|The addition of free-agent prize Mario Williams should boost a substandard pass rush. (US Presswire)|
It's been awhile since anyone took Buffalo seriously, but I guarantee that changes this year.
First of all, the Bills come off a season where they were 5-2 before injuries that claimed seven starters finished them. Second, they signed the league's most attractive free agent in Mario Williams, meaning that pass rush that stunk last year is vastly improved. Third, all those guys they lost to injuries in 2011? They're back.
The question, of course, is: Will Buffalo be, too? The Bills jumped to a terrific start before pulling El foldo, losing eight of their last nine. It's hard to know which are the real Bills, but it's not hard to imagine these guys pushing the New York Jets for second in the AFC East now.
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They have a new defensive coordinator in Dave Wannstedt, with a new 4-3 alignment. They have Mario Williams, too. And Mark Anderson, Marcell Dareus, Nick Barnett and a belief that they can and will close the gap between them and New England.
QB: The Bills believe so strongly in Ryan Fitzpatrick that they signed him to a long-term deal in the middle of last season. That's when things were going right. Then the roof collapsed, and Fitzpatrick was one of those caught under it -- with four more interceptions (13) the second half of the season than touchdowns (9). The Bills insist they can win with Fitzpatrick, but seeing is believing. For most of his career he's been a backup, and when he started he hasn't produced a winning record. Granted, he was on some bad clubs, but, still, a win is a win is a win. He might not have anything to prove to the Bills' hierarchy, but he will to skeptical fans. If there's a need, it's only for a backup they may find in the later rounds. Otherwise, coach Chan Gailey trusts Tyler Thigpen.
RB: Fitzpatrick isn't the heart and soul of this offense; Fred Jackson is. And when Buffalo lost him last season it lost what little chance it had of making the playoffs. Jackson is one of the game's top all-around players -- someone who can run, who can catch and who excels on special teams. In cold-weather climates like Buffalo, you must be able to run ... and Buffalo could when Jackson was in the lineup. He produced 934 yards rushing, averaged 5.5 per carry, had six 100-yard games and was on schedule to reach 1,494 before he was hurt. That's when C.J. Spiller stepped in, and if there's something to be gained from the Jackson injury it's that Buffalo discovered what it should have known all along -- namely, that Spiller should be touching the football more. He and Jackson together produced nearly 1,500 yards rushing and 10 TDs. Tashard Choice is the third option in a backfield that includes fullback Cory McIntyre, thee special-teams captain who's an ace tackler and a tough blocker.
WR Re-signing Stevie Johnson was a huge step toward keeping the Bills' offense intact. Not only is he the club's leading receiver, he's one of the few guys anywhere who figured out how to solve Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis. I'm serious. Of course, Johnson had his share of drops and stupid penalties, too, but the guy is a legitimate big-play threat, and his new contract reflects how important he is to the Bills' offense. Slot receiver David Nelson had a breakout year with 61 catches and five touchdowns, but he's not a true No. 2. Look at his production the second half of the season, and, like the Bills, it declined dramatically. Buffalo could use more depth at this position, though it hopes Marcus Easley -- who battled medical issues the past two seasons -- could be a factor. Brad Smith and Donald Jones fill out the roster, but Smith is more a special-teams star and jack-of-all-trades than a legitimate receiver. Without a true speed receiver, Buffalo often found opponents double-covering Johnson -- limiting his downfield effectiveness. A deep threat is needed here and probably early in the draft.
TE: This has been a revolving door since Jay Riemersma departed, and maybe, just maybe, Scott Chandler is the answer. He was one of the team's pleasant surprises, with 38 catches and six touchdowns, but he faded down the stretch. Of course, so did the rest of the team. Chandler's size (he's 6-foot-7, 270 pounds) makes him a red zone threat and re-signing him was wise. Lee Smith and Kevin Brock are the understudies at a position where Buffalo can always use help.
OL: For the second time in three years the Bills lost their starting left tackle to Philadelphia. Only this time, Buffalo had a chance to keep Demetrees Bell and passed. The reason: He was a risk, missing major parts of two of the past three seasons with injuries. So the question becomes: Who replaces him? That's why we have the draft, people. For the moment, Chris Hairston is the starter, mostly because he played there last season when Bell did not, but stay tuned. Hairston is a straight-ahead masher, more suited to right tackle or swing tackle. Left guard Andy Levitre is one of the league's most underrated players, while right tackle Erik Peters and center Eric Wood are solid. Look for Kraig Urbik to start at center and guard, with Chad Rinehart ideal as an interior sub. Once upon a time this was an area of need, but the Bills quietly built this unit into one of the league's best offensive lines. Buffalo last year led the league in fewest sacks allowed with 23 and its average of 4.9 yards per carry the Bills' best since 1975 when O.J. Simpson was in the lineup.
DL: With the additions of Mario Williams and Mark Anderson, the Bills' 4-3 defense looks formidable. Williams is one of the best pass rushers anywhere, and he's come to the right spot at just the right time. Buffalo last season had just 29 sacks, with defensive tackle Marcell Darius leading the team with 5.5. Williams and Anderson, meanwhile, combined for 15, and that's with Williams missing all but five starts with a torn pectoral. He's OK, and the Bills should be much better than that with defensive tackle Kyle Williams back and positioned in a 4-3 setup that seems more to his liking. That's good because if you're going to beat New England, you better squeeze Tom Brady with a pass rush -- and now Buffalo can. Chris Kelsay, Alex Carrington and Dwan Edwards are in the mix, with Torrell Troup and Spencer Johnson suitable backups at tackle. Plus, there's standup end Shawne Merriman, and anything Buffalo gains from him is a bonus. Bottom line: The Bills suddenly are talented and deep at a position where they had been vulnerable.
LB: Nick Barnett was this unit's best player. In fact, he might have been Buffalo's best defensive player, period. All he did was produce a team-high 130 stops, with three sacks and three interceptions -- one of which he returned for a touchdown. Rookie Kelvin Sheppard was impressive and, with Barnett, comprises a strong 1-2 punch at a key position. The Bills solidified the unit with the re-signing of Kirk Morrison at outside linebacker, and, while he served as a backup last season, he almost surely competes for a strong-side starting job. Chris White backs up Sheppard at the middle linebacker spot, and Arthur Moats -- a bit of a tweener -- is a possibility as the backup at SAM. Moving Chris Kelsey from linebacker to defensive end makes a lot more sense. He never seemed comfortable on the outside. But depth is a concern here.
DB: Despite opponents shredding Buffalo for 3,714 yards passing and 30 TDs, the secondary is not a major concern. The pass rush? That's another story. But that's why Buffalo signed free-agents Mario Williams and Mark Anderson. There are four quality veterans here in Jairus Byrd, Terrence McGee, Drayton Florence and George Wilson, and there is talent in Leodis McKelvin, Aaron Williams and Bryan Scott. Williams, a rookie last season, looked good when he stepped in for the injured McGee and McKelvin and should start, while Wilson had his best season ever with 106 tackles and a team-high four interceptions. McGee has been one of Buffalo's best and most consistent players in the past decade, but he can't seem to shake recurring injuries, missing 22 of Buffalo's last 48 games. Nevertheless, the Bills are deep at a position where you better be deep if you're serious about closing the gap with New England. Nevertheless, GM Buddy Nix has said he'll take a cornerback in the draft, and look for one to go somewhere in the middle rounds.