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Posted: Thursday, 02 May 2013 1:41PM

How the Bills fit in to the new NFL: Offense



(WGR 550) -- For all the football historians and purists out there still believing in principles from the way the NFL used to be, this column will likely infuriate you.

The trend of the new NFL is unmistakable, and teams all over the league are attempting to adapt as the years pass by. Gone are the years where teams depend on the downhill, road-grading run games that dictate the tempo.

There certainly are exceptions, but most of them are due to the those individual teams not possessing the great quarterback play needed to advance in the NFL. Basically, as we all knew already, it starts with the quarterback.

Until you have that player, you can continue drafting at other positions but the results wouldn't stray too far from the mean. There may be a playoff appearance every once and again, but unless you have a dynamic player lining up behind center, the odds of making it to the Super Bowl and winning it are worse than just 32-to-1.

Once you finally do have that player, the new rules in the NFL and the trends of offenses that favor more of the spread-style, three-to-five step drop passing games defiantly challenges the philosophies of old.

The tried and true logic from the NFL of old will argue that you build within the trenches on offense, that a good offensive line is key to a team's success. It may only be one man's opinion here, but if your offense is going to the spread style, it makes little sense to allocate premiere resources in to the offensive line without other, more important positions filled first.

The time the quarterback spends in the pocket is lower than ever (due to protection-based rules and slanted rules toward wide receivers), and the discrepancy between great, good and average offensive tackles and guards are becoming more muddled toward the middle than ever before.

Granted, having a below average to marginal player at any of those four positions can become a liability to a team. That's where you trust your pro and college scouting to find players that are just good enough to keep the quarterback upright long enough to make plays down the field.

For a long time, skill players on offense (wide receivers, tight ends and running backs) have been thought as luxury picks early in the NFL draft. With how the NFL is set up for passing games to succeed, the offensive linemen may in fact be the luxury selections.

What are premiere resources you might be asking? Well, first and second round picks for starters. Then once you successfully fill the positions, anything more than a mid-level contract extension on their expiring contracts would put you at the risk of not being able to sign players more important to the roster.

Once you have the quarterback in place, finding him weapons to throw the ball to should be of the utmost importance. Wide receivers change games. Tight ends change games. To a lesser degree, running backs can change games. Unless you have all of the skill positions for your spread offense in place, you shouldn't be using precious resources (early draft picks, big contracts) on those four positions.

The only spot on the line one would argue for being most important to an offense in the new NFL is center. If you have a good one, hold on tight. They are the quarterbacks of the offensive line, diagnosing defensive schemes and calling out blocking assignments for their four teammates.

So how are the Bills doing with these ideologies?

For that, let's go through and rank offensive positions by importance on teams that utilize more wide-open looks on that side of the ball:

1) Quarterback
2a) Wide Receiver
2b) Tight End
4) Center
5) Running Back
6) Left Tackle
7) Right Tackle
8) Guard

In their first draft with head coach Doug Marrone and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett, it appears as though the Bills are taking the new style and running with it. Let's go down the list:
 
1) Quarterback - Drafted E.J. Manuel 16th overall, signed Kevin Kolb through 2014
- The Bills drafted to hit a potential home run at the quarterback position. Will it work? We have no idea at this point. However, Manuel possesses attributes that could make him in to a great quarterback in the NFL. He just needs to get over hangups that have riddled him through his years at Florida State. Easier written than done, I know, but the Bills are swinging for the fences on this pick. It's hard to fault them for the concept of that rather than just going with the easy route and drafting Ryan Nassib. From a conceptual standpoint, the Bills are a fit for the new NFL at quarterback. However, their player designated to lead them in to that territory has much to prove.

2a) Wide Receiver - Stevie Johnson signed through 2016, drafted T.J. Graham in 2012, drafted Robert Woods 41st overall, drafted Marquise Goodwin 78th overall, signed UDFA Da'Rick Rogers
- This is one of the areas where the Bills are strongly trending towards the new NFL. Spending three top-100 draft picks in a two-year span will help the versatility of an offense, especially the one that Nathaniel Hackett appears to be constructing. It's a big unknown at this point, but if they pan out, it keeps players fresh and puts the ball in to many different playmakers' hands. Each of the receivers have some overlapping skills, but their individual specializations in the receiving game are unique.

2b) Tight End - Scott Chandler signed through 2013, drafted Chris Gragg in the 7th round
- The reason tight end is listed as an essential equal to wide receivers is based on the kind of matchup problems a good receiving tight end can present to a defense. Perhaps wanting to have many different attackers coming at defenses as wide receivers, the Bills neglected this position until the end of the 2013 NFL Draft. If the proper talent is sitting there in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft, I would expect tight end to be a strong consideration. Instead, the Bills will be going in to the season with a very productive player that is coming off a torn ACL and a seventh-round pick with good speed. Gragg could turn in to a late-round find, but having an elite talent at the position makes a great deal of sense. At this spot, the Bills have not adapted to the new NFL.

4) Center - Eric Wood signed through 2013
- As long as he proves to be healthy, the Bills should lock up Eric Wood long-term if they can. He is a smart, gritty and polished player that can bring stability to an ever-changing offensive line. Center would be the one position on the offensive line where the value and dollar amount paid to it are along the same lines.

5) Running Back - C.J. Spiller signed through 2015, Fred Jackson signed through 2014, re-signed Tashard Choice
- The only time one could argue to take a running back in the first two rounds of the NFL draft would be if: 1) That player can help out in multiple phases of the offense, not just between the tackles, or 2) the first four positions all have satisfactory options on your roster. In my opinion, C.J. Spiller fits in to the first category. The versatility he provides makes him a dynamic option on offense, which after all teams should be hellbent on finding with the way the NFL is going. With that said -- and this won't be a popular sentiment with Bills fans right now -- but Buffalo should either let C.J. Spiller walk at the end of his current contract or only sign him to a one-year deal. He will be 29 years old to start the season after his current deal runs up (2016). Running back production dramatically falls with age, prompting you to be able to find a younger and cheaper option. That is three years down the line of course, but teams should be thinking that far ahead.

6) Left Tackle - Drafted Cordy Glenn in 2nd round of 2012
- In the case of Glenn, the Bills had both a different coaching staff and likely held a first-round grade on the left tackle. He's turned out to be capable of handling the left tackle duties, and will do so for each of the next three seasons. It's low money spent on a position that doesn't have a wide gap between the elite and the above average. As Andy Benoit of Football Outsiders smartly pointed out, great left tackle play isn't mandatory for success. In that very article, the majority of the last 10 Super Bowl left tackles have not been at the top of their position.

7) Right Tackle - Drafted Chris Hairston in 4th round of 2011, Drafted Zebrie Sanders in 5th round of 2012, Erik Pears signed through 2014
- Hairston is good enough to start and allow the quarterback to be productive. Right tackle is less important than the left side due to the right-handedness of most quarterbacks in the NFL -- including the future of the Bills' franchise E.J. Manuel. When Hairston's deal runs up, he will likely be relatively easy to re-sign unless he loses the job to Sanders between now and then. Pears is a cap casualty candidate this summer.

8) Guards - Kraig Urbik signed through 2016, Colin Brown signed through 2014, Sam Young signed through 2013, no one drafted in 2013
- The Bills smartly saw value in Urbik and locked him in to a long-term, mid-level contract. The Bills are showing a hearty amount of trust in either Sam Young or Colin Brown with the left guard spot. That position could have warranted a Day 3 pick in 2013 just for competition's sake. The option exists, however, to sign a veteran free agent that would come in on a low contract. Either way, they are operating with new NFL philosophies in mind. While many had Buffalo pegged for a guard in the first round in 2013, the team has admitted publicly that they don't value guards that highly -- and rightfully so.

Twitter: @JoeBuscaglia

All photos courtesy of AP
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