2011 Buffalo Bills: Improved Depth Everywhere Except at Tackle and Tight End
After one very hectic week of free agency, we can begin to make some assessments of how the 2011 Buffalo Bills roster is beginning to shape up. After attending the first evening practice at St. John Fisher College in Rochester on Sunday evening, it was clear that the Bills have done a good job of creating greater depth at most of the positions on the team.
The only area that I really would have a hard time saying that is true would be at tackle and tight end, where I am not really sure what we have. After watching the various units at practice, we will take a tour through the various positions with our assessment.
Bills Defense Will Be More Physical
Attended the first evening practice, which was on Sunday, July 31, at St. John Fisher College. The practice went from 7:00 - 9:30 pm, and then players came out to meet and greet the fans, and to sign some autographs.
The things that I hoped to see were the level of mobility and range of motion of Shawne Merriman, the power, flexibility and mobility of rookie defensive linemen Marcell Dareus and Michael Jasper, and to see if there were any major changes with Aaron Maybin.
I saw Merriman moving around fairly well, and taking regular rotational reps at linebacker. He did not seem to be hindered, limping or holding back.
With regards to Dareus and Jasper, neither of them disappointed. They are big men, strong, agile and very fluid in their movement. I am excited to see what both of them can do this year. The Bills will be much more physical at the line of scrimmage as a result.
Feedback on Maybin is not positive. I could see how cut his arms were, but when he turned sideways you could see that there just wasn't very much mass there. I was not surprised to see that he had lost weight and was now down to 228. It appears that he isn't taking his job seriously enough, or has something medically wrong with him. He was supposed to come in to camp heavier and stronger, but he seems to have trouble doing that.
Pleasant Surprise in Camp: Aaron Williams
I was not expecting to see such a physical presence demonstrated by the Bills second-round draft pick Aaron Williams, but the corner is as much as advertised (maybe even more than advertised).
He was challenging receivers for every pass he could. He jammed them at the line of scrimmage. He brings something unique to the corner position, and it would not surprise me if he winds up being on the field often in his rookie year.
Had occasion to meet Williams after practice. He seemed to be quiet and polite, but focused and businesslike. He is obviously feeling his way, but I thought he was trying to make a solid impression on his coaches, and I believe that they liked what they saw.
The Bills passed up many impressive talents in the draft when they drafted Williams at No. 34 overall, but it looks like the Bills might have something special on their hands with the Texas corner.
Defensive Line Can Become Formidable
With the addition of rookie defensive linemen Marcell Dareus and Michael Jasper, the Bills have one of the biggest and strongest defensive lines in the NFL.
Between the rookies, Pro Bowler Kyle Williams, 2010 draft picks Alex Carrington and Torell Troup, Dwan Edwards, Spencer Johnson and Kellen Heard, the Bills boast as big a defensive line as you could wish for.
How will the size and strength of the defensive line translate into more wins in 2011? If the line has the ability to neutralize the push of the offensive line, or even push them back, the linebackers can then come up and make tackles in the backfield or closer to the line of scrimmage. If the defensive line can generate more pressure on the quarterback, the Bills could see their interception totals approaching what they did in 2009. More turnovers usually equate to more wins.
How quickly can Dareus, Jasper, Carrington and Troup mature to take the Bills defense to new levels of play? That is what we will be watching throughout summer camp and the preseason games.
Linebackers Led by Nick Barnett and Shawne Merriman
When the 2011 draft was completed, the Bills thought they were going to be covered at linebacker due to the additions of Kelvin Sheppard and Chris White, who would provide the Bills with needed depth behind Paul Posluszny and Andra Davis.
But a funny thing happened along the way. The Bills lost Paul Posluszny to an outrageous offer by the Jacksonville Jaguars. So, Buddy Nix evaluated the landscape and came up with a far more reasonable option in Nick Barnett, both from a financial perspective, as well as from a three down perspective.
Barnett figures to be much better on passing downs, and should hold his own in the running game as well. The Bills did not draft a pass rusher because they felt that Shawne Merriman was going to be healthy enough to be the impact player that he was earlier in his career, when he was an annual fixture on the Pro Bowl team.
So, with veterans Merriman, Barnett, Chris Kelsay, Reggie Torbor and Andra Davis ready to go for 2011, and a slew of youthful linebackers ready and eager to prove their worth in Arthur Moats, Danny Batten, Antonio Coleman, Sheppard and White, the Bills have as much quality depth as we can recall.
The one player we did not mention was Aaron Maybin. At a shockingly low 228 pounds, it would not be a surprise if Maybin does not make it out of summer camp. He would end his brief Bills career as one of the biggest first-round draft busts in team history.
Secondary Appears to Be Deep
Now that Drayton Florence has signed a contract to remain with Buffalo, the Bills have some great depth at corner this year. From Florence, Terrence McGee, Leodis McKelvin, and rookie Aaron Williams, the Bills have four potential players that they should have no qualms about inserting as a starter.
Add to that quartet Reggie Corner and rookie Justin Rogers, and you have some solid depth for nickel packages as well.
From a safety standpoint, Donte Whitner is now a member of the San Francisco 49ers, so the remaining players can focus on competing for the starting safety jobs. We assume that Jairus Byrd has one safety spot locked up, with George Wilson, Bryan Scott and rookie Da'Norris Searcy battling for the other. Jon Corto provides some more depth, but is primarily a special team ace.
If the Bills are able to generate a greater pass rush from Merriman and Dareus, the interceptions total for 2011 should resemble the totals from 2009 (28) as opposed to the anemic total of 2010 (11).
Quarterback Depth Suddenly Appears
There were some doubters in Bills nation when Buddy Nix disdained the quarterback class of 2011, and opted not to take a flier on any rookie. Instead, Nix went with the veteran route, as he succeeded in bringing in Tyler Thigpen (Miami) and Brad Smith (Jets). Instead of one veteran quarterback, now the Bills have three.
While there hasn't been any dialogue yet about trying to sign Ryan Fitzpatrick to a contract extension, it is clear that the Bills now have some fall back options if Fitzpatrick takes a step backwards in his game in 2011. But, since most fans are squarely behind Fitzpatrick, the thought is that the job is his to lose, and he will take the momentum from 2010 and build off of that to become even more valuable to the team.
If something does happen to Fitzpatrick, who likes to throw his body around like he is a gunner on special teams, at least the Bills can plug Thigpen in to the lineup. Brad Smith appears to be the specialty quarterback, ideal for running the Wildcat offense in the red zone, and being able to step in to handle any emergency situations. The sudden depth could force sophomore Levi Brown to land on the practice squad, but that remains to be seen.
Whatever happens during the year, the Bills can take a deep breath knowing that they have more talent at quarterback than they have had in the past three seasons.
Running Backs Appear Deep as Well
It didn't take very long at my first practice to find Johnny White on the practice field. Every time that he carried the ball, he ran with such authority that he commanded my attention. It reminded me of how I would sit up and watch Fred Jackson when he was trying to make the Bills team as a rookie. Same type of impression, so if he turns out to be anything like Fred Jackson, the Bills will have made quite a steal in the fifth round of the draft.
C.J. Spiller has switched jersey numbers with Leodis McKelvin, so Spiller will wear No. 28 this year. He looked to be fast, and more confidant in running with the ball. Fred Jackson is still just as solid as ever.
The Bills brought in a couple more running backs today (ex-Bill Bruce Hall is one), but the running backs appear to be set, with fullback Corey McIntyre rounding out the group. Bills should have a solid running game this year, assuming that the offensive line will be able to open up holes for them to run through.
Offensive Line Has Competition for Two Starting Roles
The Bills tried to land a big fish when they went hard after free agent tackle Tyson Clabo of the Atlanta Falcons, but in hindsight it appears that Clabo and his agent used the Bills advances to drive up the contract price that the Falcons finally agreed to pay to retain him. It is a shame, because Clabo was the type of lineman that would have brought credibility to the Bills line, which isn't thought of that highly around the league.
But, if they are looked down at by the rest of the league, maybe defenses will be caught by surprise if the Bills line can come together and prove that they are better than advertised. The left side of the line is set, as it appears that Demetrius Bell, Andy Levitre and Eric Wood will be the starters at left tackle, left guard and center, respectively.
It is at the right guard and right tackle where there are a number of options that are all going to try to make it difficult for Chan Gailey to decide who his starters are. Right now, the leading candidates appear to be Kraig Urbik at guard and Erik Pears at tackle. The other guards in contention for the starting role are Chad Rinehart and Mansfield Wrotto.
At right tackle, Erik Pears will have to battle off the challenges from Ed Wang, Cordaro Howard and rookie Chris Hairston. But, since none of these players has excelled yet in the NFL, it is considered the weakest position on the Bills line. It is not out of the question that Buddy Nix could still bring in a veteran to challenge for the starting nod before the season begins, whether it is a free agent or a veteran off of the waiver wire.
Finally, there is Geoff Hangartner, who can be plugged in at either center or guard as further proof that the Bills offensive line has greater depth now than they have recently enjoyed.
Tight End Depth Is Missing
Despite all of the various tight ends that were out there in the market this offseason, the Bills decided not to go hard after any of them. From Zack Miller, Todd Heap, Kevin Boss and Bo Scaife, the Bills have focused on who is on their roster, and disdained everyone else. It is as if there is a black cloud hovering over the position, that it will be largely ignored while Chan Gailey is the head coach.
True enough, in the four or five wide receiver sets, the need for a tight end is limited. But there are plenty of short yardage situations where a top-notch tight end could be used that makes the defense honor or respect what a good tight end is capable of doing. The Bills witnessed that twice last year when they played the Patriots.
As it stands now, the Bills have the largely unproven Scott Chandler, veterans David Martin and Shawn Nelson and rookie Zack Pianalto. Pianalto demonstrated some very nice hands in the practice I attended. As of Friday, both Nelson and Martin were already missing practices due to injuries. With Nelson that is nothing new, as he has been constantly missing games due to injuries and his migraine headaches.
Until Gailey places more emphasis on the position, the tight end will remain a mystery position for the Bills.
Wide Receiver Depth Is a Strength
The Bills are able this year to trot out veterans Lee Evans and Roscoe Parrish to help teach the many young Bills receivers. Those youngsters are Steve Johnson, David Nelson, Marcus Easley, Donald Jones, and Naaman Roosevelt. Then there is the multi-talented Brad Smith, who sometimes will be a slot receiver, sometimes a Wildcat QB and sometimes a top-notch kick returner.
Finally, Buddy Nix signed an ex-San Diego Chargers wide receiver, Craig "Buster" Davis, who just arrived in Buffalo to challenge one of the youngsters for a roster spot. Davis was drafted in the first-round of the 2007 draft by the Chargers, but has never been able to live up to the expectations of a first-round pick. Perhaps the change of scenery will allow him to turn his potential into some results.
If Davis does crack the roster, it will be at the expense of one of the Bills youngsters, who all demonstrated their talent and skills during the 2010 season. None of them should be feeling overly confident, but they also have the benefit of working with Ryan Fitzpatrick for the majority of last season.
Does Buddy Nix Have Any More Tricks?
Considering everything, the Bills have good reason to have some optimism for 2011. Shawne Merriman appears to be getting back to solid health. Nick Barnett will be a great addition for the defense, and Brad Smith will make the Bills less predictable and more dangerous in the red zone.
So, you can rest assured that Buddy Nix and his staff will be viewing the remaining free agents and the upcoming waiver wire to determine who could still be added to the mix to make the team better.
The Bills still face a killer schedule this year, so while there seems to be generally good feelings that the team continues to rebuild in a positive manner, and is developing a solid core of players to build around for the future, it is still very much up in the air whether the team can reach .500 this year. We will start seeing some evidence of how much the defense has improved when exhibition games begin, but that will only be a small taste of what we can look forward to.
For now, we are all happy that football is back, and that the Bills are ready to compete.