Buffalo Bills: Positional Breakdown and Grades for the 2011-12 Bills

Matt MastersonContributor IIAugust 17, 2011

Buffalo Bills: Positional Breakdown and Grades for the 2011-12 Bills

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    Fall is coming upon us, and for us sports fans, that can only mean one thing: Football is back. Training camp is coming to a close, the preseason is underway and we are just a few short weeks away from real, live football again. Halleluja!

    Despite a 4-12 record last season, the Buffalo Bills showed a surprising amount of tenacity and grit. They hung in with some of the best teams in the NFL (Steelers, Ravens, Chiefs) and showed that while they may not be a playoff-caliber team yet, they can play with anybody in this league (except the Patriots—see: 15-game losing streak).

    Coming into the 2011 season, the Bills had some major holes to fill on both sides of the ball, specifically in the trenches on the offensive and defensive lines. Changes have been made, but will it be enough to fix Buffalo's 32nd-ranked rush defense? Will it be enough to keep QB Ryan Fitzpatrick on his feet?

    We'll have to watch the games to find out, but before that happens, let's take a look at how the Bills stack up on a position-by-position basis.

Quarterback

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    Depth Chart

    1. Ryan Fitzpatrick

    2. Tyler Thigpen

    3. Levi Brown/Brad Smith

    I'll start with the most important position on the field: quarterback. Career backup Ryan Fitzpatrick proved most of his doubters wrong last season, first by taking the job away from Trent Edwards, and then by performing so admirably, throwing for 3,000 yards and 23 touchdowns. Chan Gailey has consistently gotten the most out of his quarterbacks, and Fitzpatrick seems to be no different.

    While Fitzpatrick is firmly entrenched as the No. 1 man for this season, the depth behind him is lacking. Tyler Thigpen was signed this offseason, but I have serious doubts about his abilities if he is called upon to step in and start. Yes, Thigpen had his best season under Chan Gailey's tutelage in Kansas City in 2008, but I think that was more of a fluke, rather than a sign of what's to come.

    Behind Thigpen is second-year man Levi Brown out of Troy. Brown was cut by the Bills last season, and I wouldn''t be surprised if he ends up on the scout team this year.

    I left the most intriguing quarterback for last: Brad Smith (yes, he is a quarterback). Smith was the do-it-all return man/wide receiver for the New York Jets who has the speed to be considered a threat for the end zone every time he touches the ball. Now Smith will be called upon to be the Wildcat quarterback for the Bills and will see the most touches this year of any QB not named Fitzpatrick.

    Smith can run, throw and catch, but if Fitzpatrick goes down, Smith does not have the throwing abilities to lead this team long-term. If nothing else, Smith adds an element of excitement to this Bills offense as a QB/WR hybrid

    Grade: C+

    Fitzpatrick will look to prove that last year was not an accident, but a lack of starting-quality talent behind him hinders their unit's overall depth.

Running Back

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    Depth Chart

    1. Fred Jackson

    2. CJ Spiller

    3. Johnny White

    (Fullback: Corey McIntyre)

    Even though the Bills have spent three first-round picks on running backs since 2004, it is an undrafted man out of Coe College who will be heading the team's depth chart this season. Fred Jackson has overcome steep odds to make it to the NFL—from Coe, to the Indoor Football League, to NFL Europe—but his hard work has paid off. Jackson was just 77 yards away from posting 1,000 yards last season, which would have been his second consecutive year doing so. Running behind a porous offensive line (I'll get to that later), reaching 1,000 yards really is an accomplishment on this team.

    Jackson has a good blend of size, speed and strength, and he is one of the most unheralded running backs in the NFL today. Expect Fred to make a serious push at 1,000 once again in 2011.

    One of the aforementioned first-round picks, CJ Spiller will see his fair share of activity as the No. 2 running back. The Clemson product was ineffective as a rookie, rushing for just 283 yards and no touchdowns last season, but his talent is undeniable. Spiller has superstar speed and is very adept at catching passes out of the backfield. He is a real weapon, but he needs to stop shying away from contact and start muscling his way up the middle of the field if he wants to avoid another poor season.

    Johnny White is a rookie fifth-rounder out of UNC. The 5'10", 209-pound back will get his fair share of reps during the preseason, which will determine what kind of role he will get during the regular season.

    Rounding out the Bills backfield is veteran fullback Corey McIntyre, a solid pro who will be used more as a blocker than as a runner (just four carries for five yards in 2010).

    Grade: B

    Jackson is set for another very solid season, and if Spiller can become the back he was drafted to be, the Bills will have something special with that tandem. However, until he proves that, he will be a major question mark.

Wide Receiver

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    Depth Chart

    1. Stevie Johnson

    2. Donald Jones

    3. Roscoe Parrish

    4. David Nelson

    5. Marcus Easley

    6. Naaman Roosevelt

    The Bills made a pretty surprising move in trading away long-time No. 1 receiver Lee Evans to the Baltimore Ravens last week, which leads a young corps of receivers with the difficult task of stepping up and replacing him.

    Stevie Johnson enjoyed a breakout season last year, raking in 82 catches for 1,073 yards and 10 touchdowns. Johnson put up those numbers as the No. 2 receiver, but he should slide nicely into the lead role. At just 25 years old, Johnson should be the face of the Bills receiving corps for years to come. His good size (6'2", 205 pounds) allows him to to fight off cornerbacks, but drops have been a consistent issue (especially this one).

    However, with another year of seasoning and familiarity with the offense under his belt, Johnson should only get better, even if he doesn't have Lee Evans drawing coverage away from him.

    Stepping into the No. 2 spot is second-year man Donald Jones. Jones is one of the biggest question marks for this team. Despite being a coach favorite and being talked up by SI's Peter King, Jones has not proven that he is capable of taking on a starting role in an NFL offense.

    Behind Johnson and Jones is the talented, yet oft-injured, Roscoe Parrish, David Nelson, Marcus Easley and Naaman Roosevelt. Parrish was having a career year in 2010 before a broken wrist ended his season. David Nelson and Naaman Roosevelt enjoyed good rookie seasons, while Marcus Easley was shelved for the year before it started with a knee injury. Roosevelt has had perhaps the best training camp of any Bills receiver, so look for his name to rise up the depth chart sooner rather than later.

    In addition to the six listed wide receivers, also look for QB Brad Smith to line up outside and get some chances to bring in some catches.

    Grade: C

    This group is loaded with young potential, but the truth is, Johnson is the only proven commodity in this receiving corps, and if the receivers behind him don't step up, it could be a long and difficult year for this offense.

Tight End

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    Depth Chart

    1. Scott Chandler

    2. Shawn Nelson

    3. David Martin

    Definitely one of the weakest units on the team, the tight end position has been in desperate need of an upgrade for years. However, that never seems to occur. I'm hopeful that last year's second-round pick, defensive tackle Torell Troup, breaks out this year, but the Bills had a chance to draft rising star and local boy Rob Gronkowski, who already had 10 touchdowns last season for the rival Patriots—but I digress...

    Starter Scott Chandler has recorded one career catch for eight yards in his three NFL seasons—not exactly superstar stats there. Backup Shawn Nelson was drafted with the intention of becoming the team's No. 1 tight end, but off-the-field issues and a general lack of production has hindered his progress.

    Grade: D

    This unit is very weak and has very little depth. I would not expect much production at all from the tight ends this season, as they really do not seem to be a focal point in Chan Gailey's offense.

Offensive Line

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    Depth Chart

    LT: Demetrius Bell (Ed Wang, Cordero Howard)

    LG: Andy Levitre (Chad Rinehart)

    C: Eric Wood (Geoff Hangartner)

    RG: Kraig Urbik (Colin Brown)

    RT: Erik Pears (Chris Hairston)

    (Backups listed in parentheses)

    If tight end is not the weakest position on the 2011 Buffalo Bills team, then it is certainly the offensive line. Ryan Fitzpatrick is going to have a difficult time staying upright, and Fred Jackson is going to have trouble finding running lanes behind a line that could realistically be considered the worst in the NFL. This unit really is the main problem which is holding back an offense that could be among the top 10 in the NFL.

    Demetrius Bell has shown glimpses of reliability, but bad penalties and inconsistent play have been hallmarks of his career so far. However, he is in relatively no danger of losing his job because backups Ed Wang and Cordero Howard are that inferior to Bell.

    Third-year men Eric Wood and Andy Levitre are the most solid players on this line, but neither one of them is going to be mistaken for superstars real soon. These two have progressed nicely, but (like all linemen on this team) inconsistency has been the only consistency in their play. If they can continue to progress, they will be solid pieces to build a real offensive line around in the future.

    The right side of this line is a mess, plain and simple. Kraig Urbik and Erik Pears would have a hard time making a roster of almost any other NFL team, let alone actually start for them. Urbik has some potential to grow, but he is a long shot at best, while Pears needs to be replaced as soon as possible.

    Grade: D-

    Eric Wood and Andy Levitre are the only redeeming qualities on this line keeping the unit from getting an F. Unless the Bills are in position to draft Stanford QB Andrew Luck, they should spend their first-round pick in 2011 on the best available offensive lineman and do whatever they can in free agency to upgrade this line.

Defensive Line

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    Depth Chart

    DE: Marcell Dareus (Alex Carrington)

    NT: Kyle Williams (Torell Troup)

    DE: Dwan Edwards (Spencer Johnson)

    Yes, the Bills had the worst run defense in the NFL last season. Yes, the Bills only made one addition to their defensive line this offseason. But you know what? This line is going to be much, much better this year.

    That's not homer-induced delusion talking; that's just the kind of impact rookie Marcell Dareus will have when paired with Pro Bowler Kyle Williams. Dareus, the No. 3 pick out of Alabama from this past draft, has played (and excelled) in exactly the kind of hybrid scheme that he will play in Buffalo. After a strong camp, and a good preseason game where he recorded his first sack, Dareus is ready to start and wreak havoc on opposing offensive lines this season and beyond.

    Dareus has put on about 20 pounds to his frame since the draft, weighing in at 343 pounds, but he moves like a man who weighs 280 pounds. His first step is excellent, and he uses his incredible strength to burst right through tackles, guards or both if he's being double-teamed.

    Kyle Williams may very well be the best NFL player that you've never heard of. In fact, ProFootballFocus.com ranked him as the No. 3 best player in the NFL in 2010. Not third-best defensive lineman, or even third-best defensive lineman—but third-best player, out of any position.

    Williams may not have ideal size, but he uses his body to the best of his abilities and has truly become a player that offenses need to scheme around. Now that he is paired up with a lineman of Dareus' caliber, look for Williams to cause even more headaches for offenses this year as they try to block him.

    Dwan Edwards is a very solid starter at the other defensive end spot. Edwards had spent his career starting for the Baltimore Ravens prior to last season when he signed in free agency with the Bills. He may not be on the level of his two contemporaries on the defensive line, but Edwards will not be a liability on this line, and may even make a couple big plays here and there.

    Grade: B+/A-

    This grade is split right down the middle. If Marcell Dareus pans out to be the type of lineman that he projects to be, then the grade will be a solid A. Williams/Dareus is as solid a duo as there is in the AFC East and they both fit excellently into the Bills defensive scheme.

    Edit: For those who will point out that the Bills also run a 4-3 front, in addition to the 3-4 front listed above, Marcell Dareus will kick inside with Kyle WIlliams, and Alex Carrington and Dwan Edwards will man the defensive end positions.

Linebackers

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    Depth Chart 

    LOLB: Chris Kelsay (Danny Batten)

    LILB: Andra Davis (Kelvin Sheppard)

    RILB: Nick Barnett (Reggie Torbor, Arthur Moats)

    ROLB: Shawne Merriman (Antonio Coleman)

    This unit was much more responsible for the Bills' last-ranked rush defense of 2010 than was the defensive line, but like the line, they are also improved. When the Bills picked up Shawne Merriman off the waiver wire last season, many felt it was a desperate team reaching for a has-been, injury-prone linebacker. And in some ways that is true, but if he plays a full season the way he has started off, Merriman will be the same wrecking ball that he was in his best years for the Chargers.

    The coaches have raved about Merriman during the abbreviated training camp, and in his Bills debut against the Bears, he showed off, recording two sacks and a QB pressure in just two series worth of play. It's early of course, but if this is a sign of what's to come, Bills fans should be seriously excited. Merriman could provide the major pass-rush ability that has eluded Buffalo for years.

    Inside, Andra Davis and Nick Barnett are both solid veterans who will provide strong play in the middle. Barnett (pictured, as a Packer) was one of Green Bay's best linebackers before a wrist injury ended his season last year. He provides an upgrade over the departed Paul Posluzny, as Barnett is as sure of a tackler and is much better in coverage. Davis racked up 41 tackles in four starts last season, but those numbers should improve drastically if he starts all 16 games.

    On the left side, Chris Kelsay is the weak link in the linebacking corps. A leftover from the Dick Jauron era, Kelsay puts forth a good effort when he's on the field, but he just doesn't have the talent to start in the NFL. His tackling is weak and his coverage is the worst of any starting linebacker on the team, by far.

    Grade: C

    While this group is improved when compared to last year's, they are still not a strength when it comes to stopping the run. If Merriman can get back to 100 percent, then he can be one of the best in the league, and while Barnett is an upgrade over Posluzny, the rest of this group is average at best.

Defensive Backfield

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    Depth Chart

    CB: Terrence McGee (Aaron Williams)

    SS: George Wilson (Bryan Scott)

    FS: Jairus Byrd (John Corto)

    CB: Leodis McKelvin (Drayton Florence)

    The Bills have put up very respectable numbers against the pass over the last two seasons, finishing second and third overall in the league in 2009 and 2010 respectively. The thing is, when an offense can run for 200-plus yards against you with ease, they don't need to put much emphasis on the passing game, which is one of the main reasons for Buffalo's inflated ranking.

    Buffalo has good talent and depth at the cornerback position, and it starts with Leodis McKelvin and Terrence McGee. McKelvin has undeniable skill, but like many other players on this squad, inconsistency has kept him from being a truly excellent corner. If he can turn the corner this season, the Bills could have the cornerstone of a special backfield in their midst. Veteran Terrence McGee is always solid, but he is starting to show his age, and he will only have one or two productive seasons left in the NFL.

    That is one of the main reasons the front office took Aaron Williams out of Texas in the second round of the 2011 draft. Williams has the ability to step in and start right away, but thanks to Buffalo's depth at the position, he will be able to take his time getting acclimated to the pro game. Williams is known for his support in the run game, but his hands are starting to show as well, as he recorded his first interception against the Bears last week.

    Free-agent Drayton Florence returns to the Bills for another season, and one could argue that he was Buffalo's best all-around corner in 2010. Although he is listed as a backup, Florence will see more than his fair share of playing time this season.

    At the safety position, starter Donte Whitner made his exit this offseason, but he will be easily replaced by veteran George Wilson. Whitner may have racked up 140 tackles last year, but much of that was due to his own poor coverage skills. With just five interceptions in five seasons, Whitner will not be missed.

    The free safety spot will be manned by third-year man Jairus Byrd. Byrd recorded just one interception in 2010, a year after he picked off nine passes, which may seem like a major letdown. However, Byrd made strides last year in his run defense, which was by far the weakest aspect of his game. Byrd is becoming a very well-rounded young safety.

    Grade: B

    The combination of veteran experience and young talent on this unit makes them very difficult to deal with for opposing offenses. However, this is not an elite group, and I would not be surprised at all to see their pass defense ranking fall this year, as the run defense has improved and teams will need to pass more on the Bills.

Kicking Game

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    Depth Chart

    K: Rian Lindell

    P: Brian Moorman

    Both Rian Lindell and Brian Moorman are very reliable veterans who have been around the Bills organization for years. Bills fans know exactly what they are getting with these two: solid, reliable play game in and game out.

    Grade: B-

    Lindell and Moorman are both getting "up there" in age (34 and 35 respectively), and are getting close to the end of their NFL careers. I would expect to see a slight decline in their play this season and beyond as their age catches up with them.

Overview

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    The Buffalo Bills have improved since last season, plain and simple. Do they still have holes to fill? Absolutely. This is a team that could surprise some big-name teams during the 2011 season, and could possibly, finally, put an end to their ridiculous losing streak to the Patriots.

    Can this team make a playoff run? No, that's doubtful.

    Will they be the worst team in the NFL? Absolutely not.

    I think six to seven wins is a reasonable prediction for this team, which, while it may not be a "good" season, will put them on the right path towards becoming a playoff team for the first time since 1999. Buffalo has a good base to build off of, and if they can draft well and bring in solid free agents, they will be back to the postseason sooner rather than later.