Buffalo Bills Preseason: 3 Storylines to Watch as Regular Season Approaches

Erik CottonCorrespondent IAugust 21, 2012

Buffalo Bills Preseason: 3 Storylines to Watch as Regular Season Approaches

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    Coming into a season where there are real expectations for the first time in arguably a decade, the Buffalo Bills hope their strong offseason translates into wins on the field.  The signing of Mario Williams has re-energized a fanbase that got its hopes up after a 5-2 start last year.  That start was followed by a deflating 1-8 finish, leaving Bills fans without a playoff appearance for the 12th consecutive season.

    Yet, as always, there remains hope in Western New York.  Not since Takeo Spikes have the Bills made such a splash in free agency as they did with Williams.  They also brought in Mark Anderson to play opposite the former Texan in a conscious effort to bolster what was a meager pass rush in 2011.

    This year's training camp saw several starting position battles intensify.  Almost every one of those battles has yet to be decided.  Former All-Pros have been cut.  Former Heismans have looked good. 

    With camp done at St. John Fisher and the team back in Orchard Park, let's look at the three biggest storylines to watch as the regular season approaches.

1. Shawne Merriman's Release

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    Bills fans knew it was a risk when the team claimed Merriman off waivers during the 2010 season.  His career in Buffalo certainly began ominously, as he hurt his Achilles during his first workout with the team.  Unfortunately for him and the Bills, that was a sign of things to come.

    2011 only saw the former Pro Bowler start five games before he re-injured his Achilles, this time partially tearing the tendon. 

    That was the beginning of the end for Merriman as a Bill. 

    All told, in two-plus seasons with the team, he played in only five total games with nine tackles and one sack.  Underwhelming doesn't even begin to describe that stat line.

    For a player who took the league by storm in his first three years as a Charger, his inability to stay healthy almost became comical at the end.  What wasn't comical for Bills management was the $5 million in guarantees they paid him as part of the two-year extension he signed in January 2011.

    Should we question an athlete who only played 23 games over the last four years and who had only one good season after testing positive for steroids in 2006?  It's at least fair to ask those questions. 

    Regardless, it seems as if Shawne Merriman's NFL career may have come to an abrupt end.

2. T.J. Graham's Emergence

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    Third-round picks aren't usually projected to be starters. With that said, Graham isn't a lock to be the No. 2 guy.

    Donald Jones and Derek Hagan complete the group of three, along with Graham, vying for that other starting spot alongside Stevie Johnson.  Since Stevie's emergence in 2010, the Bills have yet to find someone else to compliment him long term. 

    Filling that hole was what the Bills had in mind when they drafted the speedster out of North Carolina State with the 69th overall pick.  With Stephon Gilmore a lock as a starting CB, Buffalo also just announced that second-round pick Cordy Glenn will be the starter at left tackle.

    Many felt even before mini-camp in May that the Bills' first three picks of the 2012 draft were as good as any other team's in the league.  If T.J. Graham's play in the last two preseason games leads to him winning that starting job, few will be able to argue with the job Buddy Nix did in April at improving his roster.

3. Aaron Williams' Struggles so Far

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    I mentioned earlier that training camp saw battles for numerous starting positions ensue.  None may be as important as the competition for the No. 2 starting CB job.

    There was little question about Stephon Gilmore stepping into the lineup as a starter right off the bat, and his play in camp has certainly solidified that idea. 

    As Brian Galliford of BuffaloRumblings.com reports though, little has been decided besides that:

    Sure, everyone's high on Stephon Gilmore, but things are much less optimistic after the prized rookie. Aaron Williams, the projected starter and 2011 second-round pick, has taken his lumps this summer, routinely beaten by Bills receivers. He shouldn't have a problem holding off Terrence McGee, however, given that McGee's rehab has gone slowly enough that he may have trouble getting onto the field this preseason.

    Winning your job basically by default is not something most players would embrace.  However, unless Williams picks it up and starts to show the ability he flashed as a rookie, that very well may be the case.

    With the amount of pressure the Bills are expecting to create, the opportunity for the corners to make big plays should be there.  All the pressure in the world doesn't translate to much, though, unless you have playmakers on the edge to turn that pressure into turnovers.

    With the start of the 2012 NFL season just 16 days away, the Bills remain one of the more intriguing teams heading into September.  

    Keep an eye on these and other storylines as they continue to develop, leaving Bills fans hoping that this year they break the league's longest playoff drought.