Key players such as Kyle Williams, Fred Jackson, Eric Wood and Steve Johnson are all doing extremely well on the health front, and the roster as a whole is noticeably deeper than it's been a for very long time.
A deeper roster means more competition at each position, and more competition usually leads to better production on the field.
Here's an early look at the report card grades for every positional unit on the roster. Using C as an average grade, it's easy to become optimistic about the 2012 Buffalo Bills.
Analysis: Starter Ryan Fitzpatrick has a big opportunity to shine in 2012. The line is solidifying, he’s gaining weapons and it will be his third year in Chan Gailey’s offensive system. And if that were not enough, new quarterbacks coach David Lee is finally helping Fitz refine some of the mechanical issues that have silently affected his players over the years.
At the start of last season, Fitz showed what kind of numbers he’s capable of producing when he and the offense are clicking. The key to moving forward will be consistency.
Newly acquired Vince Young will most likely win the backup job, and because the Bills love gadget player Brad Smith as a No. 3 quarterback, the writing is probably on the wall for Tyler Thigpen.
Buffalo does not receive a lot of recognition at this position, but with a strong campaign, Fitzpatrick and the Bills could finally prove that there’s no longer a question at quarterback.
Analysis: It would be hard to imagine much debate here. Fred Jackson is a top-10 running back in the league. He was on his way to an MVP-like season the year before suffering a broken bone in his lower right leg in Week 11 that ended his season. Prior to that, he ranked third in the league in rushing and trailed only Chicago's Matt Forte in yards from scrimmage (New York Times).
In Jackson’s absence, C.J. Spiller proved he’s ready to shoulder more of the load, finishing the year with strong numbers and steady production. The young speedster is reportedly looking extremely confident now, and he’s finally getting comfortable with the NFL and his role in the offense.
“FredEx” is healthy and has been practicing without limitations so far in OTAs and minicamp, and Spiller is only getting better. As a result, the running back position is one of the strongest positional units on the team.
Analysis: A big bruiser who will open up lanes, Corey McIntyre is an old-school fullback. However, he lacks advantageous speed and isn’t the best pass-catcher or ball-carrier out of the backfield. Buffalo won’t rely on him to do these things most of the time, however, which makes those shortcomings less significant.
Meanwhile, Dorin Dickerson may see some time as an H-back. He has unique size and speed that Gailey would love to use at the position, as his skill set would open up even more possibilities for the creative play-caller. On the other hand, he’s certainly not the blocker McIntyre is.
Big Mac is the starter, and Dickerson, though not a lock to crack the 53-man roster, looks like he’ll have a chance to stick on as a reserve with situational weaponry.
Analysis: Scott Chandler impressed in 2011 and it would be no surprise at all to see him improve on those strong numbers. In fact, Chris Brown of BuffaloBills.com identified him as the biggest playmaker in OTAs and minicamp so far.
At 6’7” and 260 pounds, Chandler is an above average blocker with reliable hands. He’s not exceptionally fast, but he’s surprisingly fluid for a big tight end, and he specializes in finding the soft spots in the defense.
There isn’t a ton of proven depth behind Chandler with Lee Smith, Mike Caussin and Kevin Brock all vying for reps. Dorin Dickerson, too, can line up at the position.
With Chandler starting and the Bills sparingly using two-tight-end sets, the team is content with its tight end. But there’s also room for growth.
Analysis: It’s true that behind Steve Johnson there aren’t many proven players at wide receiver. However, it’s also true that there’s too much potential and untapped talent to ignore. Some will grade this spot a C, while others will give it an A.
Johnson headlines the wideout group. Behind him, Donald Jones and Marcus Easley are ready to break out, but at some point that talk has to come to fruition and those guys have to make it happen consistently. There’s plenty of reason to believe they can; now it just has to happen.
Meanwhile, Derek Hagan has been impressive and is reportedly challenging both of them for the No. 2 wide receiver job. David Nelson has been steady and reliable since coming to Buffalo. Even rookie T.J. Graham has been flashing his speed and playmaking abilities at camp.
That’s six players who could all be very, very good in this offense.
Further down the depth chart, the Bills also have David Clowney, Ruvell Martin, Kamar Aiken, Naaman Roosevelt and Derek Session.
Overall, there’s a lot to like here in terms of potential. If some of these players can rise up to the expectations, the grade is easily in the A range. Until then, it remains an above-average unit with a lot of upside.
Analysis: The Bills have two potential 2012 Pro Bowlers in left guard Andy Levitre and center Eric Wood. Kraig Urbik and Chad Rinehart are solid at right guard and Erik Pears played very well at right tackle last season.
With the departure of left tackle Demetress Bell this offseason, the real question mark is his replacement. Will Chris Hairston hold off this year’s second-rounder, Cordy Glenn? Or will Glenn rise up to the challenge and prove his doubters wrong by holding down the blind side?
Buffalo’s offensive line gave up the fewest sacks in the entire league in 2011. While critics will argue that Gailey’s spread offense and quick passes make this achievement less impressive, it’s impossible to discount the terrific job this unit did last year, especially considering the injuries they suffered and the subsequent shift in personnel.
Eric Wood is back at full health and there’s a bit more size and depth across the board. The only thing keeping this grade out of the A range is the uncertainty at left tackle. But whether Hairston or Glenn win the job, both can be successful protecting Fitz.
Once considered a glaring weakness, the Bills’ offensive line now appears to be a positional unit on the rise.
Analysis: Bills lead journalist Chris Brown singled out the defensive line as Buffalo’s best unit through OTAs and minicamp. But this group doesn’t earn a high grade just because it’s the team’s strongest position.
It’s right up there with the league’s best.
According to Ron Jaworski, who appeared on WGR Sportsradio 550, “there are a lot of teams that are very scared of what the Buffalo Bills are doing. You see the addition of Mario Williams. It makes a huge statement that the Bills are committed to winning.”
While Jaws doesn’t specify the Bills’ defensive line here, he does highlight Mario Williams, who joins forces with All-Pro and two-time Pro Bowler Kyle Williams, last year’s rookie phenom Marcell Dareus, newly acquired pass-rusher Mark Anderson and veteran defensive end Chris Kelsay (who could shine with a better supporting cast).
Not convinced? Chris Brown identifies Shawne Merriman as the most encouraging player of the offseason. In addition, Buffalo has Torell Troup, Alex Carrington and Dwan Edwards, among others, filling out the reserve spots.
Buffalo’s defensive line is very, very deep heading into 2012. As a result, the other positions on defense will benefit.
Analysis: The linebacker position is an interesting one for the Bills. Veteran Nick Barnett is solidified as the top linebacker, and he’ll start on the weak side this year as the Bills switch to the 4-3. Taking over as the starting middle linebacker will be second-year player Kelvin Sheppard. And veteran Kirk Morrison is expected to start on the strong side.
Quietly, the Bills are now officially listing Bryan Scott as a linebacker. The position “switch” (from safety) is merely a technicality, as Scott saw his fair share of linebacker duties last year in nickel situations. However, it’s noteworthy because there's more quality depth and versatility at the position.
Buffalo also drafted a couple of exciting young linebackers this year, Nigel Bradham and Tank Carder. According to Joe Buscaglia of WGR 550 Buffalo, Bradham has already emerged as a top reserve, getting reps at both outside positions during practice.
Arthur Moats, too, continues to evolve in the Bills’ defense, and he’s a player who could see even more time in his third season in the NFL.
With Scott McKillop and Danny Batten as other names to note, the Bills are surely young at the position overall. The Bills will count on Barnett’s and Morrison’s veteran presence to glue this unit together and help the younger players emerge moving forward.
Analysis: The secondary should already be better simply by the improved defensive line. However, the Bills made sure to address this unit in the offseason by drafting Stephon Gilmore 10th overall and Ron Brooks out of LSU in Round 4.
Gilmore is an exceptional talent who has all the tools to be a shutdown playmaker at corner. He’s expected to start immediately in his rookie year and will get plenty of practice against top talent by lining up against Steve Johnson on a day-to-day basis.
Terrence McGee should be 100 percent once the regular season rolls around. When healthy, he’s still very effective. But staying healthy has been a difficult task in the past few seasons for the veteran corner.
Second-year player Aaron Williams hopes to build on a strong 2011 campaign. Meanwhile, BuffaloBills.com’s Chris Brown pegged last year’s seventh-rounder, Justin Rogers, as the most improved player in Bills camp thus far. In fact, Brown claims he “appears ready to challenge for a top three corner role.”
Finally, Leodis McKelvin will have one more shot to earn a new contract with the Bills after they took him in the first round in 2008. And according to the Buffalo News, the Bills are giving him every opportunity to prove he can help the team.
Overall, this is an up-and-coming group. If McGee can stay healthy and the defensive line can create more pressure (as it’s expected to), the Bills’ defense should improve on its 20 interceptions from 2011.
Analysis: Jairus Byrd and George Wilson comprise a strong starting tandem at safety. Wilson had a very good season in 2011, and Byrd has already established himself as a young playmaker at the position. These two will play a large role in the success of Buffalo’s secondary.
Behind them, Da’Norris Searcy showed good things in his rookie year. The decision to move Bryan Scott to linebacker likely had a lot to do with the Bills’ confidence in Searcy’s abilities (although Scott will likely see some time at safety as well when needed, since he's such a valuable hybrid player).
Undrafted rookie Nick Saenz is another name to monitor, as he has impressed the Bills enough to get a solid look in camp.
Considering Byrd, Wilson, Searcy and Scott as the top four options, this is a fairly deep group.
Analysis: It’s difficult kicking in Ralph Wilson Stadium, which makes Rian Lindell’s success all that more impressive. His gut-wrenching field goal last year to defeat New England in the final seconds had to be the most nerve-racking moment of his career, and that should be good enough to earn Bills fans’ respect.
Punter Brian Moorman continues to be effective as well, and he should hold off the strong-legged Shawn Powell for the time being.
Finally, the Bills still have one of the top return games in the league. With so many players able to handle kick return duties (Spiller, Rogers, McKelvin, Smith), they should have no problem establishing field position in 2012.