--WR Donald Jones has won the No. 2 position opposite Stevie Johnson and he will be counted on to take some coverage away from Johnson.
--C Eric Wood came through the preseason in good shape and he seems ready to go. Wood missed the final six games last year with a broken leg.
--LB Chris White, who was a special teams standout last year as a rookie, made enough progress as a 4-3 outside linebacker to make the final roster.
--DE Mark Anderson sat out the final preseason game, but he is expected to be ready to go for the opener.
--CB Ron Brooks had successful foot surgery, but he won't be available to play for a while and he may end up on the injured reserve list.
--WR/QB Brad Smith may not be available to play against his old Jets teammates in the opener. He suffered a groin injury in the preseason finale and he did not practice Monday.
--RT Erik Pears continues to battle a groin injury, but he took the first-team reps in practice Monday. His status is probably questionable at this point, and if he can't play, Chris Hairston would start in his place.
--CB Terrence McGee sat out all but the second half of the Pittsburgh game this preseason, but he returned to practice and will be available for the Jets barring another setback.
REPORT CARD ENTERING REGULAR SEASON
C - The Bills have to prove that they can stretch the field or they run the risk of having opposing defenses squat on their short passing game. The addition of rookie speedster T.J. Graham should help the Bills get vertical, but this group of receivers has a lot to prove, and that includes the No. 1 target, Stevie Johnson.
B-minus - When Fred Jackson went down with a broken leg in the 10th game last season, C.J. Spiller - who to that point had done very little in his first season and a half in the NFL - stepped up and played well in his stead. This year, Jackson will again be the No. 1 back, but Spiller will be much more involved in the offense and the two backs may be on the field at the same time in certain packages. It will be imperative that the Bills can establish a strong running game.
A-minus - The Bills retooled their defensive line when they switched to the 4-3, and it may be one of the best in the league. Mario Williams is a premier pass rusher and Mark Anderson is a good one, so there will be pressure from the edges, but just as important will be the ability of DTs Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus to push the pocket up the middle. In the secondary, the Bills think first-round pick Stephon Gilmore will be a star, but on the other side, 2011 second-rounder Aaron Williams needs to be better than he was in the preseason or teams will stay away from Gilmore and pick on Williams.
B-plus - With Kyle Williams and Dareus in the middle, the Bills will be stout up front, but the problems could come at the second level due to an average-at-best linebacker corps. Kelvin Sheppard is the middle linebacker and he has a lot of learning to do. WLB Nick Barnett is a wily veteran who is undersized, and SLB Arthur Moats won a competition with veteran Kirk Morrison, but neither player has stood out.
B - The addition of kickoff specialist John Potter has been huge as he had 12 touchbacks in 14 attempts, and his two returned kicks came out of the end zone. Rian Lindell is still a reliable placekicker and Brian Moorman is looking to bounce back from a subpar season as the punter. The Bills have had a strong return game in recent years, and as of now it looks like Justin Rogers and Brad Smith will be the primary kickoff returners, and Leodis McKelvin will handle punts. All have dangerous breakaway capability.
B-minus - Chan Gailey is in his third year and the pressure will be on with some key roster additions in place to get the Bills out of their 12-year playoff drought. Gailey calls the offensive plays, and he believes QB Ryan Fitzpatrick is ready to have a big year. Dave Wannstedt has been promoted to defensive coordinator and he has made the switch to his preferred 4-3, and the management went out and gave him the pieces he needed to make it work.
After an encouraging 2010 campaign, Fitzpatrick stormed into 2011 with 14 touchdown passes, just seven interceptions and a 97.8 rating in leading 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. While hurt by injuries to his receiving corps and a rib injury he kept quiet, Fitzpatrick has to be better for the Bills to contend. The $59 million contract he was handed last fall is still a bit mind-numbing and the reputations of general manager Buddy Nix and coach Chan Gailey are on the line because of it. Fitzpatrick worked with new quarterbscks coach David Lee extensively on simple mechanics, hoping to improve his accuracy, but his play in the preseason was less than inspiring. So was veteran Vince Young's, which is why he was cut and Tarvaris Jackson was acquired in a late summer trade with Seattle, a desperate effort to find reliable backup help.
The combination of Jackson and Spiller has the potential to be one of the best in the NFL if Gailey can find a way to get each involved and working. The underrated Jackson turned 31 in February and is coming off a cracked fibula suffered last Nov. 20 at Miami. He showed he was fully recovered during a strong training camp and is feeling rejuvenated armed with a new contract. Last year, the hard-running Jackson 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 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.
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 and will have to prove he can sustain his play for an entire season to be considered an entrenched starter. Buffalo likes using some two-tight end sets so there will be opportunities for Smith to play. But in general, the Bills continue to lag behind most other teams when it comes to this key position.
Starters - Stevie Johnson, Donald Jones. Backups - David Nelson, T.J. Graham.
The Bills like their depth at receiver but other than Johnson there are no proven commodities at the top of the depth chart. With 76 catches for 1,004 yards and seven touchdowns, Johnson became the first Bills receiver in history with consecutive 1,000-yard seasons and the former seventh-round pick parlayed that into a five-year, $36.25 million contract. He seems fully healed from offseason groin surgery. Jones emerged from camp with the No. 2 spot - for now. Rookie T.J. Graham, a third-round pick who brings much needed deep speed to the group, had a strong camp and will challenge for immediate playing time. The 6-5 Nelson, meanwhile, is a sure-handed big target from the slot. He caught 61 balls last year to go with five scores. Utility man Brad Smith is also available to play receiver if need be.
After years of upheaval, Buffalo's offensive line has developed into a strong suit thanks to some smart drafting and sound free-agent additions. Rookie second-round pick Glenn won the starting left tackle job and while very raw, he has tremendous upside and the Bills are willing to live with his growing pains. Of more concern for the coaching staff is Wood rebounding fully from ACL surgery; he took part in all of training camp and was eased back into action and will start the season. Pears, meanwhile, is also an injury concern. He had offseason hernia surgery and may not be ready for opening day. Hairston would start in his place in the meantime. When healthy, this unit is formidable. Buffalo 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.
Free-agent pass rushers Mario Williams (Texans) and Anderson (Patriots), teamed with star tackles Kyle Williams (coming off foot surgery) and Dareus on the inside, gives Buffalo one of the NFL's best front fours as it switches full-time to a 4-3 base defense under under new coordinator Dave Wannstedt. Mario Williams and Anderson bring a combined 88.5 career sacks to town and will make everyone around them better. Last year, Buffalo allowed a team-record 5,938 yards and 434 points and registered just 29 sacks so there is loads of room for improvement. Depth also seems better with former starter Chris Kelsay available, along with newcomer Moore, whose play led to the decision to release Shawne Merriman.
This is an eager if not star-studded group that will benefit from the four players in front of them. The Bills did not have the talent at linebacker to play an effective 3-4 so the alignment switch will help. Roles are switching but this appears to be an adaptable and athletic group, led by the 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 Stephon Gilmore, RCB Aaron Williams, FS Jairus Byrd, SS George Wilson. Backups - CB Terrence McGee, CB Leodis McKelvin, CB Justin Rogers, CB Ron Brooks, FS Delano Howell, SS Da'Norris Searcy.
The Bills will be young at cornerback with No. 1 pick Gilmore and second-year pro Williams emerging as the starters. Gilmore has great range and isn't afraid to tackle and fellow rookie Brooks had a strong camp and helps depth. Buffalo was counting on the veteran McGee to bounce back from knee surgery, but he's been slow to recover and may find himself at a career crossroad soon. McKelvin is a former first-round pick who will play a lot in nickel and can also start. Buffalo is set at safety. Wilson had his best year with 106 tackles and team-best four picks while Byrd contributed 98 tackles and three interceptions. Meanwhile, Rogers and Searcy were solid finds from the 2011 draft.
Starters - K Rian Lindell, P Brian Moorman, KOR Justin Rogers, PR Leodis McKelvin, LS Garrison Sanborn, K John Potter.
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. He did not have a strong summer, however, and could be showing signs of slowing down. Buffalo liked what it saw out of rookie Potter, who was kept as a kickoff specialist. Moorman remains one of the NFL's best punters; his 48.22 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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