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Three most important players on the Buffalo Bills defense in 2011

Disclaimer:  First I took a look at the offensive side of the ball and now I’m ranking the order of importance to the Bills’ defense in order to make them a very good or great defense, not necessarily who the best player is.  On that note, let the debate begin.

 

3.  Kyle Williams: On a defense that ranked last against the run and 23rd overall Kyle Williams was by far and away the most consistent and best player on the field for the Bills. Williams was fifth on the team and tackles and sadly led the team with 5.5 sacks.  For an interior defensive linemen that is more credit to Williams.  Pro Football focus named Kyle Williamsthe defensive player of the year in 2010 and Williams continued play and development is going to be crucial for the Bills in 2011.

Not to minimize his importance for the team, but for the Bills to drastically improve on defense it needs to come from other sources not named Kyle Williams.  Williams’ effort and consistency should be a given and he will provide stability in the middle of the defense.  Williams needs to get more help from the rest of his front seven counterparts if the Bills intend to compete in a loaded AFC East. 
 

 2.  Marcell Dareus: The difference between 1 and 2 is so minute for me, but to maintain the integrity of the list I went with Dareus only because of his youth and inexperience that their reliance on him will be slightly less. I have Dareus rated above Williams because the need to have him improve the league’s worst ranked rush defense cannot be overstated.  Dareus lined up next to Williams will hopefully force opponents to commit at least three blockers to the tandem and free up space for the linebackers.  His ability to control the point of attack and penetrate gaps are essential for this team’s success.   

Dareus’ versatility to play multiple positions along the defensive line when the Bills play a three or four-man front will go a long way in improving the defense.  If Dareus is able to take some of the focus off of Kyle Williams and force teams to be honest in their gap assignments then the defensive line will go from a point of weakness on this team to possibly one of its strengths.   You hate to place so much importance on a rookie, especially in a lockout shortened off-season, but Dareus was a top 3 selection for the purpose of coming in immediately and making an impact.  How big that impact is and its importance cannot be underestimated. 

 

1.  Shawne Merriman:  The only thing worse than putting so much importance on a rookie is displacing it to an oft-injured former superstar, right?  The Bills were tied for the fourth fewest sacks in the league in 2010 and were led by the aforementioned Kyle Williams (5.5 sacks).  In a 3-4 defense the interior linemen should not have that distinction.  Merriman has 43.5 career sacks in 60 games and posted double digit sack totals in 2005-2007 with a career high 17 sacks in 2006.  Injuries have crippled his production in most of the past three seasons and his ability to rehab from the injury sustained on his first practice day as a Buffalo Bill is the most important development for the Buffalo Bills.  Even if Arthur Moats continues his progression as a playmaker on the outside, there is no denying that a great defense needs multiple playermakers. 

Merriman has the potential to resurrect his career at only 27 years old and entering what is normally considered your prime playing years he should be motivated to capitalize on these two years in Buffalo for a lucrative final contract.  A lack of a consistent pass rush has hurt the Bills for the better part of the last decade and improving upon that should have a trickle-down effect on the rest of the Buffalo Bills defense. 

 So, who is the most important component of the Bills defense?  Williams, Dareus or Merriman?  Or someone else?  For the Bills to be successful, they really need all three of these positions to consistently produce in 2011.

Twitter: @brianbund

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Three most important Buffalo Bills offensive players

The Buffalo Bills showed a lot of promise on offense last year and because of that progression the team was able to focus their efforts on defense in the 2011 draft.  Still, the Bills ranked 25th in total offense and 28th in points per game (17.7).  The continued evolution of the Bills’ offense under Chan Gailey is going to be one of the more important and fun questions to watch develop this season.  Let’s take a look at the three most important pieces to that progress:

 

3. I’m going a different direction to start here by not singling out one player, but instead, a position.  Whoever ends up being the starting right tackle for the Buffalo Bills this year is going to have a huge part in their success.  When I look around the entire offense there really aren’t that many positions that leave you completely worried.  The skill positions are actually very strong and even though Fitzpatrick’s performance is a big part of the equation, we basically saw last season what the team should expect to get out of him.  The right tackle position is a total question mark amongst an offensive line that I’m becoming more and more comfortable with.

Would you like to see a stronger Demetrius Bell or upgrade at that position? Absolutely.  Would you like the right guard position solidified moving into the season?  Who wouldn’t? The point is that Bell showed some significant signs of progress in 2010 and with increased weight training should make another leap in the 2011 season. The Bills need to try and solidify the right tackle position in a big way from both a passing and ground attack position. As Bell continues to improve teams will study tape and develop games plans to attack the right side.  If Chris Hairston or Erik Pears or Mansfield Wrotto can become at least an adequate right tackle the Bills will have a relatively balanced offensive lineup. 

A balanced lineup doesn’t mean they are explosive or that there is not room for potential upgrades.  What it does mean is if you can minimize your glaring weaknesses that it makes it more difficult for opposing teams to game plan.  That in turn should allow Ryan Fitzpatrick to have more versatility when handling the offense and thus improve his play. If the Bills can have this offensive line group improve on last year’s performance and continue to grow, it will play a huge role in this team’s success in 2011.

 

2. The same case as above could be made for Eric Wood.  As Buffalo Rumbling’s points out that the offensive line’s identity starts and ends with the center.  Wood has dealt with some injury issues since entering the league in 2009.  Last season, Wood made the switch to his more natural center position and it is widely assumed he’ll have those duties for the entire 2011 season.  In a division of 3-4 defenses the center position plays an integral part to an offense’s success.  Facing opponents like Vince Wilfork, it is primarily the center’s obligation to try and handle that match-up.  If the center is unable to win that battle and a guard is called upon to double team the nose tackle it plays immediately into the defensive coordinator’s hands.

Wood had his struggles during the 2010 season against Jacksonville and Baltimore, but also excelled at times in those games and throughout the season.  A full offseason and film study at the center position should allow Wood to continue to improve and at just 25 definitely still has room to grow.  Whether or not Wood can progress into a stud center remains to be seen, but his development at the position over the next 3-4 years is going to be crucial for the Bills development and that starts in 2011.

1. The most popular answer to this question is going to be Ryan Fitzpatrick.  After a 3,000 yard, 23 TD season in 14 starts fans are eager to see how Fitzpatrick handles the play calling responsibilities for a full year.  Fitzpatrick’s play was a catalyst for the team’s improved play in the second half of the season and will remain the driving force behind their offensive success in 2011.

 

The NFL is a quarterback’s league and having quality play come from the game’s most important position is one of the main driving forces for success.  Ryan Fitzpatrick is and will continue to remain the most important offensive player for the Bills in the 2011 season.  Can he improve upon his 58% completion percentage?  Can he minimize the untimely interception (See Baltimore game)? Can he continue to spread the ball around effectively and utilize all the weapons the Bills have?  If Fitzpatrick is able to do these things throughout the entire 2011 season the Bills are going to be in a much better position to succeed.  Ryan Fitzpatrick’s success will dictate the level of success the Bills have as a whole.

 

Who do you think the most important player on the Bills offense?

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Delayed reactions to the Bills draft

After taking a day or two to sit back and reflect how the Buffalo Bills approached their 2011 draft one thing has become obvious about Buddy Nix.  He really doesn’t listen to draft gurus who tell them they need to address the quarterback position.  Nix and coach Chan Gailey have both admitted that they need address the game’s most important position, yet also giving their support to Ryan Fitzpatrick.  One thing to consider about the quarterback position is that there is no greater where for a GM and coach to put his job on the line than with drafting a quarterback highly and having it not work out.  So rather than race to find their franchise guy the Bills seem content (as am I) riding at least this season out with Ryan Fitzpatrick as their quarterback.  This is a contract year for Fitzpatrick, but I’d be shocked at this point if they try to get him an extension for two to three years once they have the authority to do so.

I’m not a fan of handing out grades because we know nothing about how they actually perform.  One grade I will give Buddy Nix and company is an A+++ for effort.  They stuck to their draft board and picked players of huge need (i.e. Defense…see Joe @ Buffalo Wins)

As for the players the Bills selected the common theme was defense which when assessing last years team seemed to have the more immediate and gapping holes.  The Bills also continued their theme of trying to find players who are more suited for the 3-4 front which demonstrated their commitment to that switch and although they will use multiple defensive fronts I would look for more of those to be in the base 3-4.  Picking up Marcell Dareus and Kelvin Sheppard the Bills picked up big, physical players who many consider to have the ability to contribute early in their careers.  Both picks also filled a need for the Bills at the 5-technique as well as ILB.  In the second round, the Bills addressed a more under the radar need in the secondary.  Reviewing all the picks:

Marcell Dareus, DT/DE Alabama – Should at the very least be able to help the defensive front rotation.  With the Bills using both a 3-4 and 4-3 front Dareus should play DE in the 3-4 and be able to slide inside when they mix in the 4-3 front.  Nothing about this pick is ‘sexy’.  He was not a sack machine, but he is a strong, nasty defender that will occupy his blocker and maybe another which is really what you want from your 3-4 end.  He possesses good agility for his size and should still be disruptive in the passing game.  This pick made so much sense for the Bills on a variety of levels.

Aaron Williams, DB Texas – When looking at the Bills needs in this draft, DB was under the radar.  With the continued injuries to Terrence McGee and uncertain return of Drayton Florence, the Bills took a first round talent at the top of round 2.  He’s a big corner over 200lbs and should have no problem helping support the run game.  Depending what the Bills do with free agency when it opens up, Williams should at a minimum compete to be the teams nickel back.

Kelvin Sheppard, ILB LSU – Most of the people I have spoken with love this pick.  Gailey coached Sheppard at the Senior Bowl and loved the ‘intangibles’ of the kid.  A subpar pro day workout hurt his potential draft stock, however I am happy that Nix and Gailey referred to what they saw in Mobile and game tape rather than rely specifically in his measurables.  Again, depending what the Bills do in free agency there is little reason to doubt that Sheppard will be given every opportunity to start at ILB in 3-4 situations.  He’s not a Ray Lewis/Patrick Willis freak on the field, but is a smart defender and fills a huge need for the Bills. 

Da’Norris Searcy, DB UNC – First little, and only head stretcher for me.  There were several highly rated TE on the board and potentially some help along the offensive line.  However, what I think doesn’t matter and the Bills secondary was hardly set in stone.  It is expected that Searcy will make a move to strong safety at some point and will have opportunity to compete in nickel and dime situations.  He is another 200lb plus defensive back that continued the trend of the Bills getting big and physical on defense.

Chris Hairston, OT Clemson – 6’6” 328lbs. He’s a big strong man that finished second at the combine in bench press (33) and first among offensive tackles.  The Bills are going to continue this year with Demetrius Bell on the left side and it should be an open competition on the right side.  Many would have liked to see the Bills address this earlier, but I believe Green Bay selecting Sheard out of Mississippi State at least somewhat toppled that plan. I have long contended that this group is more serviceable than some would suggest.  I think being the third year that some of them play together should allow them to gel.  I think the Bills again could address the right side in free agency, however if they do not this along with quarterback I imagine will be the first two picks in 2012.

Johnny White, RB UNC – The south has risen once again.  White was considered an underrated back by Todd McShay and has played multiple positions in college.  He will be an immediate special teams contributor and should compete for the Bills third RB.

Chris White, LB Mississippi St. – Another senior bowl linkage for Gailey. He should provide some depth at the position and contribute on special teams.  He’s again a big physical defender that allowed Nix to stack positions and try to build some depth.

Justin Rogers, DB Richmond – I really don’t know anything, but a late round smaller school player will probably need to be ‘coached up’.  Bills secondary is depleted so there will be an opportunity for him to make the team barring what the team does in free agency.

Michael Jasper, DT Bethel – He’s big and chuncky like Moto Moto from Madagascar 2 (yeah I have a two year old).  Honestly, he’s a very large man that Nix and Gailey will really have to work and will probably not see much time at all this season.

I love what the team did in the draft, but it’s going to take at least one more for them to stack depth at positions and carry that depth.  I’m not as concerned they didn’t address the quarterback position although I would expect Ryan Fitzpatrick to be re-signed very soon once the team is permitted to do so. At the very least, the team appeared to get better this past weekend.  They’ve officially got me excited to see some of these young guys.  Even amidst a lockout….damn you NFL!

Twitter: @brianbund

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A poor man’s look at the state of the Bills roster

With the NFL Draft less than a week I thought I would take a look at the Bills position by position and try to sum up where they are and hopefully how that will impact them in 2011.  With the current labor situation it is unknown as to what level free agency will play in addressing these needs which would typically help more in the short-term than developing a younger player.  Looking at this current state of the Bills I don’t think they are as far away as some from being a legitimate playoff team, however competing for a Super Bowl there are lacking the game changing talents.  Here is a look at the state of the Bills roster:

Offense

Quarterback

 Most Bills fans were happy with the Ryan Fitzpatrick experiment  and after the first two games for Trent Edwards it was imperative the team needed to head a different direction.  Fitzpatrick played for most of the remaining 14 games on the schedule after Edwards’ release and threw for 3,000 yards, 23 TD and 15 INT.  Over the course of a full season those numbers would have been roughly 3,400 yards, 26TDs and 16 INTs.  Fitzpatrick was also just 14 yards away from being the second leading rusher on the team with 269 yards.  The Bills had the 24th ranked passing attack in terms of passing yards.

With everything that went right about this experiment and solidifying the position to at least a capable level, many fans and analysts wonder if Fitzpatrick can be a quarterback who elevates his team to a playoff caliber team.  I’m off the belief that he is capable of helping lead the Bills to the playoffs, but not capable of propelling them to a championship unless the rest of the talent on the team is upgraded tremendously.  He completed only 58% of his passes and made some timely poor decisions that exhibit his limited physical talents, but over the long haul Fitzpatrick is a guy you want on your team and can hopefully serve as the starter for the next year or two and then is willing to relinquish the role to a younger guy and stay on as a backup for almost as long as he is willing. 

Brian Brohm is a restricted free agent this year and Levi Brown is still under contract.  The Bills could look to bring in someone to remove Brohm and hopefully upgrade the backup position.  If they draft a young quarterback then that will potentially fill that spot as well.

That being said the Bills are going to address this position at some point through the draft albeit this year or next, but if Cam Newton and Blaine Gabbert are available the Bills will have a lot of gut checking to do in determining whether either is a franchise quarterback.  My gut says Newton is gone and that the Bills pass on Gabbert to improve the defense.  Depending who’s available early in round 2 they could address this, but I think the Bills live with Fitz 1 more season before properly addressing the position.  If Newton is available it becomes a 50/50 proposition in my opinion. 

Running Back

 The Bills ranked 18th in rushing last year and after finally trading Marshawn Lynch, the Bills gave the overwhelming percentage of carries to Fred Jackson (61%) for 927 yards.  He added 31 catches out of the backfield for 215 yards and combined for 7TDs.  CJ Spiller was never fully incorporated into the offense averaging 3.8 yards/rush and adding 24 catches.  The labor situation hurts players like Spiller who would have had an opportunity to get into their first full offseason working with coaches on the playbook and technique.  I expect Spiller to be a much better contributor to the team in 2012 with Fred Jackson still carrying the bulk of the work. The depth chart also lists Quinton Ganther and Jehuu Caulcrick where the Bills could look to add another runner in the late rounds or undrafted FA if the current labor situations clears up how those will be handled.

Wide Reciever

 The 2010 receiving core was one of the brightest spots for the Bills with the emergence of Stevie Johnson and play of undrafted free agents David Nelson, Donald Jones and Naaman Roosevelt.  Additionally, Roscoe Parrish before his injury provided the Bills with a slot presence and emerged into a role that both he and fans were hoping.  Lee Evans had a statistically down year and injuries sidelined him to end the year, but with him and Stevie Johnson the Bills appear to have a legitimate 1-2 punch at the position.  With the addition of Nelson, Parrish and others the Bills depth at this position appears strong for the future and should not be a point of emphasis , although as last year’s CJ Spiller pick demonstrated anything is possible. Roscoe Parrish and Stevie Johnson both have contracts that are expiring in 2012 and you would have to imagine that with emergence of Donald Jones the Bills may let Parrish walk while working out a deal to sign Johnson.

Tight End – The current depth chart the Bills have listed is David Martin, Jonathan Stupar, Scott Chandler and Mike Caussin.  The Bills have lacked a pass catching tight end this century and in a league filled with players at this position asked to do virtually everything the Bills will be well served to finally nail a pick for this position after several have not panned out.  The position combined for 23 caught balls in 2010 and 187 yards.  For perspective the Patriots two-head monster of Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski combined for 87 catches and over 1100 yards. This is a position of need for the Bills any way you slice it. 

Many mock drafts having the Bills selecting Lance Kendricks in the 3rd round out of Wisconsin, but many Bills fans would like to see them select Kyle Rudolph out of Notre Dame if he’s still available in round 2.

Offensive Line

 Demetrius Bell made significant strides at LT for the Bills in 2010 and will hopefully continue his progress in 2011 along with the continued development of interior linemen Andy Levitre and Eric Wood.  Many people believe that Wood will slide to his more natural position of center and  mid-season addition Kraig Urbik could provide the Bills with an interior line that would be young and have several seasons under their belt.  The improved play of this unit could ultimately determine the Bills success in 2011 with improved run blocking and providing Ryan Fitzpatrick with the appropriate time to attack teams downfield.   At RT right now it would appear that Mansfield Wrotto would be slotted to start, but If the Bills choose to address this position in round 2 they would hopefully get someone who could step in and compete for that spot. 

The Bills appear to have a solid group coming together on the line, but no true dominant player at any of the positions.  The starting five appears to be somewhat set, especially given the current labor situation.  The Bills need depth across the line given the slate of injuries that 2010 brought and if possible could be well served to address any potential upgrades at any position, most notably along the right side.

Defense

Defensive line

Kyle Williams is fresh off his Pro Bowl appearance and was arguably the Bills best player.  Many questioned his ability to play in the middle of the 3-4 and he answered most of those questions.  Williams had 5.5 sacks and 11 tackles for loss while finishing fifth on the team with 77 tackles. Dwan Edwards was a solid contributor at the end spot and should be the opening day starter again for the Bills.  With the release of Marcus Stroud the Bills appear to be going in a different direction with either second year man Alex Carrington or possibly Spencer Johnson.  Additionally, second year NT Torell Troup will be looking for even more time this year and with the Bills employing multiple fronts.  All of these players should see significant playing time.

Many analysts look at the Bills defensive line as their biggest priority.  Having allowed the most yards in the league hardly nullifies this opinion, but it is hard for me to believe that Buddy Nix and company are going to take a defensive line player just for the sake of it.  The team drafted one in each the second and third round in 2010.  If they see a player they truly believe is a game changer they are going to take that person regardless of position. 

Line Backer

If, and they say they will, the Bills continue to use a 3-4 front they need to get substantially more production from the line backing group.  Consisting mostly of some combination of Paul Pozluszny, Reggie Torbor, Andra Davis, Keith Ellison, Akin Ayodele and Chris Kelsay along with late season bloomer Arthur ‘don’t cross the’ Moats the unit as a whole lacked any big play potential.  Ayodele and Ellison are likely to leave or added back for depth.  Many believe that Pozluszny coming back is more of a formality and given the state of the group it would be important to bring him back.  Pozluszny is not the game changing Ray Lewis/Patrick Willis type middle linebacker but he’s a responsible player that at this point the unit needs desparately.

The in season trade of Shawne Merriman remains the extreme variable for this team.  At his height, Merriman was one of the most feared and punishing players in the NFL and at only 26 years old the Bills hope that he can heal from several seasons of injuries and regain even a high fraction of his old self.  The contract extension to Chris Kelsay still remains to be seen how it plays out, but last season in the 3-4 Kelsay appeared lost in coverage assignments or incapable of executing them.  The contract extension and re-signing Merriman tied up a decent amount of money to the outside players and along with Moats it would appear that the Bills have limited options to upgrade unless they do it with the third pick. 

At this point many of the draft analyst (both professional and amateur) believe the Bills will take Von Miller out of Texas A&M as an attempt to upgrade their edge pass rush.  Miller played in the Senior Bowl with Chan Gailey and was a consensus winner out of the week he spent there.  In addition, unlike many of the top draft prospects (Newton, Fairly, Bowers, etc) Miller was able to put together 17 and 11 sack seasons playing in the Big 12.  People constantly point to his explosiveness off the edge which should allow the Bills to generate some pass rush while most still point to his ability to drop into coverage as an additional strength.  The main concern for Bills fans appears to be the size he possesses at 6’3” 243lbs which he should be able to add onto.  In my honest opinion the Bills draft choice at #3 comes down to Dareus, Newton or Miller for the Bills.  Unfortunately (or fortunately) for the Bills the two teams in front of them may have made up their mind for them.

As much time as was spent on the outside linebacker position the Bills will most likely utilize the Pozluszny and Davis combination heading into the 2011 season, but will probably take a 2nd to 5th round pick on another linebacker that can hopefully play in the middle of that group.  If the Bills can find and use outside playmakers in their 3-4 front than players like Pozluszny should flourish.

Secondary

 It appears, but is not final that Donte Whitner will most likely not be back with the Buffalo Bills in 2011.  The Bills re-signed George Wilson to a 3-year extension that along with Jairus Byrd should solidify the Bills starting safeties. Bryan Scott provides depth at the SS position, but the Bills will most likely need to add someone through free agency to help back up Byrd although If needed Wilson can play both positions.  The Bills only had 11 INTs four came from safeties, five from corners and two from linebackers.   If the Bills are to improve on defense in 2011 they need to generate more turnovers in the passing game.  Some of this can be attributed to the lack of pass rush (27 total sacks) and last ranked run defense that put additional pressure on the secondary in certain situations, however as a unit they need to improve on that total regardless of what happens in front of them. 

Corner should be an interesting position to watch for the Bills this offseason in the draft and into the season.  Drayton Florence provided the Bills with an up and down campaign with 3 INTs including one returned for a touchdown.  However, his and Leodis McKelvin’s inability to consistently match up with opposing wide receivers cost the Bills.  Much like the Bills offensive line where there are some respectable pieces this group lacks a star quality player despite having two first round picks (Terrence McGee and McKelvin) that can shut down opposing teams top threat and make game changing plays on a routine basis.  I mentioned above that I felt like the Bills are in a three-man race for their third pick, however not knowing how they actually evaluate the talent the wild card in this case is Patrick Peterson.  Many believe he is the single greatest talent in this draft and that it is team needs at the top that is driving down his draft position.  Peterson only had seven career INTs at LSU but most of this is attributed to the fact that opposing teams refused to throw the ball his way and at 6’2” and 219lbs he is a big, big corner that still ran a 4.34- 40 .  He’s a talent that may be too tough to pass on, especially If the players the Bills really wanted go 1-2.

Summation:  The Bills have a lot of high quality role players, but in many of the key positions lack that big play talent that can change the course of the game on any snap.  The Bills need to nail the 3rd pick and find a game changing talent regardless of the position.  If, IF the Bills stay at the third selection I think they will take one of four plays mentioned before, but there is a growing hope among fans that the Bills may be able to move down between 5-11 in the draft and still potentially obtain one of these types of talents as well as build depth across this year’s draft.  The biggest problem with trading down this year is the inability to include players so teams trying to make a big jump to #3 may need to forfeit future draft picks which may not be the worst thing for the Bills to still get a very good player in the top ten as well as an additional 1st round pick in 2012.

I will follow up with several scenarios I think could play out for the Bills to include two options that I’m most hoping for.

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