With Buffalo's receiving corps still settling itself out in terms of the depth chart, the return of undisputed No. 1 Stevie Johnson was a welcome sight for coaches during a three-day mandatory minicamp that concluded June 21. Johnson eased himself back into live work, but was sounding very confident after his offseason groin surgery to repair an ailment that bothered him much of last year.
"Still a lot of work to do. Mentally I feel (OK), everything else I think I am pretty good. My groin felt good. I still have to get over the mental aspect of it," Johnson said. "I feel like I am about high 90s. I cannot say 100 percent because I am not feeling all the way but I am feeling about 90 percent. I am good."
Gaining confidence in cutting hard on his left leg is the next hurdle for Johnson.
"Cutting in and coming to the right it felt like it was heavy. It is just a mental thing. I did not feel any sharp pain like I did all last year," he said.
Johnson still managed a team-leading 76 catches for 1,004 yards and seven touchdowns, earning himself a new five-year, $36.25 million contract as a free agent.
--CB Aaron Williams, who missed some OTA time with irritation on a knee, was able to participate fully in minicamp. He's expected to be fine for training camp in July.
--DE Spencer Johnson has been dealing with a knee issue but did return to action during minicamp.
--DT Kellen Heard missed a good portion of the offseason with a bad ankle. He hopes to be 100 percent by training camp.
The Bills' front office showed their faith in Fitzpatrick, a career journeyman, when they bestowed on him a $59 million contract extension last October. After an encouraging 2010 campaign, Fitzpatrick had stormed into 2011 with 14 touchdown passes, just seven interceptions and a 97.8 rating to lead his team to a 5-2 record. Then his game went to pot and he wound up with an NFL-worst 23 interceptions. During Buffalo's season-killing seven-game losing streak, Fitzpatrick's best passer rating was 51.9, which tells the story. While hurt by injuries to his receiving corps and a rib injury he kept quiet, Fitzpatrick has to be better or he will lose his starting job sooner rather than later, now that veteran Vince Young is on board. Fitzpatrick worked with new quarterbacks coach David Lee extensively this offseason on simple mechanics, hoping to improve his accuracy. This is Young's last and best chance to resurrect his career and he'll be eager to pounce on the slightest opening. Will Fitzpatrick give it?
The underrated Jackson turned 31 in February and is coming off a cracked fibula suffered last Nov. 20 at Miami. None of that scared off the Bills from handing their emotional leader a contract extension. Last year, he was on pace to lead the NFL in yards from scrimmage for a second time when he was injured. The silver lining in Jackson's injury was that it opened the door for Spiller to shine. The team's No. 1 pick in 2010 wound up with 561 yards (5.2-yard average) on 107 carries. Together, Jackson and Spiller rushed for nearly 1,500 yards and 10 touchdowns and averaged more than 5.0 yards a pop. Finding enough touches for both players is a pleasant problem.
This has been a forgotten position for nearly a decade in Buffalo but free agent Chandler was a pleasant surprise in 2011 with 38 catches for 389 yards and six touchdowns. While a force early in the red zone, Chandler caught just two touchdown passes over the final 11 games as he battled injuries. It's his job to retain during training camp, but there is a lot of opportunity here if players like Smith and Brock step up their games.
After Johnson, this is a wide open position for the Bills who are likely to keep five receivers with utilityman Brad Smith also available. With 76 catches for 1,004 yards and seven touchdowns, Johnson became the first Bills receiver in history with consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. The former seventh-round pick parlayed that into a five-year, $36.25 million contract as a free agent to stay in Buffalo. He had offseason groin surgery, but is expected to be 100 percent by the time the season rolls around. Meanwhile, the battle for the No. 2 spot will be intense. Jones, who emerged with the job last year but went down with a bad ankle, is penciled in there. But everybody behind him is capable of winning the job, including veteran Clowney and third-round pick Graham, who adds some much-needed deep speed to the group. Nelson, a former rookie free agent, took advantage of his increased workload last year to catch a career-best 61 passes and five touchdowns. The Bills like their depth here and hope former draft pick Easley, who has battled medical issues for two years, can also be a factor.
Starters -- LT Cordy Glenn, LG Andy Levitre, C Erik Wood, RG Kraig Urbik, RT Erik Pears. Backups - LT Chris Hairston, LG Michael Jasper, LG Jake Vermiglio, C Colin Brown, C Mark Asper, C David Snow, RG Chad Rinehart, RG Keith Wililams, RT Sam Young, RT Zebrie Sanders, RT James Carmon.
After years of upheaval, Buffalo's offensive line has developed into a strong suit thanks to some smart drafting and sound free-agent additions. The Bills are hoping rookie second-round pick Cordy Glenn, who has been handed the starting left tackle job after the loss of Demetress Bell (Eagles), will add to that progress. Despite some juggling due to injuries, namely the loss of Wood to ACL surgery, the Bills still allowed the fewest sacks in the NFL with 23 and the team's 4.9 yards per rushing play average was its best since 1975 when a guy named O.J. Simpson was in the backfield. Buffalo's total offensive production improved from 25th to 14th and the line was a big reason. Wood, who was playing at a Pro-Bowl level, will attempt to return from his second major leg injury in his short career but appears on track to open the season. Class of '09 teammate Levitre has become the unit's most consistent player. Urbik, Pears and Rinehart have proven to be strong pickups.
Starters -- DLE Mario Williams, DLT Marcell Dareus, DRT Kyle Williams, DRE Chris Kelsay. Backups - DE Spencer Johnson, DE Mark Anderson, DE Shawne Merriman, DE Robert Eddins, DE Kyle Moore. DT Dwan Edwards, DT Alex Carrington, DT Torell Troup, DT Kellen Heard, DT Lionel Dotson, DT Jarron Gilbert, DT Jay Ross.
The Bills allowed a team-record 5,938 points last year along with 434 points, second most ever. The club had just 29 sacks with nine coming in one game against the Redskins. As a whole, meaningful plays were few and far between from this unit. But things are about to change. With the addition of top free-agent pass rushers Williams (Texans) and Anderson (Patriots), teamed with star tackles Kyle Williams (coming off foot surgery) and Dareus, Buffalo on paper has one of the top front-four units in the NFL as they prepare to switch full time to a 4-3 base scheme under new coordinator Dave Wannstedt. Combined, Mario Williams and Anderson bring 88.5 career sacks to town. Williams, meanwhile, is the type of player that will draw extra attention and make others around him more effective. Depth is also strong in this unit and will become even stronger if Merriman, the former San Diego Chargers sack master, can finally shake off several years of leg issues.
Starters -- WLB Nick Barnett, MLB Kelvin Sheppard, SLB Kirk Morrison. Backups - MLB Scott McKillop, MLB Tank Carder, OLB Bryan Scott, OLB Danny Batten, OLB Nigel Bradham, OLB Arthur Moats, OLB Chris White.
The Bills did not have the talent at linebacker to play an effective 3-4, so the alignment switch will help this unit be more effective. Roles are switching but this appears to be an adaptable and athletic group, led by veteran Barnett. The former Green Bay Packer recorded 130 tackles, 3.0 sacks and three interceptions, one he returned for a score, last season and quickly assumed the role of defensive leader. Sheppard earned a starting spot as a rookie, wound up with 70 tackles and will return to man the middle. Scott is a versatile backup who can cover. Promising rookie additions Carder and Bradham round out the depth.
Starters -- LCB Terrence McGee, RCB Leodis McKelvin, FS Jairus Byrd, SS George Wilson. Backups - CB Stephon Gilmore, CB Aaron Williams, CB Justin Rogers, CB Ron Brooks, CB Chris Hill, CB Isaiah Green, CB Prince Miller, S Nick Saenz, S Josh Nesbitt, S Delano Howell, S Da'Norris Searcy, S Nick Sukay.
The Bills let a quality player go in cornerback Drayton Florence (Chargers), but have cleared the way for players like McKelvin, Williams and first-round pick Gilmore to play and develop. McGee, a gritty veteran who has battled several years of injuries, and McKelvin, the team's first-round pick in '08, are penciled in as the starting corners but things could shake out much differently by the team the season starts. Gilmore and Williams are two young talents with the skills to start and the sooner they get in there, the better. Buffalo is set at safety. Wilson had his best year with 106 tackles and a team-best four picks while Byrd contributed 98 tackles and three interceptions. Meanwhile, Rogers and Searcy were solid finds from the 2011 draft.
The Bills went through three kickers in 2011, but Lindell (13 of 15), the team's second all-time career scorer, is fully recovered from a broken shoulder and set to resume his duties. He inked a four-year, $11 million free-agent deal to return. Moorman remains one of the NFL's best; his 48.2 average was another club record (he holds the top four spots). The Bills had just 37 kickoff returns, but Rogers emerged as their No. 1 return man and posted a healthy 28.7 average on 13 tries. McKelvin averaged 19.5 yards on eight punt returns. Sanborn is a headache-free long snapper.
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