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With NFL teams stuck in a state of limbo thanks to the lockout, we are looking at where teams stand as they await the opening of the 2011 league year. Today, we take a look at the Bills.
Top three story lines
1. The Bills might have had a 4-12 record last season, but losses to the Ravens, Chiefs, Bears and Steelers — four playoff teams — all came by just three points, giving the club confidence that an improved defense finally could get Buffalo over the hump. With their highest pick since selecting Bruce Smith first overall in 1985, the Bills took Alabama's Marcell Dareus, their left defensive end of the future whom they expect to improve a run defense that ranked last in the NFL last season. In fact, the team's first four picks were all on the defensive side of the ball, drafting physical players with good tackling skills to continue to improve the "D." This team hasn't made the playoffs since 1999, and that won't happen unless the defense drastically improves.
2. By focusing on defense in the draft, GM Buddy Nix and head coach Chan Gailey stood behind their outspoken confidence for QB Ryan Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick threw 23 TD passes and 15 interceptions after taking over for Trent Edwards, but he is not the franchise QB the Bills have been searching for since Jim Kelly. Fitzpatrick has weapons in the backfield and at wide receiver, including breakout WR Stevie Johnson, but is he good enough for the Bills to ignore opportunities to draft a quarterback? The team is sure to add a veteran QB when free agency begins, but if Fitzpatrick falters, the Bills could be back in position to draft a quarterback early in 2012.
3. Gailey brought in Dave Wannstedt as assistant head coach/inside linebackers to help improve the woeful defense. The front seven has been a big part of the problem, as the Bills didn't muster much of a pass rush last season and gave up nearly 170 yards per game on the ground. Wannstedt will need to get a rejuvenated effort out of veteran Shawne Merriman as a way to spark the pass rush. Merriman is just 26 years old but has been hampered by injuries in recent seasons. He had double-digit sacks in each of his first three seasons in the league, and if he can stay healthy and return to some semblance of the player he was, it can make a big difference for the Bills.
2011 free agency
Unsigned players: LB Akin Ayodele (9), QB Brian Brohm (3), TE Scott Chandler (3), OLB Keith Ellison (5), CB Drayton Florence (8), RB Quinton Ganther (3), WR Felton Huggins (1), DT John McCargo (5), ILB Paul Posluszny (4), OL Garrison Sanborn (2), TE Jonathan Stupar (2), S Donte Whitner (5), CB Ashton Youboty (5). (Editor's note: The number after a players' name is his years of service in the league. If the NFL decides to go with free agency under the same rules used in 2010, then a player would become a restricted free agent after three years and an unrestricted free agent after six years.)
Analysis: The biggest names on this list are in the Bills' secondary, which isn't a big concern for the team as it is one of the deepest units on the team, especially after the draft, regardless of the futures of Whitner and Florence. Nix has said he expects Florence to return, but not Whitner, who has been very vocal about wanting more money to stay in Buffalo. By drafting Aaron Williams and Da'Norris Searcy, the team has insurance if the two veterans go elsewhere. Posluszny is the team's leading tackler and he was offered a tender and could stick around. While the Bills drafted two inside 'backers, Posluszny, who was one of the better run stoppers last season, will be a top priority. The now-crowded linebacking corps could make Ellison and Ayodele expendable. The team did not offer Brohm a tender and will need to add a QB in free agency to back up Fitzpatrick. The Bills have struggled for years to find a productive tight end, and some believe it could be Chandler, who should be on next year's roster.
2011 rookie class
First-round DE Marcell Dareus (No. 3 overall) — The team expects Dareus to be a run-stopping left defensive end for years to come, setting the edge while still putting pressure on the quarterback. He is big and powerful with the versatility to move inside when the team is in a 4-3.
Second-round CB Aaron Williams (No. 34) — With Drayton Florence's future uncertain, the Bills added a physical corner in Williams who slipped into the second round when many thought the Steelers would pick him at the end of the first. He can slide into the slot right away and has versatility to play safety.
Third-round ILB Kelvin Sheppard (No. 68) — Gailey coached Sheppard at the Senior Bowl and knows he is a sure tackler who should help the run defense up the gut.
Fourth-round SS Da'Norris Searcy (No. 100) — An athletic safety who is good in the box, Searcy is the team's insurance if Whitner leaves via free agency. He also will be a contributor on special teams.
Fourth-round OT Chris Hairston (No. 122) — Hairston has good size and was consistent in college but struggled to cut off the blitz in college. He eventually could start at right tackle but needs development.
Fifth-round RB Johnny White (No. 133) — White is a downhill, physical back who could be the team's No. 3 back behind Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller.
Sixth-round ILB Chris White (No. 169) — White has great intangibles and is hardworking. He will need to make his mark on special teams before getting slotted in the linebacker rotation.
Seventh-round CB Justin Rogers (No. 206) — A very speedy corner, Rogers can help on special teams until he gets strong enough to be a solid cover man.
Seventh-round NT Michael Jasper (No. 245) — The mammoth nose tackle played O-line in college and will be a project for the Bills.
Lockout fallout: How impacted will the Bills be by the work stoppage?
On a scale from 1 to 10 (with 10 being the most significantly impacted), the Bills rate a 4, which is pretty impressive for a 4-12 team. The coaching staff is intact and the team returns its starting quarterback, running back and wide receivers, which is more than most teams can say. The biggest way the lockout affects the Bills is on the defensive side of the ball. They drafted a Day One starter in Dareus and three other players who should fit in the rotation — Williams, Sheppard and Searcy. That's a unit that needs a lot of improvement and work with Wannstedt and defensive coordinator George Edwards. The lockout keeps the Bills from installing Dareus into the rotation and figuring out how to get the run defense fixed. But in terms of personnel and coaches, the Bills don't have to worry about new schemes to learn or a new quarterback to work with, putting them ahead of the game relative to most teams that struggled last season.