The Buffalo Bills uncharacteristically made a big splash this offseason in terms of free agent signings. Ending the 2011-2012 season with various holes in their roster, Buddy Nix made an effort to not just fill these glaring holes, but bring in Pro Bowl talent to accommodate for their weaknesses.
Nix added possibly the biggest defensive name in the free-agent market, Mario Williams. On top of that, the Bills signed Mark Anderson to add even more depth at the defensive end position and re-signed both Stevie Johnson and Fred Jackson.
Come draft time, the team’s remaining top needs of cornerback, offensive tackle and wide out were all addressed with the Bills' top three picks.
To say it was a successful offseason for Ralph Wilson’s Bills would be quite the understatement. However, is it still too soon to call Buffalo a legitimate contender in the AFC?
Unfortunately for the Bills, the game is not just played on paper. If that were truly the case, it would be hard to argue that many teams would be able to stop the Bills.
So going forward from here, Buffalo’s keys to success will come down ultimately to the productivity and execution of certain players and positions that are considered to be the biggest question marks going into training camp.
The first question mark going into camp is the wide receiving core. The Bills have been in search for a receiver to line up opposite of Stevie Johnson for a while now. It is safe to call the Donald Jones experiment a failure, which ended in 23 catches for 231 yards in eight games.
Sure-handed David Nelson does not have the big play ability to be an outside receiver; however, he did have a modest year totaling 61 receptions for 658 yards and five touchdowns.
In comes rookie T.J Graham. Despite being undersized for a receiver (5’11", 188 pounds), Graham can absolutely fly and has above-average hands.
The success of the offense this season will rely heavily on the play of T.J Graham.
Head coach Chan Gailey has made it clear that he is aiming to make Graham the No. 2 receiver.
The Bills went without a deep threat all of last year. This situation will not only open up the short and medium routes, but it will open up Steve Johnson as well. Gailey will be able to open up his playbook creating a more lethal offense.
Another question mark on offense comes at left tackle. With the departure of Demetress Bell, Fitzpatrick’s blind side help will be in the hands of either second-year tackle Chris Hairston or rookie second-rounder Cordy Glenn.
Although Fitzpatrick’s release makes him a hard target to sack, the left tackle position is the most imperative of all the offensive line. Coming into training camp, the battle for the starting left tackle position will probably be the most watched and most important position battle.
Now with a deep ball threat receiver on the team, Fitzpatrick will need as much time as possible in the pocket before he releases. Consistent play at the tackle position will make Fitz that much more effective.
On the defensive side of the ball everything is linked together. The play of the defensive line will ultimately affect how well the defensive backs will play. The struggles of the cornerbacks’ play last year were in part due to the ineffectiveness of the pass rush.
As stated earlier, on paper, the Bills could easily have the best defensive line in the AFC, if not the NFL. With the new defensive ends paired with Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams inside, pass-rushing may not be as big of a problem as it was last year.
However, it is not fair to automatically assume that the play of the defensive line will live up to expectations. This will be the motor of the whole defense and is absolutely crucial that they do perform close to the level of expectation.
The Bills have a new Defensive Coordinator in Dave Wannstedt, and they are shifting from a 3-4 scheme to a 4-3. If the defensive line does provide an effective pass rush then it will give the young defensive backs an easier time.
Finally, the big question mark surrounds the captain and quarterback, Ryan Fitzpatrick. Consistency has been his greatest weakness as a Buffalo Bill. It has been a tale of two stories with Fitz as he showed signs of being Pro Bowl caliber in the first half of the season but played like a quarterback about to be relegated in the second half.
Teammates of Fitzpatrick came forward in the offseason explaining how he broke ribs in Week 8 and played injured the rest of the year. Although this may explain some of the inconsistencies that arose midway through last season, it will be critical that he gets back to full health and produces the way he did in the first half of last year.
The pieces are there for the Bills this season. The consistency of play will determine the success of this team. Moving forward, it will be interesting to see if the Bills truly are as good on the field as they are on paper.