10 Reasons Why 2012 Buffalo Bills Will Improve from Last Season
Let's face it. The 2011 Buffalo Bills broke our hearts last season after starting the season 5-2, only to finish at the bottom of the AFC East division with a 6-10 record, marking the 13th straight season the franchise failed to make the playoffs.
However, after an exciting offseason and draft, there is finally some optimism for Bills fans around the nation. This slideshow takes a look at why the Bills could become playoff contenders in 2012.
Returns from Injury
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After the Bills' hot start to the 2011 season, the injury bug struck Orchard Park once again. Now injuries are part of the game, and I'm definitely not one to blame a subpar season on injuries, but the Bills lost a lot of core players last year.
The Bills lost three of the team's best players to the injured reserve list—starting nose tackle, Kyle Williams; running back, Fred Jackson; center, Eric Wood; and veteran cornerback, Terrence McGee. The team also lost their No. 2 receiver, Donald Jones, to multiple injuries throughout the season.
With all of these players expected to be ready by the beginning of the year, the Bills could pick up right where they left off before the plague hit.
The Defensive Line Is Nasty and Deep
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The Bills made one of the biggest splashes in free agency this year when they signed former Houston Texans defensive end, Mario Williams, to a six-year, $90 million deal in order to beef up their pass rush.
Williams has averaged 8.8 sacks per season in his highly productive career since being selected with the No. 1 overall pick.
But the signings didn't end there, as Buddy Nix reeled in former New England Patriot pass-rusher, Mark Anderson, who is coming off of a 10-sack year.
Chris Kelsay and Shawne Merriman are also expected to play defensive end, and could see some significant reps considering the depth at the position. Defensive Coordinator Dave Wannstedt is known for keeping several defensive linemen on a roster, using a rotation to keep the opposing offensive lines unprepared.
On the interior, the Bills have two stud defensive tackles in second-year player, Marcell Dareus, and veteran, Kyle Williams. Dareus led the team with a measly 5.5 sacks last year, adding another 43 tackles. However, he was playing nose tackle in a 3-4 defense, after taking over for Williams, and flashed the ability and potential that made him the No. 3 overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft.
Kyle Williams was injured early in the 2012 season, but if he returns to his 2011 form of 54 tackles and 5.5 sacks, the Bills are set at the front four.
Transitioning to the 4-3 will hopefully help the Bills improve on their 28th ranked rush defense that allowed 139 yards per game on the ground.
Offensive Line Group Is Strong
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The Bills lost their starting left tackle, Demetress Bell, to the Philadelphia Eagles this offseason, but Buddy Nix has faith in the second-year left tackle Chris Hairston out of Clemson, who started seven games protecting Ryan Fitzpatrick's blind side. Nix addressed the offensive tackle position twice in the 2012 NFL Draft, selecting Georgia's Cordy Glenn and Florida State's Zebrie Sanders, giving the team some much needed depth at the bookends.
Glenn was projected as a guard by many draft analysts; however, Buddy Nix thinks otherwise:
“Hell no he’s not a guard,” said Bills GM Buddy Nix of Glenn. ”He started 50 games and the last 16 were at left tackle. We put it out there and tried to spread the rumor that he was a guard to hope somebody wouldn’t take him.”
Andy Levitre is one of the game's top interior offensive linemen, and he will be a day one starter at the left guard position. Due to the surplus of injuries last season, Levitre was forced to split time at left tackle, guard and even center. He is a key asset to the Bills' offensive line.
Center Eric Wood is entering his fourth season as a member of the Bills, and hasn't been able to play in all 16 games once yet. He landed on the injured reserve list last year after tearing an ACL. He has the potential to be one of the game's top centers if he can stay healthy.
At right guard, Kraig Urbik is expected to earn the starting role after starting 13 games last season. the 6'5 325 pounder is a mauling run blocker and can hold his own in pass protection. His main competition will be Chad Rinehart, who played in 12 games last season.
The Bills also have a clear-cut starter at right tackle, after inking Erik Pears to a four-year, $9.8 million contract he signed towards the end of last season. He is a steady and consistent tackle who rarely gets beat off the snap.
Overall, the Bills had one of the best offensive lines last year, allowing just 23 sacks.
Special Teams and Field Position
With all of the hype surrounding the Bills' bold offseason moves, there has been little speculation regarding special teams. Bruce DeHaven is the special teams coordinator and he likes what he sees in this season's group of specialists, especially in rookies Tank Carder and Nigel Bradham:
“It’s especially rare to have a guy drafted that played a lot of special teams late in their college careers. Most of the guys that get drafted played a lot of special teams as freshmen or sophomores, but didn’t play much their last couple of years. So the fact that they have played on those units recently is a plus.”
Not only will the coverage team be improved, but there could be some competition for kick and punt return duties.
Running back, C.J. Spiller, cornerbacks, Leodis McKelvin, Justin Rogers and rookie Ron Brooks, along with fellow rookie wideout, T.J. Graham, create a log jam on special teams.
Justin Rogers took over kick return duties late in the season, averaging 28.7 yards per return after McKelvin, Spiller and Brad Smith weren't producing.
Wide receiver, T.J. Graham, is the ACC's all-time leader in kick returns, averaging 23 yards per return for 3,153 yards, scoring twice, while adding another 66 punt returns for 628 yards and two more touchdowns. However, Chan Gailey has made it clear that he wants Graham focusing on his role as a wide receiver, rather than special teams.
Full Offseason Activities
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Last year's lockout shortened the offseason and teams were force-feeding their playbooks to players. The young players that weren't able to get a full grasp on the terminology will finally have a full offseason to work on their craft.
This year teams will be returning to their full offseason activities, which will enable players to build chemistry with one another, all while learning the entire playbook.
With the Bills' depth at some key positions, a first-hand look at the roster could make Buddy Nix's job a bit easier when cut days come.
The Secondary Is Top Notch
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The Buffalo Bills selected South Carolina’s Stephon Gilmore and Louisiana State’s Ron Brooks in the 2012 NFL draft, paving the way to release veteran cornerback, Drayton Florence, who has been with the team for three seasons.
However, losing Florence didn't diminish the Bills' secondary in any way other than the lost veteran presence in the locker room.
Gilmore looks ready to earn a starting role after his three years as a Gamecock, in which he made 181 tackles, intercepted eight passes while breaking up 17 and forced four fumbles. He is solid in his run support, as he made 15 tackles behind the line of scrimmage.
Last year's second-round pick, Aaron Williams, could also fight his way into a starting role after a solid rookie campaign that was plagued by various chest injuries.
Leodis McKelvin is entering a contract year, so I'm expecting big things out of him this season, or his career could be coming to an end.
In the back end of the secondary is where the Bills are strongest. The safety position is held down by tackling machine George Wilson, who is coming off of a career year in which he made 106 tackles, deflected six passes, intercepted four passes and forced two fumbles.
Alongside Wilson is Jairus Byrd, a complete ballhawk who racked up 98 tackles, four of which were for a loss, deflected eight passes, intercepted three and forced three fumbles.
The Bills have all the talent they need in the secondary to compete with the receivers in the AFC East.
Improved Depth Across the Board
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When the Bills were plagued with injuries, they simply didn't have the bodies to take their roles. After a solid draft, that problem is in the rear view mirror, as the front office addressed the positions lacking the most depth; cornerback, linebacker and offensive line.
Last year, the opening day starting cornerbacks were Terrence McGee and Leodis McKelvin, with little much behind them. Now the position is loaded with talent.
At offensive tackle, probably the Bills' weakest link in terms of depth, they were forced to play left guard Andy Levitre at left tackle. After the draft, the Bills are five-deep at the position with the additions of Cordy Glenn and Zebrie Sanders.
With the move to a 4-3, the Bills needed some reserve linebackers to play behind Kirk Morrison, Kelvin Sheppard and Nick Barnett. Hybrid safety/ linebacker, Bryan Scott, will play in nickel situations, while Nigel Bradham, Tank Carder and Arthur Moats will all be competing for backup positions.
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According to ESPN.com, the Buffalo Bills have the third-easiest schedule in the National Football League entering the 2012 season, based on their opponent's 2011 record.
It's still extremely early to determine how easy or difficult the Bills' road to the playoffs may be, but as of now, the future looks bright.
The Bills face eight teams that finished .500 or less last year, and will be facing some unproven quarterbacks in either Colt McCoy or Brandon Weeden, Ryan Tannehill or Matt Moore, a rookie in Andrew Luck, a terrible Blaine Gabbert, and either Tarvaris Jackson or Matt Flynn.
Hopefully the Bills can bring the heat to these young signal-callers, and allow the defense to shine.
A Full Season with Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller
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Fred Jackson will return as the starter after being placed on injured reserve last season. On his way to a career year, Jackson averaged 5.5 yards per carry, gaining 935 yards, scoring six times.
He recently signed a two-year, $9 million deal and is looking to return to his 2011 form.
C.J. Spiller broke out once he got the opportunity to start when Jackson went down, rushing for 561 yards and four touchdowns in limited action.
Coach Chan Gailey runs a balanced attack, but he will need to make sure that both Jackson and Spiller get the touches they deserve.
Bills Closing the Gap on Jets, Dolphins
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The Bills lost both games they played to the Miami Dolphins last season, but the 'Fins are going downhill. They don't have a viable option at quarterback, and they traded their top wide receiver, Brandon Marshall, to the Chicago Bears for a pair of third-round draft selections.
The team has a new head coach in Joe Philbin, and a new offensive coordinator in Mike Sherman. Their defense is also converting to a 4-3 front, which has left some gaping holes at the linebacker position.
The New York Jets imploded towards the end of last year, and their defense isn't getting any younger, with the exception of rookie Quinton Coples, who has problems of his own. The team is turning into a bunch of divas, and I expect the Bills to go 3-1 in the four games they play against the Dolphins and Jets.