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Bills Mailbag: Building offensive chemistry a challenge

You’ve got Bills questions/comments that you submit to me via Twitter, @viccarucci, and e-mail, at, and I have answers.

Here’s what I have to say about what you have to say:

Pat Courts says: “Although I see the individual talent to be a considerable upgrade, I’m concerned that with this many new players and a complex, new offense, things could get very confused out there. Any comment you have will be appreciated.”

I say: That’s entirely possible.

Building chemistry is a challenge under the best of circumstances. When you have new people on the offensive line (guards Richie Incognito and John Miller, and potentially a new tackle in Cyrus Kouandjio), in the pass-catching corps (tight end Charles Clay and receiver Percy Harvin), and possibly at quarterback (Matt Cassel, Tyrod Taylor or super longshot Matt Simms), it stands to reason that it could take some time before everyone finds a comfort level with each other.

The linemen not only have to get used to working together, which impacts all five, but they also have to develop a feel for the timing of how the running backs hit the hole and how to work in concert with both the fullback and running back, as well as the tendencies of the quarterback when it comes to how long he hangs in the pocket and the way he’s inclined to move.

All of the pass-catchers have to establish a sense of timing with the quarterback, and judging from I saw during most of the six offseason practices open to the media, the Bills have a very long way to go in the area. Rectifying that would seemingly be even more difficult as long as there continues to be the three-way practice rotation between EJ Manuel, Cassel and Taylor with the starters.

Add to all of that the need to learn a new playbook that includes a much wider variety of running plays than the Bills previously ran (or that most other NFL teams run), and you do have the potential for a perfect storm of ineptitude. Just how long it might last remains to be seen.

@CardinalFan23: “Can Boobie Dixon win the #2 RB job in camp?”

I say: I wouldn’t rule it out, but I also wouldn’t count on it.

The favorite for that role figures to be Fred Jackson, because there simply is no other reason to keep the 34-year-old veteran on the roster if he’s not the primary understudy for LeSean McCoy. I think the Bills are leaning toward hanging onto him for at least another season for his tremendous popularity, although that, alone, can’t be the reason to keep a player and tie up valuable cap space. He has to make on-field contributions, although the opportunities to do so figure to be limited with McCoy expected to dominate snaps.

Dixon or another back could emerge, but that would likely only happen if Jackson showed even more decline than was evident after he returned from a groin-muscle injury last season. Dixon had a great chance to emerge as a force in the backfield last season, when Jackson and former Bill C.J. Spiller were dealing with injuries, and he came up short, as did Bryce Brown.

Keep an eye on fifth-round draft pick Karlos Williams. I was impressed with the way he ran during offseason workouts. He showed good explosiveness and balance, and excellent field vision. I look forward to seeing what he’ll be able to do when the pads come on at training camp.

@rlonghouse: “Will Rex Ryan have a better understanding of football analytics than his predecessors, i.e. punt less?”

I say: To the best of my understanding, Ryan is far from being heavily influenced by analytics when it comes to making in-game decisions or choosing players or pretty much anything else in his old-school approach to coaching.

Ryan’s football philosophy is relatively simple: be tougher, stronger and more physical than the other guy. He believes in the structure and creativity of his defensive schemes and in his ability to identify the right players to make them work effectively. After that, he leaves the offense to his offensive coordinator, in this case Greg Roman. And, not surprisingly, Roman pretty much takes the same approach as Ryan.

I believe the analytically inclined made a bit too much of Doug Marrone’s punt-happy tendencies. That wasn’t even on my top five reasons of why the Bills struggled offensively the past two seasons with Marrone as coach. Poor play at quarterback, offensive line, running back, and tight end, and less than exceptional work at wide receiver had more to do with the team’s shortcomings on that side of the ball than too much punting.

I wouldn’t be the least bit shocked if Ryan chooses to punt more often than might be popular with the number-crunching crowd. That’s because he will likely trust a defense that he believes is the NFL’s best to make a critical stop or force a big turnover rather than putting the outcome in the hands of an offense that doesn’t yet have a starting quarterback.

For the record, Ryan has never been known for his exceptional game management, an area he readily admits to striving to improve.

@stungone7 says: “Who do you project will have the better statistical year: Sammy Watkins, Robert Woods or Percy Harvin?”

I say: Watkins.

I can’t imagine him not being the focal point of whatever passing game the Bills have. No other receiver on the team matches his talent or completeness at the position. Woods might be a better route-runner, but Watkins has made huge strides in that area from the offseason tutelage of receivers coach Sanjay Lal. Harvin might be faster, but he doesn’t have Watkins’ overall athletic skills and won’t likely be involved in the offense as much.

Watkins should be fully recovered from the hip surgery that limited his participation in offseason workouts and ready to go for training camp. He also will be motivated to make up for the disappointment of a rookie season filled with injuries.

I’m not expecting Watkins’ numbers to be dramatically better than the 65 catches, including six touchdowns, he had last year. The Bills are expected to be a run-first team, and that means a fair number of offensive snaps will be McCoy carries. The tight end also figures to be a larger part of the offense than in 2014, so expect Charles Clay to make his share of catches.

Jackson led the team with 66 receptions last year, but I’m not expecting that from him or any running back this season. McCoy did have a career-high 78 catches in 2010 with the Philadelphia Eagles, but he hasn’t had anything close to that since, and reached a career-low with 28 receptions last season.

Sam Ruggiero says: “Re-signing Marcell Dareus will cost a pretty penny & cap space is extremely tight. What do the Bills need to do to make room for Marcell’s extra millions?”

I say: They need to restructure other contracts and perhaps even cut a player or two carrying a large cap number but not making a major contribution.

The player whose deal would likely provide the most room for restructuring is outside linebacker Mario Williams, who has the Bills’ largest cap number at $19.4 million. That includes a guaranteed base salary of $12.1 million, a roster bonus of $1 million, a workout bonus of $500,000, and $400,000 in other bonuses.

The Bills are probably going to approach Williams (if they haven’t already) about moving around some of the money he is due through the three seasons that remain on his contract as part of a long-term extension that would then help create cap room for them to extend Dareus’ deal and put him among the highest-paid defensive players in the NFL. In addition, they could extend the contract of Cassel, who has a $4.75 cap number, but that assumes he wins the starting job.

And they could very well end up unloading the salaries of a couple of backups such as guard Kraig Urbik ($2.2 million), wide receiver Marquise Goodwin ($764,719), and running back Bryce Brown ($660,000).

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