light on his feet to deal with some of those speed rushers that some thought may give him some trouble.
At guard, Cyril Richardson is the guy that really intrigues me. Like Henderson, he has been another guy that has played a lot better, especially in space, than I expected coming into camp. Throughout the pre-season, he showed the ability to get to the second level and find linebackers on pulls for such a big guard. Chris Williams is a guy that has had his fair share of question marks throughout the first handful of seasons in his career, but the Bills went out and signed him as soon as the free agent period opened, so it was obviously someone that the team targeted. Although he never found his niche as a franchise left tackle like he was drafted to be in Chicago, I think he’s found a home at the guard position. I think if he can be a visible step better than Colin Brown and Doug Legursky were last season, it will be a nice improvement for the Bills. I think Eric Wood also needs to play a bit better this season, particularly in run blocking. He struggled a bit in that area by his standards last season and I think there’s room for improvement there.
Overall, I think you can expect some hiccups early on in the season from the offensive line considering it is such a young group with not a lot of continuity to be spoken for at this point, but I think you have the five most talented guys starting at the five spots and they should steadily improve as the season moves forward.
716SportsGuy: Obviously that offensive line group has been built with the run game in mind; what do you expect from the Bills’ run game this season? Can they get the efficiency needed to match the volume?
Chris Trapasso: The Bills in fact were the highest volume run team in football last season, but the consistency and efficiency were not there. The expectation was that that efficiency was going to be there last season with Doug Marrone in town, but it really wasn’t. I think bringing in those two running backs – Bryce Brown and Anthony Dixon – was very important. You’re not going to have to run C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson into the ground anymore and risk injury to two of your better players. With four very capable running backs – all with different niches and elements to their game – you’re really going to see a running back by committee approach this season. It’s something that a lot of team don’t have.
Having four above average running backs to take carries could allow the Bills to run the ball up to 40 times per game without really running any one of them ragged. It’s very rare that you find a team that can run the ball very well and doesn’t stay in most games. If you can consistently get 4-5 yards per carry, you’re going to put yourself in a lot of third and short situations which is exactly where any team wants to be. The conversion rates go way up if you’re successful in getting to those spots. Even teams like the Patriots are much more successful when they’re running the ball efficiently and consistently getting into 3rd and short situations. The two teams that met in the NFC Championship last season – the Seahawks and 49ers – had quarterbacks who attempted the fewest passes in the league among starters last year. That’s living proof that teams in this ‘pass-happy’ league are still most successful when they are running the ball often and efficiently. The Bills have constructed their team with a ‘run-first’ model and I think they’re committed to doing just that.
716SportsGuy: Let’s assume for a moment that the run game does progress like we were just talking about – do you think EJ Manuel has the ability to do enough to support it?
Chris Trapasso: I do, and I think he showed flashes of that ability last season. The national perception of EJ Manuel right now is not good, and I think it’s been a bit overblown. Prior to getting injured midway through the game in Cleveland, I saw flashes of him turning into the quarterback they want him to be. I think the Bills want to build around that philosophy of having a great run game and great run defense on the other side of the ball. These two factors make life much easier on a quarterback like we just mentioned in Seattle and San Francisco. That’s what the Bills want to do with Manuel, and I do think he has the talent to be that game manager-type that the coaching staff is seeking.
The talent at the skill position, particularly the new additions at wide receiver with Sammy Watkins and Mike Williams, should make that a whole lot easier for him to achieve. The Bills have guys who excel in space and I think that’s exactly what they’re going to try to create in the passing game. If the run game and defense is as good as it has the potential to be, it will make life on Manuel infinitely easier and I think he can do enough to direct the ship and win football games. His interception percentage was below 3% last season, which speaks to his ability to take care of the football and that’s exactly what the Bills need him to do. Ball security is huge. EJ needs to manage the game, move the sticks on 3rd down and make plays when called upon. If he does, the Bills are going to be in and win a lot of games in 2014.
716SportsGuy: On to the other side of the ball, what do you think we’ll see from the defense coming into the year as they make the transition from a Mike Pettine to Jim Schwartz system?
Chris Trapasso: Obviously the most noticeable thing for anyone watching the games will be that there won’t be as many exotic blitzes as we saw under Pettine coming from all sorts of different alignments. That just isn’t who Jim Schwartz is. That isn’t how most defensive coordinators are. It’s safe to say that the sack and interception totals will probably be lower because of the ratcheting down of the blitzes. However, I think we’ll see the biggest difference, and it’s a positive one, in the run defense. I think the Bills front office targeted Jim Schwartz because of his long history of success in stopping the run and they also brought in the personnel to match this philosophy with guys like Brandon Spikes, Keith Rivers and Preston Brown. Being a team that can stop the run is paramount in the NFL. The Bills have fielded terrible run defenses for a decade now and it wasn’t any better last season under Pettine. Many teams abused them in the run game throughout 2013. I think that was priority number one for the Bills in the off-season. They have brought in coaches like Schwartz and Pepper Johnson who have well-documented experience with building run-stopping defenses and also added personnel to match this philosophy.
As a whole, I think you can expect less ‘splash’ plays this season from the defense, but one that is much better against the run and more balanced overall than what we saw under Mike Pettine.
716SportsGuy: One guy I wanted to focus on a bit is Stephon Gilmore. After a very promising rookie season and standout training camp prior to 2013, much of last year was lost for him due to a wrist injury that he suffered in a pre-season game. Now it feels like his status as a potential ‘elite’ corner that they drafted him to be is pretty up in the air. What’s your take on Gilmore?
Chris Trapasso: I think in terms of overall talent, he has the ability to be that guy. He has great size, is a low 4.4 guy and is very physical at the line. He’s shown a knack for disrupting receivers’ routes early. What concerns me a bit with Gilmore is that I think he needs to be playing man coverage exclusively and not be dropping into any zone or off-man like Jim Schwartz often likes to do with his cornerbacks. I think Schwartz is smart enough to do that. Even if you’re playing Cover 3 everywhere else, leave Gilmore in man on the other team’s No. 1 wide receiver. I think he has that ability. I hesitate to say that he’s going to move into the upper-echelon, Revis/Sherman-type ranks as a cornerback just yet, but I think he certainly has the potential to be a top-10 guy at his position at some point.
Another factor that will be interesting for Stephon Gilmore is how this new emphasis on defensive holding and pass interference by the NFL that has been so well-documented throughout the pre-season affects his game. He is a guy that thrives on pressing wide receivers at the line, disrupting their routes and using his physicality in general to win in coverage. How tight those kinds of plays are being called against him will be interesting to watch early in the season. Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery should certainly present a challenge in that regard right away.
716SportsGuy: Sticking with the Bears, what are you expecting in Week 1 this Sunday in Chicago?
Chris Trapasso: I think any time you start the season on the road, it’s very tough. I do think that the Bills match-up better offensively against the Bears defense than they do on the other side of the ball against the Bears offense. Though I think the Bills have the talent and depth at defensive back to matchup with the Bears talented wide receivers, I think they could struggle in pass coverage against Matt Forte and Martellus Bennett, especially with Nigel Bradham being suspended for the game. The other linebackers aren’t great in space and that could cause the Bills some headaches in pass defense.
Offensively, the Bills should be able to find some space to run against a Bears defense that really struggled in that area last season. I do think they’ve done some things to improve it over the off-season by signing LaMarr Houston and Jared Allen and adding Will Sutton in the draft; but Buffalo should still be able to find some holes in the running game. I also think that the Bills running backs and tight ends can find some success on Sunday since coverage is a liability amongst the Chicago linebacking group and the safeties, Ryan Mundy and Danny McCray, are average at best. The Bills could really expose them in play-action situations on Sunday, something that E.J. Manuel has proven to be comfortable with it. I think the Bills offense matches up very well with the Bears defense.
Overall, I think Soldier Field is a very tough place to start the season and it will be a very tough task. That said, it isn’t a ‘nightmare’ matchup by any means, particularly for the Buffalo offense, so I think the Bills will be very competitive in this game.
716SportsGuy: All things considered, what are a few things that need to happen for the Bills to get to .500 or better in 2014?
Chris Trapasso: Staying healthy is always first and foremost. I think they have the depth at almost every position to absorb some injuries, but I think there’s also a few guys that they can really ill-afford to lose for long stretches like a Kyle Williams, or a Brandon Spikes, or even a Robert Woods, who I’ve always said doesn’t get mentioned nearly enough and is very important to what they’re trying to do. But health in general is always a key factor. Like we’ve been talking about most of the interview, I really think the two other things that will prove essential are establishing themselves as a consistently efficient running team on offense and conversely stopping the run defensively. Put Manuel in third and manageable situations and put other offenses in 3rd and long situations consistently.
716SportsGuy: Last, I have to put you on the spot. What is your prediction for Super Bowl 49 as of today?
Chris Trapasso: Saints vs Broncos with New Orleans coming out on top.