One Bills Drive

The Buffalo Bills last made the playoffs in 1999. Their last playoff game was played on January 8th, 2000. Buffalo opened the new millennium with a soul-crushing loss, now known as the Music City Miracle

Not long before that, the Bills made four straight Super Bowls, and lost all of them. No other team has won four straight conference championships, but the Bills still fall on the list of championship-less franchises.

After the success of the 90s, the Bills’ appetite for ineptitude grew, and their 15-year playoff drought was born. Drafting kick returner after kick returner, Trent Edwards after JP Losman, and settling for Chan Gailey and Mike Mularkey all became typical expectations for the team. 

To many younger football fans, the Bills are only associated with inadequacy. However, that is finally changing. The past 28 months have been intriguing, complex, transformative, and utterly different than what people have come to expect from the Bills, and it all came to head in 2014.

The Buffalo Bills’ 2014 season started on April 25th, 2013. 

With the 16th pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, the Buffalo Bills select:
EJ Manuel, Quarterback, Florida State. 

It immediately became clear what the Bills were trying to do. Missing a franchise quarterback since the legendary Jim Kelly retired in 1997, the Bills tried to fill the hole that had plagued their team for almost two decades.

His first seconds as a Bill were narrated by Rich Eisen, and an air of doubt became immediately clear.

The first quarterback taken is not Geno Smith. It is not Matt Barkley. It’s not even the quarterback that the current coach of the Buffalo Bills coached in college. It’s EJ Manuel, out of Florida State, who is now going to go to Western New York.

The reaction was a common one over the remainder of the pre-season. Experts generally viewed Manuel as a project quarterback with a low floor but a high ceiling. Given what had recently transpired in the Bills’ off-season, it was obvious that Buffalo expected Manuel to start right away. 

The Making of the 2014 Season

General Manager Buddy Nix’s tenure in Buffalo was full of tumult, confusion, and a general “Bills gonna Bills” type of performance. After coaching at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga for eight seasons (he recruited Terrell Owens), Nix scouted for the Bills in the late 90s before becoming assistant GM for the San Diego Chargers from 2000-2008. He came back to Buffalo as a national scout in 2009 and was eventually promoted to GM by the end of that year. 

Nix opened his tenure in Buffalo with a wildly confusing move – choosing Chan Gailey to be the Bills’ next head coach. Fans everywhere resoundingly said “who?”.

Appreciating context is important in understanding why this move was so bad. Buffalo had the only head coaching vacancy in the 2010 off-season. They had their pick of the litter so to speak, and the new GM prided himself that he could have hired “35 or 40” people, due to the high quality of candidates. Marty Schottenheimer, a big name who has since left the NFL, reportedly desperately wanted the job. Leslie Frazier, a seasoned defensive coach for the Vikings at the time, was a top candidate whom most fans preferred, but he didn’t make Nix’s cut.

Following the questionable-at-best coaching selection was a questionable-at-best draft, picking C.J. Spiller with the #9 overall pick. Few doubted Spiller’s talent or promise, but that early in the 1st round was a bit of a reach, even after the back was coming off of a stellar senior season at Clemson. Spiller was projected to be a first-round pick in 2009, but he returned for his senior season as a Tiger and the waiting paid off. 

What made the pick more confusing was that the Bills had just drafted Marshawn Lynch in 2007 with the 12th pick. Lynch was drafted into a similar situation, after Buffalo had drafted Willis McGahee in the bottom of the 1st round only four years prior. 

Perhaps the Bills are part of the reason most teams have stayed away from 1st round running backs. None of those three were particularly bad players in the league, but all but Lynch were certainly reaches, especially for Buffalo in their situation each time.

Spiller excited fans because he was and has always been an electrifying player. His first two seasons were solid but unspectacular. 2012 saw an explosion in Spiller’s game, netting him a Pro Football Focus (PFF) grade of 23.4. 

Spiller was second only to Adrian Peterson that year, who had a historic season, nearly breaking the single-season rushing record. Peterson’s PFF grade that season was 26.3.

Despite Chan Gailey’s remarkable utilization of Spiller, Nix fired the former Georgia Tech coach after three seasons. Along with terminating Gailey, Nix established that he would be stepping down as GM following the 2013 draft.

One of Nix’s last actions at the helm was releasing Ryan Fitzpatrick, in an attempt to cut his losses from the year prior when Buffalo extended Fitzpatrick with a massive contract mid-season. Fitzpatrick’s release would eventually lead to the EJ Manuel pick in the 1st round that season.

But before Manuel was picked, or even before Fitzpatrick was released, something happened to Buddy Nix that would effectively serve as the microcosm for his time in Buffalo. 

The Nix Call

On Friday, March 8th, Buddy Nix chatted up Tampa Bay Buccaneers GM Mark Dominik. They talked free agency, which started the following week, and quarterbacks. A pretty expected discussion to be having in that stage of the off-season. 

Except that neither of the two initiated the call.

Deadspin reported four days after the fact that the call was initiated by a pair of pranksters. Essentially, they placed two calls and merged them together. Remarkably, the trick worked, and these pranksters recorded the phone call.

All told, it’s not a particularly interesting call. One of the biggest things most Bills fans took from the incident was that Nix in fact did not have Dominik’s contact information at all. How are you supposed to be an effective GM if you don’t know the other GMs?

The most interesting aspect of the Nix Call was the wildly conspicuous timing surrounding the whole event. At noon on Tuesday, audio files leaked of Nix talking pretty frankly about needing to move on at the QB position. At 4pm, free agency opened, and by 4:30 the Bills had cut ties with Ryan Fitzpatrick. 

So maybe Nix wasn’t the slickest GM around. But as long as he had a plan for the upcoming draft–the last of his career, presumably–Buffalo could have snuck out mostly unscathed. Maybe make some moves, maybe take a pass at that West Virginia QB Geno Smith in the first round, and see what would have happened.

Enter EJ Manuel

The reaction to drafting Manuel wasn’t exactly confusion, but instead doubt. No way could he start right away, no way could he be better than Fitzpatrick was, no way could he develop soon enough for him to be worth a first round pick. 

However, the Bills were faced with a complicated conundrum. With a 6-10 record, the 2012 team had a lot of talent. Fitzpatrick’s tawdry performance overshadowed many of the team’s positives, including an incredible performance by C.J. Spiller. So fix the QB.

After two years and only 14 starts, Manuel hasn’t been the fix, exactly. But Manuel is not the only new player from the 2013 draft.

An often overlooked footnote in the drafting of Manuel was the draft-day trade down with the St. Louis Rams. The Rams traded up to Buffalo’s #8 pick in exchange for their #16 pick as well as other picks. Looking three years after the fact allows us to look at these draft picks as real players:

Bills Receive Rams Receive
E.J Manuel Tavon Austin
Kiko Alonso T.J. McDonald
Marquise Goodwin
Chris Gragg

Tavon Austin, Geno Smith’s electrifying Mountaineer teammate, was actually predicted by plenty of analysts to the Bills at the #8 slot before the draft. Austin ended up going at #8 to St. Louis instead, and has been impressive in flashes but ultimately has disappointed. 

Kiko Alonso had one of the best rookie seasons from a linebacker in recent memory. He played every single snap on defense, and finished 2nd in AP Rookie of the Year voting to the Jets’ Sheldon Richardson. 

Marquise Goodwin has had a similar career to Tavon Austin. Goodwin, an Olympic long jumper, has clear athletic ability, but his team has not found the best way to use him just yet. It’ll be interesting to see how Goodwin’s career progresses moving forward, but at this point he is certainly worth a roster spot. 

Chris Gragg is a blocking TE who is helpful in certain roles, but certainly not a starting talent just yet. T.J. McDonald has turned into a solid starting SS for St. Louis. 

It’s improper to think about EJ Manuel in a vacuum. Yes, he was a reach even at #16. But at least Buffalo traded down and got Alonso and Goodwin out of the deal. That’s effective management. And that’s something that has been unbelievably foreign in Buffalo in the 21st Century. 

The 2013 Season

For a team that went 6-10 with a new head coach, this was a remarkably interesting season. The first game–a 23-21 nail-biting loss to the Patriots–showed the Bills were coming out firing. EJ Manuel led the Bills to a 4th quarter comeback in Week 2 against a Panthers team that would finish the season 12-4. 

In Week 4, Buffalo picked off the defending Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco four times to beat the champs.

The season turned in Week 5, during a 37-24 loss at Cleveland. The Thursday Night contest saw both starting quarterbacks suffer season-ending knee injuries. Browns out-of-nowhere phenom Brian Hoyer tore his ACL on a hit from Alonso, and Manuel followed suit, spraining his right knee soon afterwards. After a strong start in the game, Brandon Weeden rose from the ashes and led the Browns to victory.

After betting heavily on Manuel, HC Doug Marrone was immediately without the QB he drafted. The next best option on the roster was Thad Lewis, the Duke product who played well in Buffalo, but was never great.

Despite starting the season 2-4, the buzz was palpable around this Bills team. Mario Williams, Kyle Williams, Marcell Dareus, and Jerry Hughes all played tremendously well for a defensive line coached by new DC Mike Pettine. Pettine’s trademark exotic blitz packages gave Buffalo 57 sacks, good for 2nd in the NFL.

4-7 at the bye week, it was evident that Buffalo had an uphill battle for playoff contention. Coming off the bye, the Bills trekked across the Niagara River to play the Atlanta Falcons at a “home game” played in Toronto’s Rogers Centre. 

This game eventually brought about the end of the much-maligned Toronto Series for the Bills. The game legitimately sounded like a Falcons home game. Falcons S William Moore was even quoted saying, “It didn’t feel like we were in Canada.” 

The Bills squandered an early lead to a then 2-9 Falcons team who were able to force overtime. In what seemed like a decisive drive down the field, Bills TE Scott Chandler fumbled the ball and Atlanta recovered, marched the ball back into Buffalo territory, and kicked the clinching field goal. 

The low-point in the 2013 season was a 27-6 loss at Tampa Bay to a decidedly worse Buccaneers team in Week 14. Both teams’ seasons were over by that point, but Buffalo’s awful showing in Tampa made the off-season a welcomed event.

But before the off-season really set in, a piece of much-needed good news awaited the Bills in February. 

Andre Reed

For most football fans, the Bills are best known for making four straight Super Bowls. Despite losing all of them, this is a feat that no other team has ever done and is widely considered one of the hardest records to break in sports. 

The players part of those early 90s Super Bowl teams are to this day pieces of legend in western New York. Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Bruce Smith, James Lofton, Joe DeLamielleure, and Billy Shaw, along with coach Marv Levy, all reached the Hall of Fame for their performances on these stellar teams. The group wasn’t quite complete, however.

Andre Reed, undoubtedly the best WR in Bills history, was facing his ninth year on the Hall of Fame ballot. The timing of Reed’s career provided a frustrating logjam of other wide receivers who were undoubtable first ballot locks. Art Monk, Cris Carter, Jerry Rice, and Tim Brown made the wait arduous but unavoidable for the Kutztown Kid. 

Reed finally got his chance in 2014, joining his Super Bowl era teammates in Canton. News of his induction was met with absolute elation among Bills fans. After such a poor season on the gridiron, it was a treat to rejoice over something unquestionably positive. 

At the time his career ended, Reed was the 3rd leading receiver in league history with 951 receptions. His 13,095 reception yards remain a Bills record. He excelled in getting yards after the catch, becoming an early master of the craft so frequently seen in today’s game. 

He was beside himself.

It was also announced soon afterwards that the Bills would be playing the Giants in the annual Hall of Fame game. The game takes place the day after the induction ceremony on Fawcett Field in Canton, Ohio. 

While the late summer weekend of festivities loomed on in the distant horizon, the front office still had to make sure they had a team to field for the upcoming 2014 season. 

March 2014

Part of Buffalo’s stagnant-at-best motion through the last decade or so has been an apparent disregard for free agency. The biggest move the team made was signing Terrell Owens in 2009, for an expensive one-year contract that “earned” TO the Key to the City of Buffalo, contingent on Owens scoring 10 TDs and the Bills making the playoffs (neither happened, of course).

2014, however, seemed to be a different tale for their off-season ventures. 

With founding owner Ralph Wilson, Jr. aging quickly, he let go of the operative reigns in early 2013, handing them over to Russ Brandon. As President, Brandon changed how Buffalo operated, perhaps most notably in free agency. 

Of interest to most Bills fans heading into free agency was how the young, phenomenal safety Jairus Byrd would be handled. Byrd was tagged in 2013 and vocally frustrated about it. He held out of camp when a long term deal could not be reached, and was “injured” for the first five games of the season, though he still made the Pro Bowl. 

Smartly, Byrd flew the coop to New Orleans where he got a massive $54 million deal over six seasons, making him the highest paid Saints defender. Byrd played in only four games in 2014 after a torn meniscus sidelined him for the season. While no one roots for injuries, the situation seemed to indicate that Buffalo made the right choice letting him go, and indeed Byrd made the right choice because he never would have gotten that kind of contract as a Bill.

Byrd’s replacement in the secondary was Aaron Williams, the cornerback-turned-safety out of Texas that the Bills drafted back in 2011. Williams signed a sizable four-year/$26 million contract right before free agency started.

One of the first moves Buffalo made in free agency was yet another move for the secondary. Corey Graham, a Super Bowl winning cornerback with the Ravens, received a four-year/$16 million contract. The veteran promised to bring a new look for the perpetually young secondary, and was one of the marquee free agent signings for Buffalo.

The biggest move in terms of “star power” was grabbing Brandon Spikes, a linebacker who had spent his first four seasons with the division rival Patriots. Expecting big things from Alonso in his rookie season meant they wouldn’t spend heavily on LB depth, so Spikes’ deal was for just one season. Nevertheless, Spikes was ecstatic to be a Bill.

He didn’t always see eye-to-eye with Bill Belichick during his time in Foxborough, and he definitely wasn’t afraid to mince words on the subject:

While Spikes’ analogy was questionable at best, Bills fans seemed to love his fire. The former Patriot spent the next few months vocally blocking New England fans on Twitter. He was a Bills fan favorite before he even stepped on the field.

Another guy that most in Buffalo fell in love with seemingly instantly was Anthony “Boobie” Dixon. The former 49er was the bell cow in Greg Roman’s ground and pound offense from 2010-2013, and signed with Buffalo a few days into free agency. Boobie promised to complement the oft-injured running back duo of C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson, the latter of which had been the acting bell cow despite not really having the appropriate skill set to compliment that type of load. Dixon was probably one of the first people truly excited about the 2014 Buffalo Bills.

Dixon joined what was on paper the biggest need-filling acquisition of the free agency period: guard Chris Williams. A former 1st round pick, Williams offered a veteran presence at guard to challenge the barely-above-replacement Urbik and Pears. Williams signed a four-year/$13.5 million deal including $5.5 million guaranteed.

Drafted by the Bears in 2008, Williams’ career progression had a distinct downturn the past few years. After numerous injuries in Chicago, Williams landed in St. Louis for two one-year deals, each under $3 million. 

He was not the right guy to put hope in, and Buffalo knew this. Of his $5.5 million guaranteed, $3.5 million was in a signing bonus. Say what you will about forking over more money in one day than Williams had seen in either of the last two years, but by using the remaining 2014 cap space on providing as much guaranteed money as possible, the Bills effectively covered their bases. If Williams couldn’t get back to form or found himself on the IR yet again, it wouldn’t be detrimental to cut him. 

Perhaps the most discussed move of the off-season was trading for Mike Williams. The Tampa Bay wideout was traded for a 6th round pick in the 2014 Draft, a small price to pay for one of the best red zone WRs in the past decade.

Williams grew up in Buffalo, and was ecstatic to return to his hometown.

After chalking up one of the worst red zone offenses in the league in 2013, scoring in only 47.76% of their red zone trips (29th in the NFL), the deal appeared to be mutually beneficial. There was no doubt the receiver was aging, but there was plenty of reason to believe that he could still produce, assuming he could stay healthy. 

Top to bottom, this free agency period was intriguing. At every turn there was a player who could contribute in a big way, or, just as likely, completely flop.

Ralph Wilson, Jr. 

On a sunny day in late March, after the free agency dust had settled, Orchard Park was abuzz with a renovation tour. Ralph Wilson Stadium, one of the oldest stadiums in the NFL, was getting a facelift and local press and politicians were in the building for a tour.

The Ralph had fallen slightly into disrepair, showing its age while retaining its character. Boasting arguably the best sight lines in the NFL, the suburban Buffalo stadium’s renovation meant something important for the legacy of its namesake – that the Bills were there to stay.

The tour-goers were saddened to hear of the afternoon passing of Ralph Wilson, Jr., founder and sole owner of the Buffalo Bills. He was 95.

Ralph Wilson was one of the original owners in the AFL. Originally a minority owner in Lamar Hunt’s Detroit Lions team, Wilson heard of potential expansion in 1959 and telegrammed “Count me in with Buffalo.” The AFL accepted the Bills as its seventh team. 

Wilson was an integral part of the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, and was eventually the last of the original AFL owners to stay with his team through the merger. And he remained well into the 21st century. Wilson’s 54-year tenure is the 3rd longest of all time, after George Halas with the Bears (64) and Art Rooney of the Steelers (55). 

It’s impossible to understate the impact that Ralph Wilson had on American Football. When Al Davis was in a pinch in the 1960s, Wilson lent the Raiders $400,000. Back when the AFL comprised only 12 teams, Wilson knew the impact that a market like Oakland would have on the feasibility of the league. If the Raiders went down, so did everyone else.

He championed the idea of revenue sharing in the AFL, which NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle eventually adopted after the merger. Revenue sharing, especially once television contracts became wildly profitable, is ultimately the only reason any team could survive in a small market like Buffalo. 

Wilson’s Hall of Fame speech gave great insight into the kind of owner he was. He was far from just a checkbook – Mr. Wilson was the heart and soul of the Buffalo Bills, and his impact on the city of Buffalo could not be understated.

By choosing Buffalo for his franchise’s home, Wilson helped ensure Buffalo stayed on the map. Wilson had plenty of chances to move to bigger markets, but he felt that the Bills belonged in Buffalo, and that’s where they would stay. However, once he passed it wasn’t exactly up to him anymore. 

Staying in Buffalo?

It had been public knowledge for a decade or so that upon his death, Wilson would hand off the franchise to his family, who had the intention of selling it. Mary Wilson, Ralph’s widow, shortly became the controlling owner of the Bills, with a sale to follow.

The sale of any NFL franchise must be approved by 75% of the other owners, so an owners’ meeting must occur in order for a sale to go final. With Wilson passing in March 2014, the Bills sale could happen as early as the October meeting, though more likely the December labor meeting or March 2015 off-season owners’ meeting. 

Wilson’s estate, led by Mary Wilson, seemed to have Buffalo’s best interests in mind. That is until rumors started flying about some intriguing bidders.

Real estate mogul, golden hair aficionado, firing expert, and divisive-at-best personality Donald Trump presented himself as the savior of the Bills. One of Jim Kelly’s good friends, Trump promised to keep his Bills in Buffalo. The bid gained some traction with more than one prominent Bills player.

“It would be catastrophic, in my opinion, if Buffalo lost the Buffalo Bills,” Trump told WBEN Radio in late March. He was saying all the right things. He was backed by the right people. Early in the process, the Trump bid seemed to have some validity.

If Trump wasn’t a strange enough figure to include in the bidding process, why not add someone else out there? How about famous rocker and football fan Jon Bon Jovi.

When he’s not busy living on prayers, Bon Jovi is majority owner of the AFL’s Philadelphia Soul, a team he also founded. He has been vocal (pun intended) about his desire to own an NFL franchise, and even expressed interest in the Bills during Wilson’s lifetime. His intention to bid on the franchise now that they were for sale was no surprise, but it came with a catch.

Bon Jovi’s net worth was only about $300 Million. For a normal rock star, that would be plenty. But NFL franchises sell for much more than that. Before the Bills, the last outright sale was of the Cleveland Browns, who went for $1 Billion in 2012. With inflation and increased popularity of the league, the asking price for the Bills would have to exceed that hefty figure. 

Bon Jovi didn’t have the funds. But two friends did.

Larry Tanenbaum (Chairman) and Tim Leiweke (CEO & President) collectively head Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd., the group that owns all of Toronto’s sports teams. The Toronto pair joined forces with Bon Jovi to bid on the Bills. 

Throughout the process of the Toronto group’s bid, they maintained that they would keep the Bills in Buffalo. This, of course, was met with skepticism in Western New York. How could these two magnates and a rocker with major Canadian ties be trusted to keep the team out of Toronto? 

By April, the rumors began to swirl at a higher pace about a Toronto relocation. Of course, the fickle thing with sports is that the season never truly ends. Despite the impending sale of the franchise, the football operations still had to continue. In the spring, that means Draft season. 

2014 Draft

The day was May 8th, 2014. The pick was #9. Buffalo needed help on the offensive side no matter what position they went with, with special focus on WR and OG. While EJ Manuel’s rookie season wasn’t exactly what the Bills had hoped for, they weren’t about to draft another QB in the first round. Instead, the goal was to give last year’s investment all the opportunity in the world.

The Jacksonville Jaguars chose QB Blake Bortles with the 3rd overall draft pick. The Browns were on the clock next, but suddenly there was an alert below ESPN’s draft panel. The Bills traded their next two 1st-round draft picks and a 4th-rounder for Sammy Watkins. Bills fans react, react, and react.

There’s no question the price was steep. But there’s also no question the benefit was huge. 

Buffalo’s main woes in Manuel’s rookie season were determined by Marrone and company to be due to a dearth of options. Veteran Stevie Johnson was coming off his third straight 1,000 yard season going into 2013, but he never seemed to connect with the young QB. 

Johnson tallied only 597 yards with 3 TDs in 2013 on a sputtering offense. After rookies Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin, Johnson was the main target for Manuel. Yet Johnson didn’t capitalize, dropping a few too many balls and costing a little too much for his production. Nevertheless, Johnson was excited by the prospect of Watkins joining the corps.

About 16 hours after drafting Watkins, Johnson was traded to the 49ers for a 2015 4th-round pick.

The Bills seemed to go from having a big need at wide receiver to suddenly having a surplus. While Johnson undoubtedly regressed in 2013, he still led the team in yardage. His performance was absolutely serviceable, making the move something of a head-scratcher from a football perspective.

It’s quite possible that the move was initiated by the lack of chemistry, not necessarily the lack of talent. Whatever the reason, the fan favorite got the rug pulled out from under him and said his tearful goodbye to the city he had lived in and loved for 7 seasons.

After the shift around the wide receiver room, the final six rounds of the draft still had to be completed. With Buffalo still reeling from the high-profile move, the Bills sought to remedy some of the other issues plaguing Manuel in ’13. 

The obvious next goal would be to upgrade the interior offensive line. Despite being anchored by center and captain Eric Wood as well as veteran LT Cordy Glenn, the Bills offensive line was remarkably porous in 2013.

Colin Brown was ranked 78th out of 81 guards by Pro Football Focus in 2013, despite only taking 400 snaps. The Bills needed to improve across the whole line.

In rounds 2-7, the Bills drafted three offensive linemen. Cyrus Kouandjio, a house of an offensive tackle from Alabama, was drafted in the 2nd round. The pick was a little earlier than most analysts expected him to go since he has suffered knee issues in his career, but most saw him as a potential starter right off the bat.

In the 6th round, Buffalo grabbed another big lineman, this time guard Cyril Richardson from Baylor. Richardson’s game had a lot of room for improvement, especially in pass blocking, but he was a solid depth pick.

The Bills’ final pick of the draft was Seantrel Henderson, an offensive tackle out of Miami. Henderson is of note because he was the most highly scouted tackle in his high school class, and had 1st round expectations his first few years as a Hurricane.

After declaring his eligibility, Henderson admitted that his three suspensions at Miami were a result of failing three separate tests for marijuana. He seemed to be pointed in the right direction, and even got an invite to the NFL Combine.

Which is where he failed yet another drug test. 

Physically, Henderson had it all. Long arms, a huge frame, perhaps slightly overweight but nothing conditioning couldn’t handle. The issue was his drug tests. Teams hopped off the bandwagon for Henderson after the Combine result, and his draft stock plummeted as a result.

Whaley jumped when they saw the big man was still available in the 7th, despite the issues. The GM was very clear with the troubled tackle.

We talked to him. He knows he has one shot.

Buffalo came out of the draft in good shape to make waves in 2014, even making a move that the franchise traditionally shies away from. With all the personnel more or less in place, eyes began looking towards the sale.

Who Owns the Team?

Late May is the dead time in the NFL offseason. There was rookie mini-camp and OTAs, but all told it was quiet from a football perspective, so it made the most sense to ramp up sale exploration now.

Bills fans have always been apprehensive about anything that would facilitate a possible move out of Buffalo. With NFL interest in London as well as Los Angeles, in addition to the aforementioned Toronto group coupled with the finally discontinued Toronto Series, the Bills had to skate on some thin ice with this sale process.

An interesting caveat in the matter was that the renewed lease with Erie County ensured that the Bills had to play at Ralph Wilson Stadium through the 2022 season, but with an opt-out clause after the 2019 season. 

This was a big playing chip in Buffalo’s favor, but it still meant that in only a few years, the next owner could move the franchise. Luckily, Ralph foresaw this.

By late May, Russ Brandon announced that the investment firm to head the Bills sale would be selected soon. Sources also indicated that the firm would make staying in Buffalo mandatory for any buyer.

Morgan Stanley was selected to oversee the process.

Soon after this news, more potential bidders came out of the woodwork. Jim Kelly, who was nearing the end of his cancer treatment, was repeatedly brought up in talks of becoming a potential owner. Tom Golisano, former owner of the Buffalo Sabres, reportedly met with NFL and local officials about the specifics of placing a bid on the franchise. 

C. Dean Metropolus, owner of the Pabst Brewing Company, explored a bid. Jeremy Jacobs, owner of the Boston Bruins, was interested in bidding but could not due to an NFL restriction that prohibits owners from owning sports franchises in different markets. The Koch family, owners of New Era Cap, explored a bid. Donald Trump sold his stake in casinos because the NFL prohibits gambling interests. 

The one candidate I haven’t mentioned was always the hope of the fan base. He had virtually no baggage, had enough money, was already invested in the area, and is, by all accounts, just a cool guy.

Terry Pegula owns the Buffalo Sabres, the Rochester Americans (AHL), the Buffalo Bandits (NLL) and got his money from the natural gas and shale industries. 

Pegula purchased his three Buffalo teams from Tom Golisano for $189 million in 2011. His confidence in the area was immediately portrayed when he invested even more money to build the HarborCenter, a recently completed shopping center across from the First Niagara Center, the Sabres’ arena.

In his introductory press conference, Pegula made sure Buffalonians knew how serious he was about making the Sabres the best they could be:

Starting today, the Buffalo Sabres’ reason for existence, will be to win a Stanley Cup.

Pegula and his wife Kim stayed mostly quiet throughout the bidding process, letting the Trumps and Bon Jovis of the world yak to their hearts’ content. 

Meanwhile, he moved a little bit of money around. 

Evidently, something was in the works. Trump kept speaking loudly and carrying a small stick.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo wanted to ensure the Bills stayed in Buffalo, as the county and state helped paid for the recent renovations of The Ralph. Cuomo couldn’t exactly have a say in the matter, as the sale would ultimately be private but he made it very clear in a few press meetings that he wanted the Bills to stay in western New York.

Come July, the Bon Jovi Toronto group announced officially that if they were to win the bidding process, they would keep the Bills in Buffalo. A noteworthy announcement, perhaps, but few really believed them. 

July also brought the news that Edward Rogers III, chairman of Roger Communication, the biggest company in Canada and owner of the Rogers Centre in Toronto (formerly the Skydome), would not join the bidding process.

The jury was still out if the Bon Jovi group had enough money to really compete in a serious bid, but the news that Rogers would not be joining in the process at all meant that Canada’s richest business wouldn’t change anything about that. Rogers not being involved was especially significant given the communication giants’ ties with Buffalo’s Toronto Series for the past few years.

Steve Greenberg, a powerful sports broker who dealt with major sales in the past, started to get tied to the Pegulas. Still, Terry and Kim remained quiet.

One of the most interesting points of the whole sale procedure was the speculation of the price that the Bills would ultimately be sold for. Forbes valued the Bills at a “mere” $935 million. Of course, NFL teams rarely go on sale, so the price was driven up because there is such a premium on these franchises, and the NFL’s earning power is skyrocketing every season.

The number thrown around most frequently, likely because of how neat it sounds, was $1 billion. ESPN’s Sal Paolantonio predicted that the sale would close north of $1.1 billion. Paolantonio also reported that he felt the team had a very low chance of moving.

I don’t think the team’s moving. I would stake my professional reputation on it. I think people in ownership want to see the team stay here. I think they want to continue the legacy of Ralph Wilson. I think Roger Goodell is convinced.

The Bids

After nearly four months of lots of people “exploring” bids on the Bills, the time finally came in late July to actually bid on the franchise. Numbers well over $1 billion flew around, with Bon Jovi’s Toronto Group placing a $1.2 billion bid, Trump placing a $1 billion bid, and the Pegulas bidding “more than $1 billion.”

The Toronto Group reportedly commissioned a feasibility study for an NFL size stadium in Toronto, to be built when the Bills’ lease in Orchard Park ran out in a few years. Talk about a red flag.

News began to break that the bid numbers were a little off.

At this point, the only thing that was really clear was the timeline of events laid out about Morgan Stanley. July had been the opening bidding period, where any party could place a preliminary, non-binding bid on what they felt the team was worth. The deadline for that was Tuesday, July 29th.

By Thursday, July 31st, the initial bids were ready to be analyzed and the process moved forward.

Despite the likely inaccuracy of the bid values, it seemed that three parties ultimately placed a bid on the franchise: The Toronto Group (including Bon Jovi), Donald Trump, and Terry & Kim Pegula. All three advanced to the second and final round of bidding, where Morgan Stanley and Mary Wilson would have long, hard looks at each bidder.

The timing of this bidding was especially intriguing because Hall of Fame weekend was immediately on the horizon. With Buffalo’s front office and NFL management all in one place, it made perfect sense to have a meeting of the minds in between festivities.

This news was big and scary. Here’s the happiest moment of the franchise in the four months since the owner and founder passed, and Jon Bon Jovi was about to go behind the scenes to use that to his advantage and move the team to Toronto. 

Hall of Fame Weekend

Canton, Ohio is a small city situated about an hour south of Cleveland. The area is rich in sports history. The first professional football game reportedly took place on the grounds where Fawcett Stadium now stands, a few dozen paces from the Pro Football Hall of Fame. 

Interestingly, the Hall of Fame is not the NFL Hall of Fame, it is devoted to all iterations of Pro Football in America from its inception in 1892 to the modern National Football League. This provides an air of gravity to the Hall–context that magnifies the current reality of the NFL. It’s a marvelous place.

A few miles down the road is Akron, where LeBron James was born and raised. James had just announced that he was taking his talents back home to the Cleveland Cavaliers, and the region was still abuzz with excitement.

The Firestone Golf Club lies in between Akron and Canton. The Firestone Invitational, traditionally considered a warm up to the PGA Championship the following week, was also taking place July 31-August 3rd. Northeast Ohio was brimming with sports fans visiting for the weekend.

With the recent sale news surrounding Buffalo, coupled with Andre Reed’s induction and the debut of Sammy Watkins and the NFL preseason, Bills fans came out in troves to be present.

I spent the early afternoon touring the Hall. The building was filled with Bills fans who made the trip to be with their team that weekend, and all of them seemed to have something to say about the sale of the franchise, particularly Bon Jovi.

Andy Narotsky

The Induction Ceremony itself began just before dusk, with Reed 3rd to last. Emceeing the event was ESPN anchor and vocal Bills fan Chirs Berman. When Boomer got to Reed, he led the Buffalo-heavy crowd in a raucous “Nobody Circles the Wagons like the Buffalo Bills” chant, his favorite. 

Reed was then introduced by his coach, Marv Levy, another Hall of Famer. Reed’s speech in its entirety follows. 

At 27:43, Reed addresses his time with Jim Kelly. Kelly, who was at the tail-end of cancer treatment at the time, was making his first public appearance in a few months. The support from the crowd was remarkable, accompanied by the sentiments Reed had for his quarterback

You know our old saying bro. 12 + 86 always equals 6.

Reed and Kelly connected for one more pass, seen at 42:02. 

Around 33:45, Reed starts talking about Ralph Wilson, Jr. and his legacy. Soon after he drops a quote that lights up the crowd:

Oh yeah, and the Bills will stay in Buffalo, too.

The ownership question reared its head after Reed’s speech, when news broke that Bon Jovi was indeed in Canton that night, playing Michael Strahan’s private afterparty. The next day, at the Hall of Fame Game, Bills fans made sure to voice their discontent.

Andy NarotskyAndy Narotsky

Bon Jovi published a letter the next day in the Buffalo News, pledging allegiance to the city of Buffalo. 

Our objective is simple: to carry on the legacy of Ralph Wilson and make the Bills successful in Buffalo. We are committed to working with the State, City, County and business community to identify the best possible site in the Buffalo area for a new stadium and to then develop and implement a plan to finance and build a state-of-the-art NFL stadium for the loyal Bills fans.

This segment of the statement was the closest Bon Jovi came to committing to keeping the Bills in Buffalo. 

A few days after the letter, Morgan Stanley denied the Toronto/Bon Jovi bid, removing it from consideration and easing the minds of relocation-troubled Buffalonians.

Hall of Fame Weekend was a microcosm of everything happening to the Bills. Reed finally made it to the Hall, and was enshrined next to Kelly, who was overcoming cancer, all while their team was up for sale, with a potential nefarious buyer on site that evening. The next day, a rookie phenom hit the field for the first time, and the Buffalo Bills started their most intriguing season in history.

A New Season

The Bills finished 1-4 in the preseason, with a pretty quiet training camp. Watkins was the focal point of the preseason, as expected after some considered the franchise to be essentially going for broke on the Clemson phenom. He started off with a bang in his first week of camp.

Watkins injured his rib in a Bills’ loss to the Steelers in the preseason, an injury that hampered him for the rest of the month of August. Training camp kept Bills fans on edge a bit watching Manuel develop…or not develop.

The Bills offense was booed off the field during a preseason loss to the Bucs, and Manuel was quoted saying they were “saving plays” for the Week 1 contest against the Bearsin Chicago. 

Concern about Manuel reached such a critical mass in late August that the Bills brought in Kyle Orton, the retired former Cowboy, to back him up. The deal with Orton was a 2-year deal with a player option after the 2014 season. Orton provided a veteran presence that hadn’t been seen in Buffalo’s quarterback room that was sorely needed. 

Nevertheless, Manuel went into the season as the starter, Watkins went into the season mostly healthy, Marrone went into the season as curmudgeonly as ever, and the Bills went into the season, just like every other team, at 0-0.

One piece of great news that Bills fans received right before the season started was that Jim Kelly was free of cancer. A biopsy confirmed just a few days before the season started that the best Bills QB of all time had gone into remission. 

The Bills could now worry about the task at hand: playing football.

Let the Games Begin

Week 1 had the Bills travel out to the Windy City to face the Bears, whom many had high hopes for coming into the season. Chicago, like Buffalo, had a lot of talent on offense but had a questionable QB in Jay Cutler.

Manuel scrambled for a TD in the game, and threw for another one. Two Bears turnovers had Buffalo leading 17-7 at the half. Chicago surged in the second half, scoring 10 unanswered points, and the teams traded field goals before going to overtime tied at 20.

Chicago won the toss, but Buffalo only allowed one completion. After the first down on the first play, the Bills forced three straight incomplete passes and took possession. 

Spiller took the ball for a 13-yard gain. Mike Williams had a stellar 20-yard catch. Then Fred Jackson had one of the defining runs of his career.

Jackson’s downright manhandling of Chris Conte allowed the Bills to kick the winning field goal and start 1-0.

A lot of teams struggle coming off of a win like that. Following an away upset, a team still trying to find itself like the Bills could have suffered a hard fall in Week 2. Luckily, they got a little pick-me-up in the form of a lot of money,

Terry and Kim Pegula, as expected, agreed to purchase the Buffalo Bills for $1.4 billion. While the purchase had to be approved by other owners before it came official, Bills fans rejoiced about the implications of the purchase.

The Bills released a statement by the team and by Mary Wilson, below:

This is a very important day in the history of the Buffalo Bills franchise. Ralph brought professional football to Buffalo in 1959 and it was his life’s passion. He loved his team and he cherished the fans and his legacy will remain for all-time. Ralph would have been pleased with the sale of the team to the Terry Pegula family, who has been so committed to Buffalo and the Western New York region. I sincerely wish Terry and Kim Pegula all the best with the Buffalo Bills and I’m happy for all Bills fans. Our hope is that this great franchise brings them as much excitement and joy as it did for Ralph and that they bring home a Super Bowl championship for Bills fans everywhere. Go Bills!

After the stamp of approval from Ralph’s daughter, and seemingly everyone else in Western New York, the Bills were staying put in Buffalo. For good.

The end of relocation drama was a massive weight off the shoulders of Western New York. For more or less the entirety of the current playoff drought, Buffalo had been on the short list of potentially relocatable franchises. Now that worry had come to an end, for a long, long time.

Yes it would be.

The game against the Dolphins had a lot of meaning for the Bills’ season. The team was trying to build off of a Week 1 win in the first divisional game of the season, and the home opener. The atmosphere was, indeed, outrageous.

Before the game, Mary Wilson had a small press conference with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. Wilson thanked Cuomo and the New York State government for providing financial support for Ralph Wilson Stadium’s renovations over the past year. Russ Brandon announced that over $130 million went into the renovations. 

Mary Wilson with NYS Governor Andrew Cuomo (Kevin Hoffman/USATSI)

Before the game there was a ceremony in honor of Ralph Wilson, Jr. Who better to talk about the founder and sole owner of the franchise than the best player Buffalo ever saw, who had just had his own success story, Jim Kelly?

Jim Kelly tips his hat to a full house in Buffalo (Kevin Hoffman/USATSI)

Kelly approached the podium to a minute-long standing ovation. Evidently holding back tears, Kelly spoke about his recent fight with cancer and the support he received from the Bills community. Kelly spoke fondly of his former boss and mentor:

He was a guy with integrity, a guy we all looked up to, and a guy we all considered almost like a father to us. We will forever miss him.

Kelly brought down the house at the close of his speech, igniting the crowd with a rowdy proclamation:

Now, let’s squish the fish!

Buffalo got out to a 9-0 lead, and entered the locker room for halftime with that score. Miami opened the second half with a field goal to pull within a score of the Bills, but C.J. Spiller took the ensuing kickoff back 102 yards for a touchdown to keep the game in Buffalo’s control. 

Watkins added a touchdown in the 3rd quarter, a 12-yard reception for his first career score in a regular season game. Dan “Money Man” Carpenter went 5-for-6 on field goals, his only miss knocking off the uprights. 

The 29-10 win was an important one for Buffalo, but it was a little concerning that only one red zone trip of six resulted in a touchdown. The Bills won the game with special teams. Aside from Spiller’s electrifying return, Boobie Dixon blocked a punt in the first quarter and Carpenter scored over half of Buffalo’s points on the day. But the offense would need to improve in order for the Bills to remain competitive moving forward.

Nevertheless, Buffalo started 2-0 for only the sixth time since 2000.

Week 3 saw the San Diego Chargers come into Orchard Park for a high-pressure affair for both sides. The Chargers led 13-3 at the half, and scored first in the 3rd quarter to push the lead to 20-3. Buffalo responded with their best drive, start to finish, in the season. Nothing went wrong, and Buffalo pulled back within 10 points.

After the Chargers’ touchdown in the middle of the 3rd quarter, Buffalo did not allow another 1st down in the game. This meant that the entire 4th quarter was Buffalo’s defense remaining tough and not budging, allowing the team’s offense the opportunity to strike and get within a possession.

They couldn’t do it. Manuel overthrew receivers, Jackson and Spiller ran into the backs of blockers, and nothing went right. It just wasn’t the Bills’ day.

If the lack of scoring wasn’t enough, the nail in the coffin came with 3:28 left in the 4th. The Bills were still down by 10 and had to drive the whole field after a great punt pinned them at their own 9-yard line. 

EJ Manuel dropped back, the pocket collapsed yet another time that day, and he threw the ball away while he was standing in the end zone – which counted as a safety and two points for the Chargers. Ralph Wilson Stadium emptied out.

Of course, it’s hard to expect perfection from a quarterback making his 13th career start. Nevertheless, it was frustrating to watch four separate drives in the 4th quarter implode due to poor offensive execution.

The problem didn’t only lie with Manuel – realistically it was a coaching issue – but Manuel was the scapegoat, the easy target, the problem.

Buffalo next traveled to Houston to face the 2-1 Texans, a game in which they scored the first 10 points of the game but allowed an 80-yard TD drive right before halftime, which kept Houston knocking on the door. Manuel threw a pick-six to JJ Watt, who thundered his way down the sideline and grabbed all the momentum for the contest. The Bills stayed close, but 8 penalties and another Manuel INT late made the effort futile.

It was clear something needed to change. Manuel wasn’t attempting very many passes, and when he was he looked entirely unsure of what he should be doing. The run game was adequate, but not nearly stellar enough to make up for the entirely lacking passing game. Is this how they were going to use Sammy Watkins? Sparingly, at best? 

Enter Orton (5-8)

Orton’s first game was in Detroit, right before the owner’s meeting to confirm the Pegulas as owners. Detroit, of course, is where Ralph Wilson grew up. A fitting place as any to end his family’s tenure as owner of the Bills.

The game was defensive in nature, with the teams combining for 7 field-goal attempts. At halftime the score was 14-3 in Detroit’s favor. Both teams had an interception, including a Rashean Mathis pick-six for the Lions. 

Injuries to Calvin Johnson and Reggie Bush left the Bills some room to strike, and “strike” they did. Orton marched sauntered his way down the field but stalled at the Lions’ 7-yard line, allowing Carpenter to push his second field goal through to cut the lead to 14-6.

The beginning of the 4th quarter saw a flash of Orton’s true prowess. Lots of short check-downs and draw plays got the Bills past midfield, when Goodwin caught a 42-yard bomb that brought Buffalo to the 4-yard line. After a penalty, Chris Gragg caught a 2-yard TD pass from Orton. Fred Jackson punched in the 2-point conversion, and all of a sudden the score was knotted at 14-14.

Football is often a game of luck, and over the past fifteen years the Bills have almost never been on the right side of luck. Maybe it was the injury bug at the right time, and maybe the Lions held on to their kicker one week too long, but luck struck the Buffalo Bills in Detroit.

The Lions drove down the field but had to settle for a 50-yard field goal attempt with :26 remaining. Alex Henery, who had already missed his first two attempts, shanked it. Buffalo took over at their own 40 and Sammy Watkins showed why they invested two draft picks on him.

Carpenter nailed a 58-yarder with :09 left and earned himself the nickname “Money Man.” Buffalo won in Detroit, moved to 3-2, and honored Wilson’s legacy in the final game with the Wilsons at the helm of the Bills. 

Mary Wilson was awarded a game ball after the win, and three days later at the prescheduled NFL owners meeting in Manhattan, Terry and Kim Pegula were approved as the new owners of the Buffalo Bills.

The Detroit game was also the return of Jim Schwartz to his old stomping grounds. This time his defense led the Bills to a victory. Back in training camp, Schwartz joked that he would get carried off the field in Detroit if the Bills won. Turns out, he wasn’t joking.

via Fox Broadcast

As if the defensive coordinator getting carried off the field after a sloppy win wasn’t bizarre enough, a few days after the game news broke of a Lions fan shining laser pointers in the eyes of Bills players during the game. Carpenter, holder Colton Schmidt, and Orton were the most affected, and complained to the refs on the field.

The fan who did it was eventually found, cited, and banned for life from Ford Field. Never a dull moment in the NFL.

Their next game was at home against the Patriots. Led by old-yet-somehow-new Orton, and charged up by the Pegula purchase, the Bills seemingly had a real shot at taking down their archrival. New England was favored by only 3 points, which in and of itself was already a victory for Buffalo.

The game didn’t exactly go according to plan. Orton threw for 299 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT, and got sacked 5 times. Buffalo lost two fumbles, Orton with one and Spiller with the other, allowing the Patriot offense to command the game. The Bills were 3-for-3 in the red zone, but 3 red zone trips evidently weren’t enough. The 8 penalties for 107 yards probably didn’t help either.

Brady threw for 4 TDs, and Stephen Gostkowski added 3 FGs. Buffalo made a late surge in the 4th quarter, getting within striking distance at 30-22 with 5:58 remaining, but it was too little, too late.

It felt as though Buffalo beat themselves. They lost 37-22, but with 5:58 left they were only one score away with all three timeouts. Brady connected with Brandon LaFell for a 57-yard TD and the Patriots locked it up. 

The Bills typically lose to the Patriots, so that wasn’t a huge shock, but this was still a kick in the pants. There was a new energy surrounding the franchise after the sale. The first home game of the Pegula era, but still at Ralph Wilson Stadium, just like always. Yet the Patriots were still beating the Bills, just like always.

It was around here, Week 6, that something started to smell funny in the locker room. Reports began circulating that the team was shopping Mike Williams. Right before the New England game, Chris Williams landed on the IR with his nagging back injury. Marrone, who was never really a happy figure, seemed especially salty to the media. 

On top of that, the play from Watkins was underwhelming. The receiver had grabbed 2 TDs and 330 yards, averaging 12.7 yards per catch, or 5.9 yards per target. Good, but not #4 overall pick good. 

The season marched on, and the next matchup was with the Minnesota Vikings at the Ralph. This game went a little more the way the Bills had planned. Bridgewater was sacked 5 times, Leodis McKelvin grabbed two picks, and Buffalo kept the game close – 16-10, Minnesota – when the Bills got the ball with 3:07 left in the game.

It was clear that Orton was not a good quarterback, but he was definitely good enough with the way the other pieces around him were playing. On his three-minute drill, Orton hit Watkins to get to midfield, then got sacked and found himself at 4th-and-20 with 1:27 remaining, needing a TD to win.

Chandler pulled in a 24-yard catch, slanting across the middle of the field. Watkins caught two passes to keep the drive going, and then Hogan made an acrobatic catch to bring the Bills to the 2-yard line. A Watkins TD catch as time expired sealed the 17-16 victory for Buffalo. 


The above win probability graph from Pro-Football-Reference.com shows the heroics of Buffalo’s 3-minute drill. The Chandler catch on 4th & 20 and the Hogan catch with :25 remaining made the win possible. Buffalo got hot at the right time, which was made possible by the defense keeping the game close.

With :41 remaining, Buffalo had a 0.90% chance of winning the game. Good teams are never out of the game until it’s over, and this was a case of Buffalo being down, but not out. The persistence to overcome penalties and turnovers and still pull out a win like this showed what this team could do.

The win came with two major injuries: Spiller and Jackson would both miss considerable time, a major blow to the backfield. Spiller was hurt on his only carry of the game – a 53-yard run down the sideline – when Robert Blanton took him down by the shoulder pads at the 15. Spiller was carted off and word came out that he broke his collarbone. Spiller was placed on the IR Designated to Return, which meant he would be eligible for the Week 16 contest at Oakland.

Jackson, the ageless back, suffered a groin injury that would sideline him for 3-5 weeks. With the bye week around the corner, Jackson’s injury wouldn’t hamper the Bills quite as much as Spiller. The two injuries meant more time for Boobie Dixon and Bryce Brown, each talented backs who would have to help out the sputtering offense.

At 4-3, the Bills were set to travel to New Jersey to face the “New York” Jets. The 1-6 Jets were in the midst of an awful season, shrouded in front office and coaching doubts. Geno Smith, EJ Manuel’s draftmate, was being sent through the wringer in 2014, and the first game against Buffalo was no exception.

Smith’s day was basically over before it began. Buffalo picked him off 3 times in the 1st quarter, before Michael Vick was put in out of desperation. Aaron Williams, Stephon Gilmore, and Preston Brown intercepted Smith on his first three drives. Vick fumbled once in the 1st quarter, and Buffalo was out to a 14-0 lead. By halftime, there was another Jets fumble, but New York edged closer, with the score 24-17 Buffalo at halftime.

The Jets were by no measure a good team, but with the away divisional rivalry game immediately preceding Buffalo’s bye week, this was a typical game that the Bills would lose. But not this year.

Carpenter was money again, adding 2 more field goals in the 3rd quarter. Orton finished the day with 4 TDs, likely because of the injuries to Jackson and Spiller. Dixon got 22 carries but only racked up 44 yards – not exactly encouraging from a team that was starting a senior citizen at quarterback. 

Buffalo finished +6 in turnover differential on the day. From a Jet perspective, this game was a M-E-S-S MESS MESS MESS.

The Bills got their Week 9 bye week at 5-3, their best start since 2011, when they finished 6-10 after starting 5-2. Encouraging, but with the AFC playoff picture already shaping up to be jam-packed, and with Buffalo’s treacherous December schedule on the horizon, November was the time to capitalize and get more wins.

(S)No(w)vember

In Week 10, the rested Bills welcomed the Kansas City Chiefs to Orchard Park to mark the seventh consecutive season the teams met in the regular season. The Chiefs, also 5-3, represented a major hurdle for the Bills. A win against KC would help their record against AFC teams – at that point a tawdry 2-3 (with both wins coming in the division) – which often comes into play as a wild card tiebreaker.

If I had to show someone a game that represented the Bills as a franchise in the last 15 years, it would be this one. The importance of the game was not lost on any fan or player, so it made it that much worse when they beat themselves.

The game was remarkably vanilla, as one would expect from a Chiefs-Bills game, with a riveting 14 punts total. Buffalo found the end zone in its first drive of the afternoon, but ended 0-for-4 in red zone attempts on the day. 

The first turning point of the game came in the first drive of the second half. Buffalo received the kickoff, and drove down very methodically, mixing Dixon carries with Hogan receptions and Brown check downs. Orton led the drive to Kansas City’s 17-yard line. Brown got the ball on a draw play, charged ahead for 12 yards, and then Ron Parker knocked the ball out of his hands. The ball fluttered out of the back of the end zone – with the help of a kick by Chandler – before Brown even noticed it was missing.

Red zone fumbles like that hurt a lot, but with Buffalo up 10-3 with 25 minutes of football left, it was a palatable blow.

Buffalo was succeeding in limiting the Chiefs offense, especially Jamaal Charles. To that point in the season, the Bills had only allowed two rushing touchdowns and it came in the blowout against the Jets. This was a Chiefs team whose receivers hadn’t reached the end zone yet (and never did in 2014), so stopping Charles was the key to winning.

As the game entered the 4th quarter, the Chiefs were driving, slowly but surely, and were just across midfield when Charles found a hole and took it 39 yards into the end zone. The play was on 4th-and-1, and a stop would have given the Bills command of the game. Instead, the Chiefs pulled the score to 13-10. 

The final big play that really lost the game for Buffalo was on a punt return with 9:57 remaining. McKelvin fielded the ball for the Bills at his own 31, made a couple of cuts, and fumbled the ball. Kansas City recovered, and scored two plays later to take a 17-13 lead. 

But there was still time. There’s always still time in Bills losses, just to make them that much more excruciating. Teasing the fans with a modicum of hope is always more thrilling than getting blown out…or so it has been explained to me.

In what was perhaps the most Bills drive of the season, Orton led the team down to red zone with 3:27 remaining. Sitting at the 15-yard line, needing a touchdown to take the lead, Hackett called for 4 straight fade routes into the end zone. And there were 4 straight incompletions.

The loss to Kansas City was especially frustrating because of how well the Bills played outside of their three fatal errors. If they could have made the play just one time, they would have gone to 6-3, in the driver’s seat of a wild card spot. Instead, they fell to 5-4, Kansas City moved to 6-3, and Buffalo saw little reprieve in their upcoming schedule. 

McKelvin was, understandably, frustrated at his fumble:

I take this shit to heart. I fumbled the ball. It hurt us. But we still had a chance to come back and win the game. Shit happens in the game. But you’ve still got to overcome it.

The cornerback also went on to guarantee a win in the next game, a Thursday night contest in Miami. 

The first game against the Dolphins was supported by the news of the Pegula sale, but now, in the thick of the season, the Bills had no such luxury. Another vital AFC game, this time away, and on a national stage. 

Miami’s offense lost two fumbles, but tallied 24 first downs in their bulldozing of Buffalo’s defense. The party really got going in the second half, whenRyan Tannehill tossed TDs to Brandon Gibson and Jarvis Landry. The Dolphins also brought down Orton in the end zone for a safety.

The underwhelming play in the 22-9 loss was frustrating in a completely different way than in the Chiefs game. The previous week, the Bills had it and lost it. This week, they never had it, despite a guarantee from their scorched earth cornerback. 

At 5-5 with dwindling enthusiasm, Western New York stopped worrying about football for a few days; partially because the team was frustrating to watch and partially because Buffalo was about to be hammered with one of the worst winter storms in American history.

There was a game scheduled against the Jets in Buffalo for Sunday, November 23rd. Over a course of about 48 hours from Monday through Wednesday, the Buffalo area received over 70 inches of snow. Six feet of snow. In two days.

Orchard Park, home of Ralph Wilson Stadium, got nearly the worst of it, with approximately 71 inches of snow. Snowvember cancelled Bills practice on Tuesday, the same day Governor Cuomo declared a state of emergency and instituted a travel ban for the county.

Who doesn’t love a snow day?

On Wednesday, the team was still pining to have a game on Sunday:

You don’t get that in Miami, that’s for sure.

Derek Gee/Buffalo News

As the week continued, it became clear that holding a game in Buffalo that weekend was wildly impractical, and frankly a matter of public safety. On Thursday evening, the team announced that the game would take place on the following Monday in nearby Detroit.

So Buffalo got a Monday Night Football game after all, and in Detroit, where they clearly had some luck earlier on in the season.

Apparently, all the weather made the perfect storm for the Bills, because they refused to let the Jets have an inch on “Monday Night Football.”

The game was all Buffalo from the start. An opening drive TD by Woods started what would be a career night for the 2nd-year receiver. Chandler caught a TD before halftime and unleashed the greatest touchdown celebration in snow-displaced-game history:

NFL.com

In the second half, Boobie Dixon showed his skill. On New York’s first drive of the 3rd quarter, Dixon blocked a punt that Manny Lawson recovered in the end zone for a TD, putting Buffalo up 24-3. Duke Williams intercepted a Vick pass, and a Jackson TD got Buffalo to 31-3.

Woods put the exclamation point on his night with a David Tyree-Odell Beckham, Jr. hybrid catch that showed his talent:

Woods finished with 118 yards on 9 catches and a TD. Dixon capped off his day with a 30-yard TD run, and he finished with 54 yards on 12 carries plus the score.

The 38-3 dismantling of the Jets was an important win for the Buffalo Bills, but it was just as important a win for the Buffalo community. The storm claimed 14 lives, with countless more displaced and trapped. While football is hardly a consolation for the seriousness of the situation, Buffalo got a small pick-me-up from such an emphatic win.

The second-to-last home game was next, and Ralph Wilson Stadium was ready to go well in advance of kickoff this time.

Week 13 saw the Cleveland Browns travel to Buffalo. The Lake Erie Rivalry of late had been a little disappointing. Not too long ago, the Browns beat Buffalo 6-3 in a game that saw 750 total yards of punting. Cleveland was also 7-5, and trying to buck their 12-year playoff drought. The winner of the contest would gain serious traction in the AFC wild card race with four games remaining.

In true Bills-Browns fashion, the first 14 drives of the game saw 8 punts, 3 field-goal attempts, and 3 interceptions. For a while it felt like another battle of incompetence. Who wanted to lose the least?

Buffalo finally put together a solid drive in the 3rd quarter, capped off by a Hogan TD catch, and the Bills were up 7-3. After the ensuing kickoff, Terrance West took a sweep to the left sideline, and appeared to be down, but the ball squirted out and Hughes picked it up and took it 20 yards for a touchdown. 

There was some confusion on the play, but Hughes ended up capitalizing on the mistake and Buffalo was suddenly out to a 14-3 lead in a span of 10 seconds. 

The Bills added two field goals and another interception off of Brian Hoyer, whose day was done. Mike Pettine, in his return to Buffalo, put in rookie Johnny Manziel for the last 12:01 of the game, when the Browns were already down 20-3. 

In his first drive, one could say that Manziel was money. He scrambled effectively, went through his progressions, and looked like an adequate NFL quarterback. He even tallied his first NFL touchdown, a 10-yard scramble through the Bills front seven. 

NFL.com

In his second drive, one could not say that Manziel was money. In fact, anything but. 

On the third play of the drive, Manziel learned why they call the defensive line the Cold Front. After a fumbled snap, Kyle Williams greeted the rookie QB to the NFL:

The play was initially ruled a Bills touchdown, but was reversed to be an incomplete pass. Buffalo tacked on another field goal, cementing a 26-10 win to move to 8-5. Additionally, the above play birthed a new meme: Manzieling.

@NFL_Memes

Playoff Hopefuls

The Bills entered December knowing they had some of the hardest final four games of any team in the league. Three of four away games, three of four games against teams invariably in the Top 5 of the league, with a week playing at Oakland thrown in there. At 7-5 heading into the season’s final month, the Bills needed to perform to have a shot at the playoffs.

The first game was at Denver. The Broncos were known for their Peyton Manning-led offensive onslaught, and Buffalo would have to quell that attack in order to have any hope in the game. Manning had thrown touchdown passes in 51 straight games, so slowing down the passing game was the major priority for Buffalo’s Cold Front.

For a game in early December out in Colorado, the weather was surprisingly mild. A low-60s, sunny afternoon greeted the Bills and Broncos as they emerged from the locker rooms. Football weather.

The Bills didn’t really have a chance against Denver’s defense, but they held their own for the first part of the contest, allowing two CJ Anderson touchdowns in the first half, which ended with the score at a respectable 14-3. Buffalo was clearly focused on keeping Manning at bay, as they held the quarterback to only 20 pass attempts in the game.

A pair of interceptions nabbed by the Bills kept the Bills in it, but two more thrown by Orton made it Denver’s game to lose. The Bills were down 24-3 at the start of the 4th quarter, but all hope was not lost yet. 

The 4th quarter of the Broncos game turned out to be a brilliant microcosm for Buffalo’s season – warts and all.

Kyle Orton led a 5:21, 80-yard touchdown drive to open the final quarter, pulling the score to 24-10. The drive was capped off by a Chris Hogan 14-yard catch, his 4th and final TD of the season.

Of the 13 plays in the drive, only one was not a passing play. The penultimate play of the drive was a reversed interception ruling, followed by a reversed touchdown ruling, followed by the real touchdown. The Bills were trying their damnedest to ensure they couldn’t win the game, but Orton had other thoughts.

The Broncos had a drive that was stalled by Buffalo’s defense, then a tremendous Britton Colquitt punt pinned Buffalo at their own 8. A Cordy Glenn false start moved the Bills to their own 4. The resulting 3-and-out was anything but a surprise.

Denver got the ball again, this time just shy of midfield, but ran into a Cold Front. Anderson, despite having 3 scores to his credit on the afternoon, couldn’t get past Buffalo’s front seven. Dareus swallowed him on 1st down, Hughes ransacked him in the backfield on 2nd down, and Powell assisted Brown on a tackle on 3rd down. 

Buffalo burned its remaining timeouts, and got the ball on their own 10 with 4:20 remaining, down two scores.

90 yards of desperation offense eventually got the Bills in the endzone, but it was too little, too late. The game ended after a failed onside kick attempt and the Bills left town defeated 24-17.

Sitting at 7-6, the Bills had a 3% chance to make the playoffs according to FiveThirtyEight. 3% may sound like nothing, but it’s pretty substantial for a Buffalo team with only 3 games left. The only way the Bills would be making the playoffs would be to win out – which included the last home game in Week 15 against the Green Bay Packers.

Facing future Hall of Fame quarterbacks in consecutive weeks is tough on any defense, but the Bills needed to slow down Aaron Rodgers to have any chance of making the postseason. After beating their other 3 NFC North opponents, the Bills went for the division sweep on a chilly but snow-free day at the Ralph.

The game started as a defensive struggle, with the Pack going up 3-0 in the middle of the 1st quarter. On Green Bay’s next possession, the Cold Front forced a 3-and-out and Tim Masthay was out for his 3rd punt of the day. Marcus Thigpen grabbed the punt and went to work:

Thigpen’s TD immediately gave Buffalo control of the game. Green Bay punched it in in the early 2nd and Carpenter added a field goal to knot the score at 10 at halftime.

Buffalo received the kickoff to open the 2nd half, and had a methodical drive using all three running backs effectively. The drive resulted in a 51-yard field goal after the offense sputtered before the red zone. 13-10, Bills. Their next drive included a Bryce Brown 40-yard reception, but stalled in the red zone and Buffalo went up 16-10.

Great quarterbacks are never out of games, especially with 20 minutes of football remaining, down less than a score. Rodgers seemed ready to go out and lead a comeback to get this pesky Bills team off his back. Then this happened:

The second play of the drive was intercepted by Bacarri Rambo, a safety whose name is somehow not fictional. Rambo started the season with Washington, but was waived after Week 2. The Bills picked up the safety on November 17th following an injury to McKelvin. 

Rambo played 10 snaps of mop up work against the Jets earlier in the season, but this game was his first real opportunity to show what he could do. Safety Duke Williams left the game earlier, and Rambo filled in at SS.

The startling thing about this play is that when Rodgers throws interceptions, they are almost always off of tipped passes that ultimately aren’t his fault. This interception was a slightly underthrown ball and Rambo jumped the route at the perfect time.

In true Bills fashion, Orton failed to generate any points off of the turnover – but special teams kept Buffalo in a great position. Easley downed a punt at Green Bay’s 2-yard line, giving Green Bay a tough start to the final quarter.

Rodgers began marching his Packers down the field, seemingly taking controlling the field. At least before Rambo struck again.

Unlike his skillful first pick, this was really just being in the right place at the right time. The pass was tipped right off of Jarrett Boykin into Rambo’s hands. The 28-yard return was later converted to a 48-yard field goal, putting Buffalo up 19-10.

Green Bay responded with a field goal to trim Buffalo’s lead to 19-13. The Bills punted on their next possession, pinning the Pack at their own 10.

A real Bills team would let the Packers drive 90 yards and come back late in the game and win 20-19. But this season, and this game, was different. Super Mario took control and ensured the game would be Buffalo’s.

After a long referee’s conference, it was deemed that Lacy was down in the end zone when he recovered the fumble, leading to a safety. Here’s another angle of how it happened:

The Bills were finally able to do something that good teams do somewhat frequently: kneel down to win a game.

This win was the crown jewel in Buffalo’s season. They beat the best team in football despite producing only 253 yards of offense and 0 offensive TDs. They did it with 2 INTs, a punt return TD, and a strip sack safety. 

Heading into Week 16, their playoff situation wasn’t all that rosy. FiveThirtyEight gave the Bills a 5% chance of making the playoffs, up from 3% the prior week. Progress!

While the situation looked dire, the one good thing about it all was that the Bills got to play the Raiders. A win in Oakland could give the team momentum into the final game, where the Patriots likely wouldn’t be playing their starters the whole game since they would not be playing for anything. Hope was slim, but alive.

I’m still convinced that Oakland didn’t win that game – the Bills lost it. They let an anemic offense march repetitively into field goal range, with Sebastian Janikowski nailing 4 field goals. 

The script seemed to be flipped. Orton threw 3 TDs, including a great toss to Watkins for a 42-yard score. He also threw 2 INTs to keep the Raiders alive. The quarterback was beside himself when the implications of the loss came out:

When you’ve gone this long and you’re right there with a chance, and you put it all on the line and you don’t come through, it hurts.

Buffalo ran for 13 yards, their lowest since a 1997 game against the Titans where they rushed for 4 yards. This was especially startling since Spiller finally returned in this game, after being sidelined with his broken collarbone. 

The loss cemented a 15th straight year without a playoff appearance, currently the longest in the NFL. After the amazing showing against Green Bay, it was like someone let all the air out. 

So Buffalo headed to Foxboro to close out another playoff-less season. The Patriots indeed had nothing to play for, having secured home-field advantage the week prior. Brady played only the first half, but was sacked twice in 18 drop backs and was held to only 5.0 yards per pass attempt. 

Watkins caught 3 passes for 57 yards, leaving him with 982 yards receiving on the season, falling just short of becoming the first Bills rookie to break the 1,000-yard mark. The Bills earned their 17-9 victory over the Patriots, although New England sat their starters for the entire second half. 

The team departed Gillette Stadium with a winning season. Kyle Orton of all people led the Bills to a startlingly adequate season. Things were looking up in Buffalo for the first time in forever. The defense was one of the best in the league, the young offense could only improve, and it seemed that the coaching staff was finally figuring things out with how to use the weapons on the squad. 

Coaching Carousel

The ruckus started soon after the victory in New England. Upon arrival in Buffalo, some Bills had a few bold statements to make.

The final press session of the season was filled with some questions about Spiller’s fate heading into free agency, and excitement around getting started in the spring.

That is, until the “savior” himself, Kyle Orton left the building.

Orton never really thrilled anyone in Buffalo, and his play was adequate at best. Nevertheless, a prevailing dark cloud of a quarterback question rose over Western New York.

In an awkward press conference, Whaley and Marrone addressed the entire 2014 season, but the questioning opened with Orton’s sudden departure. Whaley expressed how unexpected his retirement was:

I was surprised. He told us this morning so we had no inclination that he was thinking and making that decision at this time or down the road so it was surprising and for the future that’s with the evaluation process, we’ll start looking at that right after this meeting.

This press conference is filled with utter apathy from Marrone, which had always been his prevailing emotion in talking to media. The 40-minute affair wrapped without Doug saying anything of substance.

It soon came out that Marrone had an opt-out provision in his contract that expired on January 1st, 2015. The option was structured in such a way that Marrone would receive $4 million regardless of whether he chose to opt-in. Even if he coached for a different team in 2015, the Bills would pay him his full salary.

So, perhaps on the heels of Orton’s sudden departure, Marrone decided to exercise his financial safety net, opting out of his contract before the new year started. Players voiced their opinions en masse about Marrone’s New Year’s gift to the franchise.

And of course, Marrone’s favorite

All in all, the feeling in Buffalo was betrayal. The coach who brought the first 9-7 season since 2004 to the city just walked out on them. Money was seemingly more important (or more feasible) to Marrone than bringing the Bills back to the playoffs.

As we all stepped into 2015, it immediately became apparent that Marrone left because he thought that he could find a job for next season. The New York Jets became the front-runner – Marrone often complained about the sharks in the Buffalo media, so apparently he felt the New York City media would treat him better. Talks of tampering with Marrone were flying around, and then word broke that Marrone’s interview with the Jets was unimpressive.

The coach who flew the coop became a candidate for the vacancy in Atlanta, but that fell through. Reports indicated that Marrone was a front-runner for the Bears job, but he cancelled all his remaining interviews and took the OL coach position in Jacksonville, along with former Bills OC Nathaniel Hackett. 

Maybe Marrone didn’t know the head coaching market as well as he thought. Nevertheless, Buffalo was forced to move on. The Bills had the odd situation of searching for a new head coach after a winning season, and not by choice.

Names flew around left and right – and each came with their own intrigue. All told, the Bills ended up scheduling at least 12 interviews and requesting two more. The Pegulas quickly made it clear this process was going to be thorough – no stone left unturned. In order of interview:

Darrell Bevell – Offensive Coordinator, Seattle Seahawks – Hard to argue with his recent success in Seattle. Bevell previously worked with Favre and offered a refreshing approach to the lethargic offensive strategy that Hackett employed. Bevell would remain with Seattle.

Adam Gase – Offensive Coordinator, Denver Broncos – This young gun was in huge demand on this year’s coaching free agent list, leading Tim Tebow and Peyton Manning to successful seasons. Buffalo never really had a shot at Gase, who landed the OC job in Chicago, yet again under John Fox. 

Dan Quinn – Defensive Coordinator, Seattle Seahawks – Why not give one of the best defenses to one of the best defensive coaches of the past few years? The Bills liked Quinn a lot, but he ended up as the head coach in Atlanta. 

Frank Reich – Offensive Coordinator, San Diego Chargers – One of the more intriguing candidates, Frank “Lloyd” Reich was the architect of the comeback, Buffalo’s historic victory over the Oilers in 1993. Reich reportedly interviewed well, but reportedly wasn’t too interested in the job. Reich remained San Diego’s OC.

Mike Shanahan – Former Head Coach, Washington Redskins – Shanahan was fired by Washington after their dismal 2013 season, and the coach has been out of the league since then. Many felt that picking Shanahan would be settling into old ways for the Bills.

Pat Shurmur – Offensive Coordinator, Philadelphia Eagles – His head coaching experience with the Browns for 2011-12 was a double-edged sword. It was nice to have a candidate with a head coaching background, but his 9-23 record was a little less than attractive. Shurmur remained with the Eagles.

Hue Jackson – Offensive Coordinator, Cincinnati Bengals – Jackson also had head coaching experience – albeit a poor showing with the Raiders. Jackson later said he thought the fit was right, but he remained with Cincinnati.

Rex Ryan – Head Coach, New York Jets – Spoiler alert: Ryan wins. This defensive guru led the Jets to two straight AFC Championship games with Mark Sanchez, so if anyone could succeed with this current Bills roster it’s Ryan.

Kyle Shanahan – Offensive Coordinator, Cleveland Browns – Shanahan the Younger has had an up and down coaching career, but remains in the spotlight because of his pedigree. He is still in Cleveland. 

Jim Schwartz – Defensive Coordinator, Buffalo Bills – Definitely the most interesting candidate, Schwartz obviously had a leg up by being familiar with the defense and front office structure. His time in Detroit as head coach netted him a 29-51 record, managing a team that had just gone 0-16. The Lions made the playoffs in 2011 under Schwartz. 

Pep Hamilton, Josh McDaniels, Greg Roman, and Teryl Austin were also connected to the coaching search.

Soon after his interview, it became clear that Rex Ryan was the front runner. He made arguably the most sense from a football standpoint, with an expectation of bringing the already great defense to truly elite status. ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported the move first:

The Ryan and Roman combination immediately turned heads. With coaching hires like Marrone and Chan Gailey in recent years, it was apparent that this front office wasn’t messing around. Buffalo was going to be a focal point this year, no matter what.

Of course, the issue with the Ryan hire was that he came from a defensive school of thought. Ryan’s defenses were always top of the NFL, but Buffalo had a great success with Schwartz at the helm of the defense. Fans drooled over the prospect of having two defensive masterminds in house, but it was all a pipe dream. Schwartz ran a 4-3, whereas Ryan is a proponent of the 3-4 defense. The two can’t mix.

Schwartz left Buffalo for greener pastures, and is now a consultant with the NFL, working with officials to give a coach’s perspective.

Ryan, perpetual fan favorite, certainly didn’t disappoint. The Bills announced the hiring on Monday January 12th, but did not hold a press conference for their new coach until the Wednesday. Why? Because their owner was occupied with the Sabres retiring Domenik Hasek’s on Tuesday. So Rex came along for the ride.

In his introductory press conference, Rex Ryan made it clear what kind of guy he was going to be. 

Is Thing On? Because It’s About To Be

Jets fans know that Rex Ryan is a character on and off the football field. He thrived in the spotlight – which was especially bright because of NYC – and made news wherever he went because it was accompanied with some ridiculousness.

This did not change in Buffalo. 

Upon his hiring, Rex was gifted with a pizza from famous Buffalo pizzeria La Nova. But not just an ordinary pizza:

While it may look like frosting, the red and blue colors in the topping are dyed ricotta and the bulk of the letters are spinach. Never a dull moment with Rex Ryan.

Ryan’s time in New York was supplemented with fanciful yet somehow true tales of feet and running with the bulls. One of the most infamous Rex Tales™ surrounds his tattoo. 

In tribute to his bride and the quarterback that got him to where he is today, Ryan sports a tattoo of his wife wearing a Mark Sanchez #6 jersey. Reports of the tattoo’s existence first appeared in early 2013. So when Rex came over to Buffalo, it was a point of interest to see if he would keep the tattoo.

Ryan’s thoughts on the tattoo, and his whole time with the Jets:

I mean, you’ve got to turn the page. I’m all in.

The next move by Ryan came just a few days after the Super Bowl. News of Richie Incognito signing with the Buffalo Bills broke. You may recognize Incognito’s name from the bullying scandal in Miami in 2013.

Incognito’s less-than-desirable past got him a year out of the league, but he evidently was ready to make a comeback. Interestingly, Incognito played in Buffalo for three games in 2009. Current C and captain Eric Wood was a rookie that year, and had insight on Incognito when the bullying scandal broke:

I’ve heard people say there is no place in the game for rookie nights or hazing and I think there is some. He crossed the line with some of the language that he used. I know Richie well. We have the same agent and he was here in 2009 when I broke my leg. I know Richie, he’s kind of a cross-the-line humor type of guy. I think he probably had a misjudgment here, especially with the voicemail he left. That’s the only evidence really that you can go by.

The pickup is undoubtedly risky, but Ryan doesn’t shy away from potentially controversial moves. While the elephant in the room is undoubtedly something to keep in the mind of the coaches, the Bills had an absolutely tawdry display guard, and Incognito was by all accounts a great player in 2013 when he got suspended. The move makes sense.

When Ryan wasn’t making controversial personnel moves, he was setting up his new truck.

His tattoo, his truck, his gaudy expectations – Rex Ryan was exactly what the Bills needed: an advocate. Someone to get excited about. Buffalo usually got the Dick Jaurons, Mike Mularkeys, and Doug Marrones of the NFL to coach their team. But this time was different, and Rex made sure that Bills fans knew that.

LeSean McCoy Trade

Perhaps the most exciting thing about the Bills’ 9-7, 54 sack team was that they did it all without Kiko Alonso, the second-year LB who played every snap as a rookie, but tore his ACL early in 2014’s off-season. There was no doubt this defense was already one of the best in the league, but with Ryan coming in and Alonso coming back, expectations were as high as ever.

Free agency was right around the corner, including the potential loss of perennial fan favorite CJ Spiller, but all was relatively quiet in the NFL. 

Until this piece of news came completely out of nowhere.

People reacted from all corners of the NFL.

The trade was straight-up. One player for one player with no draft picks involved – a rarity in today’s NFL. 

People seemed torn by the trade, which was thrust more into the limelight with nothing on the docket for another two weeks before free agency. The two players involved were fan favorites, but coming off of bad seasons.

Alonso had a lot of hope, with reports that he was rehabbing well, but he still missed a whole year of experience. While he’s no Sam Bradford, Alonso tore his other ACL in 2012, and has had hip and shoulder surgeries in recent seasons. It’s reasonable for anyone to be concerned about his longevity in the league.

McCoy has been a top RB for a long time, but 2014 saw some disappointment in Shady’s game. His 1,319 yards on the ground was good enough for his second best in his career, and 3rd best in the league, but he only averaged 4.2 yards per carry and had his worst showing in the receiving game, with only 155 yards through the air. Many pinned McCoy’s struggles on the depleted Eagles offensive line, but at 27 years old, it’s hard to expect the McCoy of yore.

Each player had positive notes running into troubling doubts. Word came from ESPN’s Josina Anderson that McCoy didn’t want to go to Buffalo. Anderson’s source, on McCoy’s thoughts that night:

It’ll be interesting to see how this process plays itself out because he’s an interesting individual. In your mind, when you think of Buffalo you think of cold and losing games. It’s not like it’s the Philadelphia market where you’re always on t.v. and you’re playing for the division title…It was unexpected. I’ll tell you that much.

Without a no-trade clause, McCoy would have no say in the trade, but he could reasonably refuse to report to camp if the problem was truly that large. 

The most interesting part of the night was CJ Spiller’s reaction, who had a prescheduled interview on NFL Network the evening of the trade. It was all a little surreal.

Management called me and told me that they were going in that direction and pretty much gave me a ‘Thank you for your service.’

There was no ambiguity here: McCoy was going to replace Spiller as the lead RB and Alonso would become an Eagle. 

After goin back and forth about the contract, McCoy was signed to a new 5-year deal worth $40.05 million. With $26.55 million guaranteed, McCoy was finally happy to be a Bill. 

With the Spiller situation sorted out in a big splash, the Bills could focus on their two remaining high level free agents: Jerry Hughes and Da’Norris Searcy.

Free Agency

Just a day after the McCoy trade, the Bills traded for Vikings QB Matt Cassel, adding an arm in the mix at QB. The trade sent Buffalo’s 2015 5th round pick and 2016 7th round pick to Minnesota in exchange for their 2015 5th round pick and Cassel. After Orton’s departure, a move like this was easy to predict, and a necessity before the meat of free agency began.

Jerry Hughes is often considered the odd man out in Buffalo’s defensive line. The Colts drafted Hughes with their 1st round pick in 2010, but traded him to Buffalo in 2013 for LB Kelvin Sheppars, cutting their losses. Hughes apparently underperformed as a Colt because as soon as he became a Bill he started putting up impressive numbers. 

Hughes racked up 53 tackles in 2014 while netting ten sacks for his second consecutive season. With the money already tied up in Mario Williams, it would be tough to justify retaining Hughes for what he deserved.

Whaley had stated in the past that retaining Hughes was a major priority for this offseason, and he succeeded in reaching his goal.

Hughes signed a new contract for five years and $45 million, pretty significant for a guy who just a few years back was considered a draft bust. Prevailing wisdom had it that the Hughes deal, which occurred a day before free agency would open, was going to handcuff the Bills’ ability to bring in talent. Au contraire.

The first news on March 10th, the beginning of free agency, was that Searcy signed with the Titans. The strong safety signed a 4-year/$24 million contract, which far exceeded what the Bills could afford to invest after the Hughes move. Searcy was the 18th best safety in the league in 2014, according to PFF, and the best in Buffalo.

As soon as Searcy signed with Tennessee, it became clear that the Bills felt they could transition Corey Graham to SS to fill in his gap. Buffalo had transitioned Aaron Williams from CB to S in the past, so moving another player, especially a veteran like Graham, wouldn’t be a huge hassle.

The first day of free agency saw TE Lee Smith go off to Oakland. His blocking would have been useful, but his false starts will likely not be missed.

Buffalo’s first move of free agency period was signing FB Jerome Felton. Felton blocked for Adrian Peterson during his 2,097 yard season in 2012. With Greg Roman running the ground and pound offense, getting one of the best fullbacks in the game was a no-brainer.

Two re-signings that most fans expected to see before free agency started got settled on March 12th: WR Marcus Easely and DE Jarius Wynn Easley is primarily a special teams ace, with 10 tackles last season. He’s a major reason the special teams unit was so productive. Wynn is a solid role player who saw 322 snaps last season, specializing in stopping the run.

Also on the 12th, the Bills signed perhaps the most intriguing player of the free agency period: QB Tyrod Taylor. Taylor was drafted in the 6th round in 2011 by the Ravens, and has sat behind Joe Flacco his entire career. Taylor’s unique set of skills gave the Bills something they didn’t have: a true mobile quarterback.

Coming out of college, proponents of Manuel’s game raved about his scrambling ability and ingenuity when the pocket broke down, but that didn’t seem to translate to the NFL level. Taylor’s four years of experience riding the bench meant he (in theory) had time to hone his skills as a scrambler and learn the necessary skills to be an NFL quarterback. 

Taylor is certainly a wildcard, but in some respects being an unknown is an attractive quality to the Bills. Cassel and Manuel have their own issues and a mostly defined ceiling. With Taylor, who knows how he can bring?

From the start of free agency, Percy Harvin was linked to the Bills. The receiver ended up visiting Buffalo during the first two days of free agency and signed on March 13th to a 1-year/$6 million contract. 

Like the Incognito signing, Harvin is also widely considered a locker room nuisance, but a tremendous talent nonetheless. Harvin’s time in Minnesota was cut short from nagging migraines, and he was traded from the Seahawks to the Jets in the middle of last season when he refused to go back into a game.

Harvin’s tenure in the league has been dotted with spectacular speed but not enough playing time, but not by fault of his coaches. If Harvin can stay healthy and remain a good teammate in the lockeroom, he can ignite the receiver corps in Buffalo which is already stacked with Watkins and Woods. Many felt that the Harvin signing signaled the end of the line for Marquise Goodwin, who has a similar skill set.

The last major signing of free agency came after a seemingly endless wait. Dolphins TE Charles Clay got slapped with the transition tag in early March, essentially making him a restricted free agent. In other words, Clay could sign an offer sheet with any other team, but the Dolphins had five days to match the offer, and Clay would be under contract with Miami if they matched.

After a titillating back and forth, the Bills gave Clay a 5-year/$38 million offer sheet. If you’re thinking that’s a lot, that’s because it is. In fact, it’s the 4th richest TE contract in the league and, with $24 million guaranteed, has the most guaranteed cash for Clay.

The five day period for the Dolphins to ponder a matching offer lasted only two days, but it felt like much longer than that. 

So, Buffalo picked up an elite running back, a troubled yet talented guard, a talented yet oft-injured receiver, a solid tight end and one of the best fullbacks in the game. All while only giving up a young linebacker coming off of ACL surgery, a safety, and a running back. Pretty good haul for a team on a 15-year playoff drought.

With such a fruitful free agency period, there wasn’t a lot to worry about with the draft–a nice feeling considering where the Bills have been at this point in years past. 

The 2015 Draft

The 2015 Draft was going to be staunchly different from others in Buffalo’s history. The Sammy Watkins trade left Buffalo without a 1st round pick for the first time since 2005, following their majestic trade up to nab J.P. Losman the year prior. Every decade they seem to go broke for a player, but after a season of Sammy in blue, it’s looking better than Losman, at least.

One of the interesting aspects of trading a future 1st round pick is that teams don’t actually know how valuable the pick is going to be. Theoretically, it’s possible for Buffalo to have traded the #1 overall pick to Cleveland for Watkins, or the #32, and anywhere in between. With every win, the trade gets better and better. 9-7 meant #19 for Buffalo, and this means much more than saying “a future 1st round pick.”

The draft meant the finalization of the Watkins trade, and now pundits can at least begin to accurately judge the trade instead of just calling it terrible because of pick value lost. The value discussion is an important one, but ultimately players are who win games, not potential value from picks. The Browns subsequently traded the Bills’ 2015 1st round pick to the Vikings, so that muddies the trade a bit, but here’s what it looks like for each team involved:

Bills Receive Browns Receive Vikings Receive
Sammy Watkins Justin Gilbert Anthony Barr
Cameron Erving David Yankey
Ibraheim Campbell

In terms of distribution of talent, this seems to be about even. Most analysts consider Justin Gilbert a bust after a supremely sub-par rookie campaign, but Cameron Erving is a great offensive line talent and the Browns got him at solid value using Buffalo’s #19 pick. The Vikings traded down a spot for Anthony Barr, and netted Yankey who was recently cut from the roster. Each of the three teams involved got a great player who fills a need.

Nevertheless, Buffalo still had some picks in the 2015 draft. The first selection was #50, the 18th pick in the 2nd round. After a high-flying free agency period, Buffalo’s main needs were at OG, LB and obviously still QB. Depth on the defensive side of the ball was also a general concern, as behind most of the perennial starting talent was pretty slim pickings for Buffalo. 

After a tremendously active off-season, the Bills had surprisingly few holes to fill. The aforementioned positional issues unlikely to be solved in the 2nd round, and with a league-low six picks overall, it was hard to expect a lot from this draft. Ryan himself seemed skeptical of finding lots of help from the draft.

We’ll see what happens, but yeah, it’s going to be tough to make this roster. To say you’re going to have every draft pick make the team, boy, I don’t know, and as I mentioned it’s a credit to Doug Whaley and his staff for the type of talent that they’ve collected here because there’s a lot of talent on this team.

Unlike most teams, Buffalo wasn’t expecting a lot out of this draft. The positions of need were important, but given the picks they had, it was going to be an uphill battle for these draftees.

Jim Kelly, Stronger

The 2nd round of the draft is usually generally less popular than the 1st round. The talent is adequate but not everyone can be expected to make an impact immediately. As a result, the NFL brings in legends from some teams to announce their pick. For Buffalo’s first pick in 2015, they brought in the best QB in Bills history: Jim Kelly. The reaction was something else.

After a rough year for Kelly, this was one of the first national stages where Bills fans saw general NFL fans support Kelly so adamantly. This kind of response doesn’t typically happen to Bills players, past or present. Granted, Kelly’s situation is unique and indeed inspirational, but as a result of being bottom rung in the NFL for the past 15 seasons, Buffalo rarely saw moments like this. It was a truly touching moment for a draft that saw Commissioner Goodell being (rightfully) booed during almost every pick. 

The selection whom Kelly announced – Ronald Darby, CB, Florida State – was the first of three former Seminoles picked by Buffalo. Darby will shore up the shaky secondary after the loss of free agent S Da’Norris Searcy to Tennessee this offseason, providing much needed depth. Buffalo’s picks were as follows:

Round Overall Pick Player Position School
2     50 Ronald Darby CB Florida State
3 81 John Miller OG Louisville
5 155 Karlos Williams RB Florida State
6 188 Tony Steward OLB Clemson
6 194 Nick O’Leary TE Florida State
7 234 Dez Lewis WR Cent Arkansas

Most of these picks were made ultimately looking towards the future. Darby provides a safety net if Leodis McKelvin can’t be re-signed in 2016. Miller is immediately in the mix for playing time on Buffalo’s terrible offensive line. Drafting Williams, the 6th Williams on the Bills roster, likely signals the end of the Bryce Brown “era” in Buffalo with an already full backfield. Steward will help make up for the loss of Alonso. O’Leary is a great blocker and Greg Roman is a big fan of power running schemes with multiple TEs. Lewis is now the tallest WR on a team that was last in red zone TDs last season. 

The picks aren’t flashy, but they make sense.

2015 Preseason

Rex Ryan just has a knack for the spotlight, even in the preseason. This Buffalo Bills squad started picking up some excitement with the additions of McCoy, Harvin and Clay, but even more exciting was Ryan, who just couldn’t sit still.

Ryan went skydiving in July, a couple of weeks before the opening of training camp. He likely needed an adrenaline rush to counteract the impending riveting quarterback competition

The veteran (Cassel), the former top draft pick (Manuel), and the unknown (Taylor). It seemed to be a situation of choosing the least evil. 

Training camp opened with less-than-exciting results from the signal callers.

Cassel was the clear favorite opening camp. The seasoned veteran had earned playoff berths for the Patriots in 2008 and the Chiefs in 2010. Manuel hadn’t showed a lot of promise in his first 14 starts under Marrone, so he was certainly on the hot seat.

Also of note was McCoy’s attitude heading into camp. After the reports of him being unhappy with the trade, it would be interesting to see how the veteran managed himself with his new team.

A few days before camp started, McCoy made headlines with news of a “Females Only” party in Phildelphia, which obviously received a little bit of criticism. The Bills asked McCoy to remove the advertisement because it used the team logo. The running back obliged and invited everyone to a new party. McCoy seemed to realize his mistake when he got to camp.

Phew.

The tale of training camp was undoubtedly one about the quarterback battle. This team had a lot of talent, but just couldn’t seem to shake the question “But who is going to play quarterback?”

Peter King of MMQB summarized the mood around camp very well:

Though Ryan has brought a new swagger to a team muddled in mediocrity, some things haven’t changed in this football-crazed city. Buffalo doesn’t have a starting quarterback. In the 15 years since the Bills have made the playoffs, they have cycled through 15 leading men. This year, it’s a three-way competition between 2013 first-round pick E.J. Manuel, whose growth was stunted by being forced on the field too soon, Tyrod Taylor, the longtime Joe Flacco backup, and Matt Cassel, a 10-year journeyman. None in the trio exactly excites, but Buffalo has so much talent across the rest of the roster, it might be able to win anyway.  

That’s the crux of the excitement surrounding the Buffalo Bills this season. They went 9-7 with Kyle Orton, a dinosaur who chewed his way to a respectable season. Orton finished 37th of 39 qualified QBs in PFF rankings for 2014. The Bills don’t need great quarterback play to succeed–they don’t even need good quarterback play to succeed. 

One of the weirder stories of this off-season was the sucker punch heard ’round the world. Jets LB IK Enemkpali reportedly punched Geno Smith in the jaw, and as a result Smith was ruled out for 6-10 weeks. The Jets immediately released the linebacker, because, you know, you don’t walk up to another man and punch him in the face.

The next day the Bills claimed Enemkpali, and were awarded his rights.

Considering Ryan drafted Enemkpali, and evidently knew the man and thought favorably of him, this move wasn’t completely insane. In a vacuum, a linebacker who the coach liked was suddenly a free agent. Worth a shot, right?

The first preseason game against Carolina was like any other preseason game: barely noteworthy. Cassel got the start, McCoy looked great in his two series and Karlos Williams showed some muscle, running for 40 yards and a TD. Taylor looked solid, and after the game Ryan announced that he would start next week’s contest.

Week 2 brought the Bills around the corner of Lake Erie to Cleveland. Eyes were focused on Taylor and he did not disappoint. He went 7-for-10 with 65 yards and added 41 more on the ground.

The real story of the game was how much injuries were starting to affect the Bills. Both Marquise Goodwin and Chirs Hogan went down with injuries, and Watkins, Harvin, Woods, McCoy, Jackson, Brown, and Williams were out for the game. Buffalo left Cleveland with their top five WRs and top four RBs injured. 

Manuel looked great in the game, tossing a TD and 2-point conversion to win in the 4th quarter. The quarterback situation started getting muddy–did the Bills suddenly have two QBs that looked like they could actually start a game?

The Bills came out firing in Week 3’s contest against the Steelers. They finally got back Fred Jackson, among the glut of injuries to their skill players, and he took his first carry of the game and showed why he deserved a roster spot. 

Hype was around Taylor, the third string that day, who showed his mobility on a TD run. Manuel earned the start, likely to spread the wealth in this quarterback purgatory. In his second series, Manuel hit Clay wide open in the middle of the field for a 67-yard TD. Things were looking up for the Buffalo QBs.

Sunday September 1st at 4pm was the deadline for cutting rosters to 75 players. Cut days are always tough around NFL teams, but for the Bills, the virtually unthinkable happened. 

Jackson’s time in the NFL began in NFL Europe, after his D-III experience at Coe College, and he was as beloved in Buffalo as any player ever could be. A four-time captain, he exemplified what it meant to be a Buffalo Bill.

But unfortunately, he was redundant.

After drafting Karlos Williams this season, trading for Brown and McCoy the past two seasons, and adding Dixon in the mix, it didn’t make sense to keep Jackson, the oldest back in the league at 34 years old. His cap hit ($2.3M) likely had something to do with the decision, as the team tries to re-sign Dareus before his impending free agency.

The same day as the Jackson move–just a couple hours apart–news leaked that the Bills were naming Tyrod Taylor their starter.

It was a confusing day in Buffalo. With his dynamite performance in the preseason, and decidedly different play style, Taylor had become the fan favorite to win the job. The news was a happy moment, a sign of positive change. But it was still hard to stomach the loss of one of the best Bills of the past decade.

Rumors nearly immediately came out about Jackson boarding a flight to Seattle, where former teammate and close friend Marshawn Lynch dominated the backfield. Jackson signed with the Seahawks for the veteran minimum, and was off to a new adventure.

The last preseason game came and went without much fanfare, and rosters were cut down to 53. Included in the final cuts was Enemkpali, but he would sign with the practice squad. Cassel was released and later re-signed, likely to minimize his contract.

With the season around the corner, the Bills set their sights towards Week 1, when the Colts come to Buffalo. Ryan chimed in about his thoughts on the season opener.

Me too, Rex. Me too.

2015: The Time is Now

The Bills have been something of a laughingstock in the NFL for the past decade and a half. It’s hard to gain respect when the team is never good enough to make the playoffs, but never bad enough to get a top draft pick. Football purgatory is a cruel maiden.

Of course, this perception assumes that the Bills’ front office mentality will remain the same. Ralph Wilson, Jr., however great of an owner he was, didn’t spend a lot of money, didn’t take risks, and hired GMs and coaches with a similar mentality.

This Buffalo Bills team is different. The organization underwent an immense amount of change in the last 25 months, and they managed to come out of it stronger than before.

The Pegulas are keeping the Bills in Buffalo. Rex Ryan brings an electricity to Bills’ football that hasn’t been seen since the Super Bowl teams of the 1990s. Sammy Watkins looks to excel in his sophomore season. LeSean McCoy adds star power and a great talent to the running game. The Cold Front looks to become one of the best front sevens in the history of the NFL.

These things don’t happen to the Bills. They don’t happen to small market Buffalo. This a team that has missed the playoffs 15 seasons in a row, and yet they found a way to gain positive momentum towards finally breaking that mark.

Buffalo is a hard working town–a rust belt metropolis fond of cold beer, hot wings, and flurries in Orchard Park on Sundays. The Bills embody the heart and soul of Buffalo, NY. The news of staying in Buffalo meant the world to western New Yorkers, but the 2015 Bills can do one better.

Only one season stands between the Bills and the playoffs. They just need a handful of wins to do it. They have the talent, they have the management, they have the coaching, they have the fanbase. One Bills Drive is all that’s needed.

This season, the Buffalo Bills will make the playoffs, ending the longest post-season drought in Bills’ history, and giving Buffalo a brand new reason to shout

How Howie Roseman Is Returning The Eagles To Form

When the NFL free agency tampering window opened at noon on March 7th, the DeChippification of the Philadelphia Eagles became the top priority for General Manager Howie Roseman. Since the start of free agency, Roseman has shipped out the "Kelly guys" and attempted to reload to compete next season in the weak NFC East.

Ever since Chip Kelly

When the NFL free agency tampering window opened at noon on March 7th, the DeChippification of the Philadelphia Eagles became the top priority for General Manager Howie Roseman. Since the start of free agency, Roseman has shipped out the “Kelly guys” and attempted to reload to compete next season in the weak NFC East.

Ever since Chip Kelly won the power struggle prior to the 2015 season, Roseman has been pushed to the back seat of football operations. News broke that Kelly had even moved Roseman’s office to the business side of the organization and away from all things football. Now, with Kelly in San Francisco, Roseman is back in charge and taking a swing at the team formerly run by Kelly.

Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

More importantly, Roseman is returning to pre-Kelly traditions by rewarding guys already on the team and plugging holes without breaking the bank through free agency. Before free agency began, Roseman made his name by doling out contracts to current players such as Zach Ertz, Brent Celek, Lane Johnson, Malcolm Jenkins, Vinny Curry, Najee Goode and Sam Bradford. In addition, he has made it a point to rid the locker room of guys brought in by Kelly, especially those who are overpaid and/or a problem in the locker room. See: DeMarco Murray.

Roseman wasted no time in taking care of business, starting with the trade of cornerback Byron Maxwell and linebacker Kiko Alonso to the Miami Dolphins. Roseman was able to dump the $63 million salary of Maxwell, rid the team of two disappointing players and jump five spots in the first round of this year’s draft. Most characterize this deal and the DeMarco Murray trade as great moves for the Eagles.

Little time passed before the next overpaid Kelly signing was packing his bags. Later that same day, Murray was shipped to Tennessee for a swap of fourth round picks. The 2014 rushing champion was traded for virtually nothing, amplifying the severity of his locker room issues and horrible contract. Still, many see this deal as a win for the Eagles, as ridding the team of that kind of baggage was huge for the organization to take the next step towards success. 

The next step started with the small signing of cornerback Leodis McKelvin, but didn’t stop there. Roseman flexed his muscles by reaching agreements with Rodney McLeod, Brandon Brooks, Chase Daniel, Ron Brooks and Nigel Bradham. These signings signaled not only a return to the old way of doing things, but a change in philosophy for the organization: collaboration.

Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Before Kelly’s power revolution, Roseman had a clear method for free agency. After the disaster that was the 2011 offseason, Roseman resorted to signing mid-tier free agents to reasonable contracts. The signing of Malcolm Jenkins in 2014 is a prime example of what I mean by this. Big name safeties such as TJ Ward, Jarius Byrd and Donte Whitner were on the market looking for big pay days and the Eagles were in dire need of a safety. 

Instead of writing a huge check to a top-tier free agent, Roseman gave Jenkins a safe three year deal. In 2015, that same “mid-tier safety” was Pro Football Focus’ top ranked safety. If Jenkins hadn’t performed as hoped, the team would only have one year at a low cost before being freed from that contract. Roseman is hoping to replicate that same success this offseason.

With the likes of Eric Weddle and George Iloka on the market this year, the Eagles went for a young, rising safety named Rodney McLeod. Although Roseman gave McLeod a nice pay day, it still resembles a “Roseman move”. Unlike last season, when Kelly lured Maxwell to he Eagles with $63 million, Roseman is going after the productive, less expensive options to fill holes throughout the team. So far, the fans seem to love this way of doing things.

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Even though Roseman has recovered his office and all of his power, he hasn’t let it go to his head like Kelly did. Whereas Kelly was a dictator, Roseman’s rule more closely resembles a democracy. This is evident by the new presence of collaboration around the NovaCare Complex. In the introductory press conference of the recent free agent signings, head coach Doug Pederson addressed the communication between him and Roseman.

“Our offices are about four doors away, so we have to yell a lot down the hall. But no, the communication has been me walking to his office, him walking to my office, going over our roster,” said Pederson. 

“So that communication has been very well received over the past month and really since I’ve been here. That’s something that will continue now on through this draft process.”

Roseman and Pederson are in constant communication with one another, evident by the signings this offseason. Daniel and Brooks are two guys that Pederson has targeted since day one. Daniel was with Pederson in Kansas City while Brooks is the type of big, athletic guard Pederson prefers on his offensive line. But the communication doesn’t stop there.

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz has clearly had his fair share of input in the free agent signings. Three former Buffalo Bills have been signed this season, all having played under Schwartz in 2014. Bradham, Brooks and McKelvin have all alluded to Schwartz being a reason for signing with the Eagles, citing his coaching style and scheme as reasons for following him. All four, including McLeod, possess the physical, athletic style Schwartz looks for in his defenders. Clearly, Roseman is communicating and collaborating with Pederson and his staff to field the best product on Sundays.

Roseman has taken steps to eliminate the issues created by Kelly. He has traded seemingly untradeable contracts, collaborated with Pederson and his staff, and signed players, old and new, without breaking the bank. Roseman’s execution has been near perfect so far, but his kryptonite is fast approaching. This offseason has been characterized as a success for the Eagles around the league, but if he wants the full approval of Philly fans, he has to strike gold on draft day, which is something he hasn’t been able to do in the past.

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Breaking Down Brock Osweiler’s Departure From Denver

Moving on from a legendary quarterback and finding his replacement without skipping a beat is one of the toughest tasks for any GM. In the last eight years, it has been done twice, with the Packers' transitioning from Brett Favre to Aaron Rodgers and then the Colts' transitioning from Peyton Manning to Andrew Luck. Before that however,

Moving on from a legendary quarterback and finding his replacement without skipping a beat is one of the toughest tasks for any GM. In the last eight years, it has been done twice, with the Packers’ transitioning from Brett Favre to Aaron Rodgers and then the Colts’ transitioning from Peyton Manning to Andrew Luck. Before that however, it had been done only once in the history of the NFL when the 49ers transitioned from Joe Montana to Steve Young. 

Many other teams with legendary quarterbacks failed to replace them with another franchise signal caller. This includes the Dolphins’ moving from Dan Marino to Jay Fiedler, the Steelers’ moving from Terry Bradshaw to Mark Malone, the Cowboys’ moving from Troy Aikman to Quincy Carter, the Broncos’ moving from John Elway to Brian Griese, and the list goes on. 

The Broncos looked like they were in perfect position to transition from Peyton Manning to Brock Osweiler. When Manning got hurt in week 10 vs Kansas City, Osweiler took over in the fourth quarter and then started every game for the rest of the regular season. Osweiler looked like he was a clear upgrade over Manning: 

Stats: completion % TDS INTS yards passing per game passer rating Pro football focus 
ranking and grade (0-100 scale)
Points per game when playing  
Brock Osweiler 61.8% 10 6 246 86.4 Ranked 20th with grade of 71.3 In 6 3/4 games: 20.2
Peyton Manning 59.8% 9 17 225 67.9 Ranked 32nd with grade of 56.8 In 9 1/4 games: 18.9

Now, I know that Osweiler is no Young or Luck, but he had the advantage in pretty much every statistical category over Manning, and it looked like he was going to be Denver’s starting quarterback heading into the playoffs. However, in the final regular season game against San Diego, the offense struggled in the first half under Osweiler, and he was benched for Manning. Manning was able to give the Broncos a spark and help Denver secure a win. 

This spark led the Broncos to choose Manning as the starting quarterback for their playoff run, but this was a bad decision. This move sent a message to Brock Osweiler that the Broncos didn’t believe in him, even though he was clearly a better quarterback than Peyton Manning at the time. Osweiler clearly held a grudge against the Broncos for this decision as evidenced by this tweet from Mike Klis of the Denver Post:

Osweiler ended up signing a deal with Houston that will pay him $18 million per year with $37 million guaranteed, while Denver was in the range of offering $16 million per year with $30 million guaranteed. This was terribly mismanaged by Denver. The Broncos had the heir apparent to Peyton Manning lined up and already playing well in their system. Instead of handing over the reins, they damaged the relationship between themselves and Osweiler, and now he’s gone. 

The contrary argument is that Denver ended up winning the Super Bowl with Manning at quarterback, so was it really a bad decision? And to that I would say yes, it absolutely was, for all the aforementioned reasons about Osweiler and because Manning did nothing in the playoffs. In three  games, Manning put up a bad stat line: 180 yards passing per game, 55.4% completion, two touchdowns, one interception, and a passer rating of 75.4. Manning did very little aside from riding the coattails of his dominant defense, something Brock Osweiler could have easily done just as well or probably better. 

So with their young, promising quarterback of the future now in Houston, the Broncos have traded for former Jets and Eagles quarterback Mark Sanchez. Sanchez is primarily known for being part of one of the most embarrassing plays in NFL history: the “butt fumble” against the Patriots on Thanksgiving four years ago. 

Sanchez is already 29 years old, and he has a career 56.7% completion rating, 86 touchdowns, 84 interceptions, and a passer rating of 74.3. Statistically he is a bad quarterback, and it’s not likely he will get any better in eighth year in the league. Now without Osweiler, the Broncos look like they are in no-man’s land at quarterback, with an uninspiring Sanchez filling in for now. 

The only promising option the Broncos could possibly have is chasing Andrew Luck in next year’s free agent class. Sanchez is currently on a one-year deal, so his money will be coming off the books next year, giving the Broncos another opportunity to look for a franchise quarterback. The Colts have done a very bad job surrounding Luck with talent since they drafted him, and if things go badly for them next year, Luck could look to test the market in free agency. Denver would absolutely look to sign Luck if those circumstances came about.  

If those plans don’t work out, though, and the Broncos are stuck with Sanchez or looking desperately for another quarterback, this will make John Elway and company look foolish. The Broncos had their next quarterback already in their organization, in a prime position to keep him, to make a smooth transition from Manning to the future, and they blew it. This is something that may really hurt Denver for time to come, because history shows us that it is very hard to transition from a great quarterback directly to another good one. While Osweiler was still unproven, he certainly displayed a solid skillset that and a winning mentalitiy. And with that unfavorable history, we have no idea when or where Denver will have the chance to get a good quarterback again.  

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2016 NFL Draft Preview: LB Jaylon Smith

The Sports Quotient’s annual Draft Preview series returns! Over the course of the 10 weeks leading up to the 2016 NFL Draft, we will take a look at the top NFL prospects at each position. This week, we dive into the linebacker position. Today we look at Jaylon Smith out of The University of Notre Dame.

College Career

Jaylon Smith arrived in South Bend

The Sports Quotient’s annual Draft Preview series returns! Over the course of the 10 weeks leading up to the 2016 NFL Draft, we will take a look at the top NFL prospects at each position. This week, we dive into the linebacker position. Today we look at Jaylon Smith out of The University of Notre Dame.

College Career

Jaylon Smith arrived in South Bend with a lot of hype surrounding him. He won the High School Butkus award and was considered the top linebacker recruit in the country in 2013 by many different media outlets. After three years, we can all agree that Smith was definitely as good as advertised. A starter for all three years at Notre Dame, Smith really began to flourish in his sophomore season when he was moved to the middle linebacker position. 

Since being moved inside, Jaylon Smith has been one of the best defensive players in the country. He was in on over 110 tackles each of the last two seasons. His sophomore season ended in a Second Team All-American selection. His junior season resulted in him being a First Team All-American selection, and the recipient of the collegiate Butkus Award. Smith and fellow former Notre Dame star linebacker Manti Te’o are the only two players to win the award at both the high school and college level.

Smith had many highlights in his amazing college career at Notre Dame, but unfortunately, he had one huge lowlight to end his career when he tore his ACL and MCL against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl.

Pros

When you watch Jaylon Smith on film, you’re watching a player who jumps off the screen. He’s extremely athletic, and has good height and arm length for the position. Although his injury prevented him from running an official 40-yard dash during the draft process, he was an excellent sprinter in high school and his film shows a player who has the speed of an NFL linebacker. This athleticism, size, and speed allow him to make plays all over the field.

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Jaylon Smith’s greatest strength is his versatility. He’s a Swiss Army Knife at the linebacker position who can play any of the linebacker positions in either a 4-3 or a 3-4. His versatility should make the defensive coordinator that gets his hands on him salivate about the thought of playing him all over the field.

While at Notre Dame, Jaylon Smith also demonstrated a valuable ability to play solid man coverage. With the NFL moving to more and more of a passing league, being able to cover is critical for any linebacker who wants to stay on the field for all three downs.

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Also, while he was not asked to rush the passer much at Notre Dame, he has all of the physical tools to be a good pass rusher, and recently put out a video compilation of himself as a pass rusher that shows that he does have some natural pass rushing ability.

Cons

Before we discuss any of his on-field weaknesses, we have to bring up the elephant in the room. Every discussion about Jaylon Smith’s cons as a draft prospect start with the health of his knee. He tore his ACL and MCL in the last game of the season. Although, all indications are that his surgery was successful, that knee is a huge red flag. Some NFL scouts believe that he won’t be able to play in the 2016 season, and are unsure how this injury will impact his game going forward.

Besides the knee, Jaylon Smith needs to improve his ability to diagnose plays. He sometimes would let his athleticism get the best of him and play his way out of position, especially on misdirection plays.

Jaylon Smith also needs to get stronger, and learn how to fight off blocks better in order to succeed in the NFL. With his arm length, he should never let blockers get into his body and take him out of the play. If he can learn to shed blockers quicker, he can be an even more dangerous playmaker than he already is.

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Verdict

I really like Jaylon Smith. He has the potential to be one of the best linebackers for years to come. I love his athleticism, versatility, and ability to make plays all over the field. However, he does need to work on diagnosing plays. Whatever defensive coach gets his hands on Smith would be wise to have him spend his “time off” in the film room to correct some of these issues in his game.

Although I believe Jaylon Smith can play all over the field, his best position is probably an inside linebacker in a 3-4 defense or an outside linebacker in a 4-3 defense. His game reminds me a lot of Navarro Bowman; both players are athletic linebackers who make plays from sideline to sideline.

Projecting where Smith will go is incredibly tough. If it wasn’t for the knee injury, he’d be a potential top five pick. Now, I’m not a doctor and I can’t even pretend like I play one on TV, so I don’t know when that knee is going to be fully healed and I don’t know how it’ll affect his play going forward.

I’ve only heard good things about how Smith’s recovery is going, and (I think) he should be able to make a full recovery. However, I can understand why teams would be wary and not willing to take a gamble on him. I think he’ll still probably go somewhere in the first round, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he falls into Day 2.

Best Fit

Whoever drafts Jaylon Smith has to be willing to be patient with him. Teams that are in win now mode or have coaches/GMs on the hot seat may not be willing to wait a year to get one of their top picks on the field. However, the team that takes him could be getting a game-changing defensive player to anchor their defense for the next decade.

That being said, two teams that would be a good fit for Smith are the Chicago Bears and the Atlanta Falcons. Neither team is a serious contender this upcoming season and both teams could use a defensive playmaker, which a healthy Smith can become.

Both teams also have defensive minded head coaches (John Fox and Dan Quinn) who I think would take the time to help Smith tweak the issues in his game and reach his full potential. I think Fox and Quinn would also be able to use his versatility well and unleash his sideline to sideline playmaking ability.

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Doug Martin: The Most Uncertain Running Back in Football

Tampa Bay's re-signing of Doug Martin almost appears to be a no-brainer considering that he was one of the top running backs in the league last year: The 27-year-old rushed for over 1,400 yards and six touchdowns. Granted, most would argue that his five-year and 35.75 million dollar contract was a bit

Tampa Bay’s re-signing of Doug Martin almost appears to be a no-brainer considering that he was one of the top running backs in the league last year: The 27-year-old rushed for over 1,400 yards and six touchdowns. Granted, most would argue that his five-year and 35.75 million dollar contract was a bit much, yet the Bucs had to ensure that their top running back stayed in Tampa. The signing does circulate questions, however, about truly how effective Martin will be moving forward.

For most of his career, Doug Martin was an enigma. He burst onto the scene as a rookie and rushed for over 1,400 yards and 11 touchdowns, which included a 251-yard game against the Oakland Raiders in Week 9. In addition, he averaged 4.6 yards a carry and had over 400 receiving yards. He appeared to be one of the most promising running backs in the NFL.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The following year resulted in disappointment for Martin. After an outstanding first year, the Tampa Bay running back rushed for a mere 456 yards and one touchdown before tearing his labrum. It wasn’t just the injury that set off alarm bells, it was the fact that Martin’s average yards per carry dropped from 4.6 to 3.6 and he gained only 66 receiving yards.

His third year in the league resulted in yet another disappointing season. After being riddled with injuries week in and week out, Martin rushed for only 494 yards and two touchdowns. In addition, the former Boise State running back averaged only 3.7 yards per carry. After such a promising rookie season and breaking four franchise records, including most touchdowns in a game (four) and most rushing yards in a single game (251), the young running back appeared to be another bright player who would be forever plagued with injuries. 

After back-to-back disappointing seasons and getting bit by the injury bug multiple times, Doug Martin’s name appeared to fade into the background for most NFL fans. The Bucs running back was looking to have a comeback year, but the NFL appeared skeptical and questioned if he could stay healthy for an entire year. The first three games of the season started off disappointing, as he averaged less than 80 yards in each game and didn’t have any rushing touchdowns, and the casual fan began to wonder if this was simply Martin’s swan song. He didn’t let that discouraged him, however, and over the next three games, the running back ran for a total of 365 yards and three touchdowns.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Martin finished the season with stellar numbers and looked a lot like his rookie self. He tallied 1,402 rushing yards and six touchdowns, including a stellar performance against Philadelphia where he ran for 235 yards. In addition, Martin broke nearly 70 tackles last season, which is 10 more than any other running back in the league according to Pro Football Focus. His receiving yards did take a plunge, which is primarily due to Charles Sims taking responsibility for that role where he finished the season with 561 yards receiving. Aside from being relieved from his receiving duties, it would appear that Martin is back to his old ways where he is destined for another solid year, but there is room for skepticism moving forward.

Although the Tampa Bay running back did have a stellar season, it is still a mystery as to whether or not he can stay healthy moving forward.  In two years he has run for over 1,400 yards and averaged nearly 4.5 yards per carry. Meanwhile, the other two years he ran for fewer than 500 yards and averaged about 3.65 yards per carry. Keep in mind that he scored nine rushing touchdowns in three seasons compared to 11 in his rookie year. There is little doubt that Martin is an extremely talented running back, however, you never know what you’re going to get from him going from season to season. 

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2016 NFL Draft Preview: Myles Jack

The Sports Quotient’s annual Draft Preview series returns! Over the course of the 10 weeks leading up to the 2016 NFL Draft, we will take a look at the top NFL prospects at each position. This week, we dive into the linebacker position. Today we look at UCLA's Myles Jack.

Collegiate career

Myles Jack made an

The Sports Quotient’s annual Draft Preview series returns! Over the course of the 10 weeks leading up to the 2016 NFL Draft, we will take a look at the top NFL prospects at each position. This week, we dive into the linebacker position. Today we look at UCLA’s Myles Jack.

Collegiate career

Myles Jack made an early impact at UCLA, scoring seven rushing touchdowns as a spot starter at running back in his first season. On defense, Jack finished fourth on the Bruins with 75 tackles and was named Pac-12 Freshman of the Year on offense and defense.

After moving to linebacker full time as a sophomore, Jack recorded 88 tackles and earned Second Team All-Pac 12 honors. Unfortunately, he tore his ACL three games into his junior year. Shortly after sustaining the injury, Jack announced he would forego his senior season to enter the draft.

Pros

What makes Jack a consensus top-10 pick is his ability in the open field. A common issue with linebackers is their inability to perform on passing downs. Jack has no such concerns.

Athletically, few linebackers compare to Jack. His 40 inch vertical at UCLA’s Pro Day would have been tied for the highest at the combine, if he had participated. His 124 inch broad jump would have slated him in the top-5 of combine participating linebackers. Jack has some freakishly long arms, useful for gaining leverage in blocking and reaching to knock down passes.

Jack shows the speed, fluidity, and quickness to cover all offensive skill positions. Here Jack lined up across from a wide receiver (normally a matchup advantage for the receiver), flipped his hips and ran with the receiver step for step in a sequence normally executed by a cornerback.

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The former Bruin linebacker also pairs his man-to-man skills with good instincts as a zone defender, displaying a good closing burst and instincts to track the ball. On the play below, off the snap, Jack locked onto the quarterback’s eyes, mirrored the quarterback when the play broke down, targeted the receiver coming into his zone and located the pass for a game-clinching interception.

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Jack also possesses the type of range that makes him ideal for tracking down ball carriers. On this snap, Jack bit too hard on the play fake and took a few false steps out of position, but still had the speed to reach the receiver on the other side of the field for the tackle.

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There is also mean streak to Jack’s game. He delivers some pop when he engages lineman or hits a ball carrier.

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Some of Jack’s power as a blocker and tackler comes from his short area burst which is outstanding. That burst comes in handy when rushing the passer, or like in the play below, for blowing up the play for a tackle for loss, accumulating 15 in his time with the Bruins. Jack was so fast on the play that he burst past the offensive lineman trying to get set and brought down the ball carrier.

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Cons

Health will be the primary concern for Jack. He didn’t run the 40-yard dash at the Combine and only did some of the drills at the UCLA Pro Day. The fact that Jack can do the drills is a good sign of his recovery, but some teams might be scared off considering the severity of the injury.

While Jack excels in the open field, he struggles when confined to small spaces. Jack isn’t great when it comes to dealing with offensive linemen, and struggles to take good angles when he doesn’t have a clear path to the ball. On this play, Jack had the range to get to the running back but instead of taking a better angle to the play, got caught up navigating through the players between him and the ball carrier and got cut-blocked before he could make the tackle.

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Although Jack plays with an edge, his aggressive style can sometimes put him out of position. Below, Jack is opted to make a big hit rather than the sure tackle, whiffed on the running back, and consequently allowed the back to fall forward for an extra yards.

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Physically Jack has the range and physicality to be an effective run defender, but lacks great instincts to be a great run defender. In this snap, Jack confused the hole opening up near the bottom of the offensive line as the rush lane, when in fact the play went to the opposite direction.

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Verdict

ESPN, CBS Sports, and other draft sites have Jack as one of the top-10 players in this draft. That would be fine if Jack were as complete a run defender as he is a pass defender. Jack is still a first round pick, but should be valued as a mid-first round pick. Jack is certainly one of the best players in this draft with his outstanding athleticism and ability in passing situations, but concerns about his knee and his lack of refinement in the run game hurt his value.

Best Fit

Jack might not be great against the run, but he certainly won’t be a liability either. The team which drafts Jack is getting, if healthy, a player who has the potential to be an impact player on all three downs in a plethora of packages and situations.

It’d be very surprising for any team with a need at linebacker, like the Giants, Falcons and Lions, to pass on the UCLA linebacker.

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2016 NFL Draft Preview: OLB Darron Lee

The Sports Quotient’s annual Draft Preview series returns! Over the course of the 10 weeks leading up to the 2016 NFL Draft, we will take a look at the top NFL prospects at each position. This week, we dive into the linebacker position. Today we look at Darron Lee from the Ohio State University.

College Career

A medical redshirt in

The Sports Quotient’s annual Draft Preview series returns! Over the course of the 10 weeks leading up to the 2016 NFL Draft, we will take a look at the top NFL prospects at each position. This week, we dive into the linebacker position. Today we look at Darron Lee from the Ohio State University.

College Career

A medical redshirt in his freshman season, Lee only played two years of ball for Coach Urban Meyer, starting in 28 of his 30 games. While Darron Lee’s time at Ohio State was  short lived, it certainly was not short on accomplishments. In 2014 following his redshirt year, Lee started in all 15 games and was a major contributor in helping OSU capture a national championship. As a result, the outside linebacker received national freshman All-American honors. Lee would continue his success this past fall as a sophomore to comprise career numbers of 147 tackles, 27.5 tackles for loss, and 12 sacks. Only one player has had more tackles for losses and sacks on the team the past two seasons, and that player was Joey Bosa. Maybe you have heard of him. Lee was also an AP second-team All-American selection in 2015.

Pros

Lee is an extremely intriguing prospect, and it will be interesting to see how a team plans to utilize him once he is drafted. If you know any preliminary info about this kid, you know that he can flat out fly. At the scouting combine about a month ago, Lee put on a show when he posted a 4.47 40 time that is just unheard of at the linebacker position. On the football field, it is no mystery he can do it in pads as well, and he allows this athleticism to mold into multiple parts of his game. 

Rushing the passer is in my opinion the best attribute Lee possesses, and he can do it off the edge or through interior gaps thanks to the explosion and power he brings. As you can see below, he also excels at eating up space and closing gaps between him and a ballcarrier. This is a testament to the tremendous range and the relentless pursuit he shows on gamedays. An every down, versatile linebacker, Lee logged plenty of coverage snaps (specifically zone ones) as he was on the field a lot on third downs. 

Significantly for a linebacker, the former Buckeye is a solid tackler who can pack a punch if he meets up with you the right way. Setting the edge against the run in his two years was also a plus on tape. A last notable is that he had a knack for forcing fumbles in college, which is not a bad one to have at all. What I can really see this kid being asked to do often at the next level is spy an opposing quarterback. His freakish ways make him a prime candidate to mirror the likes of mobile signal callers like Cam Newton, Russell Wilson, and Tyrod Taylor.

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Cons

Despite all the talent that Darron Lee brings to the table, there are some questions as to how he will translate to the pro level. For an outside linebacker in either a 3-4 or a 4-3 defense (expect him to play in a 4-3 like at OSU), Lee is undersized. His frame more resembles that of a safety’s, and that is why he can get lost from time to time when he has to sort through inside traffic. Often, Lee was easily pushed around by offensive lineman and had a hard time moving them off of their blocks. For a guy who is already at a disadvantage because of his size, this is something that needs to change quick. 

He also needs to work on harnessing his explosion and energy into making smart, consistent football plays. Examples are Lee’s tendencies of biting up on play action passes and overshooting tackles by not breaking down first. A lot of the success he had in college was thanks to his athleticism (as is the case for most). With a small sample size at OSU, general managers and executives have to ask themselves if Darron Lee is more than a workout warrior. To cap it off, Lee needs to work on getting more depth when he is in zone coverage. That can come in time.

Verdict

Lee is a tough prospect to decipher; this is one of the toughest calls I’ve had to make on a player. There is no denying what his ceiling can be; he has clear-cut first round talent with tools that coaching staffs drool over. With that being said, I am not sure Lee is as polished as he should be for the time being. His size is also a real concern for the pros. It should be very compelling to see what role this young man plays on Sundays. To me, he is very similar to Shaq Thompson out of Washington a year ago. Nobody knew how Thompson would be utilized in the NFL, but what makes these two so alike is that they are both very dynamic players at smaller sizes. Lee looks like more of a second round pick in my eyes with perhaps more bust potential than some may anticipate. Yet, it is what Lee may become that can make him a first round pick and have teams excited come April. 

Best Fit

A few places I like for Lee toward the end of the first round are Buffalo and Minnesota. Both of them could use some LB help, specifically on the outside, and both of them have tremendous defensive units and coaches. Head coach Mike Zimmer has done a fine job for the Vikings thus far, and there are not many guys who run a defense like him. He could find a niche for Lee early on and allow him to get comfortable with all the young talent Minnesota has added on that side of the ball. The situation would be exactly the same in Buffalo with Rex Ryan. His defenses are always exotic and Lee would be just another unique chess piece he could deploy to startle offenses. Again, no pressure to perform right from the start, although the Buckeye certainly has the ability to do so if necessary. 

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The NFL Draft Combine is the SAT of the Football World

About halfway through the three-and-a-half hour SAT I took with about 20 other kids in 2012, one girl asked to be excused. She never came back. Most of us test-taking students noticed the minor disruption, and after the time for a verbal section and a writing section was over, we realized she had fled the cramped public high

About halfway through the three-and-a-half hour SAT I took with about 20 other kids in 2012, one girl asked to be excused. She never came back. Most of us test-taking students noticed the minor disruption, and after the time for a verbal section and a writing section was over, we realized she had fled the cramped public high school classroom that College Board wanted us to think would determine our futures.

I’m not sure if an NFL-hopeful has ever ran out of Lucas Oil Stadium in the middle of his Wonderlic, but like the SATs, the annual week-long showcase consists of various mini-tests that fail to efficiently gauge the skills that will lead to professional success.

Just as it’s impossible to conclude that students who know the definition of the words “pellucid” or “obstreperous” or “calumny” are more equipped than their peers to handle a college setting, players’ 40-yard dash times, wingspans, and Cybex scores are insufficient measurements of football intelligence. 

There are countless Word of the Day services and test prep books that high school juniors pore over in Barnes and Nobles all over the country in the months and even years leading up to the SATs. Similarly, athletes can train over time to produce longer jumps and improve their agility to master the three-cone drill (yes, that is a thing). 

But in a reflex-driven sport that necessitates quick thinking, the entire combine system is somewhat paradoxical. One of the most well-known pieces of evidence supporting the fact that combine stats and pro success are not correlated is Mike Mamula‘s NFL career.

Mamula had a legendary combine. The 6’4″, 248-pound defensive end from Boston College trained specifically for each of the included drills, and ended up scoring 49 out of 50 on the Wonderlic, the second-highest score ever recorded by an NFL player, and had a 4.58 second 40-yard dash (the average at the DE position is 4.88 seconds).

This stellar showing led the Philadelphia Eagles to select Mamula seventh overall in the 1995 NFL Draft, trading up from 12th overall in order to secure the player they hoped would replace Hall of Famer Reggie White.  

Mamula ended up having the decently average five-season career that was predicted by his game tapes, recording 209 total tackles and 31.5 sacks across 77 games. 

But while mediocre athletes can have amazing combines, elite players can do poorly. Prior to the 2003 NFL Draft, Florida State’s Anquan Boldin, who was converted into a wide receiver from a quarterback, had a 4.7 40-yard dash time, the lowest out of all of the wide receivers that year. Despite catching 1,780 yards and 21 touchdowns in just 23 games at WR, Boldin fell to the second round of the draft, selected 54th overall by the Arizona Cardinals.

Almost immediately, Boldin showed that on-field performance should outweigh combine performance. In his rookie year, Boldin had 101 receptions for 1,301 yards and eight touchdowns, was the AP NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, and was the lone rookie in the Pro Bowl. He later went on to win Super Bowl XLVIII as a Baltimore Raven, and is considered a future Hall of Famer.

Doing well on the SAT is ultimately something to be proud of, as is having an exceptional combine showing. But considering the copious amount of evidence out there emphasizing the general uselessness of “testing” players and students in a controlled environment, you have to wonder if there is something more nefarious going on.

College applications have a variety of components, including letters of recommendation, transcripts, and personal essays. Evidently, schools are aware that students are more than their standardized test scores. 

Yet the SATs still have enhanced significance in the collective psyches of high school students, and though it may be due to an inherent human desire to live up to arbitrary bench marks (2100 is good, 1800 and below is awful), it has to have some roots in College Board’s own machinations. The abundance of bundled practice tests College Board puts up for sale and the $70 fee required to take the actual test indicate that the company is the one that perpetuates its tests’ importance. 

The NFL is the College Board of the football world. By now, coaches and owners know better than to draft a player based on how fast they run in one 40-yard instance. There are behavioral red flags to pay attention to, medical histories to take note of, and most importantly, lots of film to watch. Yet athletes can only attend if they receive an invitation, which undoubtedly adds to the pressure they already feel to perform well. 

Take into account that the entire week is broadcast on NFL Network and that it takes place only a couple of weeks after the Super Bowl, when withdrawal symptoms are beginning to emerge, it appears that the NFL is actually completely aware of how people perceive the combine. 

But the entertainment value–and thus financial value–of watching talented athletes try their hardest to jump their highest and run their fastest is what maintains the existence of this week of tests. As long as the NFL is able to generate a buzz for the showcase, and as long as fans remain insatiable for all things football-related, especially in the face of a long offseason, the combine will stay. 

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2016 NFL Draft Preview: LB Joshua Perry

The Sports Quotient’s annual Draft Preview series returns! Over the course of the 10 weeks leading up to the 2016 NFL Draft, we will take a look at the top NFL prospects at each position. This week, we dive into the linebacker position. Today we look at Joshua Perry out of THE Ohio State University.

College Career

Joshua Perry has had a

The Sports Quotient’s annual Draft Preview series returns! Over the course of the 10 weeks leading up to the 2016 NFL Draft, we will take a look at the top NFL prospects at each position. This week, we dive into the linebacker position. Today we look at Joshua Perry out of THE Ohio State University.

College Career

Joshua Perry has had a fairly productive career. He assumed a starting linebacker role during his sophomore season in 2013, and since then #37 has started 37 games. He has put up 283 tackles, 7.5 sacks, and eight pass deflections over those three seasons. This past year was his best year when he put up 105 tackles, 3.5 sacks, and four pass deflections while playing inside and outside linebacker. He is well respected as a leader by both his teammates and his coaching staff.

Pros

Perry won’t wow you when you look at the tape, but he does present a skill set that can be very useful for a football team. Partially due to his size, 6’4″ and 254 lbs., Perry is very good at setting the edge and playing his gap well in the run game. He knows where he is supposed to go and makes sure that running backs can’t get outside of him. He forces them back towards help, and his strength makes it so that he can engage with offensive linemen without getting pushed around.

In the passing game, Perry has good instincts and is always looking to make a play, allowing him to be more than competent in a zone defense. This one play best summarizes what Perry can bring to a team in terms of coverage.

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Perry drops back initially, keeps his eyes in the backfield and diagnoses the screen pass. He is able to move laterally, avoid a would-be blocker, cut up down the field, and make a solid tackle on a good running back. These instincts and his ability to tackle will make him an asset to some team.

Cons

Although you can see Perry shed a block in the play above, it’s important to note that he did so against a wide receiver. When Perry gets matched up against offensive linemen and good blocking tight ends, he may not get pushed around, but he also doesn’t shed blocks very often. That means that while he will give others around him an opportunity to make a play, he’s not exhibiting much game changing talent.

Perry, who plays an aggressive and instinctual style of ball, has a tendency to play too aggressively, sometimes taking him out of plays. Here is an example from the same game where Perry bites on a fake and finds himself out of position.

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He should learn to avoid these obvious mistakes as he gains more experience, but the underlying tendency may always be there.

Lastly, Perry is below average in man coverage. He will need to be limited to zone defense and pass rushing on most occasions.

The Verdict

Overall, Perry is a solid backer that should have success depending on what his coaching staff asks him to do. It is still unclear whether he will be listed primarily as an inside or outside linebacker. It depends on who you ask. His limitations in coverage and his setting the edge in the run game makes him look more like an OLB. But his pass rush skills are a bit limited and his instincts would be a bigger asset at the ILB postion. Regardless, he is a good mid-round talent that should probably go sometime between the late second and the middle of the thir round.

Best Fit

A good fit for Perry would be the Seattle Seahawks. The Seahawks are a team with good defensive players that would play around him and a great defensive coaching staff that could best utilize his skill set. In addition, they just lost a player who is very similar to Perry in Bruce Irvin. Irvin played the OLB role for Seattle and just signed a deal with the Oakland Raiders this off-season.

He had some bitter words for his ex-team, saying “I honestly felt if I stayed in [Seattle’s] system, I don’t think I would ever be the player I think I can be in this league, being a pass rusher. SAM outside linebacker is cool, but you can do your job the whole game at SAM linebacker and you have two tackles. I just want to be utilized more and get put in position more to make plays.”

Perry is a perfect player to fill this void. He does the dirty work and sets up his teammates. He is fine rushing or dropping back into coverage. Both parties will be fortunate if Perry falls to them.

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2016 NFL Draft Preview: LB Reggie Ragland

The Sports Quotient’s annual Draft Preview series returns! Over the course of the 10 weeks leading up to the 2016 NFL Draft, we will take a look at the top NFL prospects at each position. This week, we dive into the linebacker position. Today we look at Reggie Ragland of Alabama.

Collegiate Career

Former Alabama linebacker Reggie Ragland hopes

The Sports Quotient’s annual Draft Preview series returns! Over the course of the 10 weeks leading up to the 2016 NFL Draft, we will take a look at the top NFL prospects at each position. This week, we dive into the linebacker position. Today we look at Reggie Ragland of Alabama.

Collegiate Career

Former Alabama linebacker Reggie Ragland hopes to join CJ Mosley, Rolando McClain, and Dont’a Hightower as Nick Saban coached linebackers drafted in the first round. Like the three aforementioned players, Ragland ended his Crimson Tide career with at least one SEC Championship, National Championship, All-American Team appearance.

Ragland spent his first two years at Alabama on special teams before starting at linebacker as a junior. He would excel as Alabama’s starting middle linebacker for the next two seasons, being named a Butkus award semifinalist in 2014 and 2015 (The Butkus award honors college football’s best linebacker).

Pros

Not only did Ragland play on special teams, but he also played defensive end in Alabama’s nickel and dime defenses.

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Ragland has great instincts at the middle linebacker position. He seldom takes a false step and quickly sees the play develop him. On the first snap against Clemson, Ragland was not distracted by the ball fake, located the ball carrier, and would have made the tackle had he avoided the Clemson blocker.

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At 247 pounds, Ragland is sound when it comes to dealing with bigger, stronger offensive lineman. Where a smaller linebacker might get washed out of a play, Ragland uses his bulk to prevent the lineman from getting push and then effectively disengages. Notice how quickly Ragland engaged, then disengaged, the lineman on the play below.

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Unlike some bigger linebackers, Ragland is not a slow footed athlete. He has an explosive first few steps that give him great burst to get behind the line and blow up a play. In the snap below, Ragland shows his acceleration in chasing down Deshaun Watson from the backside.

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In the passing game, Ragland has enough range and fluidity to be effective when dropped into coverage. In this play, Ragland didn’t do a great job at preventing the tight end from picking up additional yardage, but still had enough range to reach the tight end and limit the damage.

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Cons

Not only did the previous play highlight that Ragland is only adequate in coverage, it also highlighted a problem with his tackling; he didn’t use good form to bring down the tight end. Although Ragland is generally a good tackler, he can be inconsistent. On the snap below, instead of driving his hips through the running back, Ragland lets the back get into his body and push him backwards for an extra yard.

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To be fair, Ragland went from missing ten tackles in 2014 to three this past season, so it’s an area he is improving in.

Even though Ragland is a solid athlete on tape, supported by how many different positions he played in college, he isn’t a workout warrior. He only had 13 reps on the bench press at Alabama’s Pro Day, a number which would have put him outside the top-15 performers at the combine had he participated in the drill. Of the drills Ragland did perform at the combine, he was only a top-5 performer in the 20-yard shuttle.

Verdict

Ragland has all the makings of an excellent middle linebacker. His instincts, bulk, and burst make him ideal for hunting down running backs between the tackles. He also shows enough ability in the passing game to be able to play all three, or even four, downs (considering his experience as a special teamer).

Baring something unforeseen, Ragland seems like a first round lock. He has very few weaknesses and has the versatility to be deployed at defensive end or on special teams. He might not have the crazy athletic upside of Myles Jack, but Ragland certainly looks the part of a high-caliber, starting middle linebacker.

Best Fit

Ragland would be used best as a middle linebacker in a 3-4 base defense, but could play middle linebacker in a 4-3 if needed. Alabama primarily uses a 3-4 defense and while Ragland could adjust to a 4-3, it’d be foolish to take Ragland out of a system he has already excelled in.

The Ravens, Bears, Saints, Colts and Jets standout as teams which both run a 3-4 defense and are in the need of another middle linebacker.

All video content was provided by DraftBreakdown.com.

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The Best Defensive Free Agents Left This Offseason

The 2016 NFL free agency period has been in full force for over a week now. With many signings already happening, most of the best free agents are already off the board. However, there is still a substantial amount of talent left for teams to sign before the start of the 2016 season. Going through these

The 2016 NFL free agency period has been in full force for over a week now. With many signings already happening, most of the best free agents are already off the board. However, there is still a substantial amount of talent left for teams to sign before the start of the 2016 season. Going through these players, position by position, we can uncover some of the hidden gems left in the free agent market.

Defensive Lineman: 

Possibly the deepest position at the beginning of free agency, the defensive linemen were quick to get signed. Some, such as Malik Jackson and Olivier Vernon, were able to cash in on monumental contracts, while others, like Nick Fairley, are still waiting for the right offer to come their way. While Fairley is a very solid option at defensive tackle, he isn’t the only good option left because there is also Terrance Knighton. Both of these players are very good run stuffers who also possess the ability to go after the quarterback. While Fairley is younger, 28, compared to Knighton, 29, you can count on both of these players to stay healthy for a full season, as they have both shown over the course of their careers. 

As far as defensive ends are concerned, there are not many left that are worth signing in free agency. The only remaining impact player is Greg Hardy and he comes with the baggage of his off-field problems. While he has top ten talent as far as purely physical ability is concerned, he comes with past issues which makes it hard for teams to see him worth the investment and trouble. 

Linebackers: 

Based purely on talent, the best player in free agency that is still unsigned is Aldon Smith. As one of the premier pass rushers in the NFL, Smith has shown he is capable of being one of the best in the league at rushing the quarterback. However, he is also a player that comes with a lot of off-field issues, especially considering his suspension since mid-November. With all of the issues he has off the field, it will be interesting to see if any team is willing to take a risk on him, knowing what he is capable of once he gets onto the field. Another expert in the pass rushing game in free agency is Dwight Freeney. While he is 36 years old, he has proven he is capable of making plays with eight sacks in just eleven games last year with the Cardinals. Although teams are taking a risk in signing a player who has played 15 seasons, there is great potential for Freeney to produce eight or more sacks again in 2016.

Also left for free agent linebackers are specialty options Mike Neal and Courtney Upshaw. While Neal is a highly versatile linebacker who can play any position from an outside linebacker to a defensive tackle, he isn’t the best playmaker, only recording one interception and a career high of just five sacks. That being said, Neal is a solid option for teams in need of a versatile linebacker who they can count on to be out there for 16 games. Another specialty option linebacker available is Courtney Upshaw, a run-stuffing specialist. While he has all the talent in the world, he has not reached his anticipated potential in the NFL, with a career high of just two sacks and 55 tackles. Upshaw is reliable as he has never missed a game in his four year career. He is a player, like Mike Neal, that will be signed by a team simply looking for a linebacker that they can count on being on the field for 16 games.

Cornerbacks: 

Another area of free agency that has yet to be depleted is cornerback, where there are still many talented players yet to be signed. The best two cornerbacks remaining in the free agency market are Patrick Robinson and Brandon Boykin. While Robinson had a resurgence in his career last year in San Diego due to his move to full-time slot corner, Boykin has made a career out of slot corner for the past four seasons. Both of these players deserve to be paid similar to at least the top-30 cornerbacks in the NFL, as they have proven to be over last few seasons. Another solid cornerback left in free agency is Leon Hall. Unlike Robinson and Boykin, Hall has played basic outside cornerback in his nine seasons in the NFL. At 31 years old, Hall is on the downside of his career and could be a risk for teams looking to sign a corner this offseason, not knowing if this will be the year that his production drops off. However, Hall will still be signed in the 2016 season based on his ability to still play top-50 corner and be reliable for the full 16 game season.

Safeties: 

When it comes to playmaking ability left in free agency, safety is definitely the deepest position left. With multiple players who had three or more interceptions last year, this position has a lot of talent left. This class is highlighted by the NFL leader in interceptions a year ago, Reggie Nelson. Along with Nelson, Rashad Johnson is also a ball hawk, tied for sixth in interceptions last year. Both of these players are some of the best playmakers in the secondary in the NFL, both getting at least four interceptions for the past two seasons. While Nelson may be demanding a larger contract, Johnson may be one of the best deals left on the market. One more solid option left at the safety position is recently converted cornerback, Walter Thurmond. In one season of playing at the safety position, Thurmond was able to be very productive, recording three interceptions, two sacks, and two forced fumbles in 16 games. With this impressive ability to make plays, Thurmond will surely be paid by a team looking for a playmaker in the secondary.

While free agency is an essential part of forming any team, overspending during free agency can lead to years of regret for most teams. So, while every player on this list deserves to be on someone’s NFL roster, it takes time for both the players and the teams to come to terms with what each player values. However, in the 2016 season, barring injury, retirement, or suspension, every one of these players will be suited up and ready to play come kick off.

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2016 NFL Draft Preview: OT Ronnie Stanley

The Sports Quotient’s annual Draft Preview series returns! Over the course of the 10 weeks leading up to the 2016 NFL Draft, we will take a look at the top NFL prospects at each position. This week, we dive into the offensive line. Today we look at Ronnie Stanley of Notre Dame.


Collegiate Career

The Sports Quotient’s annual Draft Preview series returns! Over the course of the 10 weeks leading up to the 2016 NFL Draft, we will take a look at the top NFL prospects at each position. This week, we dive into the offensive line. Today we look at Ronnie Stanley of Notre Dame.


Collegiate Career

Offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley accepted a scholarship to Notre Dame over Miami, Oklahoma, Florida State, and several other notable programs. He was named the starting right tackle for his sophomore season, and then moved to left tackle the following year after the departure of first-round pick Zack Martin. A model of consistency, Stanley started 39 consecutive games for the Irish since 2013.

Pros

Standing at 6’5” and weighing 312 pounds, Stanley has the prototypical height and weight to play offensive tackle. More importantly, his 35 and 5/8th inch wingspan is above the combine average of 34 and 2/10th inches. Arm length is particularly important for offensive linemen because it gives them a leverage advantage over incoming defenders, allowing them to control the defender without him getting into the body of the offensive lineman. On the snap below, the defender attempted to convert his speed rush to a power rush, only to have Stanley (No.78) extend his arms and prevent the defender from getting a hand in his torso.

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While some linemen have minimal mobility due to their massive size, Stanley has no such issues. He is incredibly light on his feet with the ability to quickly get set in pass protection and then move with the oncoming defender. In this snap, Stanley was matched up against Clemson defensive end and likely first round pick Shaq Lawson. Not only did Stanley quickly get himself in position to defend a wide rush, he also was quick enough to stone Lawson at the point of attack when he tried a spin move.

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The above play also highlights another positive: intelligence. Earlier in that game Lawson had successfully executed a similar move against Stanley, resulting in a sack. Stanley would not be fooled again, as he anticipated the spin move when Lawson tried it again. In general, Stanley has good awareness for the position, and seldom misses on his blocking assignment. Here, the defense ran a stunt where the defensive end and defensive tackle switch positions after the snap. Stanley quickly picked up the stunt and properly switched his blocking assignment to the tackle, allowing the guard to pick up the defensive end.

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Stanley knows how to use his mobility to his advantage in the run game. He can effortlessly move from the line of scrimmage to the second level of the defense, and does a good job at sealing off defenders attempting to get in the backfield. On the snap below, Stanley locked onto a defender trying to shoot the gap, and kept his legs moving to create some running room for the back.

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Cons

Although Stanley is a good run defender, he doesn’t consistently display the push needed to be a great run defender. On this play, Stanley and the guard double-teamed the defensive lineman off the snap, but once the guard peeled off to take on another defender, Stanley couldn’t move the initial defender further downfield.

via GIPHY

Occasionally, Stanley will rely too much on his movement skills instead of being physical, which can lead to some wasted motion and energy on his part. In this snap, instead of delivering a counterpunch to the lineman’s bull rush, Stanley kept his feet mobile, making it easier for the defender to push him back, almost right into the quarterback. 

via GIPHY

Verdict

Stanley has the makings of a top-10 selection. As a pass protector, Stanley might be the most refined in his class with his combination of athleticism, smarts, and technique. He might not be as accomplished as a run blocker, but it’s certainly not an area he struggles in, and if he can get bigger without losing his mobility he would be an asset in the run game.

Best Fit

Usually teams picking in the top-10 of the draft have issues on the offensive line, particularly at tackle. Even though Stanley projects as a left tackle long term, a team might consider playing him at right tackle as a rookie, where he would be matched up against lesser pass rushers, which would his transition into the league.

The Charges, 49ers, Jaguars, and Giants are all teams picking in the top-10 with needs at tackle, and will likely be in consideration for Stanley’s services.


Gifs were made through Giphy.com. All video content was provided by
draftbreakdown.com.

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How Will The New NFL Rule Changes Affect The Game?

Wednesday morning, the NFL Competition Committee announced their rule changes for the 2016-17 season. There were some interesting ones, all of which can be read here:

Wednesday morning, the NFL Competition Committee announced their rule changes for the 2016-17 season. There were some interesting ones, all of which can be read here:

But, how will these rules impact the game this season?

The first rule change is not a change per se, but rather making permanent the rule change implemented last year that moved extra point attempts back to the 15-yard line. This change had a significant impact last year, with record numbers of missed extra point attempts, including a few crucial misses in the playoffs. Expect this rule to continue to impact the game the way it did last season. 

It’s obvious that player safety was a point of major emphasis in this new set of rules. Touchbacks on kickoffs and punts will now result in teams getting the ball at the 25-yard line. This could be a double-edged sword, as many teams will opt to take more touchbacks if they are available, but many kicking teams will attempt to avoid the touchback more so than ever before. This potential problem for this rule could have an ultimately negative impact, as a rule designed to increase the number of touchbacks (which would decrease the number of potentially dangerous kickoff returns) could ultimately increase the returns they are trying to limit. 

In a rare player safety rule directed towards protecting defensive players, chop blocks are now illegal in the NFL. While chop blocks don’t lead to injury epidemics the way hits to the head do, they can create many potential lower-body injuries for defensive players, and eliminating these dangerous blocks will hopefully limit those injuries. Along those lines, horse-collar tackle penalties have now been expanded to include tackles where the defender grabs the jersey at the name plate. These common sense rules indicate the NFL is thinking smartly about subtle ways to improve player safety, even if they lack the big picture safety initiative. 

The most controversial rule, however, is the rule that automatically ejects players after two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties. This rule was instituted by the competition committee for only the 2016-17 season, and if it proves to have a positive impact on the game, they can vote to keep it next season. While I think it is likely this rule will be kept, I do not think this will have the intended impact.

This is not a rule about player safety as Roger Goodell proposed it at the Super Bowl, but rather a rule about sportsmanship. This automatic ejection rule, by virtue of being for unsportsmanlike conduct penalties and not for unnecessary roughness penalties, does not necessarily protect the players themselves. 

Instead, this rule is intended to protect the image of the league. By trying to limit taunting penalties and other unsportsmanlike penalties, the league is trying to protect its image. If the league really wants to protect players, then it should reconsider the committee’s proposal to eject players after two personal fouls.

The league gets a lot out of this rule, however, because it gets people thinking that the NFL is in it for the player safety, without realizing that unsportsmanlike conduct penalties are not personal fouls. A hit to the head of a defenseless receiver, roughing the passer, facemask, horse-collar tackles, and many of the other penalties that truly affect player safety will not be impacted by this ejection rule. Under this rule, only one player would have been ejected last season (Brian Orakpo was given two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties for arguing with a referee). Odell Beckham Jr. and Josh Norman would not have been ejected even in their melee under this rule. Vontaze Burfict and Adam “Pacman” Jones would not have been ejected under this rule for their conduct at the end of the Steelers-Bengals playoff matchup last season. So this rule, despite appearances, has no actual positive impact on the game. 

By imposing rules like this, the league forgets that fans come to the game for the entertainment value, and not necessarily for impeccable sportsmanship. Roger Goodell and the conference committee may dislike excessive celebrations or arguing with referees, but fans absolutely love that kind of stuff. I mean, who doesn’t love seeing a technically excessive celebration?

So, in conclusion, most of the new rules make sense for both the league and the players. The new rules designed to help improve player safety are a step in the right direction, and should definitely help players avoid injury. However, don’t be fooled by this new automatic ejection rule. This is just another in a long line of rules designed to limit the excitement on the field between plays. So, will the ejection rule have an effect on the field? No, but it might negatively impact the fans.

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Chronicling The Rise And Fall Of Aldon Smith

The Rise and Fall of Aldon Smith

Arguably the most talented player left in free agency today is outside linebacker Aldon Smith. At just 26 years old, Smith still has time for improvement and carries one of the highest ceilings for pass-rushers in the NFL. Despite

The Rise and Fall of Aldon Smith

Arguably the most talented player left in free agency today is outside linebacker Aldon Smith. At just 26 years old, Smith still has time for improvement and carries one of the highest ceilings for pass-rushers in the NFL. Despite these factors, Smith remains unsigned by any team because of a string of off-the-field issues, especially issues related to drug and substance abuse. He is currently serving a one-year suspension for the violation of the NFL’s substance abuse policy, and is eligible to be reinstated in November of this year.

One of the most exciting pass-rushers in the modern era has fallen from the precipice: I want to take a look at his journey.

High School

Coming out of Raytown High School in, who-woulda-guessed-it, Raytown, Missouri, Aldon was rated just a three-star recruit by most scouting sites, including Rivals. In high school, Smith was a defensive playmaker, recording numerous turnovers in a variety of ways. After graduation, Smith decided to stay in-state and attend the University of Missouri.

College

At Missouri, Smith redshirted as a freshman, and played his first games for the team in 2009; a season in which he finished with 60 tackles and 11 sacks. That season, Smith earned a number of honors including First-team Freshman All-American and Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year. The following season we only saw Smith play nine games and though his statistics dropped a little, he declared for the 2011 NFL Draft.

The Draft

Evaluated as what we would call today an EDGE rusher, Smith was, on average, coming off of mock draft boards near the middle of the first round. For someone who saw a light dip in performance in his last season of college play, this was actually very strong evaluation once you consider the talent that was in this draft. 

For perspective, every player drafted ahead of Aldon would go on to be an All-Pro. Further, notable players drafted after him include Tyron Smith, J.J.Watt, Robert Quinn, Muhammad Wilkerson, among others. Despite this amount of talent available in the first round, Aldon Smith was picked seventh overall by the San Francisco 49ers. 

Before he was drafted, scouts had questions regarding his initial burst, frame, and stoutness against an NFL rushing attack. However, this was not what was most worrisome for Smith. Even before entering the NFL, there were questions about Smith’s character and his off-field behavior. According to a scouting service for certain NFL subscribers, Aldon had “some past experience with getting into trouble and is a higher-than-average risk for this sort of behavior in the future.”

And perhaps even more importantly, the service’s report indicated that “He [Aldon Smith] does not consistently show the kind of passion and commitment to the game that we see in successful players.” There were clearly early signs of risk available to teams, but perhaps the upside and raw potential of Smith was too much to pass on.

The Early Years

Though Smith did not make any starts for the 49ers his rookie season, largely thanks to the team’s established defensive depth, he managed to surpass Hall of Famer Charles Haley’s single-season rookie sack record. By the end of the season, Smith had racked up four pass deflections, two forced fumbles, and a whopping 14 sacks. 

This was enough to put him in second place for defensive rookie of the year behind close friend and future Super Bowl MVP, Von Miller. Unfortunately, Smith capped off his rookie season by being arrested in Miami Beach for DUI in January. This was just the beginning of a series of missteps.

His sophomore year, Smith had a somewhat meteoric rise as he became a starter for the 49ers. After passing legendary pass rusher Reggie White for the fastest to 30 career sacks, Smith was on the verge of tying or even breaking Michael Strahan’s single-season sack record. However the hype fizzled after Smith recorded zero sacks in his final three games of the season, leaving him at a career high 19.5 sacks.

Yet, even with a rather disappointing end to the season and lackluster performance in the playoffs, people were intrigued by the potential in the then 22-year-old. He, J.J. Watt, and Von Miller were all the rage of young pass-rushers in the NFL. But Aldon slipped up again.

Let the Spiral Begin

After starting his third season with 3.5 sacks in just two games, the linebacker proceeded to be arrested for another DUI and drug possession in September of 2013. Shortly afterwards, Smith was hit with three charges of possession of an assault weapon stemming from a party back in the summer of 2012. 

Following a crushing defeat by the Indianapolis Colts, Aldon checked into a rehabilitation center, missed five games, and finished the season with strong performances; in fact, despite starting in just seven games that season, Smith graded out to be the third best 3-4 outside linebacker in the league according to Bleacher Report. Further, it seemed as though he had improved through the years, not only being a force in the pass rush, but also an excellent run defender. Clearly, the talent was still there for Smith, but was the focus?

In April of 2014, Smith was charged with making a false bomb threat at LAX and shortly held in jail. Though he was not convicted in the end, his pattern of unintelligent and rash off-field behavior had become a stumbling block for his place in the NFL. During the summer of 2014, after Smith’s assault weapon charges were coming to a close in court, the NFL suspended him for nine games of 2014 season: four for substance abuse and five for personal conduct.

Regardless of how talented you are, how can you help your team if you’re suspended for the majority of the season? What’s worse is that Aldon had a chance to reduce the suspension through good behavior, but did not do so after failing to complete counseling. After logging another season with missed games and just two sacks, Smith was in a position to pick himself back up and try to fulfill his potential. Sadly for all us Aldon Smith supporters, he had other things in mind…

Soon after 49ers GM Trent Baalke had said Aldon Smith was going to “work hard to make sure…[Aldon Smith] remains here,” Smith got himself arrested yet again in August of 2015 for DUI, hit-and-run, and vandalism. At news of this arrest, the 49ers had no choice but to release the young talent. The following month, Smith decided to join the Oakland Raiders for a fresh start, but in November, he was suspended for a year because of his August DUI incident. 

And Now..?

After a quiet few months from Aldon Smith, this brings us to the present. He is a 26-year-old unsigned free agent who is not eligible to play football in the NFL until mid-November. He’s a former three-star recruit out of high school who was drafted seventh overall in one of the most talented drafts in recent memory, and rose up in just two years to become one of the most feared pass-rushers in football.  

On the other hand, he’s also a young man with maturity issues, a string of arrests, and a pattern of misbehaving off the field. He has been suspended several times for several games by the NFL, and another violation of the substance abuse or personal conduct policy could land him an even more substantial suspension than the one he is currently serving.  

I still believe Smith has value in the NFL. Despite his image and the reputation he has built up, his talent is unquestionably immense, and his ceiling is incredibly high. Most of his missteps came during the offseason, when he is not engaged in the set structure of a football team. If someone can take the time to mentor Smith and build a strong structure for his behavior, I believe Aldon Smith still can become what many of us envisioned him to be: an unstoppable pass-rushing monster with more speed, strength, and length a man of his size should have. The question now is, will anyone invest in him?

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2016 NFL Draft Preview: OT Taylor Decker

The Sports Quotient’s annual Draft Preview series returns! Over the course of the 10 weeks leading up to the 2016 NFL Draft, we will take a look at the top NFL prospects at each position. This week, we look at into the offensive line. Today we look at Taylor Decker out of THE Ohio State University.

College Career

Taylor Decker was a cornerstone

The Sports Quotient’s annual Draft Preview series returns! Over the course of the 10 weeks leading up to the 2016 NFL Draft, we will take a look at the top NFL prospects at each position. This week, we look at into the offensive line. Today we look at Taylor Decker out of THE Ohio State University.

College Career

Taylor Decker was a cornerstone for the Ohio State offensive line during his time there. In his four years at the university, Decker started 42 consecutive games, 28 of which were at the left tackle spot. He became the full time starter his sophomore year and made 14 starts at right tackle, and moved to the other side of the line the following year and started 15 games. This past season he was voted a team captain, selected for the All-Big Ten team, and won the Big Ten Offensive Lineman of the Year award.

Pros

Decker is a big body, even as far as offensive linemen go. He is 6’7″ and 310 lbs (for comparison, the average NFL lineman is around 6’5″). He has the size that you want, and he knows how to use it in order to overpower rushers. Often when you have big, tall offensive linemen, they don’t bend their knees enough, but when you look at the tape, Decker shows consistent bend in his knees.

He plays best against the run. Decker can get up into defenders, and has good hands which allows him to drive them, while also making it difficult for them to shed the block. He plays smart, and is not often fooled by opposing schemes or the moves.

Cons

One thing, you’ll inevitably see if you read up on Decker is that scouts love his long body, and the measurables just don’t seem to support that. Decker has an arm length of 33.75″ which just so happens to the NFL average for offensive linemen. And, given that Decker is a bit taller than average, his arms are shorter than you would hope. Maybe standing next to a 6’7″ behemoth in person makes you a little less objective. This isn’t a death sentence by any means, but it’s not ideal, and is something to keep an eye on moving forward.

Decker also struggles against defenders who consistently play with lower pad level. This is basically Physics 101: leverage is helpful, but his lack of athleticism hurts him here. It also leads to him being a bit slow when moving horizontally (he finished outside the top-15 in the three cone drill).

The Verdict

Although he played LT his last several years in school, Decker will most likely end up being switched to RT, where he is probably a better fit. Traditionally the LT is more of a pass blocker, and the right tackle is more of a run blocker. In addition to that, Decker probably does not have the skill set to go against a team’s best pass rusher unassisted for the majority of a game.

That being said, Decker has the skill set and size that will result in him being a reliable fixture on a team’s offensive line for the next several years. He is a late first round/early second round talent.

Best Fit

Tackles don’t often slip too far in the NFL Draft, for that reason I see Decker going late in the first round, and not falling to the top of the second round where many teams like the Browns, Chargers, 49ers, and Eagles could use his talents. Of the teams that will be picking at the end of the draft, the Green Bay Packers at pick number 27 make a lot of sense.

As you saw this past season, Aaron Rodgers needs a lot of offensive line help. The Packers could really afford to strengthen both their LT and RT spots, so getting a player like Decker who can play a bit of both would be a big plus for them. It would also help for Decker’s development to play with such a player like Rodgers. There are probably not many better spots for a rookie to land.

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2016 NFL Draft Preview: OT Laremy Tunsil

The Sports Quotient’s annual Draft Preview series returns! Over the course of the 10 weeks leading up to the 2016 NFL Draft, we will take a look at the top NFL prospects at each position. This week, we dive into the offensive line. Today we look at Laremy Tunsil of Ole Miss.

College Career

Tunsil entered the college football

The Sports Quotient’s annual Draft Preview series returns! Over the course of the 10 weeks leading up to the 2016 NFL Draft, we will take a look at the top NFL prospects at each position. This week, we dive into the offensive line. Today we look at Laremy Tunsil of Ole Miss.

College Career

Tunsil entered the college football landscape as a five-star recruit and the top offensive tackle prospect in the nation. He was the real deal from the get-go; as a freshman, the left tackle was named All-SEC second team and a first team Freshman All-American. In both his sophomore and junior seasons in 2014 and 2015, Tunsil was elected both a second team All-American and All-SEC first team. However, this past fall, the top prospect served a seven game suspension for “receiving impermissible extra benefits” (olemisssports.com). He was also involved in a physical altercation about the matter with his mother’s alienated husband. But in 29 career games over three years at left tackle, Tunsil only surrendered two sacks. 

Pros

No rocket scientist is necessary to help understand why Laremy Tunsil is being considered as the consensus number one pick at this point. A road grader in the running game and a brick wall in the passing game, Tunsil is as complete of a left tackle prospect as they come at 6’5″ and 310 pounds. Sound technique is what drives this young man’s game, and it is truly remarkable to watch him mirror pass rushers and stick to them like glue. Tunsil does a tremendous job of steering his opponents in the passing game; he comprehends how to anchor his base into the ground and gives a great punch with his hands. Texas A&M’s fine, young defensive lineman Myles Garrett, who will likely be a first round pick in 2017, found out the hard way how good Tunsil was after he was shut down in consecutive seasons. 

This is a left tackle with superb athleticism and specifically great feet. Tunsil has a great kick step when pass blocking that he uses to slide and transition smoothly into his pass set. That athletic ability is also showcased in the ground game as he can reach the second level of the defense with ease. Keep your eye on number 78 below and watch how he finishes his block following the bubble screen. There is not much this guy cannot do. Tunsil is always in control, and everything he does looks so effortless and clean. He can cut block, execute double teams, and provide a great push off the line of scrimmage. What people will really love about this young man’s game is that he is a mean, violent finisher who plays smart and is aware of what is going on around him. This is one of those cornerstone left tackles all the guys on TV talk about. The hype is real.

via GIPHY

Cons

There really is not much to be critical of when it comes to Tunsil, and so there should be no surprises when he starts to play on Sundays. With that being said, perhaps the biggest concern is the suspension he was sentenced to this past fall. Although the situation with Tunsil receiving benefits certainly sets off a red flag, the NCAA was investigating Ole Miss as a whole in years prior for suspicion of violations. The physical dispute the left tackle was also involved in was a direct result of the investigation that was taking place at the time. The argument started with his mother’s estranged husband instructing Tunsil not to screw up a golden opportunity. I dont think NFL scouts and general managers believe Tunsil’s character will be an issue as a face of an organization. 

As far as the football field’s concerned, the Ole Miss alum did get beat inside from time to time, specifically on passing plays. False starts where Tunsil was seen rocking in his stance did appear a couple of times, but this is just a matter of mental toughness that should not be an issue going forward. There were also a couple of plays where I would have liked to seen more of an effort out of Tunsil.

Verdict

Laremy Tunsil is arguably the safest pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. He is the next great franchise left tackle to emerge from the college ranks, and the next Orlando Pace, Jason Peters, and Joe Thomas only come around so often. The situation at Ole Miss should not be taken out of context; Tunsil made a mistake and was just trying to take advantage of his talent to get by as a college kid. He was obviously in the wrong for accepting those benefits, but he is among a long list of former players who were bribed with a variety of items while playing college ball. Nobody is worried and I am not either. Tunsil is the next stud LT in the NFL, flawless in just about anything he does in cleats. I’m not sure there is anybody who should be taken before him when the draft opens up a month from now.

Best Fit

Unless the Tennessee Titans remove themselves from that number one slot, there really isn’t another direction to go in besides from Tunsil. Tennessee needs another tackle to pair with Taylor Lewan, and it just so happens probably the best player in this year’s draft is a left tackle. The side designation of both Tunsil and Lewan would come down to head coach Mike Mularkey, but with those two guys capping off the ends of your offensive line, does it really even matter at that point? One thing is for sure: Marcus Mariota would be sleeping pretty sound.  

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Does A Quarterback’s Hand Size Really Predict Success?

As we enter the month of April, we also creep closer toward everyone's favorite part of the NFL offseason: the draft. College players work tirelessly once their season is over to improve their draft stock through private team workouts, training programs, and the NFL combine. What they can't necessarily train for however, is their height, arm length, and

As we enter the month of April, we also creep closer toward everyone’s favorite part of the NFL offseason: the draft. College players work tirelessly once their season is over to improve their draft stock through private team workouts, training programs, and the NFL combine. What they can’t necessarily train for however, is their height, arm length, and of course, hand size. 

Hand size has recently become one of the most polarizing topics of discussion when it comes to comparing draft prospects, as well as presidential candidates. 

This measurement is often discussed, especially when it comes to the quarterback position. Common sense tells us that the bigger your hand, the better you can grip the football and the more control you have when throwing it. This becomes increasingly important in poor weather situations. If someone with small hands went out in a blizzard and tried to throw the ball fifty yards down the field, he would probably run across some problems. 

As new Cleveland Browns Head Coach Hue Jackson put it, “I think guys that have big hands can grip the ball better in those environmental situations and so we’ll look for a guy that fits what we’re looking for in a quarterback and, is hand size important? Yes it is.”

It seems safe to assume that hand size is a relatively important aspect of choosing a quarterback in the draft. But just how much? 

Here are the hand measurements,  for each quarterback at the NFL combine:

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According to ESPN‘s famed Todd McShay, NFL teams like to see a QB with hands near 9.50 inches, and the closer to 10.00 inches the better. Looking at these numbers and with that guideline in place, scouts may prefer North Dakota State’s Carson Wentz (10 inches) over Cal’s Jared Goff (9 inches) when comparing the top two quarterback prospects. 

Goff, of course, disagrees with this notion. “I’ve been told I have pretty big hands my whole life. I heard I have small hands yesterday [at the NFL Combine], apparently. No, I’ve never had a problem with that or expect it to be a problem at all.”

So does hand size truly matter when looking at today’s NFL quarterbacks? Let’s look at that too. Here are the top 20 quarterbacks statistically from the NFL last season with their measured hand size: 

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Note: neither Tom Brady nor Ryan Fitzpatrick have their hand size registered anywhere other than former Patriots general manager Scott Pioli claiming that Brady’s hands are “enormous.” So rather than estimate, let’s add a trio of quarterbacks who we know are pretty darn good but had their season cut short due to injury: Andrew Luck, Joe Flacco, and Tony Romo. We’ll also add the Super Bowl winner himself: Peyton Manning. Even though he had arguably his worst season statistically as a pro, his stellar reputation cannot be ignored. 

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(While some reports state that Romo has small hands, his combine results say otherwise. The link above also gives us a cool look at what NFL.com looked like in the old days.)  

So with all of these measurements, lets compile them together into a better visual to analyze. We’ll separate the measurements into three ranges:

    Image title                                                     Image title

Of the 22 quarterbacks we looked at, a resounding 50% of them have hands measured greater than or equal to 9.75 inches, and closer to the maximum desired size of 10 inches. Meanwhile, only 13.6% of the top quarterbacks have hands that would be considered “small” or “less than ideal”. 

Even with some outliers, there appears to be a significantly better chance for a quarterback with large hands to succeed in the NFL. 

Although Jared Goff is an exceptional prospect and definitely has the potential to be one of the few outliers with smaller hands, the current trend shows that he might have a lot of extra hard work ahead of him. Information like this might come in handy for Hue Jackson and other coaches who are on the lookout for potential quarterbacks. 

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2016 NFL Draft Preview: OL Jason Spriggs

The Sports Quotient’s annual Draft Preview series returns! Over the course of the 10 weeks leading up to the 2016 NFL Draft, we will take a look at the top NFL prospects at each position. This fifth week, the focus is on offensive linemen. Our first O-line prospect is Jason Spriggs out of Indiana.

College

The Sports Quotient’s annual Draft Preview series returns! Over the course of the 10 weeks leading up to the 2016 NFL Draft, we will take a look at the top NFL prospects at each position. This fifth week, the focus is on offensive linemen. Our first O-line prospect is Jason Spriggs out of Indiana.

College Career

Jason Spriggs began his college career with a bang. In 2012 he started all 12 games for Indiana at left tackle, a true freshman record for an offensive lineman. Spriggs also led the team with 80 knockdowns and gave up just two sacks in 961 snaps.

Spriggs continued to impress through 2013 and 2014, his sophomore and junior seasons. He started 22 of 24 games at left tackle, only missing two starts his junior season because of a head-to-head collision that sent Spriggs to the hospital during a loss to Michigan State.

During his senior season Spriggs moved from left tackle to right guard. He started all 13 games for Indiana, recorded a team-high 79 knockdowns, and allowed just one sack in 475 pass attempts. Spriggs also earned All-American honors and was the first Outland Trophy semifinalist in Indiana University history.

Pros

At 6’7” 307lbs Spriggs has the build of an NFL lineman plus a long reach. Durability is perhaps his best asset, as Spriggs started all but two games during his four-year career at Indiana. Moreover, Spriggs shows the following strengths according to his draft profile on NFL.com: has elite lateral movement, adjusts well in open space, shows patience, is athletic, has strong tools to slow pass rushers, and carries out efficient backside cutoff blocks.

Cons

The largest concern surrounding Spriggs is his strength. As mentioned earlier, he has the build of an NFL lineman, but Spriggs’ height takes weight away from the inner half of his frame. As a result, he can be moved off his spot and struggles against power rushers on the defensive line. This being said, Spriggs performed very well in the bench press at the scouting combine. His 31 repetitions currently ranks fourth best among linemen prospects.

Grade

During early player evaluations, Spriggs was projected as a late first-round or early second-round selection. However, due to his strong performance at scouting combine, the offensive lineman looks to have secured a first-round pick. Among all linemen prospects, Spriggs was a top 4 performer in the bench press, 40-yard dash, broad jump, and 20 yard shuttle. He ranks first in the 40-yard dash and broad jump, and perhaps more important: Spriggs showed exceptional footwork during lineman drills.

Best Fit

It is hard to project where players will fall in the NFL draft, especially offensive linemen who are always a need for NFL teams. I see Spriggs being drafted in the late first round by a team with a struggling front five. Certain organizations come to mind: Green Bay at No. 27, Kansas City at No. 28, or Cleveland at No. 32. The Browns recently lost tackle Mitchell Schwartz and center Alex Mack during free agency. If Cleveland selects a quarterback at No. 2 overall, which is heavily expected, it would be prudent to fill vacancies at the offensive line in order for a young quarterback to succeed. 

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2016 NFL Draft Preview: OT Jack Conklin

The Sports Quotient’s annual Draft Preview series returns! Over the course of the 10 weeks leading up to the 2016 NFL Draft, we will take a look at the top NFL prospects at each position. This week, we dive into the offensive line. Today we look at Jack Conklin from Michigan State.

Collegiate Career

A preferred walk-on at

The Sports Quotient’s annual Draft Preview series returns! Over the course of the 10 weeks leading up to the 2016 NFL Draft, we will take a look at the top NFL prospects at each position. This week, we dive into the offensive line. Today we look at Jack Conklin from Michigan State.

Collegiate Career

A preferred walk-on at Michigan State in 2012, offensive tackle Jack Conklin was almost an afterthought, even to the Spartans. After redshirting his freshman year, Conklin was put on scholarship, named a starter, and played well enough to earn Freshman All-American status. Conklin’s play continued to improve, and, by the time he had completed his final season in East Lansing, he was a consensus All-American.

Pros

Whichever team gets Conklin will be getting a very tough player. Conklin plays through the whistle and shows little regard for the well-being of the defender while the play is live. His tape is littered with him pancaking defenders or driving the defender out of bounds entirely, as in the clip below.

via GIPHY

Conklin’s best physical asset is his strength. He really shows off his effort as a run blocker as he combines his strength and nastiness to create openings. On this snap, Conklin plowed over the defensive end then quickly located and locked onto the linebacker at the second level.

via GIPHY

When asked to make more than one block on a play, like the one above, Conklin is adept at handling multiple assignments. Where some offensive lineman struggle if they have to make blocks further downfield, Conklin looks comfortable making blocks past the line of scrimmage. Notice in the play below how Conklin came off the initial block then properly located and locked onto the defender at the second level of the defense.

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As a pass blocker, Conklin is strong enough to sustain blocks for a relatively long period of time. He also has the ability to absorb and redirect incoming pass rushers. In the clip below, the blitzer tried to convert his wide speed move into a bull rush, but Conklin was strong enough to stone the defender and prevent him from collapsing the pocket.

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Cons

The concerns with Conklin usually deal with his feet. While he is strong, Conklin is not the fleetest of foot. This really hurts Conklin in pass protection, where speed rushers can put him out of position. In this snap, the blitzer timed the snap count and effortlessly beat Conklin to the outside, although he does recover a bit. Had this been a longer developing pass play, the pass rusher probably would have beaten Conklin for the sack.

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Aside from just adequate foot quickness, Conklin will sometimes abandon his footwork altogether, putting him off-balance and making his blocks ineffective. In the clip below, instead of continuing to mirror the rusher, Conklin lunged forward, dropped his head, and made it easy for the defender to avoid the block.

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Verdict

Conklin might not be the ultra-athletic left tackle teams look for in in the top of the first round, but he certainly deserves to be a first round pick. Conklin has a very complete skill set for a tackle. He is an outstanding run blocker and an adequate pass protector, and brings a nasty edge to both elements of his game.

Schematically, Conklin would be best served in an offense that runs a more power-blocking scheme where he can use his strength to win individual matchups against specific defenders. He does have the intelligence and enough mobility to be an adequate blocker in a zone-blocking system, but it wouldn’t play to his strengths.

Best Fit

The former Spartan has a chance to be a really good right tackle, where his skills as a run blocker would be more valuable than his pass protection. Conklin does have a long wingspan, so some team might consider him as a potential contributor at left tackle, but it’s probably not his best fit long-term.

The Seahawks, Jets, Steelers, and Chiefs are all teams potentially in the market for a left tackle and all are picking in latter half of the first-round, where Conklin is best suited to be drafted.

All GIF content courtesy of draftbreakdown.com. GIFs were made using giphy.com.

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Five Draft Options For The Eagles

The Eagles still have plenty of positions to fill this offseason even after Howie Roseman's masterful free agency in which he signed 7 players. The best opportunity to fill in some of those needs is the NFL Draft. After moving up from 13 to eight, thanks to the Alonso and Maxwell trade, Roseman has opened up

The Eagles still have plenty of positions to fill this offseason even after Howie Roseman’s masterful free agency in which he signed 7 players. The best opportunity to fill in some of those needs is the NFL Draft. After moving up from 13 to eight, thanks to the Alonso and Maxwell trade, Roseman has opened up many more possibilities for that first round selection. Here are five players the Eagles should target with the eighth overall pick.

Vernon Hargreaves III, CB Florida

Hargreaves is an elite talent at the cornerback position and is expected to be available when the Eagles are on the clock. At 5’10” and 204 lbs., Hargreaves is a bit undersized for the position, but makes up for it with his quickness and athleticism. Over the course of three seasons at Florida, he recorded 38 passes defensed and 10 interceptions, according to NFL.com. He projects to be a great starting cornerback in the NFL, something the Eagles have been looking for.

With the trade of Byron Maxwell to the Dolphins, there is an opening at cornerback. Although depth is not an issue at the position, a lack of talent certainly is. The Eagles could greatly benefit from having a shutdown corner to cover dominant NFC East receivers like Odell Beckham Jr. and Dez Bryant. Hargreaves could be the guy to solve the secondary woes the team has experienced for quite some time.

Ezekiel Elliott, RB Ohio State

Elliott is the best running back in the draft this year and has garnered looks from teams at the top of the draft. Last season, Elliott ran for 1,821 yards and 23 touchdowns to lead the Buckeyes to a 12-1 record, according to NFL.com. At 6’0″ and 225 lbs., the OSU star has the size to run over a corner while still maintaining his elusiveness on the outside. Elliott is a well-rounded back who can run, catch and block at any given time. Rarely do running backs get taken in the top 10 of the draft, but Elliott could very well be the exception.

Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

After trading DeMarco Murray to the Titans, the Eagles are left with an injury prone starter and an aging backup. While both Ryan Mathews and Darren Sproles have had success, it’s hard to see them carrying the load by themselves next season. The hole created by Murray’s absence can easily be filled by Elliott for years to come. Even Roseman believes taking a running back early is still an option. 

“When you find a special talent at that position, that guy who can run the ball, pass protect, can catch the ball out of the backfield, that’s a unique weapon,” said Roseman. “I don’t think the position is devalued.”

Elliott fits the bill of what Roseman alluded to when asked about the position. It’ll be hard for the Eagles to pass on a talented player like Elliott who can be a superstar at the position for years to come.

Ronnie Stanley, OT Notre Dame

Stanley is a monster standing 6’6″ and weighing 312 lbs. He is arguably the second best offensive lineman in this draft behind Laremy Tunsil out of Ole Miss. Stanley is a versatile tackle who can dominate his opponent. He started at right tackle his redshirt freshman year and left tackle the past two seasons. His versatility is key to having success at the next level. He has earned All-American honors and has been a durable member of Notre Dame’s offensive line for four seasons.

Stanley could fill a hole for the Eagles and help to solidify the offensive line for the future. One issue could be Stanley’s lack of experience at guard, a necessary position for the Eagles to fill. If he can transition well to left guard, the team could once again field one of the top lines in the league. And once left tackle Jason Peters is ready to call it quits, Lane Johnson and Stanley will be primed to hold down the tackle positions. With the offensive line being what the Eagles need the most, Stanley would be a great pick.

Jared Goff, QB California

Before the combine, Goff was perceived as the best quarterback in this year’s draft. He has a rocket arm, pinpoint accuracy and accurate delivery of the ball when he is under pressure. He turned a 1-11 team into a bowl-game winner. At 6’4″ and 215 lbs., Goff has the measurables to be a successful NFL quarterback, and has posted the numbers to go along with them. In his final season, he threw for 4,719 yards and 43 touchdowns, including 6 of them in the bowl game win over Air Force, according to NFL.com. Goff is the quarterback most ready to become an immediate starter, but a little time on the bench never hurt anyone. If he’s there at eight, the Eagles could have the steal of the draft.

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

There was speculation that Bradford would not return after a roller coaster season in which he went 7-7 and missed the playoffs with a team expected to win the division. The regime change has opened new holes, filled others and certainly created some question marks to think about. With no real commitment to Bradford as the quarterback of the future, Goff could be the selection. It was reported that the Eagles held a private workout with Goff recently, further proving their interest. Philadelphia fans have been waiting for a franchise quarterback since Donovan McNabb was traded, and the Cal product could be that guy. Don’t be surprised if the Eagles take a quarterback early, especially if his name is Jared Goff.

Jack Conklin, OT Michigan State

If Stanley is off the board at eight and the Eagles are looking for an offensive lineman, Conklin could be the pick. The 6’6″ and 308 pound All-American tackle is even more versatile than Stanley, something the Eagles will need. Conklin has played both tackle positions and has the ability to transition well to either guard position. He is a durable lineman who could help bolster a weak line for the Eagles.

Guard was arguably the worst position group for the team last season after coach Chip Kelly cut both Evan Mathis and Todd Herremans, without first finding their replacements. Kelly also did not draft an offensive lineman that year, leaving the position in a weak state. Conklin has the ability to fill the left guard position to solidify the line. Similar to Stanley, once Peters retires, Conklin could slide to right tackle to pair with Johnson for the future.

It’s hard to see the Eagles messing up this pick. Any of these five players would be a huge addition to the team. The Eagles will most likely target the offensive line in this draft, but don’t be surprised if the position isn’t addressed on day one of the draft. That pick could very well be Hargreaves or Elliott. We won’t know for sure until April 28th rolls around and the Eagles are on the clock.

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Teddy Bridgewater Key To Vikings’ 2016 Playoff Hopes

The Minnesota Vikings had an extremely successful 2015 season. Led by nine-year veteran running back Adrian Peterson and sophomore quarterback Teddy Bridgewater on offense and fourth-year safety Harrison Smith, sophomore linebacker Anthony Barr, and sixth-year defensive end Everson Griffen on defense, the Vikings went 11-5 and won the NFC North for the first time since 2009. 

Considering that this was,

The Minnesota Vikings had an extremely successful 2015 season. Led by nine-year veteran running back Adrian Peterson and sophomore quarterback Teddy Bridgewater on offense and fourth-year safety Harrison Smith, sophomore linebacker Anthony Barr, and sixth-year defensive end Everson Griffen on defense, the Vikings went 11-5 and won the NFC North for the first time since 2009. 

Considering that this was, by all accounts, the second year of a three-year rebuilding plan, Vikings fans have to be feeling good about the progress shown under the tutelage of Mike Zimmer.

With a division championship and a hard-fought playoff game loss under their belts and in their minds, the Vikings will enter the 2016 season fighting to return to the playoffs for their fifth shot at winning a title. This offseason has centered around the Vikings’ commitment to improving what was by far one of the worst pass-blocking offensive lines in the NFL last year. According to Pro Football Focus, the Vikings offensive line had the second-worst pass blocking efficiency (71.4), ahead of only the lowly San Diego Chargers (67.6) and their injury-decimated line. Furthermore, Bridgewater was pressured on 46.9% of his dropbacks, nearly 4.5% more than the second-most pressured quarterback, Russell Wilson.

The Vikings have succeeded despite the struggles of their offensive line, due in no small part due to the ability of Teddy Bridgewater to escape sacks with near-Aaron Rodgers ability. This heightened pressure has come at the cost of Teddy often lacking the necessary time to attack defenses downfield and being limited to checkdowns and routes being run under 30 yards from the line of scrimmage. 

This limitation, if one is to call it that, has brought Bridgewater under scrutiny from Vikings fans desperate for Teddy to show that he can throw the deep ball like fellow 2014 quarterbacks Blake Bortles and Derek Carr. Despite the clear discrepancies in wide receiver talent and offensive line skill, Vikings fans are begging for more out of Teddy.

What is most confounding about Teddy thus far in his NFL career, is the success of the Vikings even when Teddy isn’t breaking records with his game-to-game statistics. In the 29 games he has started since taking over as the starter, Teddy is 9-5 when throwing for 200 yards or less and 8-7 when throwing for over 200 yards. The difference becomes even more stark when taking only 2015 into account, as Teddy was 8-2 when he threw for less than 200 yards and 3-4 when he threw for more than 200 yards. The biggest difference in the Vikings’ offense between the two years? The addition of Adrian Peterson to the 2015 offense.

Peterson’s 1485 yards were both helpful and harmful to the Vikings in 2015. According to Pro Football Reference, the Vikings ran the ball on first down nearly 66% of the time, an almost unbelievable percentage and one that is just begging to be exploited. This focus on running often left the Vikings in tough second and third down situations, as the Vikings averaged 8.1 yards on 2nd down and 7.6 yards on 3rd down. By comparison, the Carolina Panthers averaged 7.9 yards on 2nd down and 7.3 yards on 3rd down. What this all means is that Norv Turner, offensive coordinator for the Vikings, mortgaged first-down opportunities for later down success.

With the signings of offensive linemen Alex Boone, formerly of the San Francisco 49ers, and Andre Smith of the Bengals, the Vikings appear to have brought in plenty of new talent to try and fill the two biggest holes on their offensive line last year, left guard and right tackle. If the Vikings can also return center John Sullivan and right tackle Phil Loadholt to full health after their season-long injuries last year, they’ll also be much better.

All these if’s and maybe’s of course lead back to Teddy Bridgewater. The Vikings asked him to do far less in 2015 than they did in 2014, and considering the talented running back lining up behind him, that’s not entirely surprising. Above all else, the Vikings still need to have Teddy prove once and for all that he is the starting quarterback of the future for their franchise. 

With the Vikings’ ground-and-pound offense, Teddy was really only asked to let loose in games where the Vikings were losing and those limited moments of responsibility alone are enough for Vikings fans to drool over what Teddy could be for them. From throwing darts while being tackled from behind to putting the ball where he needed to for his wide receiver to make a great play, Teddy has shown the potential to be one of the best rhythm passers in the NFL when he’s actually given a chance to get into a rhythm and his wide receivers attempt to make a catch.

In a recent interview at the NFL owners meeting in Boca Raton, Fla., Mike Zimmer said that he texted Teddy after signing Boone and Smith that “there were no more excuses and it’s time to go.” If they truly want Teddy to “go,” the Vikings need to let the offense flow through him, not an aging 31-year old running back—even if the running back is Adrian Peterson.

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