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By Brian Galliford of Buffalo Rumblings
The T.O. Show - you know, the real one, not the half hour of fluff you avoid like the plague on VH1 - has shipped out of Buffalo, relegating the pro football team in the city back to its comfortable niche of irrelevance. The Buffalo Bills' streak of ten consecutive seasons without a playoff berth is as long as the Detroit Lions'; their last playoff appearance was the Music City Miracle. In an AFC East division chock-full of high-profile players, coaches and executives, the Bills may be on the verge of re-defining the term ‘afterthought.' The owner is more widely noted for his age than his Hall of Fame status; one home game per season is exported to Toronto; and the future of the franchise will be very much thrown into doubt when that aforementioned owner, Ralph C. Wilson, Jr., passes on.
Welcome back from your field trip to the neurotic mind of a Bills fan, football aficionado.
Despite registering in only the most tangential NFL conversations, there are reasons for optimism in Buffalo. The organization is running more efficiently under GM Buddy Nix, Chan Gailey brings with him the first consistent offensive system the team has seen since Mike Mularkey was head coach, and there are plenty of young players to be excited about. It's just a pity none of them are quarterbacks or left tackles.
WR Terrell Owens
WR Josh Reed
OT Brad Butler
DE Aaron Schobel (if he doesn't decide to play, that is)
Nix and Gailey showed brass, uh, body parts in passing on a pro-ready quarterback, Notre Dame's Jimmy Clausen, twice in April. Instead, Levi Brown - a seventh-rounder out of Troy - is the rookie QB of choice, with the Bills allowing three mediocre incumbents (Trent Edwards, Brian Brohm, Ryan Fitzpatrick) to duke it out for the starting job. Whichever player wins likely won't matter, as there isn't a franchise signal-caller on this roster. Edwards will likely get the first crack at the job, but he's never had the opportunity to enter consecutive off-seasons in the same offensive system, much like Redskin-turned-Raider Jason Campbell. Perhaps if he locks down a starting job and performs well enough, he'll earn a contract extension and a chance at that consistency he needs.
Surrounding the quarterback(s) is a boatload of unproven talent. The Bills return an underrated interior to their offensive line (veteran center Geoff Hangartner and second-year guards Andy Levitre and Eric Wood), but the tackle position is a mess. Demetrius Bell and free agent addition Cornell Green are the likely starters at left and right tackle, respectively, but the offensive line is clearly not a strength for this football team, and could be a hindrance to the offense as a whole. Meanwhile, aside from Lee Evans, Roscoe Parrish's three receptions in 2009 are the most of any Bills wide receiver that survived the '09 off-season; unproven talent like James Hardy, Steve Johnson, Chad Jackson and rookie Marcus Easley will compete to start for Evans, while second-year tight end Shawn Nelson will try to become a viable receiving threat, as well.
The team's obvious offensive strength is its stable of running backs, though touches could be hard to divvy up between Fred Jackson, Marshawn Lynch and rookie C.J. Spiller. Jackson is expected to see most of the traditional running back work (with Lynch spelling him), while Spiller should slide into a jack-of-all-trades role similar to the ones Reggie Bush and Percy Harvin have taken up in years past. Jackson will be the chain-mover offensively, as he's been in each of the past two seasons, but Gailey needs to find ways to get Spiller and Evans involved, as they're the only legitimate home run threats on the roster.
WR - Steve Johnson
LT - Demetrius Bell
LG - Andy Levitre
C - Geoff Hangartner
RG - Eric Wood
RT - Cornell Green
TE - Shawn Nelson
WR - Lee Evans
QB - Trent Edwards
RB - Fred Jackson
RB/WR - C.J. Spiller
Buffalo spent a great deal of time and energy re-tooling its defensive front seven, which was absolutely critical given that new coordinator George Edwards will be transitioning to the 3-4 defense. Holdovers changing positions include Marcus Stroud (three-technique DT to five-technique DE), Kyle Williams (three-technique DT to multi-technique nose guard), Chris Kelsay (defensive end to outside linebacker) and Aaron Maybin (defensive end to outside linebacker). Paul Posluszny will stay at inside linebacker, where he'll be joined by free agent addition Andra Davis as starters. Kelsay and Maybin appear to have handles on the starting OLB spots, but as Kelsay is so athletically limited, reserves such as veterans Reggie Torbor and Kawika Mitchell, as well as sixth-round rookie Danny Batten, could be called on extensively.
Williams will likely start the season at nose tackle, but at 6'1" and a generous 306 pounds, he doesn't have the bulk to hold up at the point of attack as a two-gap defender. The Bills would prefer to use him in nickel situations as a pass rusher, as well as in 4-3 looks, which is why Torell Troup was such an important addition to the team. The 315-pound rookie will likely be asked to contribute on run-downs as a true zero-technique nose guard, and he'll be asked to anchor the defense. Former Baltimore end Dwan Edwards brings his 3-4 expertise to the five-technique spot as the team's highest-profile free agent signing, while defensive tackle Marcus Stroud will play the other side at end.
Buffalo has a deep and versatile secondary, but there aren't any huge stars here. True, Jairus Byrd had an outstanding rookie season (nine interceptions and a Pro Bowl berth), but those results aren't likely to be duplicated, and durability remains a concern for him. He'll start at free safety alongside either George Wilson or Donte Whitner, but Buffalo will play all four of its experienced safeties (Bryan Scott being the fourth). At cornerback, Terrence McGee continues to hold down a starting spot, while Drayton Florence will try to hold off third-year pro and potential Pro Bowl talent Leodis McKelvin on the other side. Reggie Corner adds quality, experienced depth at corner, but it remains to be seen how effective this secondary can be if a pass-rusher like Maybin (zero sacks as a rookie) can't emerge.
DE - Marcus Stroud
NT - Kyle Williams
DE - Dwan Edwards
LOLB - Chris Kelsay
LILB - Andra Davis
RILB - Paul Posluszny
ROLB - Aaron Maybin
LCB - Terrence McGee
SS - Donte Whitner
FS - Jairus Byrd
RCB - Leodis McKelvin
Believe it or not, when the Bills jettisoned their entire coaching staff on January 4, they lost some good ones. Bobby April, the team's special teams coordinator since 2004, was one of the good ones. His replacement, Bruce DeHaven, is widely respected at his craft, but is also responsible for the critical play in Buffalo's last playoff appearance, the Music City Miracle. Rian Lindell and Brian Moorman return as one of the NFL's most reliable kicking duos, and second-year pro Garrison Sanborn was impressive as a rookie long snapper. The Bills are blessed with outstanding return specialists in Spiller, McKelvin, McGee, Jackson and Roscoe Parrish, but with Buffalo's depth chart looking different across much of the roster, it's unclear exactly how many running lanes those talented returners will get next year, particularly early in the season.
K - Rian Lindell
P - Brian Moorman
LS - Garrison Sanborn
KR - C.J. Spiller
PR - Roscoe Parrish
Todd Haley relieved Gailey of his coordinator duties in Kansas City just prior to the 2009 season - right around the same time former Bills head coach Dick Jauron was firing his offensive coordinator, Turk Schonert. Gailey is now an NFL head coach for the first time since 1999, his final year in Dallas and the last season in which the Bills appeared in the playoffs. He'll install his own offense and call his own plays, with coordinator-in-name-only Curtis Modkins handling administrative issues and coaching the running backs. Gailey's pretty much done everything as an offensive play-caller, so it's hard to say exactly what his offense will look like in Buffalo.
Replacing Perry Fewell as the team's defensive coordinator is Edwards, who spurned the University of Florida for the opportunity. Bringing experience in both the 3-4 and the 4-3, Edwards (under the direction of Gailey) has spoken at length of fitting his scheme to his personnel, which could indicate that the Bills will use a lot of hybrid 4-3 or 3-4 over looks in lieu of your traditional two-gap 3-4 this year. As the Bills are still searching for talent defensively, particularly pass rushers, Edwards will need to be versatile, creative, and aggressive to succeed.
Conclusion/Prediction For 2010
It sounds pathetic - in reality, it is pathetic - but Buffalo's biggest gains this off-season have been administrative. Their front office now actually looks and operates like a front office should, and they've been methodical and calculated in adding talent to the roster. But everything about this organization is underwhelming at the moment, and there are simply too many huge question marks at the game's most important positions (quarterback, offensive line, pass rush) for the team to seriously compete in 2010. On the field, there's nowhere to go but up, and they're off to a solid, if unspectacular, start. This isn't the worst team in the league, but in a very tough AFC East, 4-6 wins might even be slightly optimistic. Prediction: 5-11, Jake Locker Sweepstakes