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`Bills roster rundown / Special teams: Keeping Easley would help coverage units

This is the last in an eight-part series assessing the state of the Buffalo Bills, position-by-position.

By Vic Carucci

News Sports Reporter

Signed, with cap hit in parentheses: CB Ron Brooks ($760,135), K Dan Carpenter ($2.362 million), RB Anthony Dixon ($1.167 million), CB Corey Graham ($4.3 million), ILB Ty Powell ($585,000), P Colton Schmidt ($510,000), WR Marcus Thigpen ($660,000), S Duke Williams ($702,563).

Pending free agents: OLB Larry Dean (unrestricted), WR Marcus Easley (unrestricted), KO Jordan Gay (exclusive rights), RB C.J. Spiller (unrestricted).

What went right: A great deal. According to rankings by the Dallas Morning News, accepted as the NFL’s most accurate indicator of special-teams performance, the Bills soared from next-to-last in the league in 2013 to second overall last season. Despite missing six games with a knee injury, Easley led the Bills with 11 special-teams tackles. He was the catalyst of coverage units that did an impressive job of complementing the work Gay did as NFL’s only kickoff specialist last season until the Denver Broncos added one late in the year. After kickoffs, Buffalo’s opponents had an average drive start of the 20.7-yard line (excluding onside kicks), which was tied for fifth-best in the league. Brooks ranked second on the team with 10 special-teams tackles, followed by Dean with nine. Powell, Dixon and Dean were the Bills’ most heavily involved players on special teams. Dixon blocked two punts. Carpenter made a franchise record 34 field goals in 38 attempts. Counting the 31 of 32 PATs he hit, he finished with 133 points, the third-highest total in Bills history. Schmidt put 31 of 86 punts inside the opponents’ 20-yard line. Before suffering a broken collarbone that caused him to miss seven games, Spiller returned a kickoff 102 yards for a touchdown against Miami on Sept. 14. Thigpen, who was added late in the season, had a 75-yard punt return for a TD against Green Bay. After being under fire in his first season with the Bills in 2013, Danny Crossman made a strong comeback with the rest of his group and that earned him a spot on the coaching staff of new head coach Rex Ryan.

What went wrong: Schmidt had a mostly strong first NFL season, although his performance did drop off a bit toward the end. Beyond that, it’s hard to find a whole lot to criticize that wouldn’t be nitpicking. Crossman’s big challenge, of course, will be improving on or even matching a performance that put the Bills’ special teams among the NFL’s elite.

Where they go from here: Crossman makes no apologies about the fact that he is downright begging General Manager Doug Whaley and the rest of the Bills’ hierarchy to keep Easley, whose salary shouldn’t be all that expensive, relatively speaking. As an exclusive-rights free agent, Gay doesn’t figure to go anywhere, especially after his ability to consistently boom kickoffs deep. But will Ryan be as enthusiastic about tying up a roster spot with a kickoff specialist as his predecessor, Doug Marrone, was? Dean would be another player the Bills would like to retain, but there’s a limit to how much a team will extend itself for special teams players. Spiller could prove to be too expensive for the Bills to re-sign, especially with talented running backs consistently being found in the lower portion of the draft, as undrafted free agents, and on the bargain shelf of the free-agent market. The Bills’ relatively young roster should help their efforts to keep their special teams at or near the top of the league.

email: vcarucci@buffnews.com

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