In recent years, it has become commonplace for Buffalo Bills fans to make bold predictions prior to the season. The team has been stuck in a rut of poor to mediocre football for over a decade now and Bills fans start out every season "Billieving" that the changes that have been made to their football team during the previous offseason are going to bring about positive results. Season after season these same fans watch as their predictions turn into wishful thoughts and eventually into questions such as "what was I thinking? Aaron Maybin having 8 sacks this year?! Wow, I was wayy off!"
Therefore, these 10 bold predictions could end up simply being wishful thoughts from a hopeful Bills fan, desperate for some production from the 2011 Buffalo Bills. But hey, you never know...
1. Stevie Johnson is Hawaii Bound- After a breakout 2010 season where Johnson recorded 82 rec. 1,073 yards and 10 TDs, look for Stevie to build upon his impressive numbers from last season. Johnson is going into the season knowing who will be his starting QB and is building some impressive chemistry with Ryan Fitzpatrick in training camp. It has not been uncommon this year in training camp for Fitzpatrick to toss a ball up Stevie's way in one-on-one coverage hoping he will come down with it and from what I've seen, more often than not, Johnson does. He is putting on a catching clinic at training camp and memories of "the drop heard 'round Western New York" seem to be a mere blip on the radar for this Wide Receivers bright future. Look for him to put up even bigger numbers this year. These numbers will give Johnson a good shot at representing the AFC Pro Bowl team in Hawaii.
2. Aaron Maybin Does Not Make the Team- Enough, Aaron Maybin, enough already. Bills fans have seen enough of Aaron Maybin and aren't afraid to let him hear it as was evidence by the non-stop heckling of Maybin at a recent training camp session I attended. The time has finally come to cut ties with one of the Bills all-time worst draft picks. Maybin has recorded 0 sacks in his two seasons with the Bills and was a healthy scratch from numerous games last season. With the Bills acquisitions of LBs Shawne Merriman, Nick Barnett, Kelvin Sheppard and the development of young players such as Arthur Moats, Danny Batten and Antonio Coleman, it looks as if Maybin will be the odd man out at the LB position. Maybin allegedly weighed in at 219 pounds at training camp this year and is consistently getting pushed around in one-on-one drills and continues to struggle playing against the run. With Chan Gailey's recent "Aaron tries hard every time he walks on the field" quote when asked about the under-performing OLB, it seems as if the time has come for Maybin to "try hard" at another profession.
3. David Nelson Has A Break Out Season- David Nelson is consistent. Nelson was a sure-handed option out of the slot in his rookie season last year. He performed admirably when he was called upon after making the Bills roster as an undrafted rookie free agent out of the University of Florida. Nelson continues to impress at training camp this season as he has seen extensive work with first-team offense and has caught every ball that has been thrown in his general vicinity. The Bills WR corp. is undoubtedly a position of strength and Nelson still has Johnson, Lee Evans and Roscoe Parrish ahead of him on the depth chart but look for Chan Gailey to utilize Nelson in a spread offense consistently throughout the season. Nelson will continue to improve and looks to be the real deal.
4. Jairus Byrd Returns to Form- Two seasons ago, Jairus Byrd gained national attention and a pro bowl nod in his rookie campaign after grabbing a league high 9 interceptions. Byrd appeared in every game last season but was limited to just 1 int. However, Byrd did improve his tackling numbers from 45 in his rookie year to 89 last year. The drop in ball hawking production could largely be attributed to the change and learning curve caused by Chan Gailey's new defensive scheme last season. Under Dick Jauron's 4-3 defense in his rookie year, Byrd was similar to a baseball center fielder at his FS position and was able to simply ball hawk deep in the secondary. Last year Byrd's role in the defense changed and there seemed to be a bit of a learning process for Byrd. Look for him to return to his rookie form this season after having a year to become more familiar with Gailey's defensive scheme.
5. Aaron Williams Starts A Few Games In A Crowded Secondary- While there were certainly a few head scratches when the Bills selected Aaron Williams, a CB from the University of Texas, with the 34th overall pick in this years draft, it seems as if Buddy Nix knew what he was doing. You could argue that the Bills secondary is one of the deepest positions on the roster but there is no doubt that Williams adds to this depth. Williams began turning in big plays from Day 1 at Bills Training Camp. He has great size for corner at 6'0" 203 lbs and is extremely physical playing on the outside. The Bills secondary has been plagued by injuries over the past couple of years so look for Williams to get some starts under his belt this season if he continues to perform at a high level in training camp and throughout the preseason.
6. The Bills Beat the Jets...Twice- A bolder prediction may have been "The Bills Beat the Patriots...Once" however, two victories over the Jets this season would be an impressive feat for the Bills or any team for that matter. Two seasons ago, the Bills almost pulled this off as they were too much for Mark Sanchez to handle. This season the Bills match up well against the Jets. I think the Bills will be able to get consistent pressure on Mark Sanchez upfront with their improved defensive line containing Marcell Dareus and the most under-rated player in the NFL, Kyle Williams. Add a new and improved Shawne Merriman who looks to be flashing moments of his "Lights Out" days and this could be a defense to be reckoned with. This pressure paired with an improved and healthy Bills secondary could mean trouble for the Jets. The Jets will only go as far as their young QB will take them and if the Bills defense can wreak havoc on the Jets offense they have a chance to squeak out two victories that many will call unBILLievable.
7. Ryan Fitzpatrick Throws 30+ TD Passes- A lot of people within the Bills organization believe that Ryan Fitzpatrick is the real deal. Jim Kelly verbalized his confidence in Fitzpatrick at the Pro Football Hall of Fame festivities this past weekend. This praise seems very justifiable...Fitz is smart, a good leader, and threw for 3,000 yards and 29 TDs last season while only starting 13 games. This is was all after being thrown into the Bills starting QB position after starter Trent Edwards was surprisingly cut after week 2 of last season. Fitzpatrick took the reins after taking little to no reps. with the first team offense last season before he was shoved into the starting lineup. He performed commendably behind a shoddy offensive line and not much much of a defense to help win games on the other side of the ball. With the growing arsenal of weapons Fitzpatrick has to work with this season (Fred Jackson, C.J. Spiller, newly acquired Brad Smith, Stevie Johnson, Lee Evans, Roscoe Parrish, David Nelson etc.) look for the Bills to spread out their offense and take advantage of the specific talents of their offensive players. Fitzpatrick has had an entire offseason to prepare himself to enter the year as a starting QB and he seems prepared to lead the charge, homeless man beard and all.
8. The Bills Lead the League in Kick Return/Punt Return Yardage- There are a few factors that contribute to making this prediction a reality. First, the Bills defense must be much improved in order to force opponents to punt regularly. I believe the Bills have put pieces in place to make them a much scarier defense, loaded with a big defensive front, a solid LB core and a good amount of depth in the secondary. Second, the Bills talent on special teams must live up to it's potential. The Bills have incredible depth at the returner position with C.J. Spiller, Roscoe Parrish, Leodis McKelvin and even old timer Terrence McGee, who still has some speed left in him. C.J. Spiller's rookie campaign was largely a bust but look for him to have a solid second year. I still see Spiller as a Reggie Bush-type back with Fred Jackson being more of the workhorse but Spiller could bounce back from a lack-luster rookie year to show flashes of the electric play maker he was in college. Look for these flashes to come in the return game.
9. No More Blackouts- The woeful Bills season last year gave way to three games that were blacked out in local television markets due to the fact that the home games did not sell out. Before last season, a home game had not been blacked out since the 2006 season and the Bills had sold out 27 straight home games. These blackouts weren't surprising due to the Bills 0-8 start to the season and the embarrassing performances that were put on display by the team last season. As I mentioned at the beginning of the article, Bills fans are resilient and should start this year as blindly hopeful as always. The difference between this season and last season is that it will not take the Bills 9 games to secure their first win of the year. The Bills could very well start the season 2-0 with victories over the Chiefs and the Raiders (says a typical Bills fan) which could prompt a showdown of two undefeated teams in Orchard Park in week 3 as the Bills play the Patriots. There seems to be more of a buzz around this team this year. Expect the fans to support the Bills more this year and for all the home games to sell out. They'll show up, shirtless in December, as long as there is mediocre football to watch.
10. The Bills End The Season at .500- Saying the Bills are a playoff team is bolder than I'm willing to go. However, I think an 8-8 record would be a commendable season for these Buffalo Bills. Watch for the Bills to sneak out a few victories here and there throughout the season. Their road to winning 8 games may be a bit easier than most people think as I see the Raiders, Bengals, Redskins, Titans, Dolphins, Jets and Chiefs as beatable teams for the Bills this season. The Bills will be AFC East bottom dwellers no more as I see the Dolphins, with their QB concerns, taking on that role this season.