Through Week 8 of last season, the Bills played like one of the top offenses in the league. Behind 30-year-old Fred Jackson, who played like a man five years younger, and with quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick surprisingly effective in his second year as full-time starter, Buffalo started the year 5-2, including wins against the Patriots and the Eagles. But soon after, Jackson was lost for the season with a fractured fibula, and following Fitzpatrick signing a seven-year, $62 million extension, his season went to hell. Not surprisingly, the Bills became the inept squad you've been used to seeing, losing eight of their final nine games of the year (yet, somehow managing to beat Tim Tebow and the Broncos in Week 16).
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Pete Prisco Pat Kirwan
Despite my own personal reservations about Fitzpatrick as a starting quarterback, the Bills will have firepower on offense. The Bills reserved receiver Steve Johnson for the next five years at a cost of $36.25 million, and though he's coming off groin surgery, he's put up back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. Without him, though, the receiving corps gets thin. After Johnson's team-leading 76 catches last season, two tight ends (David Nelson and Scott Chandler) and two running backs (Jackson and C.J. Spiller) caught more passes than the second-best receiver -- that would be Donald Jones with 23, who caught the same number of passes as Wildcat quarterback Brad Smith. That said, the running backs can make receiving yards, and Nelson had a breakout season. More good news for Fitzpatrick: the interior lineman (center Eric Wood and guards Kraig Urbik and Andy Levitre) are more than solid for this squad.
The team made a huge splash when it secured defensive end Mario Williams for $100 million and made him the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history. And with him on the line of scrimmage, the Bills can boast perhaps the top defensive line in the league. With 2011 No. 1 pick Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams clogging the middle and Mario Williams and Mark Anderson rushing the passer from the edge, the Bills almost certainly will improve on last year's No. 27 NFL ranking in sacks and No. 28 ranking in rushing defense.
The Bills also will return to the 4-3 defensive scheme under new coordinator Dave Wannstedt after coach Chan Gailey fired former coordinator George Edwards at the end of last season. The team allowed a club record 5,938 yards last year, and the season before, the Bills ranked 32nd in run defense. In both of those seasons, Edwards ran a 3-4. This year, the Bills will scrap that philosophy. Buffalo should be OK at linebacker, but the team will be expecting a big improvement in the secondary with No. 10 pick Stephon Gilmore likely taking a starting cornerback job (and if 2011 second-round pick Aaron Williams can win the other spot, even better). With standout Jairus Byrd and the solid George Wilson taking up the two safety spots, we should see a big-time improvement from Buffalo's defense.
Staff: Defensive coordinator George Edwards (he was fired and is now the linebackers coach in Miami); Dave Wannstedt replaces him.
Though Wannstedt flamed out as the head coach at Pitt -- he recruited as well, if not better, than anybody else in the Big East, but his teams always underperformed on the field -- he's had good success as a defensive coordinator in the past. He had two good seasons in Dallas before he was hired as the Bears head coach. Plus, when he was going 41-23 in his first four seasons as the Dolphins head coach, the team consistently was a top-five defense. After the disaster of George Edwards, Wannstedt should help stabilize the unit.
Buffalo isn't usually active on the free-agent market, and this season was more of the same. With one rather large exception. After the Texans let the former No. 1 pick get away, Buffalo was the destination of Williams' first free-agent visit. The Bills didn't let him leave the city until he had signed his contract. They knew his importance, and the fact Williams ended his free-agent sweepstakes early to play in Buffalo says a great deal about the direction the Bills could be headed. Either that, or the team has a wonderful staff of salesmen.
X-Factor: Marcell Dareus
The Bills made Dareus the No. 3 overall pick in 2011, and though his results during his rookie season weren't spectacular and though he got off to a slow start early in the year, he put together a solid season in the end. In fact, Pro Football Focus ranked Dareus No. 5 in pass-rushing among all defensive tackles in the league.
Having Mario Williams around clearly will help Dareus become even more dangerous this season, and moving to the 4-3 scheme likely will highlight his versatility as an interior defensive lineman. And he'll need to play big, because the rest of the defense will feed off how the line performs. It'll be tough for offenses to double-team Dareus because of Mario Williams, Kyle Williams and Mark Anderson, and that could spell trouble for Tom Brady, Mark Sanchez and Ryan Tannehill.
Spiller vs. Jackson
Although he's past the expiration date for when the vast majority of running backs decline, 31-year-old Fred Jackson was one of the best in the league through the first half of last year, gaining 934 rushing and 443 passing yards in just 10 games before he suffered a season-ending injury. The only positive that came from that injury: former first-round pick C.J. Spiller showed some of his talent (he even notched the first 100-yard rushing game of his career in Week 16). But for a man taken No. 9 overall, Spiller's development has been slow heading into his third season. He probably won't take Jackson's No. 1 status immediately, but at some point, you'd like to think he'll do exactly that.
What to do about the tackles
While the interior offensive line played well last year, the starting tackles (left tackle Chris Hairston and right tackle Erik Pears) struggled for parts of the season. Here's why Hairston might be in trouble to reclaim the left tackle spot he grabbed when Demetress Bell was injured: only one season after the Bills took Hairston in the fourth round of the draft, they grabbed Cordy Glenn in the second round of the 2012 draft. Glenn probably will start at left tackle this year, and Pears probably at right tackle. But Pears also is coming off hernia surgery, and Hairston spent time there taking first-team snaps in the offseason. Either way, if the tackles can match the play of the interior line, that would go a long way toward helping Ryan Fitzpatrick under center.
Hot starts, cold endings
The Bills were one of the biggest surprises in the first half of last season, shocking the Patriots and starting the season 5-2. Even though they lost eight of their last nine, that doesn't mean the hot start was an anomaly. The Bills 2012 version has a decent chance to produce the organization's second winning record this century. And if the team can split, say, the first 10 games of the season (a doable scenario), the Bills finish the schedule with the Jaguars, Colts, Rams, Seahawks, Dolphins and Jets. Get hot at the end of the season, win those games, and you could be looking at a potential playoff team.
"Buffalo has made a couple moves. They got Mario Williams to get after Tom Brady. They'll be interesting, but they won't win the AFC East. You bring in a great player like Mario Williams. Does he create matchup problems? Yes, he does. But if you look at what the Texans did last year, they did a lot of that without Mario Williams. Even with Mario Williams, Tom Brady will make the adjustment. The biggest thing with Buffalo is the feel of it to me ... it just doesn't feel like the Buffalo Bills are going to be the king of the AFC East. It's more of a little brother, big brother mentality. If Ryan Fitzpatrick is your franchise quarterback, eh, I don't see it."
Xs and Os
By Pat Kirwan | NFL Insider
After a 5-2 start last year the Bills looked ready to shock the football world but with three critical injuries on offense to center Eric Wood, RB Fred Jackson and WR Donald Jones the season fell apart with a 1-8 finish. The silver lining was more young players got experience and now the roster has depth.
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2012 Preview Schedule
Dolphins @ Bills: 11/15 (8:20 p.m. ET)
Bills @ Dolphins: 12/23 (1 p.m. ET)
2012 Preview Schedule
Patriots @ Bills: 9/30 (1 p.m. ET)
Bills @ Patriots: 11/11 (1 p.m. ET)
2012 Preview Schedule
Jets @ Bills: 12/30 (1 p.m. ET)
Bills @ Jets: 9/9 (1 p.m. ET)
GM Buddy Nix told me to expect some 'pony' backfield this year with Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller in the game at the same time. That will present problems for defenses because both men can run routes and catch the ball while still presenting a solid run game presence. Head coach Chan Gailey is very creative and he will potentially empty the whole backfield if opposing teams try and defend the 'pony' with a base defense. Gailey will also have a few versions of a wildcat package with either Vince Young, Tyler Thigpen or even Brad Smith. Getting ready to play the Bills offense means getting ready for everything imaginable. One issue to keep an eye on is left tackle where rookie Cordy Glenn will start. He will need help and can mean one less eligible receiver.
The biggest splash the Bills made in the offseason was on defense with the additions of Mario Williams, Mark Anderson, and first-round pick CB Stephon Gilmore. The Bills are a 4-3 defense that no longer has to blitz to get to the QB and that means seven in coverage. There is quality depth on the defensive line and that means they can weather the injury bug and rotate people to keep all of them fresh. They will shoot up the sack production chart after finishing 29th last year. The added pressure from Williams, Anderson and two terrific tackles Marcel Dareus and Kyle Williams means even more interceptions after ranking sixth in that category last season.
Defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt can play a lot of vanilla defense with solid zone coverages and straight front-four rush. It will not look complicated but it will be effective. Last year the Bills gave up 27 points a game and I could see that number drop by close to a touchdown. Keep in mind Mario Williams was developing as an outside linebacker in Houston and I expect to occasionally see him drop into coverage more to disrupt the protection calls, which should all be going to him. Teams that slide the protection calls to Mario may find themselves with two blockers and no Mario.
By Rob Rang | NFLDraftScout.com Senior Analyst
The Bills might have reached a bit for cornerback Stephon Gilmore at No. 10 overall, but he does have significant upside and his addition allowed the Bills to release aging and expensive veteran Drayton Florence.
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GM Buddy Nix historically has looked for offensive line help outside of the first round. He helped find a Pro Bowler in Marcus McNeill in the second round (No. 50 overall) in 2006 for San Diego, and may have found a similarly gifted prospect in Georgia's Cordy Glenn at No. 41 overall this year.
Glenn, like McNeill, was a four-year starter who fared very well against SEC competition. At 6-6, 345 pounds, Glenn is similarly built with the long arms, quick feet and balance to remain at left tackle, where he started as a senior after moving from left guard.
Glenn dropped out of the first round due to concerns about his tenacity. While a physically imposing player with Pro Bowl potential, Glenn was viewed as a bit soft by some scouts, who questioned whether he'd ever play up to his talent level.
The rest of the Bills' picks:
1st Round - No. 10 overall - Stephon Gilmore, CB, South Carolina
2nd Round - No. 41 overall - Cordy Glenn, OL, Georgia
3rd Round - No. 69 overall - T.J. Graham, WR, North Carolina State
4th Round - No. 105 overall - Nigel Bradham, OLB, Florida State
4th Round - No. 124 overall - Ron Brooks, CB, LSU
5th Round - No. 144 overall - Zebrie Sanders, OT, Florida State
5th Round - No. 147 overall - Tank Carder, ILB, TCU
6th Round - No. 178 overall - Mark Asper, OG, Oregon
7th Round - No. 251 overall - John Potter, K, Western Michigan