The Sports Xchange

NFL Camp Preview: Nobody safe, Bills need big year

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Although general manager Doug Whaley tried to sound convincing, deep down he knows that the 2014 season is a big one for the Buffalo Bills.

"In the NFL, every year is a big year," said Whaley. "Everyone is expecting some big things from us and we're expecting big things."

He's right; every year is a big year for every team, but when you haven't made the playoffs in 14 years, when you made a bold draft-day trade to move up to pick a potential superstar playmaker, and your franchise is about to be sold to a new owner, this is a little bigger of a year for the Bills than any other year.

This team needs to win, and it needs to make the postseason. If it doesn't, the new owner - who should be in charge at some point this season - could very well overhaul the organization, and in that scenario, nobody's job is safe.

"Being where we've been as an organization on the field is unacceptable," said team president and CEO Russ Brandon. "It is certainly unacceptable to me. It's all about winning. There is nothing else, absolutely nothing else that matters. We've made changes and we're not going to sit on our hands and not let any sand get under our shoes when it comes to trying to put a winning product on the field. That's what we're all about."

Coming out of minicamp and heading to training camp, the Bills felt very good about where they are on defense. A strong and productive defensive line returns intact led by three Pro Bowlers, Mario Williams, Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus; the linebacking unit has been upgraded with the additions of Brandon Spikes and Keith Rivers; and the secondary only has to deal with the free-agent departure of free safety Jairus Byrd. After improving in every key category in 2013, this unit should keep the Bills in every game they play.

However, the loss of linebacker Kiko Alonso to a knee injury suffered during late-June workouts in Oregon, throws a big wrench into the Bills' plans for their linebacker corps.

That will complicate things when the Bills practice for the first time July 20, although they have one extra game to sort things out because they will face the New York Giants on Aug. 3 in the annual Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio. They will also travel to Pittsburgh's camp on Aug. 13-14 for joint practices with the Steelers.

In organized team activities last month, the Bills revealed their intention to move Alonso to weak-side linebacker in new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz's 4-3 system. Last year, Alonso played every defensive snap, 1,145, at middle linebacker.

He did not fully participate in OTA workouts due to his hip rehab.

The Bills did sign veteran linebackers Rivers and Spikes during free agency, and had planned to play Rivers on the strong side and Spikes in the middle. The unit is now in flux with the big hole created by Alonso's injury.

Rivers could move to the weak side with the Bills sliding rookie third-rounder Preston Brown from the middle to the strong side. Another option is Manny Lawson, who started 15 games on the strong side last season, but the role is different under Schwartz and he was expected to play primarily at end this season.

The team could also keep the oft-injured Rivers on the strong side and gamble that Nigel Bradham can improve his run defense under Schwartz and handle the weak-side job.

On offense, things are also worrisome, but only because quarterback EJ Manuel remains somewhat of a mystery. The Bills drafted wide receiver Sammy Watkins No. 4 overall, at the cost of next year's first-round draft slot, and he joins a group that includes Robert Woods, Marquise Goodwin, and veteran newcomer Mike Williams. The running backs are excellent and versatile with home-run hitter C.J. Spiller, the always productive and savvy Fred Jackson, and two solid additions in Bryce Brown and Anthony Dixon. Scott Chandler is a reliable, if not spectacular, tight end, and the line should be bolstered by the additions of free-agent left guard Chris Williams and rookie second-round pick Cyrus Kouandjio.

So it comes down to Manuel, and whether he can prove that he is the quarterback of the future.

"I'm optimistic," said Whaley. "I'm eager to see him get out and perform for 16 games, because you started to see the growth in that Cleveland game (in Week 5 last year) and then he got hurt. I think this year is going to be a big leap for him, and for us."

During much of the OTAs and minicamp, Manuel seemed to struggle, but that's because the Bills emptied the playbook for installation, and things weren't always smooth. Once training camp starts, and the Bills begin to pare down what they believe will work best, Manuel should look better.