The Bills have started off the 2014 season on the best possible foot with two wins over quality opponents; taking care of the Bears in Chicago in week one and dismantling the division rival Miami Dolphins in front of an emotional home crowd at Ralph Wilson Stadium this past Sunday. As of today, our Bills are 2-0 and sit alone atop the AFC East. Pretty nice feeling, isn’t it?
There are a number of contributing factors to this early season success. The defense has been fantastic. The running game has been as advertised for the offense. EJ Manuel has made plays when called upon. The special teams unit has done their part too. However, I think what has made the biggest difference thus far, and what will make winning football in Buffalo sustainable as the season moves forward, is the quality depth throughout the roster. Depth that is unlike anything we’ve seen from the Buffalo Bills in quite some time.
Over the past few off-seasons, the Bills front office, led by Doug Whaley, Buddy Nix and Russ Brandon, have begun to assemble a level of talent at multiple positions that extends beyond the starters on the team. This would be tested long before the season would begin, when star linebacker Kiko Alonso, who was set to man the WLB spot in Jim Schwartz’ new defensive scheme, went down with an ACL tear at the very beginning of July.
Alonso was not only a stalwart player and the leader of the defense as a rookie in 2013; he was also inarguably one of the most important pieces to the new Wide 9 scheme that showed up with Schwartz for the new year. This unfortunate turn of events would test the depth of the Buffalo linebacker corps immediately. Luckily, the Bills had done some things to prepare for a situation like this; signing veterans Brandon Spikes and Keith Rivers in free agency and adding Preston Brown from the University of Louisville in the 3rd round of the 2014 draft. Nigel Bradham, a three-year veteran of the team, also looked ready to step in to an expanded role.
As we’ve seen throughout the first two games, the linebacker group has become one of the strengths of the team despite the loss of one of the best defensive players in the AFC from last season. Nigel Bradham had an absolutely fantastic training camp, arguably the best of the entire defensive unit, but he was forced out of the week one game in Chicago due to a suspension stemming from an incident last off-season. This forced Preston Brown into an expanded role right away. According to the guys at Buffalo Rumblings, who maintain a great running snap count chart, all the rookie Brown has done is play all 153 snaps on defense through two weeks.
Brandon Spikes has also reinvigorated a once-futile Bills run defense; the team checks in at No. 5 overall against the run after two weeks, allowing only 166 rushing yards in two games. Despite only playing one game apiece due to suspension and injury, Nigel Bradham and Keith Rivers have both shown very well when on the field. Bradham looks like the prototypical WLB in Jim Schwartz’ scheme and Rivers is the type of downhill, run-stopping linebacker that you want over on the strong side. The talented depth that was assembled at the linebacker spot has surfaced early and often so far in the 2014 season.
The evidence of strong depth is not unique to one group on the team. Let’s stay on the defensive side of the ball and examine the defensive line. Headlined by three Pro Bowlers in Mario Williams, Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus, along with 2013 breakthrough player Jerry Hughes; the defensive line was thought to be the strength of the entire squad entering 2014. None of these players have disappointed through two games, as Kyle Williams has arguably been the best player on the field both weeks and the other three starters have been very disruptive themselves at times. But it’s what’s been happening behind them that has me particularly interested.
Through two weeks, four other players have found themselves in a steady rotation along the defensive line and have played significant snap counts. Manny Lawson (34.6%) and Jarius Wynn (33.3%) have each been on the field about 1/3 of the time at defensive end and Corbin Bryant (34.6%) and Stefan Charles (24.2%) have both seen significant time at the defensive tackle spot. The Bills already knew what they had in their four starters. Each one of them are Pro Bowl-caliber players and they make the defense go. However, we are really seeing an embarrassment of riches at the defensive line spot due to those other four guys working into the rotation behind them. Lawson, Wynn, Bryant and Charles have all contributed to these first two wins.
Very few other teams in the entire league go 8-deep at their defensive front; much less 8-deep with quality players. The depth, and talented depth at that, of the defensive line is perhaps the most impressive thing about the 2014 version of the Bills. They will lean on this group throughout the season and should have a lot of success in doing so.
Cornerback is similar to the defensive line group in the sense that the talent doesn’t stop after the “starters.” Stephon Gilmore and Leodis McKelvin were out there with the ones at all times when healthy last season. However, Gilmore was unavailable due to injury for week one in Chicago. All free agent-signee Corey Graham has done in two weeks is rack up 13 tackles, 6 pass deflections and an interception. He has been one of the best corners in the entire league, playing 92.8% of the snaps on defense. Nickell Robey has also seen the field a bunch, appearing in 76.5% of the snaps. Both Gilmore and McKelvin are still going to see the field a ton this year, particularly the former, but it has been some kind of luxury to have Graham and Robey around to play serious minutes early on in this season.
The cornerback group is one that features a guy that I still believe has ‘shutdown corner’ potential in Stephon Gilmore, a player that came into his own last season in Leodis McKelvin, the best slot corner in football as a rookie last year in Nickell Robey and who I feel was the best free agent pickup of the off-season, perhaps of any team, in Corey Graham. This unit is one of the deepest in football and it should continue to show as Gilmore and McKelvin get healthier and begin playing up to their respective standards.
The talented depth on this team is not unique to the defensive side of the ball. On offense, it is apparent at both skill positions. The Bills go four-deep with proven NFL talents at running back. C.J. Spiller and Freddy Jackson have and will see the bulk of the work as long as they are healthy, but Boobie Dixon has already proven to be effective when he has been called upon throughout the first two games and Bryce Brown is (seriously) one of the most talented running backs in all of football. The confidence in this depth has allowed the Bills to use Spiller in a kick return role. How’d that work out this past Sunday?
Buffalo is one, if not the only, team in the NFL that can roll out four above-average running backs at any given time. They are a team that is committed to running the football every single Sunday and having four backs of that caliber allows the efficiency to match the volume.
At the wide receiver position, the Bills made two moves that assured themselves of being both more talented and deeper at the position this off-season when they drafted Sammy Watkins 4th overall and traded for veteran Mike Williams in a deal with Tampa Bay. Watkins brings a dynamic ability that is unlike anything we’ve seen in Buffalo since Eric Moulds was in town, as evidenced by his 8-117-1 outburst against the Dolphins. Mike Williams brings a different dynamic himself, as he has already displayed a proficiency at high-pointing the football; a quality the Bills had been missing in their wide receiver group for quite some time. Robert Woods has also been a steady presence throughout the first two weeks, playing 85.3% of the snaps and making some big time plays in Chicago week one. Marquise Goodwin’s world-class speed is there if you need it and Chris Hogan has proven, particularly throughout this past training camp, that he has the ability to play in this league.
As a whole, the Bills have five wide receivers who would garner playing time on most NFL teams. Each one of them also has a particular niche that makes them difficult to defend in their own ways. We’ve already seen this from Watkins, Woods and Williams. You get the feeling that Goodwin’s first long touchdown is only a week or two away and Hogan could step into a slot role at any given time. It is yet another deep, talented group.
Since the great teams of the early-90s, the Bills have had some talented guys strap on the red, white and blue. However, I believe that the depth on this team is different than anything we have ever seen since those glory days. Maybe by a longshot. This team not only has quality talent at almost every starting position, but also quality talent backing up those starters. Many of whom are already seeing important playing time during this young season. To me, the talented depth that the front office has assembled is coming to fruition right before our eyes, and is the key to sustaining the success of the first two weeks.
What do you think about the depth of the 2014 version of the Buffalo Bills? Is it good enough to help drive the team to their first playoff appearance since 1999? Are there any areas that concern you? Let us know, Bills fans. And, as always, Go Bills!