Training camp is here. We're another step closer to the first snap of the 2009-10 NFL season. Competitiveness and toughness are the two recurring themes coming from the Buffalo Bills organization. There’s no doubt they want to avoid the problems that pulled them down last season.
Quarterback Trent Edwards says, "The expectations are very high." The team's new additions give fans hope that this season will end Buffalo’s nine-year playoff drought.
The pieces are there for the coaching staff to fit together for success. What is it going to take for the Bills to maximize their chances to win the AFC East?
Here's a look at the issues the Bills need to address as they prepare for their 50th anniversary season:
Consistency on Offense
The Buffalo Bills’ offensive line played sloppy, disjointed football last year and allowed 38 sacks of their quarterbacks. With his speed and ability to avoid mistakes, former Panther Geoff Hangartner will add consistency.
Rookies Andy Levitre and Eric Wood will be asked to contribute early. Both are smart, tough lineman with a superb work ethic. Experience vs. raw talent. Seth McKinney and Kirk Chambers will be competing with the rookies to keep their jobs.
Marshawn Lynch and Fred Jackson were the league's most productive running back tandem in terms of their 84 receptions. Combined, they generated 2,200 all-purpose yards. Both are punishers who grind out the yards. The improved offensive line will add to their production.
Starter Lynch will be absent the first three games due to suspension. But Jackson and Dominic Rhodes are more than capable of taking up the slack. Lynch may have to compete for his job when he returns.
Buffalo presented a lackluster passing game last season. The potential is there for an exciting, but even more important, a touchdown-getting offense this season. Lee Evans and Terrell Owens will give opposing defenses much to contemplate. Roscoe Parrish's skills after the catch and his speed offer more to think about.
The Bills also have quality receivers in Josh Reed and Steve Johnson. Unfortunately, Johnson will be out indefinitely due to a rib injury. Quarterback Edwards will have another threat in rookie tight end Shawn Nelson, an excellent pass receiver. Look for the two Dereks, Schouman and Fine, to battle it out for the blocking tight end position.
Edwards is unarguably talented and has the will to win. His four fourth-quarter comeback wins attest to that. But he has to stay healthy, improve his accuracy, and do better against the 3-4 defense. Buffalo's new no-huddle approach will place more responsibility on Edwards.
He will have full control of changing plays at the line of scrimmage. If executed properly, the strategy will mesh well with the third-year quarterback's quick release and produce a fluid environment for him to throw accurate short-to-intermediate passes. The new scheme should also improve Buffalo's red zone productivity.
Depth at quarterback is crucial due to Edward's injury issues. Backups Ryan Fitzpatrick and Gibran Hamdan will gun it out for the No. 2 spot.
Strengthening the Pass Rush
The Bill have the pieces for a good year defensively. But an impotent pass rush held them back. They went 0-6 within the AFC East last season. If Aaron Schobel returns in pre-injury form, he will provide an instant improvement. Rookie Aaron Maybin's ability to wreak havoc from both sides will be an enormous boost if his size doesn't get in the way.
An improved pass rush will allow the defensive backs to thrive. They will be able to put pressure on wideouts and pull down some interceptions. Leodis McKelvin and Terrence McGee can stick with any receiver in the league. Because of their speed, interceptions and turnover recoveries by these two present perfect opportunities for touchdowns.
They will be tested early, but the Bills have the potential to surprise. The defensive line was vastly improved last season, catapulting itself from 29th to ninth against the run. Correcting the pass rush issue can elevate this defense to the next level.
The front seven is solid with Schobel, Paul Posluszny, and Kawika Mitchell as standouts. There's also optimism about rookie Nic Harris. Buffalo's defensive back unit is deep with talent.
Focus and Leadership
The Bills need mental maturity and team cohesion. Individual talent is great; without team unity of purpose, it means nothing. Buffalo started last season 5-1 then disintegrated to a 7-9 finish. The team lost its focus and confidence. Exorcising the ghosts of seasons past is key to success this year.
The words coming out of Bills' training camp are competitive, tough, and smart. They have added players to their roster that are known for their strong work ethic and smart play. Rookies Levitre and Wood are prime examples.
The veterans have to be leaders and motivate their young teammates. Veterans Kawika Mitchell and Dominic Rhodes know from the Giants' championship season how to claw against the odds to win.
Owens can teach by example the hard work required to keep the body in optimal condition. These guys can bring stability and confidence to the Bills' young players.