The Buffalo Bills started to show signs of life in the second half of the 2010 season under first-year Head Coach Chan Gailey. Examples of that growth were taking playoff teams like Pittsburgh and Baltimore to overtime, and the close loss to Kansas City on the road.
But how will the Bills respond to Gailey and turn those hard lessons into more wins in 2011? You would like to think that the Bills will be able to show greater maturity and confidence in their ability to learn how to make big plays in the fourth quarter that turn close losses into close wins.
It is genuinely believed that the Bills have helped their poor rush defense with an infusion of new blood through the 2011 NFL draft. But what about the other veterans on the Bills team? Who needs to step up their level of play to lead the Bills to a winning record?
We are going to identify 25 Bills veterans who could stand some degree of improvement, noting that some just need a few tweaks, while others need to make giant leaps. We will start with the few tweaks, working our way up to those needing major improvement.
Ryan Fitzpatrick showed some strong improvement in 2010 as he surprised many experts around the NFL with the level of his play. Funny how having the confidence of your head coach can do wonders for your game.
I am delighted to see Fitzpatrick in charge of the offense for 2011 and expect to see better results.
While Fitzpatrick did take a huge leap in his play last year, I am willing to bet you anything that he is far from satisfied with what he did in 2010. There is still room to improve and grow, and I believe that he knows exactly what things he wants to improve on.
Improvement goals for 2011: Completion percentage. Last year was 57.8 percent. NFL standard is 60 percent minimum. Fitzpatrick was ranked 27th in the NFL in that category. That has to improve.
QB Passer Rating: 2010 was 81.8, which ranked him 22nd in the NFL. A rating of 90 might be too lofty, but would like to see him finish in the top half of NFL quarterbacks in 2011.
Improvement on the TD to Interceptions Ratio. In 2010, it was 23 touchdowns to 15 interceptions. A 2:1 ratio is the cutoff for acceptability, and anything less than that is considered sub-standard.
If Fitzpatrick maintains at least a 2:1 ratio in 2011, the Bills will be well on their way towards a winning season.
Greater efficiency in the red zone. The Bills started out the year as one of the most efficient offenses in the red zone, as they were in the top five of the NFL for the majority of the first third of the season.
But once teams started figuring out the new Gailey attack, that ranking dropped. Turning a three-point drive in to a seven-point drive can win you a number of close games.
Overall points generated by the offense. Averaging only 17.7 points per game, the Bills scoring offense was ranked 28th in the NFL. If Fitzpatrick can bump that average into at least the 20's, the Bills stand a good chance to win more games than they did in 2010.
Roscoe Parrish was firmly entrenched in Dick Jauron's doghouse in 2009. New head coach Chan Gailey set Parrish free, and Roscoe responded with his best season in years for the Bills.
Now approaching the 2011 season, Parrish hopes to build off the momentum he had demonstrated, until he suffered a season-ending injury in the Chicago Bears game up in Toronto.
Gailey has an idea of how explosive Parrish is and how difficult it is for defenses to contain him and keep him under wraps. Parrish also showed more confidence in his punt return skills, but that may not be as needed in 2011 with all of the various punt-return options that pop up all over the Bills roster.
What would be nice to see however, is an increase in the receptions, and the ability to stay healthy, while being fully involved in the offense all season long.
Parrish will be pushed by the quartet of Bills rookie receivers from 2010 (David Nelson, Donald Jones, Marcus Easley and Naaman Roosevelt), who all are seeking more playing time and want bigger roles in the offense.
There isn't very much I would ask from Fred Jackson towards improving his game. He is durable, he gains yardage when none appears to be available, and he takes a physical pounding but keeps running through brick walls.
The biggest issue I had with Jackson in 2010 was a trend of dropping passes. I know this sounds ticky-tack on the surface, but once Jackson started to see an increase in his reps over the past few years, you could always count on him being a sure-handed receiver out of the backfield. That wasn't necessarily the case in 2010.
As of now, I have never heard if Jackson was suffering from some kind of a hand injury or not during last year. I recall being surprised to watch him drop passes that appeared to be on the money, as if he was surprised to see the ball thrown to him.
Like I said up top, I love Jackson's game, and there is very little I fault him with. But, if he can return to the solid receiver that I perceive him to be, that will be one more weapon in Ryan Fitzpatrick's arsenal.
Terrence McGee is a valuable member of the Bills secondary. He has repeatedly covered much bigger men during his NFL career, but his body has been abused in the process.
We don't know how much longer McGee can continue, but we would like to see him return to his previous form of being a high-level corner during what time he has left with the Bills.
The days of being a return man are probably gone. The days of being a valuable member of the Bills secondary are still viable, provided that his body holds up.
McGee appears to have some rotational help with Aaron Williams joining the Bills. If the Bills do not sign veteran free agent Drayton Florence, then it means the Bills are counting more on McGee in 2011 to be healthy and to be on the field.
Steve Johnson came out of the shadows in 2010 to take on a major role in the Bills offense. He was always labeled as a player with loads of potential, but James Hardy carried that tag for years to and we saw how far that got him.
The biggest surprise for me about Johnson in 2010 was to see how easily he could exploit defenses to pick up large chunks of yardage after the catch.
The YAC statistic (Yards After Catch) was not something I was truly aware that he excelled at, and maybe the Bills were surprised as well by how well he could find a seam or pocket after the catch, and make nearby defenders miss him.
So, as high as Johnson took up his game in 2010, there isn't a whole lot of room for criticism or need to get drastically better. What I would like to see is consistency, in the form of hanging on to the ball better (fewer drops) and being able to produce week in and week out.
If Johnson is to be a leader for the Bills going forward, he needs to find a way to produce every week, regardless if Evans is healthy. That comes with confidence and the ability to communicate with Ryan Fitzpatrick and your coaches. I think Johnson can still take up his game a notch or two in 2011.
One more year removed from his serious knee injury, Bills fans are hoping that Demetrius Bell can continue to exhibit growth in his game.
The Bills coaching staff remains optimistic that Bell can continue to improve. If his knee is close to 100 percent, you would like to see him explode off of the ball and dominate his end of the offensive line on running plays.
His pass protection can still improve as well. If the knee is that much better, than you think his overall quickness, agility, and ability to counter-act whatever moves defensive ends or linebackers are trying to put on him, he would be able to neutralize them.
We aren't ready to proclaim that Bell is an All-Pro, but we would like to see Bell realize the potential that Bills officials saw in him as a rookie.
We don't have many pictures on Scott Chandler, because he has not had that much involvement with the Buffalo Bills so far.
Chandler is sort of an enigma, in that we really don't know what we have on our hands with him. There are plenty of players who are labeled as having a bunch of potential, but then that potential is not realized.
Chandler is still a work in progress. To the extent that he is able to make any kind of meaningful contribution to the Bills in 2011 remains to be seen.
He will at least finally have a chance to start out with his teammates from the start of the campaign, with the thought that full exposure from day one will allow him to become more involved in the offense and have a better chance to be a positive contributor.
He did not make any significant impact in his short time here in 2010, so there really is nowhere to go but up from here.
Kraig Urbik was a guard that Buddy Nix admitted that he thought highly of coming out of college. The fact that the Bills were able to pick him up in 2010, was thought to be a minor coup by the organization.
Now, as we approach the 2011 season, it appears that if Eric Wood is moved over to center, the starting right guard job boils down to either Urbik or Chad Rinehart getting the job.
It is possible that the Bills could bring in a free agent to contend for the job, but with each passing week, the whole prospect of free agency continues to be some sort of mystery.
Urbik had a chance to see some live action in 2010 with the Bills, as he appeared in 10 games. Chan Gailey was reportedly pleased with what he saw of Urbik, so now he has to build off that and step up if he wants to become an NFL starter.
Ah, a picture of Jairus Byrd making an interception. It was something we saw often in 2009, but was a sight seldom seen in 2010. Byrd led the team with nine picks in 2009, and followed that up with only one in 2010.
So what will Byrd's 2011 season look like? Something closer to the two extremes, or something in the middle?
The area that Byrd stepped up in 2010, was his physical game. He became a solid hitter on defense, and was also effective in going after loose balls. One of my favorite plays of the 2010 season, was when a much smaller Byrd out-wrestled Randy Moss for a fumble, coming up with the ball.
Byrd showed that he was physically stronger in 2010 and became more involved in the run defense. But for all of the gains that he made there, he seemed to tail off in pass coverage, or being around the ball on passing plays.
Despite playing a safety role, Byrd often seemed out of position or was not able to get a solid read on where the quarterback intended to go with the pass. He would appear to be a step or two slow to the ball, and I often wondered if he was playing through an injury last year.
So, here is to hoping that the third year for Jairus Byrd is another growth year, and that he steps up in his pass coverage skills to be more like he appeared to be as a rookie.
I am combining Marcus Easley and Danny Batten on this slide because they are in the same boat. Both of the 2010 rookies were injured in training camp, and saw absolutely zero playing time for their rookie campaigns.
Marcus Easley is the fourth round pick from 2010 who could be a game changer on offense. His blazing speed and size could make him an attractive new weapon for Ryan Fitzpatrick in 2011.
With the successful debuts of David Nelson, Donald Jones and Naaman Roosevelt, there are no guarantees for Easley, but it would be considered a surprise if he did not make the team out of training camp.
For Batten, he was a sixth-round pick who could possibly see time as an inside linebacker, but could just as easily wind up being slotted as an outside linebacker.
If the Bills start losing linebackers to injuries, as they have repeatedly done over the past two years, then Batten should have a chance to get on the field.
Batten is thought to be an effective pass rusher. That is a need area, but since he got hurt so early last year in training camp, Bills coaches are still curious to see what he can do.
It is ironic that the guy who caused the injury, Kyle Calloway, was let go by the Bills before the season even started.
We placed this duo more or less in the middle of this list, since we really don't know what to expect from either player yet. We do know that if either one produces at all this year, it will be more than they did in 2010.
Alex Carrington was drafted in the third round of the 2010 NFL draft by the Bills and he saw some action in his rookie campaign at defensive end.
He backed up Marcus Stroud last year, and when the Bills released Stroud in the off-season, Carrington might have taken that as a sign that he would be viewed as a starter coming in to the new season.
Those hopes were quickly dashed when the Bills used the overall third draft pick on Marcell Dareus, who along with Dwan Edwards, should emerge as the Bills starting defensive ends in the 3-4 scheme.
So, that leaves Carrington to serve as next in line, and someone who for sure will see more action in the rotational setup the Bills are sure to employ.
Carrington hopes to apply some of the coaching he received last year, in addition to the off-season, to become stronger and start putting into practice the various skills and challenges he was presented with as a rookie.
Chad Rinehart is basically in the same boat as Kraig Urbik. Assuming that Eric Wood is moved over to center, it will boil down to the battle between Rinehart and Urbik to see who becomes the starter at right guard.
Rinehart has some NFL experience under his belt, as he appeared in four games with Washington prior to joining the Bills. Nothing is set in stone, so this job is wide open.
This should prove to be a decent battle in camp, and as long as both guys stay healthy, it might be one of Gailey's more challenging decisions.
Early on in 2010, Andra Davis' first year with the Buffalo Bills, he suffered a rotator cuff injury. The injury truly impacted his game and meant that he had limited use and range of motion with that arm. Finally, the Bills put an end to his season when they opted to put him on IR.
Davis had originally been signed as he was deemed to be a better fit for the 3-4 defense the Bills wanted to employ. But you know what they say about the best-laid plans: they often go astray. So now as we approach 2011, Davis will be looking at stiffer competition coming into the season.
The Bills drafted two inside linebackers with good size in Kelvin Sheppard and Chris White. Also, the returning rookie linebackers from 2010 like Danny Batten or Antonio Coleman, might be in the mix as well.
Davis made some plays in 2011, but not that many to call his Bills' debut a smashing success. The Bills will look to Davis for some leadership as well as to ask for more playmaking ability.
With the improved defensive line in front of him, the path should be easier to get to the running back or quarterback. Whether Davis can take advantage of that is one of the interesting questions of the 2011 season.
Ed Wang was a guest of the White House as part of the US and China meetings during the past off-season. At this juncture, Wang is a curiosity of sorts, as he serves as the ambassador of NFL football to the country of China.
That is all well and good, but for Bills' fans we want to know how he will contribute to the team in 2011. Due to a bad thumb injury, Wang hardly saw the field in his rookie year.
He is a project that the Bills hope will amount to something, but based on his rookie year progress, he needs to step up in his second year to show what he has learned.
Wang has good size at 6'5" and 300 pounds, but he will need to have better footwork and become more of a mauler to be awarded with more playing time this year. Can he step up and do that?
This will be the first training camp for Erik Pears with the Buffalo Bills, assuming that of course there will be an actual training camp to attend.
Pears had been a starter for the Denver Broncos in the past, as he appeared in all 32 games between 2006 and 2007. But there has been a gap in his resume since then.
We do not know if the Bills will be successful in being able to bring in a quality right tackle free agent to challenge Pears for the starting job.
If the window of free agency is so small that nothing happens, then Pears will probably wind up being the starter by default. What he will do with the starting job is anyone's guess.
If you watched him at all in his 2010 debut with the Bills, you know that he basically held his own okay. He did enough to impress Nix and Gailey that he would be considered the front runner for the right tackle job before the draft and free agency began.
Now that the draft is history, he is still the front runner, so can he take the job and run with it?
Leodis McKelvin is still learning the NFL game. He will be entering his fourth season in the NFL this year, and by all accounts, should be comfortable by this time. But we still want to see McKelvin taking steps to improve his game.
At different points throughout the 2010 season, you would see McKelvin being beaten badly for touchdowns. On those plays, he had no idea where the ball was, or how to position himself to try to deflect the pass.
That is something that comes with experience and having more confidence in your game. At times, to my way of thinking, he still looks lost out there. You would like to see more from a first-round draft pick.
McKelvin still shows flashes of being a strong kick returner. He may or may not be asked to still do that this year, but the Bills definitely drafted multiple players who are quite capable of being return men.
If McKelvin is asked to focus on defense only, we would like to see more big plays from him this year, including more interceptions, and breaking up more pass plays. The jury is still out on McKelvin, so we can only hope that he is ready to step up.
When you draft a player in the second round, you are placing some reasonably high level of expectations that this will turn out to be a good player.
Such is the case with Torell Troup, who the Bills took in the second round of the 2010 NFL draft. Troup saw more action than the other Bills rookies did on defense last year, but it was harder to see him making plays since the nose tackle gets engulfed with several offensive linemen repeatedly.
Troup will be involved in 4-3 looks, as well as to come in and spell people like Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus when Dareus is lining up as a tackle is certain defensive schemes.
It was revealed on Buffalo Bills.com this week that Troup has already added an additional 15 pounds of new muscle to his frame, as he prepares for the battles ahead on the line of scrimmage.
For a defense that struggled so badly against the run last year, Troup can look at the plays that Williams and Dareus makes, and have a really good idea of what kind of moves he needs to incorporate in to his game.
The Bills are counting on him to improve and make a greater impact this year.
Chan Gailey shared this week that he wants to get Lee Evans more involved in the offense in 2011.
That is a good thing, because Evans often seemed like an afterthought in various games during the season. Evans felt that the majority of his patterns called for him to go deep and that was the extent of his routes.
So, in the 2011 season, expect the Bills to have Evans mix in more short to intermediate routes to keep the defenses guessing as to what his agenda will be. Maybe that will keep Evans in the games more as well. He appeared to zone out at times last year.
I would also like to see Evans become a better defensive back when he realizes there is not any way he can make the reception, to at least come back and try to fight to deflect the pass away. Never like to see anyone concede an interception.
Evans is the senior citizen of the kiddie corps that the Bills have at receiver. He is in prime position to lead them by example,and they will continue to watch him to learn what they should be doing as pros.
That is why we need Evans to have a solid year and to put all of his experience to work in 2011.
Antonio Coleman led the SEC in sacks during his final two years at Auburn. The Bills are in need of pass rushers, so this is an area that Coleman could definitely contribute to in 2011.
He may not be ideally suited to play in all downs, but on situations of third and long, bring Coleman in and wind him up to see what he can produce.
Coleman did have involvement in special teams as a rookie, but he wound up going on to IR, which cut his season short.
The Bills caught a break that they could grab him as an undrafted free agent rookie last year, but this is the year that he should attempt to earn more playing time.
Dwan Edwards is just one more example of a defensive player on the 2010 Buffalo Bills that had his season cut short due to going on IR.
Edwards was playing a decent defensive end in the Bills new scheme, but there were times that he was beaten around the edge on the run game or by scrambling quarterbacks where he lost containment.
Edwards will benefit from so much attention being placed on Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus along the defensive line.
Due to that help, it should free up to Edwards to be able to make more plays this year.
In addition, Edwards should either have Shawne Merriman or Arthur Moats lining up behind him to blitz, meaning that he should be drawing the least amount of blocking in his path to the quarterback.
If Edwards does not step up with a big year, don't be surprised to see the Bills go to Carrington more, or to draft a talented defensive end in 2012.
All indications so far in the 2011 off-season, is that Shawne Merriman is progressing right on schedule. Bills fans will be happy to see him survive training camp, and from there progress to actually playing in games.
Nobody knows yet what kind of a player Shawne Merriman will be in 2011. Buddy Nix was confident enough in Merriman's ability to bounce back, that he did not draft a pass rusher in the recent draft.
Call that a vote of confidence if you want to. It might just be that he was trying to fill the rest of the openings and they didn't find a pass rusher they liked when they were on the clock.
If Merriman can step up and have a big year, resembling his old self, that would be huge for the Bills. If he comes back even to "Lights Semi-Out" that would be a good start.
Coming all the way to "Lights Out" would be huge for the Bills defense. It would also mean that we can score one for the Bills medical staff. How often have we ever talked about them before?
Can we talk about the Bills medical staff two slides in a row? Shawn Nelson has had a terrible history of migraines. Just can't stop them from knocking him out.
They apparently stay with him for months at a time. If the doctors and team physicians can find a way to stop them from recurring, we might finally find out what kind of a player Shawn Nelson really is.
We know that he is athletic, but we just don't know how much production to expect from him, because he is on the field so seldom.
As many talented receivers as the Bills currently employ, having one more weapon on the field might be enough to overload defenses to the point that there is always somebody running free.
Does Nelson have it in him to come up with a 35- or 40-catch season? Hopefully, we get a chance to find out.
When a talented young player like C.J. Spiller goes through a frustrating rookie season like he just did, you wonder how they will come back the following year.
Chan Gailey admitted that he needs to be more creative in finding ways to getting Spiller involved in the offense.
They have had ample time in this prolonged work stoppage to draw up all the plays and formations that they can dream of to put the ball in his hands in open space and let him run.
For Spiller's part, he needs to be willing to let the blockers carry out their assignments on running plays, and then be ready to hit the hole when it opens.
Last year, he was guilty of not being very patient on his rushes, and frequently broke off from the play before it could develop.
If he learned his lessons from last year, we expect to see Spiller step up his game in 2011. He should be starting to eat away at more of Fred Jackson's overall carries, at least approaching 10-12 carries a game.
If he didn't learn his lessons, then he might find that Johnny White will be leapfrogging him on the depth chart.
Chris Kelsay has taken over the Bills defense now as the senior spokesman, from players like Aaron Schobel and Marcus Stroud.
Transitioning in to a new 3-4 defense last year, Kelsay looked like he was lost at sea for the majority of the first half of the season. Slowly but surely as the season wore on, Kelsay's game started to come around, and he began making plays in the backfield again.
It was either a case of him adjusting to his new defense, or the Bills made enough switches in his role, that allowed him to be more successful.
Now that we are in the second year of the 3-4 defense, the Bills continue to look for talented players to bring in to challenge the veterans for playing time.
The outside linebackers have Kelsay, Merriman and Arthur Moats to round out the top three. We don't know yet where Danny Batten will officially be, and we also haven't heard where Reggie Torbor will be lining up, either.
If Kelsay can pick up where he left off, and make plays in camp and in the early part of the season, then he could very well continue to lead the young Bills' defenders around him.
But, if he shows that he has lost a step, or is having trouble again at keeping containment on his end, he is drawing a rather large salary, and the Bills might decide to go younger and cheaper.
Due to Merriman's injury history, I would really be surprised if the Bills cut Kelsay, so I think he sticks it out for the year. We just want to see steady play.
Is there any Buffalo Bills player in need of a bigger leap than Aaron Maybin? As he was the Bills' first-round draft choice from 2009, we continue to hear that this appears to be the make or break year for Maybin regarding his future in Buffalo.
Two years into his career, and he is still looking for his first sack. The coaches have continued to work with him, and apparently he tries to apply himself, but for whatever the reason, he just doesn't seem to be able to apply what he learns in practice.
The other thing that is fairly disturbing about Maybin and his lack of progress so far, is that despite being a gifted athlete in very good shape, he wasn't able to muster enough desire to make any of the Bills special teams units.
What does it take to be on special teams? Guts, desire and heart. Is it reasonable to assume that he is lacking in those qualities? Fair question.
Recent word is that Maybin looks slimmer since last year, which means that he is in great shape, but that he hasn't been able to keep any additional weight on his frame.
So, if he continues to stay lean and light, he will keep being easily pushed around and blocked by bigger and stronger lineman, and will continue to find a place on the bench, or will wind up being inactive for games again.
Part of being a pro, is to recognize all the different things you need to do, and diet is part of it.
As Buddy Nix has said before regarding draft picks, there are three ways that they can be a bust. Right now Aaron Maybin is headed down that path. Will he turn it around this year?