WHY THE BUFFALO BILLS’ PASSING OFFENSE SHOULD IMPROVE
The passing attack of the New England Patriots was the subject of an ESPN Insider essay last week. The conclusion was that – if three factors line up – the Pats could have one of the best passing games in the NFL this season.
1—Tight end Rob Gronkowski figures to be healthier. He’s a match-up nightmare for any defense. Wide receiver Danny Amendola also missed considerable playing time.
2—Young wide receivers Aaron Dobson, Josh Boyce and Kenbrell Thompkins figure to be improved this season.
3—The top seven offensive linemen return from last year. The Pats also drafted three offensive linemen. After a terrific 2012 season, New England’s OL slipped a bit last year. QB Tom Brady was pressured and hit more than usual. The OL has the potential to be one of the NFL’s best despite the retirement of veteran OL coach Dante Scarnecchia.
OK. We get it. But what about Buffalo’s passing attack? The Bills won’t attract as much attention as the Patriots, of course, but the Bills have a reasonable chance to have a more-improved pass offense than New England this season – partly because they have much more room for improvement.
2013 passing comparison (NFL rank in parentheses):
Pass attempts – New England 628 (7th)…Buffalo 522 (24th)
Yards passing – New England 4087 (10th)…Buffalo 3103 (28th)
TD passes – New England 25 (tied 13th)…Buffalo 16 (tied 30th; only Jets fewer with 13)
Interceptions thrown – New England 11 (tied 7th fewest)…Buffalo 15 (17th most)
Times sacked – New England 40 (tied 20th most)…Buffalo 48 (tied 4th most)
Yards per pass attempt – New England 6.9 (17th)…Buffalo 6.5 (28th)
Passer rating – New England 87.3 (15th)…Buffalo 75.0 (26th)
Yards passing per game – New England 255 (10th)…Buffalo 194 (28th).
The numbers confirm that New England’s passing game was below the team’s normal standards last year.
The numbers also show how poor Buffalo’s passing game was last season. The NFL is a passing game – now more than ever – and that somewhat diminishes Buffalo’s generally impressive rushing stats. The Bills ran so much largely because they weren’t very good throwing the ball.
New England – 470 rushes (9th) for 2085 yards (9th) and 4.4 yards per carry (9th)
Buffalo —546 rushes (1st) for 2307 yards (2nd) and 4.2 yards per carry (14th).
Why Buffalo’s passing attack figures to improve significantly this season:
1—It almost has to be better.
2—Rookie Sammy Watkins is the true No. 1 wide receiver the team has lacked in recent years – apologies to Stevie Johnson, who would’ve been a very good No. 2.
3—Second-year man Robert Woods could be an ideal No. 2 wide receiver.
4—Depth at WR: Mike Williams, Marquise Goodwin, T.J. Graham, Marcus Easley, Chris Hogan.
5—The offensive line should be significantly better – particularly in pass protection. Rookies Cyrus Kouandjio, Cyril Richardson and Seantrel Henderson and huge and have potential.
6—QB EJ Manuel should be much better this season as a second-year pro. Watkins alone should boost Manuel’s numbers and confidence.
7—Tight ends by committee (Scott Chandler, Tony Moeaki, Lee Smith, Chris Gragg) could be effective in the passing game.
The main worry is Manuel’s health. If he misses considerable playing time, I wouldn’t count on back-ups Thad Lewis and Jeff Tuel filling the bill.
REINHART LOOKS LIKE THE MAN FOR THE SABRES
The NHL entry draft will be Friday and Saturday in Philadelphia. The Buffalo Sabres figure to be a significantly better team after it is over. They have eight picks –2nd, 31st, 39th, 49th, 61st, 121st, 151st and 181st.
Buffalo can’t miss on No. 2 and is due to connect with at least a few later picks.
The Florida Panthers have the No. 1 overall pick and are expected to select defenseman Aaron Ekblad (Barrie OHL). He is projected as an instant NHL regular and likely anchor on the team’s blue line for a long time.
Most draft analysts project center Sam Reinhart (Kootenay WHL) as the No. 2 overall pick by Buffalo. The Sabres have plenty of prospects on defense but desperately need firepower. Reinhart ranks No. 1 on the assorted lists of forward prospects in “pure hockey IQ” and playmaking skills. Buffalo has lacked a true No. 1 center for years and Reinhart is expected to be the man.
Reinhart might never play for the Rochester Americans. If he doesn’t make the Sabres immediately, he could return to juniors to polish his overall game and dominate even more.
ENNIS AND GRANT UNLIKELY LOTTERY PICKS
When Syracuse University freshman guard Tyler Ennis and sophomore forward Jerami Grant declared for the 2014 NBA draft, most draft analysts projected them as lottery picks (top 14).
Their stock has fallen – if the latest mock drafts are on target, Ennis and Grant will be at least slightly disappointed when their names are called in Thursday’s NBA draft.
Scott Howard Cooper of NBA.com has Ennis going No. 16 to the Chicago Bulls and Grant going No. 27 to the Phoenix Suns.
Others have Ennis lasting into the 20s and Grant dropping into the second round.
It looks like Ennis and Grant could’ve used at least one more season at SU to improve their games and boost their stock for the 2015 draft.
If they second guess themselves, their first fat NBA paychecks this season will make them feel much better about their decisions to turn pro.
BIG WEEK FOR RHINOS AND RATTLERS
The Rochester Rhinos and Rochester Rattlers have major showdowns this week.
The Rhinos will hit the road Wednesday night to play the New England Revolution (Major Soccer League) in the Round of 16 in the Lamar Hunt Jr. U.S. Open Cup.
Rochester, coming off a 1-0 win over D.C. United (Major League Soccer) last week at Sahlen’s Stadium, is the only USL PRO team left among the 16 survivors in this open tournament. The others represent MLS (Chicago, Colorado, Columbus, Dallas, Houston, Sporting Kansas City, Los Angeles Galaxy, New England, Philadelphia, Portland, San Jose, Seattle) and NASL (Atlanta Silverbacks, Carolina RailHawks and New York Cosmos).
The Rhinos, of course, won the U.S. Open Cup in 1999. They are the only non-MLS team to win the open championship since MLS started playing in 1996.
Can these Rhinos match the miracle of 1999? Probably not. Sooner or later, the team’s lack of firepower figures to do it in. But these guys know how to play defense and won’t be an easy out for MLS opponents that won’t be taking this competition as seriously as our team does.
The Rattlers, the surprise team of Major League Soccer, have a 5-3 record and sole possession of second place in the eight-team league. Only the mighty Denver Outlaws have a better record (7-1).
The Rattlers began this season with solid goaltending and defense and have since bolstered the offense. They’ve become a dangerous team for coach Tim Soudan.
Lacrosse is a huge sport in western New York, but you wouldn’t know it judging by the NLL home attendance figures. Rochester is 4-0 at Sahlen's Stadium but averaging a league-low 1,124 fans per game.
Needless to say, the Rattlers would appreciate more support – starting with Sunday afternoon’s (1 p.m.) showdown against the Denver Outlaws, the class of the league. MLL has the best outdoor lacrosse players in the world, and many of them will be on display at Sahlen’s Stadium. The game will be carried by CBS Sports Network, ESPN 3 and Universal Sports.
A FEW THOUGHTS ON BASEBALL
Most amazing stat line of the season – Oakland A’s closer Sean Doolittle’s incredible 50 strikeouts and 1 walk (that’s right) in 36 innings…He has a team-high 10 saves, 2.00 ERA and 0.56 WHIP (walks + hits per inning).
Worst starting pitcher – Minnesota’s Ricky Nolasco has a misleading 4-5 record in 15 starts. Among MLB starters, he has the worst ERA (5.52) and WHIP (1.56). In 89 2/3 innings, he has allowed 114 hits, with 26 walks and 63 strikeouts. The Twins have shown commendable restraint in keeping Nolasco in the rotation and keeping effective Kris Johnson (6-3, 2.72 ERA) and top prospects Trevor May (8-4, 2.94 ERA) and Alex Meyer (4-3, 3 .46 ERA) in Rochester. One factor in Minnesota’s patience: Nolasco is in the first season of a four-year, $49 million deal.
Best hitter – Colorado shortstop Troy Tulowitzki. He leads MLB in batting average (.360; No. 2 Jose Altuve is .336), slugging percentage (.648; No. 2 Jose Abreu is .598), on-base percentage (.451; No. 2 Jose Bautista is .433) and OPS (1.099; No. 2 Mike Trout is .988). He does his best hitting at Coors Field but he’s the guy I’d most want hitting for me anywhere.
Worst hitter – Cleveland’s Nick Swisher. I know he hit a walk-off grand slam last week, but he has mostly looked lost this season. The Yankees sure knew when to let him walk. He’s hitting .198 (44 for 222), with 5 HRs, 25 RBI, 29 walks, 67 strikeouts, .286 on-base percentage, .329 slugging percentage and .615 OPS. He’s in the second season of a four-year, $56 million deal.
Soccer is coming on strong in this country. Sure, settling for a 2-2 draw with Portugal on Sunday when a berth in the Group of 16 appeared locked up really hurt. But a lot of Americans were watching and – even more importantly – cared.
So Carmelo Anthony has decided to opt out of his contract with the New York Knicks and test free agency. I expect him to stay with the Knicks because they can pay him $32 million more than any other team. I don’t think winning a championship is his highest priority. I could be wrong. If he leaves Broadway, I hope he chooses Chicago over Miami.
The New York Yankees (39-35) and Seattle Mariners (40-36) enter Monday with near-identical records. How much better would the Yankees be with Robinson Cano at second base instead of Brian Roberts?
I believe it is safe to say that U.S. World Cup star Clint Dempsey is the favorite for the Hickok Belt for the month of June.