With his burst back, don't turn the lights out on Merriman getting back to elite status

by | Senior NFL Columnist
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Multiple injuries have limited Shawne Merriman to five sacks in the past five seasons. (US Presswire)  
Multiple injuries have limited Shawne Merriman to five sacks in the past five seasons. (US Presswire)  

Buffalo's Chan Gailey said he thinks we'll see "the old Shawne Merriman" this season, but my question is: Just who ... or what ... is the old Shawne Merriman?

Once upon a time, he was one of the NFL's most dominant pass rushers -- so good, in fact, that he was named the league's Defensive Rookie of the Year. But that was 2005, and it has been years -- five, to be exact -- since Merriman did much of anything, suiting up for 23 games, producing five sacks and released by San Diego in that time.

But it has been years since Merriman has been healthy, too. Only now he might be, with the former star linebacker insisting that surgery to repair a lingering Achilles injury was so successful that he has been able to participate in all of the Bills' offseason workouts -- including this week's minicamp.

According to Merriman, he feels better than he has in years, which is another way of saying we're about to find out who ... or what ... he's all about.

"The last three years have been really frustrating," he said after Wednesday afternoon's practice, "because [the Achilles] has been a problem I haven't been able to do anything about. I 'rehabbed' it as much as possible and put in as much work as possible. But without having that surgery, it just wasn't going to happen. I gave everything I possibly could, even when I was hurt, so feeling like I feel now is unbelievable.

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"When you have those kinds of problems for that many years ... to be able to go out and do everything gets you excited about playing football again. And that's where I am. I'm just excited to go out and compete every day and to get better and better at what I'm able to do."

What Shawne Merriman is able to do is rush the passer. In fact, there weren't many who were better, with Merriman producing 39½ sacks his first three seasons -- including 17 in only 12 games in 2006 -- and named to three consecutive Pro Bowls. But then knee, shoulder and Achilles injuries rendered him so insignificant that San Diego -- the club that made him a first-round draft choice -- gave up on the guy, with Buffalo coming to the rescue.

That was two years ago, and so far he has done nothing for the Bills. But stay tuned. Merriman believes he can ... and will ... be an impact player again.

"Yeah, absolutely," he said, "but it's going to require a lot of work ... a lot of consistency ... and being able to go out and get better every day. I'm not just settling for, 'OK, I can go out and be productive again.' It's about being back to that dominant stage, and it's going to be a lot of work."

It's going to be a different defense, too. When Merriman was productive, he was a rush linebacker in San Diego's 3-4 setup. But Buffalo switches to the 4-3 this year, which means Merriman moves to defensive end, where the Bills already are stocked with Mario Williams, Mark Anderson and Chris Kelsay.

Merriman is unconcerned, saying "it's just putting your hand in the dirt and doing a lot of things that we did anyway in past years when I played nickel or dime." But let's call it what it is: A challenge. It's an unfamiliar position for someone trying to prove himself all over again, and, no, I have no idea which Shawne Merriman shows up there this fall.

"All I know," said Merriman, "is that with my Achilles, I had no burst. I literally had no burst at all. I was just playing on one leg and going out there and giving it my all. But it wasn't good enough. I'm very proud to be here every single day during the offseason, to work with these guys and to be accountable. In fact, that's what I'm most happy about -- being accountable to my teammates."

Being productive is what matters next. Buffalo's defense ranked 26th last season and produced 29 sacks -- the third worst total in the league. When you play in a division with Tom Brady, that's not good, and when you're 2-18 vs. Brady, it's downright dreadful. So something had to be done, and something was. The Bills spent millions on Williams and Anderson to improve the pass rush.

Now they cross their fingers with Merriman and hope he gives them something, anything.

"I had a great career going," he said, "and I had a little bit of trouble coming back from the knee and Achilles the past three years. But if you have the right mindset ... if you stay positive through the whole thing ... I'm a big believer you can come back from anything."

I guess we're about to find out.

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