The Bills have already begun the process of building toward a championship team. They showed that level of commitment in signing free-agent defensive ends Mario Williams and Mark Anderson, as well as re-signing wide receiver Stevie Johnson and running back Fred Jackson to deals this offseason.
But to finish the job, the Bills still have a long way to go; let's not forget, this is a team that went 6-10 last year. The best-case scenario this year may be a Super Bowl, but it would take at least a couple of lucky bounces and a full season that closely resembles the 5-2 start the Bills got off to in 2011.
If the Bills want to become Super Bowl contenders on a regular basis, they'll need to build toward that goal.
This is the blueprint, both in the short and long term, for the Bills to one day reclaim their glory days, and potentially surpass them.
This is in more ways than one.
First of all, the Bills must stay healthy. They are finally back at full health after losing a laundry list of starters and valuable role players over the course of the 2011 season.
Every NFL team has to deal with injuries, but few are ravaged by injuries as greatly as the Bills were.
Secondly, their success must last over the course of the season. A 5-2 start is all well and good, but you can't follow that up with a 1-8 finish.
With an early schedule that has them traveling in four of their first six games, though, a hot start like last year may be a tall order. Their schedule down the stretch, however, is conducive to a late-season push with a six-week stretch that has them facing the Dolphins twice, the Colts, Jaguars, Rams and Seahawks, with four of those six games being held at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
They'll need to prove to themselves and the NFL as a whole that they are changing the culture, and that they are a winning organization. Only through winning games can the Bills truly pick themselves up off the AFC East canvas.
Find Out If Ryan Fitzpatrick Is Your Guy
Did I mention the Bills need to build off their 5-2 start?
That starts with Fitzpatrick, whose performance was night and day between those first seven games and the final nine, in which the Bills went 1-8.
Which was the real Ryan Fitzpatrick? For better or worse, the Bills must find that out first-hand this season.
If last year is any indication, the Bills will certainly give him every opportunity to prove himself. He threw more passes last year (569) than any year in his career, and he also ranked sixth among all NFL quarterbacks in pass attempts last year.
But maybe they should...
Take the Pressure Off of Him
There are only a handful of quarterbacks in the NFL who can carry the load for their offense.
If Fitzpatrick is playing as efficiently as he did to start the 2011 season, there's no reason to take the ball out of his hands.
However, with two talented playmakers in Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller in the backfield, there's no reason not to run the ball.
In fact, the Bills were one of the best teams on a per-carry basis last year, ranking fifth in the NFL with 4.91 YPA. Both Jackson and Spiller averaged over five yards per carry. The Bills are capable of getting explosive plays out of their backfield.
As of yet, Fitzpatrick isn't an elite quarterback. Until he becomes one or shows the promise to become one, the Bills have good reason to share the load and let the backs get involved, even in a pass-happy system like the one Chan Gailey runs.
Groom the Secondary
The Bills are committed to developing their secondary through the draft; they always have been in the past, and that trend has continued under GM Buddy Nix.
But after being drafted in 2003, veteran cornerback Terrence McGee is in the twilight of his career. Leodis McKelvin has underwhelmed since being drafted in the first round in 2008, but he should stick around in 2012, as he's getting a legitimate shot at a starting job, according to WGR 550, and has seen a lot of time in the slot this offseason, according to The Buffalo News.
The future is in the hands of several draft picks over the past few years.
Specifically, in the hands of 2011 second-round pick Aaron Williams, 2011 seventh-round pick Justin Rogers, 2012 first-round pick Stephon Gilmore and fourth-round pick Ron Brooks.
The Bills gave up a defensive passer rating of 90.4, which ranked 26th in the league, in addition to a defensive yards per attempt of 7.7, which ranked 25th. While those numbers are effected by the pass rush as well as the secondary, the Bills are counting on the development of their secondary with their mind set on a youth movement.
Youth Movement at Linebacker
The investments have been made at cornerback, safety and all across the defensive line. It's time for the Bills to take their focus to the next level: the linebackers.
They drafted Kelvin Sheppard to be the team's middle linebacker, and while he showed some promise last year, the other spots are a bit shakier.
Namely, Nick Barnett is approaching his twilight years at the age of 31, and the same could be said of the 30-year-old Kirk Morrison. While Barnett has been a dependable 'backer over his career, Morrison may have already hit his peak, having tailed off over the past two years after leaving Oakland for Jacksonville and then, subsequently, for Buffalo.
Two mid-round selections in Tank Carder and Nigel Bradham have special teams potential and both were solid linebackers in college, but neither looks like a sure thing in the NFL just yet.
It will be interesting to see what the Bills opt to do at linebacker, with that position the only one they've yet to fully address on their defense. Having signed Barnett to a three-year, $11.5 million contract in 2011 and Morrison to a two-year, $2.5 million contract this offseason (per Rotoworld), the Bills could be looking for answers as soon as next offseason.
Figure Out the No. 2 Wide Receiver
Both Gailey (per ESPN) and Fitzpatrick (per WGR 550) have said they're not worried about the team's lack of a "No. 2" wide receiver, but at some point, the Bills will need receivers that can threaten a defense deep.
Even the surgical Patriots offense missed that threat at times last year, and they went to great lengths to address that need.
The Bills took their own measures, but after adding wide receiver T.J. Graham through the draft, many fans wondered if that was it. If early reports out of training camp are any indication, though, the Bills could be well on their way to figuring out this void on their roster. That could be Graham or wide receiver Marcus Easley, who has yet to catch a pass in his two-year NFL career.
The Bills could be closer to a Super Bowl than many give them credit for, but they'll have to prove it on the field first. Beyond this season, though, their work is far from complete if they want to build a team that will consistently contend for the crown.
If the early '90s are any indication, though, Bills fans won't settle for simply contending year after year. Eventually, they'd like to see their team hoist the Lombardi Trophy. This blueprint could hold the key for the Bills to get there, and stay there for years to come.
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