The Buffalo Bills pulled off a shocking trade Tuesday when they agreed to send linebacker Kiko Alonso to the Philadelphia Eagles for running back LeSean McCoy. The move will land an All-Pro back in Buffalo, giving the Bills' offense a dynamic runner to feature in a "Ground and Pound" attack under new coach Rex Ryan. While the skeptics are suggesting Buffalo's acquisition of a running back with high mileage and a huge cap number is a risky proposition, I believe the move makes the Bills a serious contender in the AFC. Here are three reasons why:
1. Acquiring LeSean McCoy allows coach Rex Ryan to follow his ideal "championship" blueprint.
Despite the suggestion that the NFL is a pass-happy league, the boisterous leader of the Bills believes the combination of a dynamic running game and stingy defense will produce a championship banner in Ralph Wilson Stadium. Ryan used a similar formula to guide the New York Jets to back-to-back appearances in the AFC Championship Game, and his offensive coordinator, Greg Roman, used a similar formula to help the San Francisco 49ers reach three straight NFC Championship Games under Jim Harbaugh.
While McCoy is not a physical back capable of punishing opponents on a bevy of inside runs, he is an electric runner with the speed and quickness to deliver an explosive play whenever he touches the ball. As a runner, he remains one of the shiftiest backs in the NFL, and his ability to make people miss on the perimeter requires opponents to put extra defenders in the box. Although critics might say McCoy is coming off a disappointing year, it is important to note that he totaled 1,319 rushing yards and averaged 4.2 yards per carry on the way to posting his fourth 1,000-yard season in the last five years.
It's fair to say McCoy seemed to have a tougher time finding creases in 2014, but he still finished as the NFL's third-leading rusher. In a Bills offense that will be even more run-centric than any McCoy has played in as a pro, he might return to his lofty perch as the league's rushing leader. Most important, he will be the catalyst to a running game that will try to wear down opponents by repeatedly handing the ball off. With Fred Jackson and Anthony Dixon capable of complementing McCoy in the backfield, the Bills have the potential to field a dominant ground attack that leads to a playoff run at season's end.
2. McCoy's presence in the backfield will open up the field for Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods.
The Bills have an impressive 1-2 punch in the passing game with Watkins and Woods maturing into upper echelon pass-catchers. Each has the ability to terrorize opponents on the perimeter, but defensive coordinators could take them out of the game with an assortment of rolled coverage or two-deep looks on passing downs. With McCoy in the backfield, however, defensive play-callers will be more reluctant to play with "light" boxes. The fear of surrendering a big run will force more defensive coordinators to employ seven- and eight-man fronts against one-back and two-back formations, leaving Woods and Watkins isolated against single coverage.
This will allow Roman to selectively take deep shots down the field against one-on-one matchups, resulting in more explosive plays and pass-interference penalties on the outside. In addition, the presence of McCoy in the backfield will create big-play opportunities on play-action passes following ball fakes at the point of attack. These tactics helped the 49ers spring Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis for "explosives" in San Francisco under Roman; the approach should help the Bills generate big-play touches for Woods and Watkins in Buffalo.
3. A dominant playmaker in the backfield will make life easier for the Bills' starting quarterback.
Coaches at every level frequently discuss how the presence of a dominant running back alleviates the burden on the quarterback to carry the offense. In Buffalo, the addition of McCoy will improve the performance and production of EJ Manuel. Now, I know that it's not a lock that Manuel will be the Bills' starting quarterback when the season opens -- especially after the Bills agreed Wedenesday to acquire Matt Cassel from the Vikes -- but the presence of an established running back will help the young passer become a more efficient playmaker from the pocket. From facing more single-high safety looks with one-on-one coverage on the outside to being able to push the ball downfield on play-action passes, Manuel's overall play should see a boost with McCoy on board.
McCoy's underrated receiving skills will also help Manuel improve his efficiency as a passer in the Bills' offense. The playmaker has notched at least 40 receptions in five of his six seasons, including a career-best 78 catches in 2010. He is one of the best screen receivers in the NFL, which could lead the Bills to feature him prominently in the passing game on a variety of delayed and slow screens on the perimeter. In addition, McCoy is a threat to take it the distance on swings and option routes, making it easy for Manuel to rack up significant production on high-percentage completion passes.
What does it mean for Philadelphia?
For the second straight year, Chip Kelly has ushered a dominant offensive player out of Philly. Although the Eagles' offense scored more points in 2014 than the previous version with DeSean Jackson, the unit ground to a halt down the stretch when facing stiffer defenses. The offense could suffer a similar fate in 2015 without McCoy on the field. The seventh-year pro was the backbone of the Eagles' zone-read attack, alleviating the pressure on Nick Foles and Sanchez to carry the offense as playmakers from the pocket. The threat of McCoy handling the ball on an inside or outside zone altered the way defensive coordinators attacked the Eagles, and his loss will be felt on an offense that could also be without Pro Bowl wideout Jeremy Maclin. The lack of explosive skill players on the perimeter shows up in big games against elite defenses; Kelly must find a way to replace a ton of production on the outside for the Eagles to compete with the top teams in the NFC.
On defense, the addition of Alonso gives the Eagles a young, dynamic player to incorporate into the lineup. He is a tackling machine with outstanding instincts and awareness. Most important, he is a ball hawk with a knack for producing turnovers at the second level. Now, it is important to note that Alonso has been injury-prone (torn ACL in 2010 and 2014; hip surgery in 2014) and he is not on McCoy's level as a player. However, he is familiar with Kelly and his approach -- he played for Kelly at Oregon -- allowing the young defender to become a leader on a team searching for guidance afer the departure of several key veterans.