For the 2012 season, the Buffalo Bills' primary areas of need are to improve the pass-rush, add a starting outside linebacker, find a wide receiver that can stretch the field vertically and upgrade the play at left tackle. A secondary priority is to improve the depth of the team across the board.
In 2012, the Bills defense under new defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt is switching to the 4-3 front. Hopefully, this will allow the Bills to generate a more consistent pass-rush, resulting in getting off of the field and creating more three-and-out drives for the opposition's offense. No other defense has been out on the field making more tackles than Buffalo, leading the NFL in 2009-2011 with 3,776 tackles.
To put that in proper perspective, the Bills defense has been on the field for an extra 925 tackles over the past three years compared to the most efficient defenses combined (2,845) in getting off of the field. And yet, people wonder why the Bills are hit with so many more injuries than other teams. There is your answer.
How do the Bills fix the problem areas? By converting to the 4-3, the Bills will be able to use their two superior defensive tackles in All-Pro Kyle Williams and first-round draft pick from 2011 Marcell Dareus to neutralize the point of attack. Williams and Dareus will be asked to push the pocket back into the quarterback, forcing him to go directly into the ongoing rush of the defensive ends. One of those defensive ends figures to be Chris Kelsay. The second one right now is up in the air.
If he can stay healthy in 2012, which is a big if, the other defensive end could be Shawne Merriman. Merriman looked fine in the 2011 preseason, but when the regular season started, he seemed to have lost his power and ability to accelerate. His health and ability to put pressure on the quarterback is a key to the 2012 season. The Bills will employ Merriman as a situational pass-rusher, assuming that he doesn't get injured during training camp, which is always a possibility.
The Bills would be wise to add several strong defensive ends, whether through the draft or free agency. From the 2012 NFL draft perspective, first-round pass-rushing prospects include Melvin Ingram (South Carolina), Quinton Coples (North Carolina), Courtney Upshaw (Alabama), Nick Perry (USC), Andre Branch (Clemson) and Whitney Mercilus (Illinois). This includes defensive end/outside linebacker types.
If the Bills decide to take advantage of somebody unexpectedly falling in their laps with the No. 10 overall pick and don't draft a pass-rusher, there are candidates in the second to third-round like Vinny Curry (Marshall), Chandler Jones (Syracuse) and Ronnell Lewis (Oklahoma).
That addresses the pass rush. From the wide receiver issue, there are a number of potential free agents that could help out in addition to a deep draft class that offers a number of fast wide receivers that can stretch the field.
From the draft, we had the recent results of the NFL Scouting Combines from Indianapolis. Here are the top 10 wide receiver times in the 40, to give you a better idea of who can stretch the field:
Travis Benjamin, Miami: 4:36
Stephen Hill, Georgia Tech: 4.36
Chris Owusu, Stanford: 4.36
A.J. Jenkins, Illinois: 4.39
Devon Wylie, Fresno State: 4.39
Tommy Streeter, Miami: 4.4
Chris Givens, Wake Forest: 4.41
T.J. Graham, N.C. State: 4.41
Kashif Moore, Connecticut: 4.42
Jarius Wright, Arkansas: 4.42.
Then there is the issue of the Bills' own wideouts. Can the Bills sign Steve Johnson to a long-term deal prior to the start of free agency on March 13, or will the Bills let him leave like Paul Posluszny did last year? We can only hope that the Bills get Johnson signed, or at the very least, place a franchise tag on him.
The other possible field-stretcher is 2009 draft pick Marcus Easley, who still hasn't been able to play in a game since the Bills drafted him. If he returns healthy in 2012, that could be a big plus.
The final issue to address was left tackle. The Bills have to determine if they want to bring back Demetrius Bell, and if they do, how many years are they willing to sign him for? From 2011, Bell and rookie Chris Hairston took turns playing, and when both were out with injuries, Andy Levitre was forced to slide over to play. That kind of thing happens in the NFL, but Bell has a history of getting injured, so the Bills are forced to evaluate his health and ability to play on a weekly basis.
The free-agent market doesn't look very promising for left tackles, so the draft appears to be the best place to upgrade. If the Bills use their first-round pick on a pass-rusher as expected, the top three tackles should already be off of the board by the time the Bills select again at 42. They are Matt Kalil (USC), Riley Reiff (Iowa) and Jonathan Martin (Stanford). The next wave of tackles includes: Mike Adams (Ohio St.), Cordy Glenn (Georgia), James Brown (Troy) and Zebrie Sanders (Florida St.).
We also talked about improving the overall depth. In 2011, the Bills were able to surprisingly land free agents like Nick Barnett and Kirk Morrison. The Bills are talking to Morrison to bring him back, but the 2011 free agents the Bills signed are a good indication that better free agents are willing to play in Buffalo. The guys they signed are also good recruiters, as is Shawne Merriman, so hopefully, that trend will continue and the Bills will sign a few other unexpected veterans to improve the overall depth.
One final thought, and I will use a Buddy Nix axiom here, is that when in doubt, draft a cornerback. An improved pass-rush would make the entire Bills secondary better, but they still give up too many big plays. Players like Leodis McKelvin and Drayton Florence too often lose track of where the football is, and since they have their back turned to the pass, they have no chance of deflecting the pass. The Bills would be wise to bring in another corner or two, from either the draft or free agency.