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2010 Season Preview: Buffalo Bills
2009 record: 6-10
Turnover Ratio: +3
Sack Differential: -14
Point Differential: -68
Coming In: T Cornell Green, DE Dwan Edwards, LB Andra Davis, LB Reggie Torbor, DT Marlon Favorite, WR Chad Jackson, RB Chad Simpson
Going Out: WR Terrell Owens, LB Chris Draft, WR Josh Reed, DE Ryan Denney, DE/OLB Aaron Schobel, G Richie Incognito, TE Derek Fine, T Jonathan Scott
Key Rookies: RB C.J. Spiller, DT Torrell Troup, WR Marcus Easley, DE Alex Carrington, OL Kyle Calloway
QB: A lot of the disappointment of 2009 centered on Trent Edwards? failure to develop into a franchise QB. Rather than seek out an upgrade via trade or in the draft, the Bills enter camp with a three-headed monster of Edwards, Ryan Fitzpatrick, and Brian Brohm.
Early reports indicate Brohm has the upper hand, though that is more a reflection on how little Fitzpatrick and Edwards have performed than anything Brohm has done. Brohm is a 2008 2nd round pick of the Packers who quickly washed out of Green Bay, and he looked pedestrian in limited duty last year. But he has the best touch and most upside of the group, and showed off a quicker release during OTAs. I held him in high regard during that draft, and the anticipated offense here in Buffalo is similar to what he ran at Louisville.
Fitzpatrick and Edwards put up eerily similar lackluster numbers while juggling the starting job last year. The team clearly responded better to Fitzpatrick, a workaholic who buzzes with enthusiasm and is more likely to produce something dramatic. Bills insiders maintain that Edwards must win the starting job or else he?s not going to make the team, and the latter sure seems the most likely outcome. His lack of arm strength and failure to show any sort of leadership or passion are not going to change in Buffalo.
Ideally, all three QBs on the roster are backups on good teams and this position must be addressed next offseason, barring an unexpected breakout from Brohm. But Coach Chan Gailey has found NFL success in the past by tailoring his offense to what his limited QBs do well (see: Quincy Carter and Tyler Thigpen, whom is available via trade). As long as the turnovers are kept to a minimum and whoever wins the gig can complete 60% of the passes, not to mention stay poised and upright behind a seriously deficient OL, the Bills have enough explosiveness at RB to stay competitive.
RB: This is the strength of the offense and the deepest, most versatile position on the entire team. Drafting speedster CJ Spiller in the first round adds a more dynamic playmaker to the backfield, and early indications are he will see lots of time motioning out and even playing in the slot, a la Percy Harvin. Spiller has elite speed and demonstrated good versatility and attitude while at Clemson, though he has yet to do anything in the NFL.
Fred Jackson returns as the #1 back, and he?s one of the more underappreciated talents in the league. I bet you didn?t know he led the NFL in all-purpose yardage in 2009, bagging over 2500 total yards. He?s got great vision and balance, and his deceptive acceleration makes him hard to track down. While he isn?t much more than a checkdown outlet, he is mostly solid in pass protect and will catch anything near him. He should have little trouble adjusting to the new offense, though expect his total yardage to shrink by about 50% as a function of Spiller?s arrival and fewer return opportunities.
Marshawn Lynch is still in the fold, though he is clearly on the outs. The former 1st round pick has shown great between-the-tackles power and shiftiness, but his off-field transgressions and generally sour attitude have overwhelmed his talent. He has asked to be traded but the Bills have found no suitors. Former Colts back Chad Simpson, who figures in the mix at return specialist, will be given every chance to take Lynch?s #3 RB job. Gailey?s offense has seldom used a fullback, but the Bills do have an excellent lead blocking one in Corey McIntyre, who will likely register less than 10 touches.
WR/TE: All the drama surrounding the Terrell Owens experiment proved largely anticlimactic. Owens has a decent season and created no problems, but neither side was eager to continue the strange marriage. His departure means Lee Evans reassumes the #1 WR role, a hat he?s worn well in the past. Though lacking ideal size, Evans has tremendous body control and a very good fight/size of dog ratio. He runs crisp routes and knows all the little tricks to get separation. He is primed for a big bounce back season after he slumped to just 44 catches and lost over 3 yards per catch from his 5-season average.
After Evans, there are questions with lots of potential answers but no sure things. Big James Hardy is finally healthy and appears ready to assume a greater role, particularly in the red zone. He?s 6?5? and physical, though he has struggled to get out of breaks and also to stay upright. Rookie Marcus Easley came on very strong in the draft process, but he is quite green. Like Hardy, Easley has great size and good physical strength, but his ability to get open and run more complex routes is unknown. The team had similar high hopes for Steve Johnson, a 7th rounder in 2008, but he has produced just 12 catches in two seasons and has struggled with adjusting to NFL coverages.
Roscoe Parrish looks like a nice fit as the slot receiver, a year after he was the odd man out of the offense. He is shifty and crafty underneath and lethal with the ball in his hands, even in tight spaces. He must look the ball in better and stop the bad fumbles, but Parrish should rebound well as a 30-catch option that brings speed and playmaking ability to a receiving corps that needs it. Chad Jackson was brought in on a wing and a prayer that he can finally show anything that made the Patriots mistakenly take him in the second round a few years ago.
Tight end is not a strength. Shawn Nelson had an up and down rookie campaign, more down than up. He is a physical marvel that can stretch the seam with his size and speed, but he lacks lateral quickness and was pushed around too easily, both as a receiver and a blocker. Derek Schouman beat out Derek Fine for the Battle of Derek and second tight end spot. Gailey purportedly likes young Jonathan Stupar, who has better size and can actually block, unlike the other tight ends on the roster. The team also acquired blocking specialist Michael Matthews, who played for Gailey at Georgia Tech.
OL: This unit was an injury-plagued disaster a year ago. The Bills are hoping that better continuity and health will make things better, but even if all five projected starters play all 16 games (which rarely happens), this is still one of the weakest OL units in the NFL.
The anticipated starters are, from left to right, Demetrius Bell, Andy Levitre, Geoff Hangartner, Eric Wood, and Cornell Green. Hangartner is the most reliable cog in the line, an active run blocker with quick feet. He?s smart enough to make proper calls quickly, and he keeps his head up. The two guards are second-year players with decent promise but some caveats. Levitre did precisely what I expected as a rookie--nasty run blocker, good combo blocker, in trouble in space and recognizing blitzes. Levitre and Hangartner have a nice interior run blocking chemistry, and they are the strength of the line. Wood played quite well as a rookie before suffering a leg injury so nasty that teammates vomited and television cut away, never replaying it. There was initial talk that his career was over, but Wood has rehabbed like a madman and could feasibly be back for the start of the season. He will miss all the summer workouts, however, and that hurts cohesion.
The tackles are a sore spot. Cornell Green comes over from Oakland, where he struggled to keep his starting spot on a poor line. He?s been around the block enough to hold his own, but on a good line he?s nothing more than a reserve swing tackle. That makes him an upgrade over the revolving door, both in personnel and execution, of a year ago, but not much of one. Demetrius Bell is a raw young prospect, best known for being Karl Malone?s son. He has great potential, an impressive blend of size, strength, and agility, but at times it looks like he?s never seen a football game before. Gailey has spoken quite highly of Bell this offseason, clearly trying to bolster the young man?s confidence. His status is complicated by the torn ACL that ended his 2009, an injury that will likely keep him out until August at the earliest. His development is critical but also highly questionable, as he has not displayed the greatest work habits or maturity and has been slow to absorb coaching.
With all the injuries last year, the Bills have a whole host of candidates in camp for the reserve spots. Kirk Chambers will earn one of those spots based on his ability to play any spot at a passable level. Jamon Meredith couldn?t make it onto a desperate line in Green Bay, but the Bills plucked him off the practice squad and are hopeful he toughens up and becomes worthy of a roster spot. A couple of rookies have golden opportunities to make an impact. Kyle Calloway is your stereotypical Iowa lineman, and could beat out Green for the RT job. Many times over the past couple of seasons it was Calloway and not the more heralded Bryan Bulaga that looked like the better Hawkeye lineman, though he will need to improve against speed on the edge. Calloway could move inside to guard if he?s ready and Wood isn?t. Ed Wang is well-coached and has impressive size, and he?s proven to be a quick study. That?s good, because his technique and leverage need work, but he has good athleticism and could feasibly replace Bell next year. Wang got hurt early in OTAs and his availability is in question.
Buffalo is making the transition to the 3-4 front, which requires a big change in the type of personnel all over the defense. Many of the pieces seem to fit, but it will require a lot of adjustment.
DL: With the move to the 3-4, expect a lot of tinkering to find a rotation that works. The surest thing is free agent acquisition Dwan Edwards, who has played in a hybrid 3-man front in Baltimore. He?ll start at one end spot, and he has the ideal attributes to play RDE: 290 pounds, strong lower body, quick hands, excellent motor. Edwards has some pocket-crashing ability and could post decent sack numbers for a 3-4 end (think 5) if there is any threat outside him (which isn?t hopeful, more on that later). Marcus Stroud will move to end and has potential as a base-side anchor. Stroud has been one of the league?s better run stuffers for a decade now, and while he?s lost a little lateral agility, he?s still tough to block and blessed with incredibly strong arms that rarely miss tackles. Kyle Williams was the best player in the front 7 a year ago, incredibly active as a 3-technique that could knife between the tackle and guard. Now he?s a misfit, as he isn?t a space-eating anchor to play the nose and isn?t a guy that holds the point of attack or quick enough to beat tackles to the outside from a 5-technique. He?ll get some run in passing situations, probably rotating in for Stroud. Spencer Johnson is also misfit, another undersized penetrator that doesn?t have the juice to function as well outside the B gaps. It?s too bad, because he has quietly been a very effective rotation member. He does have the potential to surprise me, and if he fails it won?t be for lack of effort.
2nd round pick Torrell Troup could start at nose tackle right away. The Central Florida product is massive but also quite athletic for a 320+ pounder. He can squat over 800 pounds, which means he has ample base strength to hold the line. The Bills must be careful to not overwork him, because fatigue has been an issue during college. Another rookie, 3rd rounder Alex Carrington, will fit into the rotation at end. He impressed scouts during Senior Bowl week not just for his length but also how well he understood how to use it. Carrington needs some seasoning but should develop into a useful, penetrating-type end that can disrupt passing lanes. His selection was a clear indictment that John McCargo?s days in Buffalo are numbered. One of the worst first-round draft picks in the last five years, McCargo has struggled to stay healthy and has shown little fight when he has been healthy, which this wiseacre scout told anyone who would listen leading into the 06 draft. The team I was working with at the time had him as a 6th rounder, but that didn?t stop the Bills, which is a great representation of why this team is in such dire straits. Money for nothing indeed!
LB: There is some talent here, but how it fits into the new scheme remains to be seen. Paul Posluszny is the torch bearer, a stereotypical throwback inside LB that reminds me a lot of Pepper Johnson. He?s a little on the small side for a 3-4 ILB, but he?s quite strong and knows how to position himself to avoid blocks and keep his feet clean. Durability has been his biggest problem. The move to the 3-4 will require him to make more plays closer to the line, instead of playing clean-up 5 yards downfield, but if the front 3 do their jobs he?ll be more than adequate. Kawika Mitchell has the flexibility to play any spot, provided he is recovered from the detached quadriceps injury that prematurely ended his 2009. That?s important because he gets by on speed and agility, and he?s not getting any younger (he?ll be 32 in October). He is the best pass defender of the lot. Veteran journeyman Andra Davis continues his quest to play for every single team which transitions from a 4-3 to a 3-4, coming from Denver a year after that switch went horribly wrong. He does offer some ability to blitz up the gut, should new DC George Edwards mix that into the game plan, which he did not do much in Miami. Davis also has decent coverage skills. Reggie Torbor came with Edwards from Miami to help install the system, though he figures more prominently on special teams.
The outside backers--which any NFL observer can quickly tell you are the key to the 3-4--are a major question, to put it kindly. Aaron Schobel chose retirement rather than learning a new trick, which leaves Aaron Maybin and Chris Kelsay as the starters. Kelsay was a run-stopping DE not noted for quickness or creativity, so moving him outside makes little sense, even though that?s his best fit in the new scheme. Playing in space will be an adventure for the veteran. Maybin was a flat-out bust as a highly over-drafted rookie. Despite being listed at 250 pounds, Maybin was easily flattened by average tight ends and has exactly one goal on every single snap: beat the tackle around the outside, even if it?s a run to his side. Teams picked up on that in preseason, and shut him out in the sack department. Putting him off the line at OLB will help mitigate some of his problems against the run, but until he gets some strength and learns more than one move, he?s going to struggle mightily in the NFL. There are a whole host of underwhelming talents fighting for the reserve spots, notably Nic Harris and Jon Corto, both of whom are built like safeties, plus Keith Ellison, who is a slow safety in a short LB body. One to keep an eye on: rookie 4th rounder Arthur Moats from James Madison, a college end who has the speed and instincts to play standing up. It might not happen in 2010, but he?s got legit upside and good long-range prospects.
DB: This is the area of least concern on the defense, as the starting foursome is young, talented, and cohesive. The starting corners will be Terrence McGee and Leodis McKelvin, both of whom are speedy, rangy, and understand their roles well. Both are also coming off serious injuries, which is always a little dicey. McKelvin is poised to make the jump into shutdown corner status after his impressive rookie season, though he must show he?s fully recovered from his broken leg that put him out for 13 games last year. He?s not real good in run support, so it?s imperative his cover skills are shining. McGee is a very solid second banana. The Bills have great depth with veteran Drayton Florence and up-and-coming Reggie Corner, who makes up for his lack of size with excellent hand usage and great aggressiveness. Corner is extremely active and always seems to wind up near the ball. Florence adds size and savvy ball skills. Ashton Youboty has never lived up to his 3rd round draft status, but he?s fine as the #5 corner.
The Bills got a huge boost from rookie Jairus Byrd last season, and a return to full strength by the rookie of the year runner-up should greatly assist the back end, which fell off badly once he was hurt. He pairs with strong safety Donte Whitner to form a very aggressive, opportunistic duo. Whitner has been up and down and struggled when pressed into more coverage responsibilities last year, but he is a force against the run and is a sure tackler despite being on the smaller side.
Whitner got outplayed by Bryan Scott last season, and it will be interesting to see how the Bills deploy their safeties. Scott is stronger in coverage and seems to see the field better, and he racked up a lot more tackles than Whitner to boot. It?s a nice dilemma for the coaches to have. Scott even played some linebacker in 2009, and we could see more of that if the OLBs struggle.
The specialists themselves are major assets. Kicker Rian Lindell is almost perfect inside 42 yards and has enough leg to nail a 56-yarder against Miami last year. Punter Brian Moorman is a cult hero for his booming boots and mastery of the fickle Lake Erie winds. The return and coverage units have consistently ranked at or near the top of the league, but that is in peril with the departure of exceptional special teams coordinator Bobby April. One of the most animated characters in the league and unquestionably one of the greatest special teams wizards of all time, he will be missed.
3 Keys to the season
1. Can the Bills get even average QB play to balance what looks to be a very strong rushing attack?
2. How will the new 3-4 defense come together? More specifically, can they get any semblance of a pass rush, and how well will the line keep blockers off the LBs?
3. Health. Last season the Bills were absolutely ravaged by injuries all over the lineup. Those returning from injury must be back to full strength and stay that way if this team has any chance to escape the AFC East basement.
This team cleaned house in the front office and coaching staff, bringing in brand new schemes despite doing it with decidedly old dogs in Coach Gailey and GM Buddy Nix. I have major reservations about the passing offense, the OL, the pass rush, and just the overall level of talent everywhere except RB and DB. They are clearly well behind all their divisional foes, and a perusal of the schedule finds few winnable contests. They?ll run the ball well and that will keep them in some games, but the Bills are looking at a very long season. Buffalo finishes 3-13 and gets to pick in the top 3 in the 2011 draft.