Buffalo Bills Offseason Progress: Pre-Combines Edition
Now that Super Bowl XLVI is history, we can turn our attention in earnest to the upcoming 2012 season, which is the third year of the Buddy Nix/Chan Gailey rebuilding effort, and the year that you would expect to start seeing some positive results.
Assuming that the Nix is able to direct another successful draft, and that the Bills can use their salary cap space to roster some key free agents, the Bills should be in a position to start contending for the playoffs beginning in 2012.
While some people will scoff at the mere mention of the Bills and playoffs in the same sentence, the premise here is that the Bills are due to catch a break in regard to the number of injuries that they have suffered to key players over the recent past. That string of bad luck is due to take a turn in the other direction.
Assuming that players like Shawne Merriman, Fred Jackson, Marcus Easley, Kyle Williams and Eric Wood are able to come back at full strength, the Bills will expect to be a physical team on both sides of the ball in 2012. This is also dependent upon the Bills successfully meeting its top offseason priority—upgrading the pass rush.
Let's bring everybody up to speed on recent Bills developments and what lies ahead in the next couple months.
2012 Offseason Calendar
Scott Boehm/Getty Images
Here is the breakdown of the upcoming NFL calendar for the 2012 offseason:
Feb. 20 - NFL teams can begin assigning players with franchise tag
Feb. 22 - 28: NFL Scouting Combines at Indianapolis
March 5: Deadline for teams to apply franchise tags and transitional tags
March 13 - NFL free agency begins at 4:00 pm
April 26 - 28: NFL Draft in New York City
Mid-May: OTA's (awaiting announcement when Bills will hold OTA's).
July: Training Camps Open (waiting for Bills to announce exact date camp opens)
August 5: NFL Hall of Fame Game
Sep. 6: Opening Day of the 2012 NFL regular season.
Bills Transactions During Offseason
Rick Stewart/Getty Images
In case you are not up to speed on the Buffalo Bills recent transactions, the Bills have done the following:
Signed free agent kicker Rian Lindell to a four-year deal worth $11 million. In addition, the Bills signed Lindell's long snapper, Garrison Sanborn to a three-year deal, so the Bills are keeping them together.
Released safety/special teams player Jon Corto, who spent 2011 on the injured reserve list. Corto would have earned a salary of $675,000 in 2012.
According to Chris Brown of Buffalo Bills.com, the Bills are expected to tender qualifying offers to restricted free agents Kraig Urbik and Chad Rhinehart. The Bills hope to sign the two offensive linemen to long-term contracts that will keep the offensive line cohesion in place. That would also be consistent with the Bills' decision to give a contract extension to starting tackle Erik Pears at the end of the 2011 season.
No new progress to report on the Steve Johnson contract talks. If a long-term deal isn't able to materialize, the Bills are thought to be prepared to apply the franchise tag on Johnson for 2012, and then go from there. Interestingly enough, James Walker of ESPN writes in his AFC East blog that the probability of the Bills using a franchise tag on Johnson is only 10 percent. That seems very low to me.
From the existing group of free agents, the other main priorities are Scott Chandler, Demetrius Bell and Bryan Scott. Whether or not the Bills try to bring back linebackers Andra Davis or Kirk Morrison would be to maintain additional depth at linebacker.
For now, we would categorize Roscoe Parrish (and Terrence McGee, for that matter) as in the "injured so often club, that it is hard to count on them." That doesn't bode well for either veteran for 2012.
Finally, that leaves Fred Jackson. Buddy Nix stated that he wants Jackson to retire as a Buffalo Bills player, but Jackson will have to be patient and let Nix take care of all of the other scenarios mentioned above before he addresses Jackson. After all, Jackson is still under contract for 2012, but both parties want to get the contract extension issue resolved before the regular season begins.
Bills Coaching Changes Since 2011 Season Ended
As this is the third year of the Chan Gailey and Buddy Nix rebuilding effort, the pressure is on both of them to show results this year.
While a winning record would be a positive sign that they are making progress, an appearance in the playoffs is the thing that Bills fans really need to see. After all, no NFL fan base has been kept waiting for their team to be in the playoffs than has the Bills fans.
Gailey has made some adjustments to his coaching staff for 2012, as follows:
WR Coach: The Bills promoted Bill Bicknell, who had been the tight ends coach, to now coach the wide receivers.
TE Coach: The tight end vacancy was filled by ex-Bills player great Pete Metzelaars, who played on all four of the Bill's Super Bowl teams of the 1990's. Metzelaars is also a member of Buffalo's 50th anniversary team
Defensive Coordinator: Dave Wannstedt, was promoted to the job. George Edwards has now surfaced as the linebackers coach for the Miami Dolphins.
QB Coach: David Lee was hired to coach Ryan Fitzpatrick and Tyler Thigpen, and whoever the Bills add to the mix.
LB Coach: Bob Sanders will now coach the entire linebackers for the Bills in 2012. Last year he split the linebackers with Dave Wannstedt.
Assistant Offensive Line Coach: Andrew Dees was added to the staff. Dees worked previously in town when he coached at the University of Buffalo from 2001-2005.
QB Coach David Lee has been getting up to speed on the Bills offense with Chan Gailey, and he has been reviewing lots of tape on Ryan Fitzpatrick. After watching lots of film, Lee made this observation of Fitzpatrick, as noted on the Sports Xchange:
He's mastered 'funny body' throws as good as anybody I've ever seen. When things break down or the hot (pass rusher) is coming and you can't set your feet he really gives the guy a chance to catch the football. Ironically, it seems like when he does miss it's when the protection is the cleanest and he can execute the fundamentals the best. It's usually not the way it is, you usually miss when you can't set your feet and you have to make those funny body throws.
Bills Will Be Switching Back to 4-3 Defensive Front in 2012
Now that Dave Wannstedt is the Bills defensive coordinator, it didn't take the Bills or Wannstedt very long to declare that the Bills are switching to a 4-3 defensive scheme for the majority of 2012. The Bills will continue to use their hybrid approach, switching back to a 3-4 look according to the team that they are facing and according to specific situations.
In addition, Chan Gailey felt the switch made sense because it is easier for the Bills to find players that can fit the 4-3 scheme than it is to find players who fit properly in the 3-4. Chalk that up to the rules of supply and demand.
So, with the 4-3 shift, the Bills know that they can line up Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams as their base defensive tackles, giving them a tremendous start to their front seven. The defensive ends can include Chris Kelsay, Dwan Edwards and Alex Carrington. The Bills also have Kellen Heard and Torell Troup to rotate in fresh bodies at the two tackle spots.
The Bills will look to add another defensive end either through free agency or the draft. While he would be very expensive to sign, imagine adding Mario Williams of the Houston Texans to that mix. Some people like the prospect of drafting Quinton Coples, but the scouting combines will help to determine if Couples is worth it with the No. 10 pick.
From a linebacker perspective, the Bills have Kelvin Sheppard set to play the middle linebacker, and Nick Barnett to serve as the weakside linebacker. That leaves Shawne Merriman to handle the strong side LB job, if he is physically up for the task. If he is not, the Bills can draft a player like Courtney Upshaw or Melvin Ingram to plug in there. There is still some depth with Arthur Moats, Danny Batten and Chris White.
The pass rush has to improve if the Bills are serious about wanting to make a playoff push. The Bills defense has a solid core, but the injuries and lack of depth have really set this unit back for two straight years (in addition to the pass rush). The Bills are really only a couple pieces away from having a solid front seven, so it is up to Buddy Nix and company to find those missing pieces.
Andre Reed Falls Short of Hall of Fame Voting Again
As per this article on BuffaloBills.com, Andre Reed is now getting frustrated with the ongoing log jam that the NFL Hall of Fame voters have been unable to break for the past few years running. Once again the trio of Andre Reed, Cris Carter and Tim Brown have been excluded from the Hall of Fame, as another new class was voted in prior to Super Bowl XLVI.
Reed continues to advance to the final group of 10 players, but for whatever reason is falling short of the necessary votes to make it past that round and into the Hall of Fame.
Until one of the trio is voted in, this log jam will put the trio in some real jeopardy, because it won't be long before receivers like Randy Moss and Terrell Owens are going to be ready to compete with them for the same votes, further complicating the entire process.
Let's hope that the voters finally break up this log jam in the class of 2013 and that Andre Reed finally gets in to the Hall of Fame, an honor that he richly deserves.
2012 Season Updates
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
The Buffalo Bills will finally be on a national televised game, as per an announcement from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. The NFL is expanding the number of weeks that they will televise games on the NFL Network on Thursday nights, and this assures that every team will now appear on at least one nationally televised game.
Another interesting feature of the 2012 season is that the Bills will be facing a number of teams with new head coaches. Those teams are: Miami Dolphins (twice), Jacksonville Jaguars, Kansas City Chiefs, St. Louis Rams and the Indianapolis Colts. Bills fans probably saw that ex-Bills head coach Mike Mularkey is now head coach of the Jaguars.
In addition, the Bills will also have games with the following teams that are putting in new coordinators: New England Patriots (offense coordinator), New York Jets (offensive coordinator), Kansas City (offensive coordinator), St. Louis (offensive and defensive coordinators), Miami (offensive and defensive coordinators), Indianapolis (offensive and defensive coordinators) and Cleveland (offensive coordinator).
Obviously, you prefer to face the teams that are putting in new coordinators earlier in the season than later in the year, as many of these new schemes require many weeks of trial and error and continual communication, something the Bills know about all too well.
The actual schedule will be announced later this spring.
Bills Coaches Are Preparing for Scouting Combines
The Bills coaches and scouts have been meeting at One Bills Drive in preparation for the NFL Scouting Combine, which starts in roughly 10 days. You can see most of the live proceedings on the NFL Network.
Unless there is a major surprise in store, which is always a possibility, we expect that the Bills are going to be primarily focused on identifying a dynamic pass rusher in Indianapolis. As of today, the three names that seem to pop up the most are Courtney Upshaw from Alabama, or two defensive stars from South Carolina, Quinton Couples or Melvin Ingram. There is a fourth name, Nick Perry from USC, but I continue to see the first three players brought up in connection with the Bills with far more regularity than Perry.
It is possible that the Bills could sign a badly needed free agent pass rusher, and if that occurs prior to the NFL Draft (April 26-28), then the Bills will certainly be ready to execute Plan B. Plan B could be to add another defensive standout to round out the front seven, as the Bills overall need to improve at both defensive end and at strongside linebacker.
Other Plan B options could include drafting a left tackle or a fast wide receiver, worthy of starting opposite of Steve Johnson. I don't really see the Bills drafting a player that does not fit into any of those positions, defensive end, outside linebacker, left tackle or wide receiver. If Nix does something that falls outside of those options, we can only hope that it meant that he traded down in the first round to secure additional high draft picks. But that seems like an unlikely result.
Bills Bring in Raiders Corner Stanford Routt for a Visit
Rick Stewart/Getty Images
The Oakland Raiders made a rather surprising move when they released one of their top corners, Stanford Routt last week. The Bills were one of the first teams to contact Routt's agents, and made arrangements to bring Routt in for a visit on Sunday to One Bills Drive.
The other teams that are said to also be interested in Routt are the Tennessee Titans, Dallas Cowboys, Minnesota Vikings and Kansas City Chiefs. Routt is free to sign a new contract right now, since he already has been released by Oakland, so the Bills might be able to beat the other suitors to the punch.
Presumably, if the Bills were able to extend an offer to Routt that he signed, he would immediately be in the mix for a starting corner job, but whose job would he be taking? My guess is that it would be Terrence McGee, who can't seem to avoid injury any longer. We will see what happens, as the competition for Routt appears to be quite formidable.
Ryan Fitzpatrick Played with Four Cracked Ribs and Injured Sternum
Jim Rogash/Getty Images
Since our last Bills article, it has surfaced that Ryan Fitzpatrick played through a rather serious injury during the second half of the 2011 season. During the Week 8 game against the Washington Redskins in Toronto, Fitzpatrick took a wicked shot from ex-Bills linebacker London Fletcher. The hit resulted in Fitzpatrick suffering four cracked ribs and an injured sternum.
Fitzpatrick played every game during the season, so he was dealing with major pain and discomfort as he took a number of big hits in the weeks that proceeded the Redskins game. Fitzpatrick doesn't like using injuries as an excuse for his performance, so he was not happy that information had leaked about the injury.
While we applaud Fitzpatrick for fighting through the pain, we have to wonder if this is something he would continue to do in the future. It has not been known if Chan Gailey was aware of the injury or not. Clearly Fitzpatrick was not the same quarterback after the injury as he was prior to that game. If you are hurt and can't perform at the same level the team was accustomed to, wouldn't it make more sense to let your coach know, so he can make the appropriate evaluation as to what is best for the team?
I realize that there is a clear gap between Ryan Fitzpatrick and Tyler Thigpen, but in some of those games that immediately followed the Redskins game, Fitzpatrick was horrible against the Jets and the Cowboys. Before the Bills lost the lead in the AFC East, wouldn't it have made sense to let Thigpen start one or two of those games and let Fitzpatrick heal up?
Just wondering aloud Bills fans. What do you think?
We will be back with another Bills article just prior to the start of the combines, with any new Bills developments.