I was interviewed and answered a few questions as a part of Route4Sports.com ‘s 32 interviews in 32 days. Check out it and the rest of the series out here, and the interview is below. I talk a little bit about the quarterback battle, the defense, and expectations.
Joe Wedra: Who do you expect to win the QB race and why?
Early on in camp, all reports point to Manuel having the upper hand, but Marrone was quick to remind everyone that the Bills are throwing more complex defenses at the veteran Kevin Kolb. The competition isn’t over, but the simplest way to put it is this: if EJ Manuel can prove that he’s capable of not being eaten alive by NFL defenses, he’ll be the starter.
Wedra: Where do you see the defense being at the end of the year?
Fenton: It’s hard not to be optimistic about Mike Pettine coming into run this unit. Last year, the Bills woefully underperformed with Dave Wannstedt’s conservative, dated defensive schemes. Pettine, on the other hand, has been at the center of most of the current trends sweeping through the NFL like disguising the unit’s intentions, playing multiple fronts, and the utilization of hybrid players. It’s not often that a coordinator that’s had Pettine’s success is available, but thanks to him wanting to escape Rex Ryan’s shadow the Bills should improve.
And the talent is there. While some think Mario Williams underperformed in 2012, his 10.5 sacks were right on pace with the rest of his career. Stephon Gilmore, the teams first round pick in 2012, played extremely physical, shut down Larry Fitzgerald, and is being picked as a player poised to breakout as one of the leagues top corners. And while it’s wise not to expect too much from a rookie, this year’s second round pick and projected ILB starter Kiko Alonso has earned rave reviews from Pettine, who said “that Kiko has been a pleasant surprise would be an understatement.”
That’s not to say that the unit won’t have week spots. The cornerback depth beyond Gilmore is concerning especially considering the degree that Pettine relies on man coverage. And the team may end up having to start unproven sophomore Nigel Bradham and the other inside linebacker spot. Finally, Jairus Byrd, the best free safety in the league holding out in protest of his franchise tag, has yet to report to camp, although he likely will before the season begins.
But each unit in the league has weak spots, and I’m expecting the unit to finish in the top half of the league, and wouldn’t be surprised by a top 4-8 finish.
Wedra: Who is going to be the leader on this team and why?
Fenton: If EJ Manuel ends up winning the starting job, he’s shown in the past that he’s not afraid to step to a leadership role. As it stands, Eric Wood and Kyle Williams tend to be the players that set the tone and lead by example. Back in his second year, Wood made headlines by attacking first round draft bust Aaron Maybin after “cheap-shotting” Fred Jackson in practice, and has been a leader ever since (as a center should be). Kyle Williams tends to be the spokesmen of the defense, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Kiko Alsonso takes up some of the mantle, as he will likely be responsible for handling some play calling as a interior linebacker.
Wedra: Give me your final projected stat lines for Spiller and Stevie Johnson and explain why you gave the stats you did.
Fenton: Stevie Johnson is easy, considering his 3 years as a full time starter he’s been remarkably consistent with his production. Pencil him in for about 80 catches, 1050 yards, and well say 7 or 8 TDs.
Spiller is a little trickier, considering he had very good production last year (1200 yards rushing, 500 yards receiving, 8 combined TDs), but was also the source of hostility towards former coach Chan Gailey as most thought his 6.0 YPC warranted more use, and that Spiller could have produced more had Gailey given him more than 20 touches per game. The indication seems to be that new coach Doug Marrone realizes the blue chip talent that is CJ Spiller, so I’ll go 1400 yards rushing and 600 receiving, may 11 TD’s. Spiller isn’t a huge back, so injuries are a slightly bigger concern, but I’ll say he has a healthy uptick in production.
Wedra: Where do you see the team being at the end of the year?
Fenton: This is a tough one considering how different much of the team is. There is a completely new coaching staff, new schemes on either side of the ball, two new QBs, and new leadership in the front office. On the other hand, the team is probably top to bottom the most talented it’s been in a decade.
The defense should be hugely improved, while the offense may take a bit longer to coalesce. I expect the team to finish in the 7-9 9-7 range, which if the cards fall could mean a return to the playoffs. But looking longer term, if Manuel turns out to be the franchise quarterback that Bills fans have been thirsting for, the Bills should be in a position to start contending for the playoffs on a yearly basis.