Season number two for EJ Manuel and the performance of the defense under new coordinator Jim Schwartz will be two of the main story lines for the 2014 Buffalo Bills but let's not forget about special teams which needs to bounce back from a sub par 2013.
The Bills finished 31st in the annual special teams report compiled by Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News, plummeting from 8th in 2012. That means second year Special Teams Coordinator Danny Crossman will be on a hot seat this season.
Buffalo appeared to have two of the more dangerous return men in the league last season with speedsters Marquise Goodwin and Leodis McKelvin handling kick and punt returns respectively but both players and units were kept in check. The Bills finished 29th in both return games in the 32 team NFL.
Buffalo's kick return average of 20.2 yards was the lowest for the team since 2002. Goodwin, who ripped off a 107 yard return for a touchdown in the pre-season opener at Indianapolis, averaged just under 22 yards a return in the regular season with his longest return going for just 28 yards. But the biggest problem with the kick return game might be the philosophical approach.
During an interview on WGR this past week, Goodwin said he's been told to take a knee when the kickoff is at least five yards deep in the end zone. Rather than give the former track olympian a chance to break a big play, the Bills decide to play it safe and take the ball at the 20 yard line.
Buffalo had the highest touchback rate in the league last season at 71.8%. Directional kickoffs and hang time are two factors that can certainly account for a number of those touchbacks but conservatism may be the biggest factor.
61 of the 85 kickoffs last season were touchbacks. Atlanta was the only other team in the league with at least 60 touchbacks. The Falcons had 65 and the third highest total was 52. All of those touchbacks helped contribute to the Bills ranking of 27th in average drive start.
You want to help your young quarterback? Give the explosive kick returner the green light to come out of the end zone on kickoffs even though you run the risk of not getting back to the 20 yard line. In my opinion the potential reward is greater than the risk.
The punt return team didn't contribute much either. McKelvin's return average of 5.6 yards was his lowest since 2010. The former first round pick averaged 19.5 yards in 2011 and 18.7 yards in 2012. His longest return last season went for 21 yards.
The coverage teams were a little better. Buffalo ended up 25th in punt coverage and 17th in kick coverage. One problem they might want to address is the lack of touchbacks by opponents. The Bills had just 34 touchbacks out of 83 kickoffs. The touchback rate of 42% was 8th lowest in the NFL. The Bills were in the bottom ten in average drive start by opponent.
The Bills made it a point to add "core special teams players" in the off season in an effort to better their performance in 2014. Crossman called Corey Graham an "elite" special teams player. Anthony Dixon was a four phase player in San Francisco and the Bills are hoping Keith Rivers will provide a boost along with key teams returnees like Marcus Easley and Ty Powell. Easley led the NFL in solo special teams tackles last season and Powell was fifth on the Bills in teams tackles despite being active in just five games.
One of the best off season moves made by the Bills was re-signing Carpenter who flourished in 2013 after being released by Miami. Carpenter hit on 91% of his field goal attempts which was 7th best in the NFL among kickers with at least 30 attempts. He was money in kicks under 50 yards, connecting on 29 of 30 but reliable from long distance as well, hitting on 4-6 from 50 or more yards. 2013 draft pick Dustin Hopkins is still on the roster but its likely his only shot at making the team will be as a kickoff specialist.