You can’t win in the National Football League without having quality depth behind the 11 starters on each side of the ball. As offenses around the league evolve and become more complex, the need for various role players—the nickel cornerback, the dime linebacker, the slot receiver, etc—has grown more important. The Buffalo Bills have done a solid job over the last few seasons building up the roster, to the point that the two-deep depth chart is strong at nearly every position.
This offseason, the Bills hired Rex Ryan as Head Coach and Greg Roman as the Offensive Coordinator. Both are known to field complex, versatile and multiple schemes on their respective sides of the ball that require several reserves to play significant snaps.
So which reserves can we expect to play a substantial role for the 2015 Buffalo Bills?
WR/KR Percy Harvin
The Bills signed Percy Harvin to a three-year, $24 million contract this offseason, that’s essentially a one-year, $4 million deal due to 2016 and 2017 being voidable years. Harvin is one of the most explosive playmakers in the National Football League and has forced opposing defensive and special teams coordinators to game-plan for him since he entered the league in 2009.
During the four years Harvin spent with the Minnesota Vikings, he caught 280 passes for 3,302 yards and 20 touchdowns, adding 683 yards and four touchdowns on 107 carries, while averaging 27.9 yards-per-kick return and scoring five touchdowns as a return man. The Vikings traded him to the Seahawks, but locker room issues caused them to send him packing to the New York Jets mid-season. Apparently the eight weeks he spent with the Jets was all Harvin needed to know that he wanted to play for Rex Ryan and develop under now-Bills wide receivers coach, Sanjay Lal, stating,
“He’s just a players’ coach. He has no ego. You can go to him, his door is always open. He’s going to be 100-percent with you. You may not like it, but it’s going to be what he thinks is best for the team. He’s always open to suggestions so you can go to him at any time, you can call him at any time and he just likes to come out here and win football games.”
The Bills have two talented starting wide receivers in Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods, but Percy Harvin should have more than enough opportunities to see touches in Roman’s offense, and as a kick/punt returner.
Harvin has made a name for himself as a “space player,” exploiting defenses with his speed on screens, quick slants, end-arounds, hitches and seam routes, so it will be interesting to see how a creative mind like Greg Roman’s will scheme production out of him.
ILB Ty Powell
Ty Powell has overcome many obstacles to work his way to into the primary reserve linebacker for the Buffalo Bills. A freak athlete (6’2” 250 lbs, 4.6 40-yard dash, 4.4 short shuttle, 6.98 three-cone, 28 bench press reps, 37” vertical, 10’2” broad jump) that played defensive end, linebacker and even safety at Harding, a D-II college, Powell was drafted in the seventh-round of the 2013 NFL Draft. Powell bounced from the Seahawks to the New York Giants, before finally being claimed by Buffalo, where he’s been working exclusively as an off-ball linebacker. In 2014, Powell played 46 defensive snaps, recording 14 tackles, a sack and one pass breakup, while making 10 total tackles on special teams, where he’s a core player.
Powell’s skill-set, athleticism and physicality make him a great fit at inside linebacker in Rex Ryan’s hybrid 3-4 defense and throughout OTA’s, he’s reportedly been impressive. Rex Ryan had this to say about Powell, who’ll be fighting for playing time with two talented inside linebackers in Nigel Bradham and Preston Brown.
“The first guy I’ll talk about is (Ty) Powell. He’s been the most impressive to me. Smart. Picks things up quick. He was more of a special teams guy, and quite honestly if he doesn’t play a snap that’s fine with me. That means Preston Brown is fine, but I like Powell. I think he’s really jumped up.
DL Stefan Charles
Stefan Charles is another player that’s had a unique journey to the National Football League. A standout player at Regina in Canada, Charles was the consensus No. 1 overall player in the CFL pre-draft rankings, but wound up being selected 10th due to the chance of him leaving for the NFL.
After spending some time on the Tennessee Titans’ practice squad, Charles was claimed by the Bills in 2013, where he’s been slowly groomed into a rotational role. Standing 6’5” and weighing 325 pounds, Charles is the ideal size for a defensive linemen in Rex Ryan’s defense, as he has the length to play the five-technique (3-4 defensive end), the bulk to play nose tackle, and the athleticism and quickness to play the three-technique (under defensive tackle) where he can penetrate the backfield.
Former Bills’ defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz broke down Charles’ game, stating,
“He’s very strong, he’s hard to block and that can contribute to pass rush also. You don’t have to be nifty and quick to be a good pass rusher. You can be a guy who collapses the pocket. We’ve seen those guys do that before and everybody has a different skill set. The whole idea of coaching is putting those skill sets to the best use.
Charles played 345 defensive snaps in 2014, recording 23 tackles and three sacks while backing up Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams. In Ryan’s defense that typically starts three interior defensive linemen, Charles should see an uptick in snaps this season. While Rex Ryan stated that Corbin Bryant was the most likely to start in place of Dareus “if the season started tomorrow,” Charles is the more talented player with more upside, and it wouldn’t come as a shock if Charles emerged as an impact player for the 2015 Bills. CB
In 2013, Nickell Robey made an immediate impact for the Bills, performing as one of the best nickel cornerbacks in the NFL, despite being an undrafted rookie. Playing in Mike Pettine’s defense, which is rooted in Rex Ryan’s philosophy, Robey recorded 39 tackles, three sacks, one forced fumble, intercepted two passes (returning one for a touchdown) and broke up 10 passes.
According to ProFootballFocus (Subscription Required), Robey allowed just 52.5% of passes in his direction to be completed, while allowing 277 yards (7th-fewest), 28 receptions (6th-fewest), a 75.4 passer rating against (10th-lowest), while allowing just one reception per 11.4 snaps in coverage, the 5th-lowest rate among slot cornerbacks.
In 2014 under Jim Schwartz, Robey’s play regressed as he was asked to play more zone coverage, that allowed opposing offenses to take advantage of his lack of size on underneath routes. Now that Rex Ryan is back, Robey will have the chance to play more man coverage, in addition to having more opportunities as a blitzer where he excelled. Even though the Bills used their second-round pick on Ronald Darby, Robey should still have a chance to have a significant role on the Bills’ defense.