The rush of excitement around Buffalo this offseason feels like it has been a long time in coming, but the truth is that you don’t have to refer to Jim Kelly for the last time good feelings surrounded the Bills.
Just look back to last season when the Bills were 5-2 and riding a potent offense to talk of playoff berths to come. Then came the final nine games, all but one a loss, and a return to the feeling that the Bills have been wandering in the NFL desert for far too long. This feels different because the team looks better in many spots than they were after seven games last season, the product of a busy and successful offseason of work by General Manager Buddy Nix.
Coach Chan Gailey has to find a way to weave it all together fast enough for the team to go the distance with a winning record this time or else it will be another case where the cart went before the wagon for the Bills. That wouldn’t be a new outcome for the Bills and it is one that is getting old fast.
The biggest reason for the jolt of optimism in Buffalo was the signing of defensive end Mario Williams as a free agent. He should provide the pass rush that’s been missing for the Bills, especially with fellow free agent signing Mark Anderson on the other end of the line. Throw in Marcell Dareus and a healthy Kyle Williams for one of the better looking defensive lines in the entire league.
C.J. Spiller flashed the ability that made him a first-round pick while filling in for an injured Fred Jackson at the end of last season, giving the Bills a two-back attack with some potency heading into this season. Jackson got the contract bump he wanted, which should make it easier for him to swallow handing some playing time to Spiller in a versatile Buffalo backfield.
The interior of the offensive line should also help the Bills make their way on the ground this season. Guards Andy Levitre and Chad Rinehart flank center Eric Wood on a line that’s longer on talent than it is in name recognition. If Erik Pears picks up his play a bit at right tackle and rookie Cordy Glenn is up to the task on the left side, the Bills will be in very good shape up front on offense.
Ryan Fitzpatrick got an extension based on his play during the Bills’ hot start, but his play went in the wrong direction in the second half. Turnovers were the major culprit, something that the Bills hope will go down with a better defense that allows them to take fewer risks on offense. They’d better be right or all the hope for this season will go up in smoke.
It would help if a receiver steps up to help Stevie Johnson in the offense. David Nelson will likely be in the slot and Scott Chandler’s back at tight end, but someone from the group of Donald Jones, Marcus Easley and rookie T.J. Graham needs to step up to make plays on the outside for the Bills offense to take full flight.
Improvement in the pass rush should help the cornerbacks as should the arrival of first-round pick Stephon Gilmore. The Bills were much too prone to big passing plays last season, even with a strong safety tandem of Jairus Byrd and George Wilson, and they can’t have that happen again. Aaron Williams and Terrence McGee need to be better now that Gilmore’s there to do a lot of the heavy lifting or they will be picked on relentlessly by opposing quarterbacks.
Gilmore and Glenn were the first two Buffalo picks in April and each of them filled a huge need for the team. It’s always dangerous to put so much on the shoulders of rookies, but the Bills don’t have much choice based on the play they got at those spots last season.
Fitzpatrick’s need to increase his efficiency was addressed by the addition of David Lee as the team’s quarterbacks coach. Lee, who worked with Tony Romo early in his career, jumped from Ole Miss back to the NFL to help Fitzpatrick and his experience with the Wildcat in Miami and at the University of Arkansas could mean a bigger role for Brad Smith this year.
The arrival of Williams and Anderson is vital to the shift to a 4-3 defensive look under coordinator Dave Wannstedt. The Bills have the pieces to make it work, including linebackers Nick Barnett and Kelvin Sheppard, and a quick transition should mean a much better defensive team in Buffalo this season.
We’ve touched on the situations at receiver and cornerback already, so we’ll only briefly reiterate that sorting out the depth charts at those spots will be a big part of training camp.
Glenn is going to have to beat out Chris Hairston for the left tackle job, a task he got started with in the spring when he took most of the first team snaps. The Bills want Glenn to win the job, so he probably will with Hairston becoming a swing tackle in the regular season.
Vince Young and Tyler Thigpen will battle for the backup quarterback job and Smith’s presence means the loser will be looking for work. If Fitzpatrick struggles as much as he did down the stretch last season, it’s not unthinkable that the backup will get a shot at replacing him this season.
The hopefulness around the Bills this season comes from a very real place and the team is clearly priming themselves for a run at a playoff spot right now. Falling short of that goal will be a disappointment, one that will be magnified if Fitzpatrick plays a big role in the team missing the expectations set by their busy offseason.
For that playoff spot to materialize, the Bills will have to hit on all the question marks we mentioned in the course of this preview. Gilmore, Glenn and a receiver will need to step up to shore up troubling areas on a team that otherwise looks as solid as any we’ve seen in Buffalo since Chris Berman was still picking them to go to the Super Bowl every season.
Should those spots cease to be troubles, 10 wins and a playoff spot are well within this team’s reach. With a few breaks, even a bid for a division title isn’t out of the question.