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 »This Week in History
Buffalo Bills
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

  Inside Slant | Notes, Quotes | Strategy and Personnel | Player Wire

  FREE-AGENT UPDATE

Players expected to be unrestricted free agents: LB Larry Dean, WR Marcus Easley, OL Chris Hairston, DE Jerry Hughes, LB Brandon Spikes

OG Erik Pears, SS Da'Norris Searcy, TE Lee Smith, LB Sylvester Stevenson, WR Deonte Thompson, DE Jarius Wynn,

UNIT-BY-UNIT ANALYSIS:



QUARTERBACKS:
Starter Kyle Orton. Backups EJ Manuel, Jeff Tuel.

Orton took over in Week 5 and guided the Bills to a 7-5 mark in 12 starts while completing 64.2 percent of his passes with 18 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. However, he proved to be another in a long line of quarterback mediocrities for the Bills, and then the day after the season ended, he announced his retirement. Manuel started the first four games, went 2-2, played poorly in the two losses, and never saw the field again. He's No. 1 on the depth chart for now, but coach Doug Marrone has clearly lost faith in him because of his decision-making and accuracy issues.



RUNNING BACKS:
Starters C.J. Spiller, Fred Jackson. Backups Bryce Brown, Boobie Dixon.

Spiller is expected to skip his player option and enter free agency, and he probably needs a change of scenery, although it's uncertain what the market will be for a player who has largely been disappointing through five years. He missed seven games because of a broken collarbone, and when he played, he was unproductive. He finished with only 425 yards from scrimmage. Jackson will be 34 next year and can't be the workhorse. Unless the Bills add someone in free agency or the draft, Brown may get the chance to be the No. 1 back. Dixon is a nice change-up who plays special teams.



TIGHT ENDS:
Starter Scott Chandler. Backups Lee Smith, Chris Gragg, Marqueis Gray.

Chandler is a limited player. He can catch the ball, and he can be a useful target over the middle, but he's sinply not a player who the defense has to be too concerned about, which allows them to double cover WR Sammy Watkins. Chandler should be more of a red zone threat, but he had only three touchdown catches. Smith is solely a blocker who might not return, Gragg has underwhelmed for two years, and Gray was a late-season addition who can play tight end and H-back, which is important because the Bills cut their only fullback, Frank Summers, when Gray arrived.



WIDE RECEIVERS:
Starters Sammy Watkins, Robert Woods. Backups Chris Hogan, Marquise Goodwin, Marcus Easley, Marcus Thigpen, Deonte Thompson.

Watkins fell 18 yards shy of 1,000 as a rookie, and he would have soared had the Bills used him more wisely. He played 1,027 offensive snaps and was targeted only 128 times. Fellow rookie Odell Beckham Jr. of the New York Giants played 771 offensive snaps and was targeted 132 times. Watkins really needs a competent QB to make him shine. Woods was a reliable No. 2 as he matched Watkins' 65 catches. Hogan ascended to the slot receiver role as the Bills lost faith and later waived Mike Williams. Goodwin couldn't stay healthy and caught one pass.



OFFENSIVE LINEMEN:
Starters - LT Cordy Glenn, LG Kraig Urbik, C Eric Wood, RG Erik Pears, RT Seantrel Henderson. Backups - G Chris Williams, T Chris Hairston, G Cyril Richardson, T Cyrus Kouandjio.

The line was not good. Every player on the unit under-whelmed, except perhaps Henderson who started every game as a seventh-round pick and played every offensive snap 1,062. His grades weren't great, but he was raw and should improve. Pears and Urbik need to be replaced, while Glenn and Wood need to regain their form from 2013. Williams was brought in as a free agent to play left guard, but got hurt and missed all but three games. Kouandjio was a second-round pick who never played, while Richardson was a fifth-rounder who got the first crack when Williams went out, but was overmatched and benched for Urbik.



DEFENSIVE LINEMEN:
Starters - DE Mario Williams, DE Jerry Hughes, DT Kyle Williams, DT Marcell Dareus. Backups Jarius Wynn, DT Stefan Charles, DT Corbin Bryant, DE Manny Lawson.

Mario Williams, Kyle Williams and Dareus all were selected for the Pro Bowl for the second year in a row, and for good reason. Along with Hughes, they were the best front four in football and the Bills racked up 54 sacks, only three shy of last year's franchise record 57. This group also helped the run defense improve from 28th to 11th. In reserve, Wynn, Charles, Bryant and Lawson were all above-average and the rotation always worked because the drop-off wasn't huge at any position. Keeping this group will be tough as Hughes and Wynn are both free agents.



LINEBACKERS:
Starters - MLB Brandon Spikes, SLB Nigel Bradham, WLB Preston Brown. Backups Kiko Alonso, OLB Keith Rivers, MLB Ty Powell, OLB Larry Dean, OLB Randell Johnson, Sylvester Stevenson.

This might have been the most surprising unit on the team. Before training camp, Spikes, Alonso and Rivers were the starters. Then Alonso blew out a knee and was lost for the season, and Rivers was a bust as a free agent signing. Brown and Bradham stepped up and were two of the best players on the defense as they finished 1-2 in tackles, with Brown logging a team-high 1,020 snaps. Spikes was on a one-year deal and filled a role as the run-stuffing middle linebacker, but he was off the field on most passing downs (46.4 percent of the total snaps) and it's unlikely he will be brought back. Alonso is recovered and should return as the weakside linebacker, with Brown moving inside and Bradham staying at strongside linebacker in 2015.



DEFENSIVE BACKS:
Starters - CB Stephon Gilmore, CB Leodis McKelvin, SS Da'Norris Searcy, FS Aaron Williams. Backups Corey Graham, CB Nickell Robey, SS Duke Williams, CB Ron Brooks, SS Bacarri Rambo, CB Ross Cockrell, CB Mario Butler, S Kenny Ladler, S Jonathan Meeks.

Gilmore finally had the type of season the Bills expected from their 2012 first-round pick. He was excellent in coverage and played well against the run. McKelvin played the way he always has, up and down, before going down because of a knee injury. Searcy and Aaron Williams were a nice pair at safety and the Bills didn't even miss departed Jairus Byrd. Graham was supremely valuable as a safety, corner and nickel corner, and ended up playing 71 percent of the snaps. Duke Williams and Brooks were useful backups.



SPECIAL TEAMS:
K Dan Carpenter, P Colton Schmidt, LS Garrison Sanborn, KOR Marcus Thigpen, PR Thigpen; KO Jordan Gay.

Carpenter set a team record with 34 field goals including 6-of-8 from 50 yards and beyond, one of those a 58-yard last-play winner at Detroit. Schmidt took over for Brian Moorman and was average at 38.7 net, but he did drop 31 inside the 20-yard-line, tied for fourth in the NFL. Thigpen joined the team in November after regular return man McKelvin went down, and he contributed a 75-yard punt return touchdown in the win over Green Bay, and averaged 27.5 yards on six kickoff returns. Gay had 49 touchbacks, eighth in the league, and that helped the Bills rank fifth in opponents average drive start (20.7).


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