Last year at this time the Buffalo Bills were atop many pundit's lists as a "sleeper" team to keep an eye on for the 2008 season. Well, it didn't happen. The Bills limped to a 7-9 record and missed the playoffs for the ninth straight year.
Last year's high expectations may have been a bit premature, especially considering quarterback Trent Edwards was entering only his second NFL season and just his first full year as a starter. But considering the moves the Bills made this offseason, it's obvious the team believes they are a serious playoff contender.
Any team that signs Terrell Owens wants to win right away, so the Bills time is now.
But for Buffalo to reach its goal of making the postseason for the first time this decade, the Bills will have to improve in two very important areas: scoring points and rushing the passer.
If they can do this, the Bills can make some noise in 2009.
One of the reasons Buffalo took a chance on Owens is because it ranked 23rd in the NFL in scoring last season, averaging just 21 points per game. The Bills really struggled to put points on the board down the stretch, scoring less than 17 points in three of its last five games. Not coincidently, they lost all of those games, wasting strong efforts from the Bills defense.
So enter Terrell Owens
The problematic receiver brings baggage to Western, NY but there is no doubt that he makes the Bills offense more explosive on the field. The combination of T.O. and Lee Evans should give the Bills one of the top receiving tandems in the NFL. Expect a huge year from Evans. No receiver in the league has seen more double and triple coverage over the last couple of years due to the fact that Evans hasn't had a comparable receiver on the other side of him.
While Owens and Evans are the big names in the passing game, second-year receiver Steve Johnson showed some positive signs in the final two games of last season, and he could become the productive slot receiver Josh Reed never developed into.
Marshawn Lynch is suspended for the first three games but once he returns, the three headed monster of Lynch, Dominic Rhodes and Freddie Jackson will see a lot of open running lanes with so many defenders paying attention to the Bills receivers.
So the signing of Owens instantly changes the landscape of the Bills offense at the skill positions.
But unfortunately for Buffalo, T.O. doesn't play quarterback or on the offensive line.
Edwards received a lot of criticism last year, but he played well for his first season as a starter. Edwards completed 65.5 percent of his passes and threw for just under 2,700 yards. However, his 11-10 touchdown-to-interception ratio must improve.
If Edwards continues to develop, this Bills offense has a chance to be the most exciting Buffalo fans have seen since the days of the K-Gun.
The one thing that could derail the Bills offense in 2009, and ultimately their playoff chances is the unsettled offensive line. Buffalo's o-line wasn't a strong point last season and now its best player, Jason Peters, is no longer on the team after being traded away to the Eagles just before the draft.
The Bills brass devoted the early part of the draft to upgrading the offensive line by selecting C/G Eric Wood in round one and G Andy Levitre in the second round. Both players were used at guard at the team's rookie mini-camp and are expected to begin the season there. Wood and Levitre could each be in the Bills starting lineup on opening day.
That means Brad Butler is likely to move from guard to right tackle and veteran Langston Walker will make the switch from right to left tackle. There is also the possibility of bringing in a veteran like Levi Jones, but there is no doubt that the Bills reshuffled offensive line is Buffalo's biggest question mark on the offensive side of the ball heading into the season.
However, the Bills scouting department really likes Butler and believes he can get the job done at right tackle. Time will tell.
With the addition of T.O. and Edwards entering his second season as the starting quarterback, the Bills will almost certainly score more points this year. But how well the new-look offensive line holds up will be the biggest factor in determining how much the Bills improve in this area.
The Bills ranked an anemic 28th in the NFL in sacks last season, so it wasn't a shock to anyone when Buffalo selected lightning-quick pass rusher Aaron Maybin with the 11th overall pick in the draft. Some people were surprised that the Bills took Maybin over Brian Orakpo, but the former Penn State standout was high on the teams draft board and the player Buffalo coveted leading up to the draft.
Maybin is just 21-years old and still needs to add muscle to his slender 250-pound frame, but a lot scouts thought he was the best pure pass rusher in the draft and that's exactly what the Bills need.
Maybin will most likely play solely on passing downs early in his rookie season. He will join a rotation at defensive end that includes Aaron Schobel, Chris Kelsay and Ryan Denney. Schobel is the key. The Bills top pass rusher was limited to just five games with a foot injury in 2008 and his absence really hindered what the Bills like to do on defense. Without Schobel in the lineup, Buffalo's pass rush was non-existent.
The return of Schobel and the addition of Maybin will give the Bills pass rush a shot in the arm. However, someone else needs to make an impact as well. Both Kelsay and Denney can go missing for weeks. Either one of those two, or a youngster like Chris Ellis, needs to step up and take some of the pressure off of Schobel.
Last year the Bills were expected to compete for a playoff spot and after an encouraging 4-0 start, Buffalo lost nine of its last 12 games and never seriously threatened for a playoff spot. This year 7-9 won't be good enough. With the addition of Owens and a roster that on paper is talented enough to qualify for the postseason, the time is now for the Buffalo Bills.
So that means, Getcha' popcorn ready.