By Paul Wanecski
Trading for running back LeSean “Shady” McCoy was both an exciting and confusing time for most fans of the Buffalo Bills. Not seen as a major position of need with incumbent starter Fred Jackson, the move was shocking because the team shipped off their leading tackler in 2013, Kiko Alonso, to the Philadelphia Eagles in the swap. The immediate reaction was that the Bills were going to take the NFL in a cloud of dust. To do that, they would have to improve the offensive line. So have they done enough to improve the line to justify the acquisition and contract extension for Shady?
The signing of Richie Incognito was a flare to the rest of the league that the Bills want to win. Widely criticized for bringing in someone of questionable character, head coach Rex Ryan has never been afraid of a challenge. Incognito was brought in prior to the start of free agency because he was not tied to having to wait for the league approved window to negotiate. He was not signed to a team and was welcome to negotiate when reinstated by the NFL following his bullying incident in Miami. Prior to his suspension and release with the Dolphins, Incognito was enjoying the best years of his career. In 2012 he made the Pro Bowl. In both 2012 and 2013, he was rated among the top 25 guards in the NFL, grading equally in both pass protection and run blocking. It is assumed that he will take one of the starting guard spots along the line.
It was highly anticipated that the Bills would make a run at one of the top free agent guards on the market. Mike Iupati was the most logical choice since he and offensive coordinator Greg Roman had spent the last few seasons together in San Francisco. That didn’t happen. Iupati signed a mammoth deal in Arizona. Talks of the Bills getting in on Bryan Bulaga came ripping through town. Once again things quickly disintegrated. With well over $30 million dollars under the salary cap, how could the Bills not sign a guard, which was among the most glaring needs following the end of 2014? Clearly the plan was very unclear to most outside of One Bills Drive.
Rumors started trickling in about the Bills signing wide receiver Percy Harvin. This dynamic player was two seasons removed from ripping a Super Bowl wide open with his kick return ability and offensive explosiveness. This would also be his 3rd team within that time. He signed a 3 year deal (which the Bills can void down to only a 1 year deal), to add along with the Bills signing of playmaking tight end Charles Clay. Both are expected to immediately impact the offense. Now the question is why did these players take precedent over improving the offensive line? Looking back at Roman’s offense with both Colin Kaepernick and Alex Smith at quarterback, neither threw the ball that often. For Smith, he averaged 26.16 passing attempts per game while Kaepernick averaged 27.8 (in 2012 and 2013 he averaged 26.43 pass attempts per game, however his average pass attempts skyrocketed in 2014 to 29.88, most likely because the 49ers were struggling to win games). The Bills were acquiring players who would help in a passing attack with a coordinator who was known for running the ball. To accompany that issue, who exactly do they intend to have under center to throw the ball anyway?
Then we get to draft, which is where the Bills spent a 3rdround selection on John Miller, a 6’2” guard from Louisville. Miller is not projected to be a superstar (newsflash: no one selected in the 3rd round ever is), but he could push for snaps depending on the rotation of players already on the roster. If Miller can come in, show awareness and tenacity, he could win the role over the several guards already on the roster.
Now we look at what is already on the roster. Cyril Richardson finished ranked 60th of 78 eligible guards by ProFootballFocus after he saw game action last year following the injury to guard Chris Williams. Even though Williams was the starting guard to begin the season, he graded very poorly in ProFootballFocus ratings. Through only 3 games he had both negative grades in pass protection (-1.5) and run blocking (-5.3). If you are unfamiliar with those rankings, a (0.0) is an average grade. Only 5 guards at that point in the season were graded worse than Williams. Previously with the St. Louis Rams, Williams ranked well below average with a (-21.8) grade. The rest of the line graded pretty well as the Rams ranked 9th in run blocking and 17th in pass blocking the year he started at guard for 16 games. Former 2nd round pick Cyrus Kouandijo had no impact for the Bill last season. He was only on the active game day roster for one game last year and saw no action in the field. Kraig Urbik was the best guard on the team last year and even he had to take a pay cut to retain his spot on the roster.
Looking back at 2014, the Bills were ranked by ProFootballFocus as the worst run blocking team in the NFL. The bottom five in that category were:
(32) Bills, (31) Miami, (30) NY Giants, (29) Atlanta (28) Rams
Can you name the leading rushers for those teams last year? Exactly, outside of the Bills, you may just be guessing. The answers are:
Fred Jackson (Bills), LaMar Miller (Miami), Andre Williams (Giants), Steven Jackson (Atlanta), and Tre Mason (Rams)
The Best Run Blocking teams were
(1) Eagles- LeSean McCoy, (2) Cowboys-DeMarco Murray, (3) Houston-Arian Foster, (4) Ravens- Justin Forsett, (5) San Francisco-Frank Gore
Which list contains the better running backs? Clearly the teams with the best run blocking lines will have the best running backs, which would go without saying. An exception would be a team like Kansas City, who ranked 27th in run blocking. Jamaal Charles had a very down year (by his standards) but was still ultimately productive. So Shady McCoy is going from the best offensive line in the NFL with the Eagles to the worst with the Bills, who were far from aggressive with upgrading the line at the two guard positions. Is McCoy going to have year like Charles who struggled behind a poor line or do the Bills know something no one else does? This appears like the Bills may have traded for a lot of bullets without owning a gun.