Three years into his NFL career, Shawne Merriman was one of the game's finest pass-rushers, having gathered 39.5 sacks during that time span. From 2005-2007, it was hard to find a player who matched his production. But five years and five sacks later, there is a completely different conversation concerning "Lights Out."
The three-time All-Pro player has been limited since 2008, mostly due to injuries. He has been linked to steroid use and his career has been underwhelming since its promising start.
The problem is: He cannot sack the quarterback if he isn't on the field. Since 2009, he has only played in 20 games, including eight over the past two seasons.
Merriman was waived by the Chargers and claimed by the Bills in 2010. He was immediately injured and never suited up for Buffalo that season. He started five games in 2011 but only recorded nine tackles.
That type of production, or lack thereof, made him nearly invisible on the field. Yet, since he has had success and produced at a high level in past seasons, the Bills are optimistic in 2012. Even Merriman says he plans on being healthy this year.
But actions speak louder than words.
The fact of the matter is that Shawne Merriman has never played in 16 games during a season. Since his rookie campaign in 2005, he has never completed a season.
Merriman has not had double-digit sacks since 2007. He hasn't recorded double-digit tackles since 2009. How a player of his caliber can completely fall so low is truly unbelievable. He went from an All-Pro player to a waiver-wire acquisition.
Will Shawne Merriman return to form in 2012?
Despite all that, he is only 27 years old. He has played lots of football, but could still have some left in him. The Bills made quite the effort to improve their defense in the 2012 NFL Draft and Merriman's roster spot is far from safe. His history gives him an advantage and his potential gives him a chance to compete for playing time.
But, he is an injury away from looking for a new job.
If Merriman can finally regain his form, the Bills' defense will be an absolute nightmare for any offense that faces it. If he can get, and stay, healthy then Buffalo will be pleased with their linebacker. But he hasn't shown that sort of stability in recent years.
Buffalo has options if the Merriman experiment doesn't work out. At this point, he needs them more than they need him. To make an impact and save his career, Merriman will have to ensure Buffalo that he belongs on the roster and deserves to start. He needs to stay healthy and if he can there is no reason for him not to return to what made him great.
But the Bills can't deal with this every offseason. If Merriman is going to make an impact in Buffalo, the time is now.