Rex Ryan talks EJ Manuel’s future, plans for Sammy Watkins and Bills’ elite D

The first few days as the Buffalo Bills’ new head coach has been filled with excitement for Rex Ryan.

That euphoria will certainly wear off soon as the Bills must address some key issues this offseason after their first winning season in a decade. Before Buffalo’s brass heads to Mobile, Alabama, this week to scout the new crop of talent at the Senior Bowl, they have begun the evaluation phase of their roster and understand where it could be strengthened.

The most pressing issue will be finding a solution to the quarterback position. With EJ Manuel serving as the lone option, the third-year quarterback will likely face competition heading into training camp. Ryan also spoke about some key pieces to the defense, which finished in the top-10 in nearly every major category.

Ryan, who was speaking on behalf of Pepsi’s "Hype Your Hometown" contest, joined for a telephone conversation on Sunday afternoon: Before Jets owner Woody Johnson hired his head coach and general manager he said it’s of most importance that the two philosophies were aligned. What were the differences between you and former Jets GM John Idzik?

Rex Ryan: Obviously it never worked out the way we wanted it to. I know John tried his best. He had a vision for the team about what he wanted to do. It is what it is. It didn’t work out in the best interest of the Jets or me or him or Woody Johnson. I can tell you one thing: I’m fortunate with the situation I’m in now. From the ownership, Russ Brandon and Doug Whaley, everyone is aligned 100 percent together. We all want the same thing and that’s to bring championships to Buffalo. And we’re committed to that.

FS: What will the Buffalo Bills be about moving forward?


RR: We’re going to be the most physical team in the league. And we’re not shy of saying it. Obviously we have a lot of talented players including Sammy Watkins. We have a lot of talent on defense. We’re going to add that same type of talent on offense. I’m excited about building this offensive line. I think if you have a strong offensive line, you can do a lot of things. That’s where it starts and I’m excited about that.

FS: We all know what Buffalo invested in Watkins last year. You guys don’t have a first-round pick this year. How big of a priority is it to make him your feature weapon on offense?

RR: Well, I can tell you trying to defend Sammy Watkins, any time we tried to play man coverage on him, I got burned. He had a 90-yard catch. I think he had a 70-yard touchdown run. So I learned my lesson. The next week I doubled him every single snap. I mean every single snap. And so it’s not about his production. Sammy is a one in every 10-year player that comes down the road. You mentioned we don’t have a first-round pick. That’s OK with me. We have Sammy Watkins. I think it’s not just about his production but what he does to open things up for the entire offense. That’s the mark of a really great player. Clearly Sammy is one of those players.

FS: Does EJ Manuel have what it takes to be the Bills franchise quarterback moving forward?

RR: I think it’s too early to tell right now. We’re still in the evaluating stages of looking at our quarterback situation. I thought of EJ a lot when he was coming out. We’ll see first-hand when we get a chance to coach him. I’m excited about him though, I’ll tell you that much. Will we explore possible veteran free agents or draft picks out there? Absolutely. We’re going to explore everything to add competition because that makes your whole team better.

FS: What excites you about EJ Manuel’s game?

RR: Well, I think EJ when he was coming out I remember he was a smart young man. He was dedicated to the game and I think that’s what you have to be at that position, in particular. He’s got some movement skills. I don’t think he uses his legs enough to be quite honest with you, but hopefully we can change that. People that criticize him because he didn’t jump in and make it to the playoffs as a rookie or something would be wrong.

FS: I talked to a scout who said if the core of this defense stays together they have a chance to be an elite defense for the next six or seven years. What is your assessment?

RR: I think so, too. Having a guy like Dennis Thurman be the defensive coordinator, he’s a guy that has been with me for 15 years. [Defensive backs coach] Donnie Henderson is one of the best coaches in the country coaching the secondary. Obviously that’s a great start, but there’s a lot of talent. I’ve been a fan of Kyle Williams, Mario Williams and Marcell Dareus. That front is loaded. But I don’t think the back end gets enough credit as it probably should. They get their hands on you and are a physical group.

FS: One player you didn’t mention is impending free agent Jerry Hughes. Do you envision Jerry being a Buffalo Bill next year?

RR: I absolutely envision that. I think Jerry is an outstanding player. The last two years I’ve been against him and he’s tremendous. I hope he’s still a Buffalo Bill moving forward. Sometimes things happen where that might not be a possibility, but I believe he’s a great player and I hope he’s a Buffalo Bill for a long time.

FS: You have assembled your staff. What went into the hire of [offensive line coach] Aaron Kromer? What were some of the qualities that stood out to you about him?

RR: Going back to the days of coaching with Jon Gruden, Aaron has a great reputation about him. He’s a tremendous coach, smart guy. He’s worked in New Orleans and other places and has been a terrific football coach. First year in Chicago, I think they broke every record on offense. Last year it was a little bumpy. Obviously, the unfortunate thing that came out with him and Cutler was unfortunate but it shouldn’t ruin his reputation of being an outstanding coach.

FS: How do you think Kiko Alonso’s return will benefit this defense?

RR: This guy is huge. He’s a beast. My understanding is he’s going to be healthy and that’s a great thing for the Buffalo Bills. This young man can be tremendous and he’s a great player so I’ll be excited to see him out there personally.