The Bills seemingly endless streak of futility at the quarterback position took another turn on Wednesday with the release of Ryan Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick, who was playing on a 6yr $59M contract, was due a $3M roster bonus on thursday. By releasing Fitzpatrick the Bills no longer have to pay him that roster bonus, and can now move forward at the quarterback position in the Doug Marrone era.
The original plan was to try and convince Fitzpatrick to restructure his deal, so that the Bills could keep some of their own players and add some in free agency. That being said, many feel the Bills are using the financial aspect of this decision as somewhat of an out. It just feels like the Bills are trying to move on at the position and felt that they could go no further with Fitzpatrick.
I can understand the reasoning behind the Bills decision to let Fitzpatrick go, but I don’t necessarily agree with it. As easy as it would be to point to Ryan Fitzpatrick as the reason for continued mediocrity in Buffalo, it really isn’t that simple. Fitzpatrick may not have been great, but he was not only good, but the best quarterback this team’s had in quite some time.
I just can’t figure out what he’s done to lose his job to - at this point - Tarvaris Jackson of all people. Fitzpatrick just posted the highest passer rating of his entire career and ranked 17th in the league in that stat. Sure, that’s not great, but it is better than the likes of Matt Stafford, Sam Bradford, Jay Cutler and Josh Freeman. Not one of them has to worry about their job security. Granted, they were all drafted much higher than Fitzpatrick and are younger, but it’s a worthwhile comparison.
The main complaint with Fitzpatrick though has been consistency. Ever since he signed his big contract, he has struggled with it. That’s not an entirely unfair criticism. By that same token, it is incredibly difficult to get into a rhythm with only one receiver worth throwing the ball too. It’s worth mentioning that C.J. Spiller was a great help in the passing game, but for a quarterback to be successful he’s going to need more than one legitimate weapon at receiver and a check down option. Even the one good receiver he had in Stevie Johnson was a relative non-factor until Fitzpatrick won the starting job.
It’s not Fitzpatrick’s fault the Bills rushed to offer him the massive contract, that’s wound up being his undoing, after his 5-2 start to the 2011 season. It’s not his fault they never surrounded him with any weapons. He just never seemed come out on top from these tough circumstances though and now he’s left looking for a job elsewhere. Such is the difficult reality of managing the salary cap.
For the Bills, who originally planned on having Fitzpatrick and Jackson compete for the starting job, this is the beginning of a new era. Don’t be surprised if this move increases the Bills interest in drafting Ryan Nassib out of Syracuse, where Marrone coached last season. Not sure he’ll launch the Bills into the playoffs either though.
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When Doug Marrone signed on to become the new head coach of the Buffalo Bills, he came with the reputation for having a keen offensive mind. In a lot of ways he was hired because of his prowess as an offensive coach. However, as much as the Bills need to make improvements and get better on offense, their defense is a much bigger problem. Already this offseason, Marrone and the Bills have started a complete makeover of the defense with the hopes of turning things around on that side of the ball.
The first thing the Bills did on defense was cut safety George Wilson, linebacker Nick Barnett, and cornerback Terrence McGee. Barnett was the biggest name cut among those three, as he was a starting linebacker and the team’s leading tackler last year. However, he was the leading tackler on a team that was one of the worst in the NFL against the rush. Meanwhile, Wilson and McGee were two of the weaker spots in a secondary that hung tough last year despite a run defense that couldn’t stop anybody. By parting ways with these three players, the Bills are parting ways with three of the more veteran players on Buffalo’s defense, which indicates that Marrone wants his defense to get younger and more athletic.
The next big move the Bills made on defense this offseason was placing the franchise sag on safety Jairus Byrd. Byrd was a Pro-bowler last year that anchored the Buffalo secondary and likely would have been the most sought after safety on the free agent market. Byrd is a young player that is entering his prime and who Buffalo could not afford to lose, especially after they cut Wilson, their other starting safety from last year. If putting the franchise tag on Byrd can help the Bills lock him up for the long-term it will end up being the right move.
Of course, outside of Byrd, the Bills don’t have too many cornerstone players on defense. Other than Byrd in the secondary, Buffalo has cornerback Stephon Gilmore, last year’s first round pick, who still has a little ways to go to live up to the expectations that come with being a first round pick. On the defensive line, Buffalo has the interior tandem of Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams, who are nice to have, but will have to step up their performance for next year, especially against the run. The Bills also have defensive end Mario Williams under contract and are hopeful that his second year in Buffalo will be better than his first, so he can live up to his big-money contract. This handful of players isn’t a big nucleus for the Bills defense to build around, and it’s also far from a certainty that they’re going to perform at a high enough level to give Buffalo noticeable improvement on defense next year.
So where do the Bills go from here? The draft is obviously important and they’ll need to focus a lot on defense, but Buffalo is also likely to use either their first or second round pick on a quarterback, which could complicate things. If the Bills go defensive in the first round, there should be several quality pass rushers available that the Bills could pair up at defensive end opposite Mario Williams, which could help take some pressure off Williams and help him increase his production next year. However, if they wait until the second round to draft a defensive player, there will be fewer impact players available. As the Bills look to fill out their depth chart in the middle rounds of the draft and in free agency, they’ll need to put a lot of focus on the linebacker position, where they’ll need to add young and athletic run stoppers.
Ironically, with a new offensive minded head coach in place, most of the Bills activity this offseason has been on the defensive side of the ball. Credit goes to Marrone for trying to reshape Buffalo’s defense and making some bold moves to try to make that happen, but right now, there’s a lot of work left to do and a long way to go.
Rounding out the offseason power rankings are the teams ranked 22-32:
#22- Tampa Bay Buccaneers
This team found a stud in Doug Martin, but the Jury is still out on Josh Freeman. Freeman, after a very promising rookie campaign, looked completely and utterly lost for stretches of the 2012 season. The fate of the Bucs 2013 season rests in his hands at this point.
#23- Detroit Lions
If the Lions can find a more consistent running game and offensive line to surround Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson with, this team might be able to accomplish some things. Otherwise their drives will continue to look like this: penalty, sack, Johnson reception, penalty, short run, incomplete to Johnson in triple coverage, punt.
#24- Cleveland Browns
Not sure what I think of Brandon Weedon yet, but this team has more questions that him. New coaches, a new defensive scheme, and a lack of LB are more critical question marks right now.
#25- Buffalo Bills
If this team continues to realize what a playmaker they have in C.J. Spiller and continue to get him the ball, I think Ryan Fitzpatrick will be ‘good enough’. If the defense would keep the opposing team from dropping 30 points in a half, that might help too.
#26- Philadelphia Eagles
Who is NFL newcomer Chip Kelly going to go with at QB? Well, it’s not really going to matter unless they can get their offensive line straightened out. As bad as Michael Vick was last year, to be fair, he was running for his life almost every play. With that being said, I cannot wait to see how Chip Kelly’s offense will fare at the NFL level.
#27- Arizona Cardinals
While the Cardinals offense was absolutely embarrassing last season, the defense fared okay (5th ranked passing defense). Especially when you consider that they were on the field probably more than every other defensive unit in the league. The QB situation is still a mess and it doesn’t appear that they are close to finding an answer, so don’t expect too much more than last year, but it has to be a little bit better… right?
#28- New York Jets
Words cannot even describe the debacle in New York anymore. There isn’t much (if anything) to like about this team as of right now. Revis is most likely leaving and the league’s worst QB over the last 2 years will be starting week 1. On the bright side, at least Tebowmania should be gone so we don’t have to hear about their ineptness every week.
#29- Tennessee Titans
The Titans have plenty of cap space and some decent options in the draft to bolster their O-line. They should just ask Chris Johnson who he wants blocking for him and then give him the ball 35 times a game.
#30- Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs are only ahead of the Jaguars because they had more overall talent last year, and have better draft picks. Otherwise, it’s a toss up. We are about to find out how good Andy Reid really is.
#31- Jacksonville Jaguars
Until this team realizes that Blaine Gabbert is not the answer, they won’t be much higher than this. MJD could carry this team to 2 or 3 wins, but I would be SHOCKED at anything more than that at this point. Maybe they will draft well for a change though.
#32- Oakland Raiders
After losing 8 of their last 9, the Raiders didn’t even leave us hope for 2013. What’s next? Well, players will be running the 40-yard dash at the combine this week….other than that, not a whole lot to be excited about in Oakland.
Follow Cole Stevenson on twitter: @Cole_Stevenson
Chip Kelly made a big splash when he finally left Oregon to become the new head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles. Kelly was certainly one of the biggest fishes in the college pond, and had been courted by NFL teams for years before finally agreeing to make the leap from college to the NFL. On the contrary, the other rookie head coach in the NFL this year that is making the transition from college to the NFL is more of a hidden gem, and that’s new Buffalo Bills head coach Doug Marrone.
On the surface, Marrone may not appear to be a top head coaching candidate worthy of an NFL head-coaching job, and certainly there were plenty of other college coaches with more impressive resumes than the 25-25 record Marrone had in his four years as the head coach at Syracuse, but like an ice berg, most of what Marrone brings to the table as a head coach lurks below the surface.
Below the surface of that 25-25 record is so much more than just an average coach. To understand what Marrone brings to the table, you must understand the program at Syracuse that Marrone took over. Before Marrone arrived, Syracuse had won just 10 games over the previous four years; he took over a roster that was depleted of both talent and depth; and the team he inherited was among the worst in the country. But with all that working against him, Marrone somehow managed to win half of his games over his four-year tenure, something few thought would be possible when he took over.
Marrone didn’t recruit his way into the win column the way a lot of college coaches do, he coached his way into the win column. Nearly half of Syracuse’s win over the last four years were against teams that had better talent than the Orange, making Marrone’s 25-25 record a lot better than it should have been based on the talent he was working with. On so many occasions, Marrone out-smarted, out-schemed, out-worked, and out-coached his counterpart on the opposite sideline. With the way talent is distributed in the NFL, the intelligence, schemes, and work ethic of the head coach can go a long way, and that’s what Marrone will bring to the Bills.
It’s no wonder that a handful of teams with coaching vacancies sought an interview with Marrone prior to him accepting the job in Buffalo. It’s also no wonder why Marrone received an unsolicited recommendation from both New Orleans general manager Mickey Loomis and New Orleans head coach Sean Payton, who worked with Marrone during his three years as offensive coordinator of the Saints, during which time the team made an appearance in the NFC Championship Game and had one of the most prolific passing attacks in NFL history.
Even though on the surface Marrone appears to be an average coach that’s coming to the NFL from a mediocre college program, those in the NFL that are familiar with him, know that Marrone is so much more. They know that he can out-smart, out-work, and out-coach the best of them. Soon, the people of Buffalo will know that too, and before long, the rest of the league will not it as well.
Every team in the AFC East has at least one pressing need. Will these squads be able to find guys who fit their needs in the draft? We’ll find out soon enough. For now, let's take a closer look at what exactly everyone is looking for.
Buffalo Bills: LB, WR, Depth on defense
While many people are saying that the Bills also need to find a franchise quarterback, I don’t think this is the year for that. The Bills have a great backfield in Spiller and Jackson, but couldn’t use them as much as they would’ve liked because their defense couldn’t keep them in games. They desperately need LB help (Te’o?) and it would be nice if Fitzpatrick had another WR option besides Stevie Johnson. Also, injuries certainly played a part in the Bills defensive struggles—ranking 28th against the run—that is why I believe they could use some depth on the defensive side.
Miami Dolphins: WR and CB
Some people would also include OT for the Dolphins, but I am not convinced they are going to let Jake Long walk, so they can address this position in one of the much later rounds. As of right now, their top Corner last year—Sean Smith—is a free agent. They need to resign him and find him some help on the other side of the field.
While Hartline and Bess are great possession/underneath type receivers, the Dolphins should try to find an outside playmaker for their new franchise quarterback to throw to. Although, it is rumored they may solve that problem with Greg Jennings.
New England Patriots: WR and CB
While Tom Brady has continued to put up MVP like numbers, he hasn’t had a down field WR threat since Randy Moss. With Welker and Edelman hitting the free agent market, the Patriots desperately need to resign at least one of them and then draft some receivers as well. After all, they can’t keep calling Deion Branch forever. Also, CB Dennard isn’t bad, but the Patriots definitely need to find a way to bring back Talib and then try to find some depth at the CB position. Especially since the Pats secondary was torched week after week last year.
I could also include LB on this list, but I think these are the most pressing needs.
New York Jets: QB, LB, QB, Pass rush from ANYwhere
Yes, I listed QB twice. However, I don’t know if that need is addressable in this year’s draft, which is why I also listed LB and some sort of pass rush. The Jets ranked 25th this year in sacks with only 30 on the season, which directly correlates to them needing LB help. Because in a 3-4 defense, being able to get your linebacker’s to the quarterback is absolutely crucial. They didn’t have that LB threat this past year.
Bottom line: Mark Sanchez is apparently staying put, which means this defense must find a way to get them to the postseason and they need a pass rush and LB help to do it.
Follow Cole Stevenson on twitter: @Cole_Stevenson