Every NFL team is a winner in the spring. Every draft pick a future Pro Bowler. And every perfect spiral slicing its way through the June air and over the field is the start of postseason heroics. Few places in the country are abound with the kind of sunny optimism you'll find in Buffalo these days, where things really do feel different.
The Buffalo Bills rolled through the offseason with a fierce determination to get better. Buddy Nix made a marquee free agent move, signing defensive end Mario Williams. In the draft, the Bills managed to find a collection of players capable of helping right away along with a bevvy of late-round picks who could have been drafted much earlier.
Combine a winning offseason with a positive start to last season, including a win over the Patriots, and the buoyancy in Buffalo feels justified. But the AFC East is a harsh place. Spring's hopes can be quickly dashed. Soon enough, we'll know if Buffalo's offseason gains offer real dividends.
Things started off so well for the Bills last season. They jumped out to a 5-2 start, a stretch that was highlighted with a feat they had not accomplished in nearly a decade. Buffalo's offense averaged more than 30 points per game, and the defense allowed an average of 21 points per game over those first seven games. Much of the Buffalo's success had to do with turnovers. The Bills had a turnover differential of +9.
Then the Bills got back to being the Bills.
They lost seven straight games after that, with the offense topping just 25 points in one outing through the rest of the season. The turnover differential reversed to a -9. Injuries piled up, none more devastating to the team than running back Fred Jackson, who landed on IR while he was averaging more than 93 yards per game. The Bills finished last in the AFC East.
Bright spots dotted the season, even as things spiraled out of control. C.J. Spiller averaged 5.2 yards per carry in his second season, getting some more reps in place of Jackson. Ryan Fitzpatrick threw for more than 3,800 yards and completed 62 percent of his passes as the starter. More pressure from defenses later in the season took some of the sheen off his numbers.
Rookie defensive tackle Marcell Dareus recorded 5.5 sacks, seven QB hits and 24 hurries, cementing his place as a core member of what should be a very good defensive line this year.
Related: Dolphins Offseason Report
Best Free Agent Pickup
This one is easy. Buffalo made itself a surprise entrant into the Mario Williams sweepstakes and landed the best pass rusher to the market in quite some time. The best hope for unseating the Patriots at the top of the AFC East is to do what the Giants did in two Super Bowls: attack Tom Brady. Williams is probably best suited as an end in a four-man front, which is exactly how the Bills plan to use him. What made this move even better is that the Bills went one step further and added Mark Anderson, from the Patriots nonetheless. Anderson had 10 sacks last season, and he should see more openings with blockers focused on Williams.
Re-signing Stevie Johnson was an important move because the team did little to bolster the offensive skill positions in the offseason. Adding Vince Young as a backup will allow Chan Gailey to surprise opponents on occasion by throwing a wildcat package (maybe) at them.
2012 NFL Draft
GM Buddy Nix used the team's first-round pick to select South Carolina cornerback Stephon Gilmore. Athletic, big and physical, the Bills are counting on him as a starter from Week 1. How he handles that responsibility will be the key to his season and his development as a player. Pass defense was a problem last year, and with so much money tied up in pass rushers, a high pick was the best route to add talent.
Buffalo's best pick in the draft was Georgia offensive tackle Cordy Glenn. Some teams and almost every pundit who cracked out a mock draft every week, myself included, had him going in the first round. Buffalo got him in the second round with the 41st pick.
North Carolina State receiver T.J. Graham looked like a reach in the third round. He possesses the kind of speed that can stretch the field, which is a plus for the Bills group of receivers.
Nix really cleaned up in the later part of the draft. The Bills got a pair of linebackers who can contribute immediately with Nigel Bradham and Tank Carder. LSU cornerback Ron Brooks could have been a featured player at any other school, and should help the Bills in coverage immediately. Offensive tackle Zebrie Sanders adds youth and depth at the position, and he should be starting soon enough.
Related: Bills NFL Draft Grade
From SB Nation's Buffalo Rumblings:
Buffalo got marginally better from 2010 to 2011, and they appear to have gotten significantly better this off-season - particularly on the defensive side of the ball. The hype machine is humming along at full throttle right now in Western New York. But as often as we hear about the Bills being the best competition for the Patriots in this division, they've not remotely earned that distinction.
The Bills are 2-10 in division games over the last two seasons. In 2011, they were swept by not just the Jets (the Bills haven't beaten them yet under Chan Gailey), but the supposedly laughingstock Dolphins, who crushed Buffalo 35-8 in Miami, then opened up a 30-13 lead in Buffalo before eventually winning 30-23. Both of those teams manhandled Buffalo last year - and so did the Patriots in the regular season finale.
Sure, Buffalo looks to be trending upward. They have a lot more talent and appear primed to finally field a competitive football team. If they're going to fulfill the "surprise playoff team" expectations being set after an admittedly exciting off-season, however, they need to become more than the doormat to the AFC East.
They Make The Playoffs If ...
A hype-inducing offseason and last year's win over the Patriots may be more than just ephemeral victories for the future of the Bills. Winning the division is a tall order, and the NFL isn't exactly handing out wildcard berths in the AFC with a loaded division in the North.
Buffalo's 5-2 start was no fluke. The defense should be better this season, particularly at getting to the passer. That means the offense will not have to score at least 30 points just to have a chance. Nevertheless, Buffalo cannot afford the version of Ryan Fitzpatrick it saw in the second half of the season, not with Vince Young as the best option behind him. Better protection and healthier offensive tackles will help, but Fitzpatrick has to prove that he is capable of keeping his team in the fight, from the first quarter to the last. After all, that's what quarterbacks with $62 million contracts are expected to do.
From a schedule standpoint, the Bills have to repeat their win over New England, at least splitting the season series. That win over the Patriots was Buffalo's only win inside the division last year. The team cannot afford to do that again if it has any hopes for winning at least 10 games and making the postseason for the first time since 1999.