NFL team preview: Buffalo Bills
Settle on a starting quarterback. Nurse an offensive line together. Learn the 3-4 defensive scheme.
When it comes to what transpired in Bills training camp and the prospects for the 2010 season, two out of three ain't bad.
Coach Chan Gailey and his staff bit off a lot to chew when they inherited a roster physically beaten up by injuries and mentally beaten up by finishing with a 6-10 record. Buffalo is riding a franchise-record 10-year playoff drought.
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With minimal activity in free agency and the drafting of a running back first overall rather than a quarterback, Buffalo is banking on Gailey's offensive creativity and a shift to the in-vogue 3-4 on defense to make it competitive again in the rugged AFC East.
Gailey promised a competition for the starting QB job between Trent Edwards and Ryan Fitzpatrick, last year's starters, and young pro Brian Brohm, but it never transpired due to Edwards' progress. Edwards started the team's first three preseason games and didn't disappoint, completing 65 percent of his throws for 304 yards, two touchdowns, one interception and a 97.1 rating. That would be a good game. In his first three pro seasons (14-17 career mark), Edwards has yet to throw for 300 yards.
From Elway to Aikman to Stewart, Gailey has an impressive track record of working with quarterbacks. And if he can put Edwards' career back on track, he'll put his own career back on track. He was Dallas' coach for just two seasons before being dismissed by owner Jerry Jones despite a winning record.
"The more plays I run, the more reps I get, the more comfortable I'm getting out there," said Edwards, who was expected to officially land the starter's job after Buffalo's final preseason game Sept. 2 at Detroit.
"Fortunately, we're moving the ball, we're getting first downs and we're scoring points. That makes my job a lot easier. It's easy for me to make progress when things are going well."
A big reason for producing nine offensive touchdowns through three preseason games was the play of the line. Wrecked by injuries in '09, left tackle Demetrius Bell and right guard Eric Wood have made remarkable recoveries from serious leg injuries to resume their old positions and stop what has been a yearly game of musical chairs. Now if they can only stay healthy.
As for providing a shot of needed adrenalin, rookie running back C.J. Spiller has done that and more. Taking advantage of injuries that sidelined veterans Fred Jackson and Marshawn Lynch -- both are expected back for the regular season -- Spiller was averaging 4.7 yards per carry and had scored three touchdowns in his preseason work.
"They all may be in there at the same time, you never know," said Gailey when asked about his plans for running back.
The defense remains a work in progress and is still reeling from the retirement of No. 2 career sack leader Aaron Schobel.
The move to a 3-4 has meant position switches for a half dozen players with some ends now playing linebacker and some tackles now playing end. Through three preseason games, the Bills had allowed 11 TDs, two more than its offense had scored. Missed assignments were plentiful.
"We have a lot of work to do but you can see every week we're making strides," said Marcus Stroud, who has shifted from tackle to end.
COACHING: Chan Gailey, 3rd year (18-16), 1st with Bills.
REMEMBERING: 2009 record: 6-10 (4th in AFC East).
PREDICTING: 2010 regular-season record: 8-8 (4th in AFC East); will miss playoffs for 11th consecutive season.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The Bills will keep their fewest number of draft picks in years, but not because their 53-man roster is getting tougher to make. WR Marcus Easley (fourth round) and LB Danny Batten (sixth round) have gone on injured reserve with season-ending injuries while offensive lineman Kyle Calloway (seventh round) was released at the cut to 75 players. Tackle Ed Wang (fifth) remains out after thumb surgery but will make the final roster in hopes of being able to fill a backup role this season. Easley's loss will be felt. The coaching staff was confident the raw University of Connecticut product could contribute as a rookie to a thin receiving corps.
Calloway, who played at Iowa, faced long odds making the team as a backup tackle. Meanwhile, second-year NT Lonnie Harvey was also cut. He joined the team's practice squad last November after spending time with Carolina and was third on the depth chart behind Torell Troup, the club's second-round pick who has enjoyed a stellar camp and will man the middle of Buffalo's new 3-4 defense in a rotation with Kyle Williams.
--RB Marshawn Lynch, who injured an ankle in the preseason opener at Washington, was expected to play in Thursday's final tune-up game at Detroit.
--RB Fred Jackson, who suffered a broken hand in the preseason opener at Washington, is back practicing with a special brace but remains a long-shot to start the season opener Sept. 12 against Miami. Ball protection and catching hard passes are still a concern.
--OT Cornell Green is nursing an undisclosed injury and will be a game-time decision for the Lions game.
--OT Ed Wang remains sidelined after thumb surgery. The rookie fifth-round pick is expected to make the club's final 53-man roster and be available at some point to fill a backup role.
--WR Roscoe Parrish is making a strong bid to earn the starting slot receiver role. He has seven catches for 82 yards and a touchdown through three preseason games.
--LB Arthur Moats, a sixth-round pick out of James Madison, is making a strong push to earn a roster spot. He has a team-high 18 tackles, including 12 solo stops and a forced fumble. Buffalo's special teams are also in need of replenishing.
--OL Kyle Calloway, the team's final draft choice last April out of Iowa picked in the seventh round 216th overall, was released. He was far down the depth chart at right tackle.
--NT Lonnie Harvey, who was attempting to make the 53-man roster after spending time on Buffalo's practice squad last year, was released. He was a long-shot for a backup spot.
DRAFT PICKS TO STICK
Rd. 1/9, RB C.J. Spiller, Clemson -- Once considered a luxury pick on a team that had two good running backs, he's now emerged as the top drawing card. Taking advantage of injuries to Fred Jackson and Marshawn Lynch, Spiller scored three TDs in preseason wins over the Colts and Bengals and awed onlookers with his stop-on-a-dime moves and speed. He even made a case for being the team's starter.
Rd. 2/41, NT Torell Troup, Central Florida -- The 6-2, 314-pounder had a stellar training camp, making all kinds of plays in practice while plugging the middle of Buffalo's new 3-4. He'll earn major playing time in a rotation with veteran Kyle Williams.
Rd. 3/72, DE Alex Carrington, Arkansas State -- With four tackles and no sacks through three preseason games, the Sun Belt Conference sack leader in 2009 hasn't made a big impact yet. But he'll make the roster and be used when needed in a rotation of players up front.
Rd. 6/178, MLB Arthur Moats, James Madison -- One of the pleasant surprises of camp, the Buck Buchanan Award winner had a team-best 18 tackles heading into the team's final preseason game. He has a nose for the ball and will push for backup time behind Paul Posluszny while playing special teams.
Rd. 7/209, QB Levi Brown, Troy -- No. 4 on the depth chart, the Sun Belt Conference player of the year didn't see much action this summer but could make the roster as the team's third QB as a developmental project.
UNIT BY UNIT ANALYSIS
QUARTERBACKS: Starter -- Trent Edwards. Backups -- Ryan Fitzpatrick, Brian Brohm, Levi Brown.
Coach Chan Gailey, who has a good track record with quarterbacks and would like nothing better than to make Edwards another feather in his cap, was expected to name Edwards his starter following the team's final preseason game. Edwards started the first three games and took full advantage, completing 65 percent of his throws for a healthy 8.2 yards-per-attempt average. He made good decisions and seemed very much in command, all good signs after a season in which he went 2-6 as a starter and lost his job to Fitzpatrick. So who is No. 2?
Fitzpatrick, who did some quality work a year ago (1,422 yards passing, 9 TDs, 10 INT), was the safe bet although Brohm's long-term potential is much greater. One was likely to be released with rookie Brown earning the No. 3 job as a long-term project. Buffalo's 157.2 yards per game passing tied for the NFL's lowest average in the past 30 years. The club's passing game has nowhere to go but up.
While Jackson emerged as a standout all-purpose back (1,433 yards), the Bills' 25.8 third-down conversion rate tied for fifth worst by any NFL team over the past 20 seasons. Jackson must prove his one big year wasn't a fluke, but he's likely to miss the opener against Miami until a broken hand suffered in training camp is fully healed. Former first-round pick Lynch, who has been plagued by off-field issues, missed two preseason games with an injured foot. That opened the door for Spiller, the ninth overall pick in the draft, to show off his capabilities beyond just being a change-of-pace back. He averaged 4.7 yards per carry and scored three touchdowns playing with the first unit. He's now Buffalo's top box office draw and the coaching staff will have fun devising ways to get him the ball. McIntyre is a solid blocking back when needed.
Dreams of the tight end becoming a meaningful position in the passing game are on hold. Nelson, who flashed great potential as a rookie, was slapped with a four-game suspension to start the year for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy. Even before that, Jonathan Stupar a pedestrian blocking type, had been penciled in as the starter. Meanwhile, depth took a hit when Michael Matthews joined Joe Klopfenstein on the season-ending injured reserve list in training camp. Six-year veteran J.P. Foschi was signed and will back up Stupar until Nelson is eligible.
With Terrell Owens and Josh Reed out of the picture, jobs were on the table for a host of young prospects. Emerging from a talented pack was Nelson, a free agent rookie out of Florida who seemed to catch every ball thrown his way in practice and preseason games. Johnson, a former seventh-round pick who has been grooming two seasons, did not have a breakout camp but was still the best bet to start alongside the underrated Evans (44 catches, 612 yards in '09) due to his experience and size. Jackson, the former New England second-round pick, was also in the picture. Hardy, a 2008 second-round pick, is back from ACL surgery and brings great size to the table but is still raw in his route skills. Two different coaching staffs have failed to capitalize on Parrish's unique skills but he's poised to resurrect his career as the slot receiver.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LT Demetrius Bell, LG Andy Levitre, C Geoff Hangartner, RG Eric Wood, RT Cornell Green. Backups -- OT Kirk Chambers, OT Jamon Meredith, OT Nick Hennessey, C Sean Allen, OG Jason Watkins, OG Cordaro Howard, OT Ed Wang.
The Bills' 30th ranking in yards, 30th ranking in passing yards, 32nd ranking in third-down conversions and 28th ranking in points could be traced to this eternally troubled unit. Other than Green, the starting five returns intact with Wood and Bell coming off major injuries. The good news is that both came out of camp healthy and ready to play, giving the line some unexpected continuity. Green (Oakland) struggled with penalties with the Raiders but does bring 46 career starts to Buffalo. Chambers is a solid backup. Howard, who played for Gailey at Georgia Tech, was a nice find and the team likes Wang's potential.
The Bills' switch to a 3-4 scheme was made in hopes of improving the team's horrendous run defense of recent seasons. The team allowed more than 156 yards on the ground a year ago. New coordinator George Edwards will use a heavy rotation of players up front, with Stroud, Johnson and McCargo making the switch from 4-3 tackles to 3-4 ends. Stroud, a former Pro Bowl player with Jacksonville, seems to have made the transition seamlessly and he brings a great work ethic with him each day. How Williams holds up as a 310-pound nose tackle remains to be seen but he'll be used more as an attack player than space-eater. Troup, a second-round pick out of Central Florida, had a nice camp and will help in a rotation with Williams. Edwards was a nice addition off Baltimore's top defense and has a lot of experience in the 3-4.
LINEBACKERS: Starters -- ILB Andra Davis, ILB Paul Posluszny, SLB Chris Kelsay, WLB Reggie Torbor. Backups -- ILB Kawika Mitchell, ILB Arthur Moats, ILB Keith Ellison, OLB Aaron Maybin, OLB Chris Ellis, OLB Donovan Woods.
The strength of a 3-4 is a team's linebacker corps but Buffalo's is a work in progress. Former defense ends Kelsay, Maybin and Ellis are learning new positions. Out of the picture is Aaron Schobel, the team's No. 2 career sack leader, who retired. Posluszny, a physical, athletic player figures to excel in Buffalo's new look as he'll have to cover less space. Davis, a very productive nine-year vet who started in Denver's 3-4, was a key free agent pickup and has thus far held off Mitchell, who will nonetheless see a lot of playing time given his talents and experience. Kelsay, who had five sacks a year ago, had a strong offseason and has the size and feet to get the job done at strong-side linebacker. Maybin, the team's No. 1 pick in '09 who struggled as an undersized end, is a wildcard weapon the coaching staff can use in creative ways. Ellis is likely to get the start on the weak side until Torbor, another key free agent signing, returns from an undisclosed injury.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Terrence McGee, RCB Leodis McKelvin, FS Jairus Byrd, SS Donte Whitner. Backups -- CB Drayton Florence, CB Reggie Corner, CB Ashton Youboty, CB Ellis Lankster, FS George Wilson, FS Cary Harris, SS Bryan Scott.
Easily the best and deepest unit on the club. Buffalo notched 28 interceptions last year, most since 1970 merger, with the rookie Byrd leading the way with nine. With a full season at free safety and good health, he'll be looking to top that total but he remains questionable for the opener after yet another groin surgery. At strong safety, Whitner has wrestled the starting job back and figures to excel in a system where he can run to the ball and make plays. He had a very strong training camp. The corner position is deep. McGee will team with either McKelvin, coming off a broken leg that sidelined him for most of last year, or Florence to form a solid 1-2 punch. Florence and McKelvin waged a tight battle all summer. Either way, both will see a lot of action with the amount of nickel used by teams today.
Bruce DeHaven, a member of Buffalo's Super Bowl coaching staffs, returns to take over for Bobby April, who fielded some of the best units in NFL history. The Bills figure not to miss a beat, though they did struggle some in the preseason. The kicking game is solid led by Lindell and Moorman. Lindell finished with 108 points and Moorman finished with a 40.2-yard net average for the first time, a very impressive feat for a cold-weather punter. Long-snapper Sanborn was solid in his first season. There is also no shortage of return talent. Rookie running back C.J. Spiller is in the mix to return punts and kicks with McKelvin and Parrish record setters from past years.