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Bills continually plowing under bottom of roster, practice squad

By Tim Graham

To everything, churn, churn, churn ...

In hopes of maximizing personnel, the Buffalo Bills have been busy rototilling the bottom part of their roster and practice squad this fall.

Over the past nine weeks, the Bills have made 33 player transactions. Few were forced by injuries. Most were made simply to improve depth and bring aboard raw prospects.

"That's something that we're always trying to do because I believe development in this league is extremely important," Bills coach Doug Marrone said, "and that's the way that we can develop players, bringing players in and out and seeing which one sticks."

While the Bills are mathematically alive in the playoff hunt, much of the focus has shifted to player evaluation for the future. That's why veteran running back Tashard Choice was cut, and former practice-squad player Ronnie Wingo will get a look-see over the final four weeks.

Marrone said he meets "constantly" with General Manager Doug Whaley and player personnel director Jim Monos about tweaking the roster with an eye toward the future.

"That's where sometimes those guys pop, and that's where they come from," Marrone said. "I think when you look at the situation that we're in, when I think you look at salary cap, I think that there are certain positions you need to develop. If you don't develop those positions, you're going to get in trouble from a salary cap standpoint and not be the best team you can be if you're relying on paying players at the highest price to play certain positions."

As you'll see below, the Bills regard some developmental positions more prominently than others.

In the final season with GM Buddy Nix and coach Chan Gailey, the Bills made 28 practice-squad signings or releases. That total does not include players who were promoted from the practice squad to the active roster, only those who were added to the developmental squad or released outright.

After the 2012 Bills signed their eight practice-squad players at the start of the year, they didn't make another move for four weeks.

Under Whaley and Marrone, the Bills have made 25 practice-squad moves already. They've also patrolled other teams' taxi squads, plucking defensive tackle Stefan Charles and guard J.J. Unga for the 53-man roster.

After signing their original eight, the Bills made three moves in September, six in October and six in November. The Bills have made two transactions so far in December.

The Bills already have matched last year's number of practice-squad players promoted to the active roster. They've elevated five, most notably quarterback Thad Lewis.

Of last year's promotions, receiver Marcus Easley is the only one still on the active roster. Wide receiver Kevin Elliott is on injured reserve. Safety Mana Silva left the team without permission in training camp, but remains Bills property.

A breakdown of practice-squad transactions the past two years:

2012

Final practice squad: running back Zach Brown, tight end Derek Buttles, offensive lineman Andrew Jackson, tackle Adam Grant, defensive end Corbin Bryant, defensive tackle Jarron Gilbert, linebacker Brian Smith.

Total moves (not counting promotions): 28.

Moves by position: nine offensive lineman, five receiver, four defensive back, three tight end, three defensive tackle, two linebacker, one running back.

Promotions to active roster: defensive tackle Jay Ross, offensive lineman David Snow, receiver Marcus Easley, safety Mana Silva, Ross again after being cut and re-signed and receiver Kevin Elliott.

2013

Current practice squad: quarterback Dennis Dixon, receivers Cordell Roberson and Tommy Streeter, tackles Edawn Coughman and Jamaal Johnson-Webb, defensive end Ikponmwosa Igbinosun, linebacker Jacquies Smith, cornerback Mario Butler.

Total moves (not counting promotions): 25.

Moves by position: eight defensive end, five cornerback, five guard, two quarterback, two receiver, two offensive tackle, one running back.

Promotions to active roster: cornerback Johnny Adams, quarterback Thad Lewis, cornerback Brandon Smith, guard Mark Asper, running back Ronnie Wingo.

The breakdown shows the developmental emphasis shifted to defensive end, from one move last year to a team-high eight so far this year.

Also interesting is that previous Bills management didn't bother with a developmental quarterback, but the new regime has placed an importance there. Good thing, because Lewis helped the Bills remain competitive when rookie EJ Manuel missed four games with a knee injury.

Analytics site shows EJ Manuel is NFL's least-accurate passer

By Tim Graham

The Buffalo Bills essentially are into evaluation phase for the rest of the season.

No player needs to absorb experience over the last four games more than rookie quarterback EJ Manuel.

The Bills and their weary fans still are learning about Manuel, who missed four games while recovering from a knee injury. He has looked good at times, and showed a flair for the dramatic with his game-winning touchdown drive against the Carolina Panthers in Week Two.

But one area of concern is his accuracy. Analytics site ProFootballFocus.com says Manuel has been the NFL's least-accurate passer this year.

Manuel ranks dead last out of the 30 quarterbacks who've handled at least 50 percent of their teams' pass plays. When the field is broadened to include quarterbacks who've handled 25 percent of their teams' pass plays, he is tied for 36th out of 38, ahead of only St. Louis Rams backup Kellen Clemens.

PFF's "quarterback accuracy percentage" metric takes a deeper look than standard completion percentage.

PFF gives the passer credit for dropped passes and does not consider the following incompletions: throwaways, spikes, batted passes or attempts while being hit.

Manuel's adjusted accuracy percentage is 66.4 percent, two-tenths of a percent worse than that of New York Jets rookie Geno Smith, who has completed 29 passes over his past four games.

On Manuel's 249 attempts, PFF counts 15 drops (he gets credit for a completion on those) plus two throwaways, one batted pass and four while being hit (he doesn't get faulted for any of those).

PFF's data tags Bills receiver Stevie Johnson for a team-high five drops, although that total also includes passes thrown by Thad Lewis and Jeff Tuel. Tight end Scott Chandler and receiver Robert Woods have four drops apiece.

But Manuel is in decent company at the bottom of PFF's chart. Tom Brady is ranked 20th, Colin Kaepernick 24th, Andrew Luck 25th, Eli Manning 26th and Joe Flacco 27th.

Aaron Rodgers ranks first, followed by Philip Rivers, Peyton Manning, Matt Ryan and Drew Brees.

Nathaniel Hackett? Come on down! Bills coordinator leaves press box

By Tim Graham

When I asked Buffalo Bills coach Doug Marrone in the preseason who would keep EJ Manuel calm on the sideline during games, Marrone indicated that wouldn't be a problem.

At the time we discussed it, the Bills' backup quarterback was undrafted rookie Jeff Tuel, while Thad Lewis (one NFL start) was on the practice squad. Nathaniel Hackett, the Bills' offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, called plays from the press box.

Who would be Manuel's soothing voice of reason when a game got squally? Marrone said if that ever became an issue he'd handle it himself -- even while overseeing his team's game plan.

The Bills apparently discovered this shortcoming last Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Manuel struggled at Heinz Field in his first game back from a knee injury.

So for the first time, Hackett called plays from the sideline this afternoon instead of the press box. The Bills beat the Jets, 37-14, and Manuel played his best game.

"We thought it would be better for the quarterback to have Nate down there," Marrone said. "With a young quarterback, trying to get him back ... it's a different sense."

Marrone conceded it's easier to call plays from the higher perch, but the Bills plan to keep Hackett on the sideline for the rest of the year.

Manuel's performance certainly validated that plan. He rebounded with only eight incomplete passes, 245 yards, two touchdowns and zero turnovers. Manuel's 121.9 passer rating is his best through seven pro games.

"Just being able to look him in the eye," Manuel said of the benefit. "I haven't had face-to-face communication. Instead of being on a mike or a telephone or things like that, it was really good having him down there.

"He's not going back up. He'll be down there for the rest of my career."

Doug Marrone explains scenario in which he would've pulled EJ Manuel

By Jay Skurski

Bills coach Doug Marrone's weekly segment with WGR has quickly become must-listen radio every Friday morning. Marrone last week was asked whether there was a situation in which he would consider making a change at quarterback Sunday by replacing EJ Manuel with Thad Lewis. The entire segment can be heard here.

Given that Manuel went 11 of 25 for 79 yards in the first 55 minutes of Sunday's 23-10 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field, I asked Marrone today if that's not the scenario in which he'd pull Manuel -- then what would it look like?

"If EJ Manuel looked like he was hurt out there or that prior injury was hurting him to be productive or he was taking too many shots where he was being put in a situation where we couldn’t protect him and those things were going on? Then, yes I would have put Thad Lewis in there and that was the situation I was looking for, which didn’t occur yesterday."

On the line from Vegas: Wise guys dumping money on Bills this week

By Tim Graham

Las Vegas wise guys love the Buffalo Bills on Sunday.

The savviest bettors, the ones that make sportsbooks jump, have bet enough money on the Bills throughout the week to cut the spread in half.

The Pittsburgh Steelers opened as five-point favorites, but the spread has dwindled to 2.5 points at some offshore betting sites as of this posting.

"I thought five was a little high, especially with the possibility of EJ Manuel playing," Las Vegas handicapper and former oddsmaker Joel Staniszewski said. "As the week went on, it started to drop and drop and drop. With the announcement EJ Manuel's going to start, it dropped to three and with heavy juice on the Bills.

"They're definitely getting lots of bets. People who are betting enough money to move a line are the sharp bettors."

Who would've expected this three months ago?

The Steelers are perennial contenders. They haven't had a losing record since 2003. But they are 2-6 entering Sunday's game at Heinz Field and are coming off a loss in which they allowed a club-record 55 points.

"They appear to be teams in two different directions," Staniszewski said. "Pittsburgh appears to be getting older, where the stars just aren't performing like they used to. Buffalo has the young, up-and-coming players that might be one draft and offseason away from doing some damage."

Some trends for informational purposes:

  • Buffalo is 1-4 straight up over its past five games.
  • Buffalo is 1-5 against the spread over the past six games on the road.
  • Buffalo is 1-7 straight up over the past eight games on the road.
  • Buffalo is 1-8 against the spread and straight up in its past nine games against Pittsburgh.

However, and more importantly:

  • Buffalo is 6-1 against the spread after its past seven straight-up losses.
  • Pittsburgh is 1-5 against the spread over its past six straight-up losses.

"Those two stats are key for this year," Staniszewski said. "It's showing you the Bills, although a young team that has trouble finishing games, come back and play well -- even with Thad Lewis or Jeff Tuel at quarterback.

"The Steelers have done poorly and just are not playing well. Ben Roethlisberger is off his game. Their run game is not doing well. They're definitely on the decline."

A critical matchup is Buffalo's pass rush against a ramshackle Pittsburgh offensive line. Buffalo is tied for third with 29 sacks. Pittsburgh has surrendered 32, tied for second-most.

The Bills are 5-4 against the spread after starting the season 5-2.

EJ Manuel, Thad Lewis appear ready for Pittsburgh

By Tim Graham

Looks like Jeff Tuel will go from starter one week to inactive the next.

Buffalo Bills coach Doug Marrone announced today that recovering quarterbacks EJ Manuel and Thad Lewis made it through practice fine and are on track to dress for Sunday's game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field. A final determination has yet to be made, but Tuel seems the odd man out.

"EJ wasn't sore or anything," Marrone said of Manuel's response to Wednesday's practice. "That was the one thing we were waiting for. Barring any setbacks the next couple days, both he and Thad are ready."

Unless Manuel's knee experiences a problem between now and kickoff, the Bills will start their third quarterback in three weeks.

Marrone added that as long as both are healthy, the Bills will continue their habit of keeping only two quarterbacks active for the game.

The concern with dressing a third quarterback is wasting an active roster spot on a player with a better likelihood of contributing. Teams like to have as many linemen or special-teamers on hand as possible.

"If someone's not 100 percent healthy, you might go in with three" quarterbacks, Marrone said. "But a lot of times you've got to be careful because a lot of times the position it affects the most are special teams."

Rookie receiver Marquise Goodwin was limited at today's practice, while colleague Robert Woods was absent.

Marrone said Goodwin "will be ready to go from what I've seen today. Woods will make the trip to Pittsburgh and probably be a game-time decision.

Marrone also announced newly signed fullback Evan Rodriguez will play Sunday, at least on special teams.

EJ Manuel expected to start Sunday against Steelers

By Tim Graham

All signs point to EJ Manuel starting Sunday.

Vegas-style, neon signs.

Buffalo Bills head coach Doug Marrone echoed earlier comments from club president Russ Brandon that Manuel should be good to go for Sunday's game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field.

Manuel also said he'll be ready to play, although the team will make the call.

"I definitely feel like I can go," Manuel said. "It's still up to Coach Marrone as far as what we want to do as a team, but I definitely feel confident going into Sunday."

Marrone explained he wanted to see Manuel practice more this week before making a definitive announcement.

"The expectations if he's out there, obviously, are for us to win," Marrone said. "I think that what we have to be able to understand is, 'Here's a rookie quarterback that missed some time in the preseason and, obviously, now he's missed another four weeks.'

"So we have to do the best job we can to make sure he's ready."

The Bills have gone 1-3 since Manuel suffered a right knee injury in Week Five.

Manuel and Thad Lewis, whose sore ribs sidelined him from Sunday's loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, took reps at today's practice, but Manuel had a majority of them.

"Both guys, obviously, have been out for a while," Marrone said. "So there's a little bit of, for lack of a better term, rust that they're working through.

"I'm just going to keep it going during the week and we'll see where we go as far as who the starter is."

Injury updates on Thad Lewis, C.J. Spiller, rookie receivers

By Jay Skurski

EJ Manuel's potential return dominated the majority of coach Doug Marrone's press conference today, but the Buffalo Bills' coach also provided injury updates on several key offensive players.

The rundown:

• Backup quarterback Thad Lewis went through a throwing session and is expected to return to practice Wednesday after missing Sunday's 23-13 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs because of bruised ribs.

"He's getting better each day," Marrone said.

• Running back C.J. Spiller made it through Sunday's game without worsening his high-ankle sprain.

"I talked to C.J. afterward and he said he felt good," the coach said. "The one concern was when someone landed on it, how would he feel? He said one of those big defensive tackles landed on it. I told him, 'Well heck, if a defensive tackle, one of their defensive tackles, lands on it and you're ok, you should be fine.' "

• Rookie receivers Marquise Goodwin (hamstring) and Robert Woods (ankle), both of whom left Sunday's game, will be evaluated Wednesday when the team returns to practice.

On Goodwin, Marrone said: "When you have that, we've just got to get him out on the field and see how he is, so I don't really know right now. I'll know a lot when we get on the field and he can go ahead and test it."

As for Woods, the situation was much the same.

"We'll rest him through the next two days, today and tomorrow, and then see him on the field," Marrone said.

Bills third team in eight months to get rid of Matt Flynn

By Tim Graham

Zero point zero.

That's the Buffalo Bills stat line for Matt Flynn.

The Bills released the journeyman quarterback today, three weeks after they signed him.

Flynn didn't get into a game for Buffalo even though EJ Manuel and Thad Lewis were injured. The Bills instead went with undrafted rookie Jeff Tuel for Sunday's game against the Kansas City Chiefs.

The Bills made the move because Manuel is nearing a return from a knee injury, and Lewis could be available for Sunday's game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

With the roster vacancy, the Bills signed fullback Evan Rodriguez.

Points after: Chiefs 23, Bills 13

913071 McCoy Sports Bill#22

By Tim Graham

Quick highlights from the Buffalo Bills' loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in Ralph Wilson Stadium ...

What it means: The Bills used their third starting quarterback of the season, but they weren't overmatched by the undefeated Chiefs. Even so, the Bills couldn't prevail over two giveaways the Chiefs returned for touchdowns in the second half. The Bills outgained the Chiefs, 470-201, but were minus-3 in turnovers. The Bills are 3-6, last place in the AFC East.

Player of the game: Even in defeat C.J. Spiller was the best player on the field. A week apparently off did wonders for his sprained ankle. He ran 12 times for 116 yards and caught two passes for 39 yards.

Tuel time: Undrafted rookie quarterback Jeff Tuel made his first NFL start because Thad Lewis' injured ribs were too sore. Tuel was 18 of 39 for 229 yards and a touchdown with two interceptions.

Play of the game: With the Bills about to grab the game by its throat at the Chiefs' 1-yard line, Tuel threw the ball directly to cornerback Sean Smith at the goal line. Smith breezed up the left sideline for a 100-yard touchdown to tie the game early in the third quarter.

Preliminary injury report: Buffalo's rookie receivers had strong games before leaving with injuries. Robert Woods stayed on the ground late in the third quarter with a leg injury. He went straight to the locker room and didn't return. When Woods left the game he was Buffalo's top receiver with four catches for 44 yards. ... Marquise Goodwin went to the locker room late in the fourth quarter with an undisclosed injury. He finished with two catches for 64 yards, including a 59-yard touchdown.

Coming up: The Bills get back on the road next Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field.

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About Press Coverage

Tim Graham

Tim Graham

Tim Graham returned to The Buffalo News in 2011 after covering the NFL for three years at ESPN and for one year at the Palm Beach Post. Before that, the Cleveland native spent seven seasons on the Buffalo Sabres beat for The News and was president of the Boxing Writers Association of America.

@ByTimGraham | [email protected]


Mark Gaughan

Mark Gaughan

Buffalo native Mark Gaughan started working at The News in 1980 and has been covering the Bills exclusively since 1992. He is a former president of the Pro Football Writers of America, and he is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee.

@gggaughan | [email protected]


Jay Skurski

Jay Skurski

Jay Skurski joined The News in January 2009. The Lewiston native attended St. Francis High School before graduating from the University of South Florida. He writes a weekly Fantasy column in addition to his beat writing duties.

@JaySkurski | [email protected]

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