2011 team previews
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If wins were decided entirely by effort, the Bills would have won more than a quarter of their games in 2010. Unfortunately, talent plays a major factor as well, and that was an area in which the team was greatly lacking.
Buffalo went 4-12 in their first season under Chan Gailey, with four of those defeats coming by three-point margins, all to playoff teams. Despite playing top teams close, the Bills often were overwhelmed by opponents with more depth and skill, and for the season they were outscored by 142 points, the NFL's third-worst differential. Having a league-worst minus-17 turnover differential didn't help either.
Gailey and GM Buddy Nix made major shakeups to the offense during their first season in charge. Those moves couldn't offset a defense that was among the league's worst. Issues with stopping the run and forcing turnovers left the team playing catch-up for most of the season. The offense has firepower; it's the "D" that needs to improve most.
Despite the poor record, the team made only one coaching change in the offseason: bringing on Dave Wannstedt as assistant head coach to Gailey. The defensive-minded former head coach of the Bears and Dolphins should give a boost to that side of the ball. The team used the No. 3 overall pick to help him, selecting DL Marcell Dareus, as Nix and Gailey stood true to their confidence in Ryan Fitzpatrick by not taking a QB.
Still, on paper, the Bills appear to have the least amount of talent in the AFC East by a wide margin. Great effort once again might need to be the team's calling card in 2011.
Simply put, the Bills struggled in 2010 to move the ball. Even with QB Ryan Fitzpatrick and WR Stevie Johnson emerging as a promising duo, the offense lacked the big-play firepower it needed. RB Fred Jackson returns after back-to-back seasons as the team's top rusher, though it is expected that '10 first-rounder C.J. Spiller will make a greater impact during his second season. A healthy offensive line would help as well, as the Bills used four different right guards and right tackles last season.
Quarterbacks: Playing predominantly in the shotgun, Ryan Fitzpatrick showed an ability to make plays both with his arm and feet, though no facet of his game is particularly strong. He often kept the team close by spreading the ball around and making the smart play but would follow that up with a boneheaded move that would cost the team the game. Throwing the ball into tight windows also was a problem, although that can be attributed as much to receivers not creating separation as much as Fitzpatrick's issues. Leadership was not an area of concern, as the rest of the unit embraced the QB, who led offseason workouts during the lockout. The team opted not to draft a backup and acquired former Dolphins QB Tyler Thigpen in free agency. Thigpen reunites with Gailey, who was his offensive coordinator in Kansas City. Thigpen is a very capable backup with the athletic ability to move in the pocket. The Bills also poached Brad Smith from the division-rival Jets, who is listed on the roster as a QB. Expect Gailey to use Smith in gadget plays, such as the "Wildcat." Smith was an outstanding college quarterback but has made his mark in the pros on special teams and running the football. The Bills also have Levi Brown as a reserve signalcaller.
Running backs: Nobody is confusing Fred Jackson for Thurman Thomas, though the current Bills running back possesses a lot of the skill set that Thomas had. Jackson has good strength and vision, along with the ability to find yards that seemingly are nonexistent. Also a solid pass receiver, Jackson's emergence made the team feel at ease with its decision to trade Marshawn Lynch. Jackson lacks breakaway speed, something backup RB C.J. Spiller has a surplus of. Spiller proved to be dangerous when in the open field. Unfortunately for the Bills, the amount of times that happened can be counted on one hand. The '10 first-round pick was inconsistent and didn't seem to have a good grasp of the playbook, a reason Spiller found himself watching from the sideline for much of the season, but he should be more involved in his second season. The Bills drafted Johnny White, a physical, powerful, downhill runner who could be the team's No. 3 back. FB Corey McIntyre is a veteran who saw his playing time decrease as the Bills opted for a single-back offense much of last season.
Receivers: The receiving corps lacks the big names that the rest of the AFC East teams possess, but as a group, their performance compared favorably with the rest of the division. Four wide receivers finished with 30 or more receptions, led by Stevie Johnson's 82. The former seventh-round pick came out of nowhere to produce on a weekly basis, which was beneficial after Lee Evans and Roscoe Parrish went down with injuries. Johnson doesn't have blazing speed but has quickness to find openings on the field and toughness to fight through tackles. Parrish is an undersized wideout who can beat defenders deep. Brad Smith could see some time in the slot as well. The team appears to be high on free-agent addition Buster Davis, especially after it traded Evans. Those veterans lead a group of youngsters — David Nelson, Donald Jones, Marcus Easley and Naaman Roosevelt. All four need time to develop but showed promise with Ryan Fitzpatrick's equal-opportunity approach. Nelson specifically was impressive last season out of the slot. The Bills neglected to address the TE position in the offseason, with Scott Chandler being the best bet to emerge as the starter.
Offensive linemen: Just like several other units on the Bills, inconsistent play and injuries limited the productivity of the offensive line. OLT Demetrius Bell and OLG Andy Levitre were the only two offensive linemen to play all 16 games at their position. Bell is better suited to play on the right side, as he lacks the strength and vision to protect the quarterback's blind side. He has had his struggles in the preseason. Levitre is a smart player who, at times, was overpowered by physical interior linemen and might be an option at left tackle if Bell continues to struggle. Erik Pears is slotted as the right tackle, with Mansfield Wrotto as the backup, but that is the team's weakness on the O-line. The Bills didn't address tackle in the draft until the fourth round, selecting Chris Hairston, who could be a swing backup and potentially the future right tackle if he can take advantage of his size and arm length. Eric Wood, the team's most complete lineman, played in 14 games last season bouncing between two positions. It's expected he'll spend most of his time at center in '11, allowing him to make the calls for the line and create a solid wall up the middle. Kraig Urbik is versatile with a strong base and is competing to start at right guard. Former C Geoff Hangartner, whose '10 season was cut short by a knee injury, will be the top backup on the interior. Chad Rinehart might be the team's answer at one of the guard positions.
Buffalo switched to a 3-4 formation with disastrous results last season. First-year coordinator George Edwards lacked the playmakers to run the scheme properly, and the Bills had major issues stopping teams on the ground or through the air. To improve, the team brought in Dave Wannstedt as an assistant and will move to a hybrid defense, playing both "30" and "40" fronts. The switch should benefit the young players, though it remains to be seen if there are enough playmakers here to elevate the defense from the bottom third of the league.
Defensive linemen: There weren't many bright spots for the defense last season, but one was certainly the emergence of NT Kyle Williams. Despite being undersized, Williams has a nonstop motor, fantastic strength and the ability to fight off blockers and make plays in the backfield, a reason he made it to the Pro Bowl last season. In a 4-3, he played alongside Torell Troup, who has the size to be an impact run stuffer, but he needs to improve his pass-rushing skills. The DLE spot will be occupied by Marcell Dareus, the third pick in April's draft. Dareus is big and powerful, and his strength at the point of attack should help seal the edge when the Bills are in the 3-4 to stop the run. Williams, Dareus and Troup all can take on opposing linemen, which should provide good opportunities for DEs Alex Carrington and Dwan Edwards. Carrington can thrive in one-on-one opportunities but struggled finishing plays as a rookie. Edwards is big for a 4-3 end and fits better as a five-technique in the 3-4. Another lineman, veteran Spencer Johnson, is a versatile player who can fill several roles, though he won't excel in any of them. The massive but intriguing Michael Jasper will be a reserve nose tackle.
Linebackers: A few seasons ago, OLB Shawne Merriman was the NFL's premier outside 'backer, but an inability to stay healthy has slowed him down considerably. Merriman played in only three games last season because of injuries and none after joining the Bills in early November. Despite his injuries and questions of whether he can return to his previous form, the Bills are counting on Merriman to spark the pass rush. Across from Merriman will be veteran Chris Kelsay. He is athletic and a seasoned pro who would benefit greatly from blockers turning their focus on Merriman, leaving him alone to make plays one-on-one. In the middle, the Bills replaced Paul Posluszny with former Packers LB Nick Barnett. The injury-plagued veteran is extremely physical and an effective blitzer, and he should be an upgrade from Posluszny against the pass. Andra Davis has the instincts to play inside or outside, but he doesn't have desirable speed. The Bills also added ILB Kirk Morrison, who has racked up big tackle totals in his previous stops. Gailey expects to use LB Arthur Moats on the inside, his college position. Moats showed his skills last season on the outside, most memorably in sacking Brett Favre. He is very raw, but the team wants to get him on the field. Rookie ILB Kelvin Sheppard should help on first and second downs defending the run with his sure tackling. Chris White has good intangibles and can help against the run. Danny Batten missed his rookie season after suffering a shoulder injury but has raw pass-rushing skills that could get him on the field.
Defensive backs: Statistically, the Bills' pass defense was one of the league's premier units, allowing 192 yards per game, third best in the league. Those numbers are a bit deceiving, as a lot of that had to do with teams moving the ball so easily on the ground vs. Buffalo that they rarely risked throwing the ball excessively. The Bills would like opponents to throw more often, because the cornerbacks and safeties are strengths of the defense. CBs Drayton Florence, Terrence McGee and Leodis McKelvin all are capable man-to-man defenders. Florence led the team in interceptions (three) and has the ability to keep up with the quickest of opposing wideouts; however, tackling in space was a problem. At 5-foot-9, McGee lacks ideal size yet makes up for it with fantastic instincts and a strong ability to play the ball in the air. He missed much of the '10 season with a knee injury but should be ready by Week One. The most athletic of the three corners is McKelvin, who can use his quickness to stick with receivers. Verstaile rookie Aaron Williams can help in the slot with his NFL physique. Reserves Reggie Corner and speedy rookie Justin Rogers provide sufficient depth at the position. FS Jairus Byrd saw his interception numbers plummet from nine as a rookie in '09 to only one last season. He has impressive range and a great understanding of the game. With Donte Whitner gone, George Wilson, a special-teams ace, will step into the starting lineup. Veteran Bryan Scott likely will remain as the No. 3 safety. Rookie Da'Norris Searcy will provide help against the run and on special teams.
There was no turnover amongst the specialists, as the duo of PK Rian Lindell and P Brian Moorman once again will handle the kicking duties. Lindell struggled a bit last season, missing nearly a quarter of his field-goal attempts. He doesn't possess the strongest leg but generally can kick it straight and doesn't allow the hostile weather conditions of Ralph Wilson Stadium to bother him on field goals or kickoffs. Moorman is consistent and a fantastic directional punter. In the return game, Buffalo has plenty of viable options, starting with C.J. Spiller. The reserve running back excels on kickoff returns with his great speed and vision. Brad Smith, who had two kickoff-return TDs and a 28.6-yard average in 2010, and Leodis McKelvin also are weapons on kickoffs, and Roscoe Parrish primarily handles punt returns. George Wilson is a top gunner who led the Bills in special-teams tackles a year ago.
Owner Ralph Wilson showed great loyalty to Chan Gailey this offseason, allowing the head coach to keep nearly his entire coaching staff after such a disappointing debut season. Wilson is unlikely to do the same if Gailey produces another 4-12 record. Despite the lack of big names, there is some talent on the roster, as Gailey found in 2010 with gems such as Stevie Johnson and Kyle Williams. More young players need to emerge as game changers, especially C.J. Spiller and Marcell Dareus. Buffalo has the NFL's longest playoff drought, something the 92-year-old owner would like to change soon.
To order the digital edition of Pro Football Weekly's 2011 NFL Preview magazine, visit the PFW Store. The publication contains scouting reports on all 32 teams, rosters, depth charts, positional grades and 2010 week-by-week stats. Also, the magazine includes PFW's exclusive player rankings feature, ranking the top players in the league by position and overall.