STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
Itís been 12 years since the Bills made the playoffs, but that streak is in danger. Last yearís meltdown after a 5-2 start left a sour taste in fansí mouths, but the disappointment of 2011 seems like ancient history after an exciting offseason. This isnít a franchise known for throwing money at free agents, but the Bills made a splash by signing Mario Williams to a six-year contract that includes $50 million guaranteed, the most ever for a defensive player.
Williams should have no trouble as the Bills transition to a 4-3 defense, and will key a defensive line that figures to be one of the leagueís best. Defensive end/pass-rush specialist Mark Anderson was also acquired in the offseason, and the Bills return two monsters at defensive tackle in Kyle Williams and 2011 first-round pick Marcell Dareus. The rest of the defense looks to be on the upswing as well for new defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt, with no real holes apparent and a nice mix of veterans and promising youngsters.
The offense lacks a true superstar, but plenty of key players return to a unit that started strong last season before the injury bug hit. Ryan Fitzpatrick was rewarded with a contract extension after a big start to the 2011 season, but struggled (10:16 TD:INT ratio) over the final nine games. A surprisingly good offensive line kept him upright, and Stevie Johnson had another 1,000-yard season. However, the passing game appears to have some limitations with the average-armed Fitz at quarterback and no true No. 2 receiver. With Johnson locked in as the No. 1 receiver and David Nelson in the slot, rookie T.J. Graham could compete with Donald Jones, Naaman Roosevelt and possibly Marcus Easley for the other starting role on the outside, but heís probably more of a project than immediate threat. With most of the offensive line back and healthy, the running game should be in good shape again. Buffalo averaged 4.9 yards per carry as a team last season, with C.J. Spiller somewhat unexpectedly stepping up after Fred Jackson went down for the year in Week 11 with a broken bone in his leg. Jackson, who just received a contract extension, is already fully recovered from the injury and is in line to enter 2012 as the starter, but Spiller will push him for carries and contribute in the passing game. This is one of the top one-two backfield punches in the NFL.
For the first time in years, the Bills have enough talent to make the playoffs if the switch to a 4-3 defense goes well and Fitzpatrick can play like he did in the first part of 2011. With New Englandís Bill Belichick/Tom Brady combo in the division, a first-place finish seems unlikely, but this squad has a good chance of ending up in the playoff huntÖfinally!
Stephon Gilmore, CB, South Carolina (Round 1, 10th overall)
Elite size and speed combination. Gilmore will probably be a starter out of the gate.
Cordy Glenn, OT/G, Georgia (Round 2, 41st overall)
There are questions about his ability to play left tackle in the NFL, but it sounds like thatís where they will line him up. Could win the starting job over Chris Hairston.
T.J. Graham, WR, North Carolina State (Round 3, 69th overall)
Great speed but heís still raw. Could challenge for the No. 2 receiver spot and see time as a returner.
Mario Williams, DE (Texans)
Fully recovered from the torn pectoral muscle that ended his 2011 season prematurely, expectations will be high. Weíre betting he delivers.
Mark Anderson, DE (Patriots)
Heís no Mario, but Anderson did have 10 sacks last year. Heíll either start or come in as a situational pass-rusher behind Chris Kelsay.
Vince Young, QB (Eagles)
The former No. 3 overall pick will compete with Tyler Thigpen to be the backup to Ryan Fitzpatrick, with little chance of leaping Fitz to become a starter in the near term.
Drayton Florence, CB(Broncos)
Was a serviceable starter, but wonít be missed much with first-round pick Gilmore in the mix.
Demetress Bell, OT (Eagles)
His career has been marred by injuries so far and the line performed surprisingly well without him.
WHOíS NO. 2?
Stevie Johnson is the clear-cut No. 1 receiver and David Nelson will man the slot, but how the wideout playing time will be divided beyond that remains a mystery. Donald Jones is the favorite to win the No. 2 spot, a job he held last year before a high ankle sprain derailed his season. The Bills would prefer that somebody with more speed line up across from Johnson, however, and while rookie T.J. Graham matches that description, he may still be too raw. Easley, a 2010 fourth-round pick, has plenty of talent, but saw his first two seasons lost due to knee injuries and a heart ailment. At this point he is probably more worried about making the team than winning a starting spot, but donít count him out since the other options arenít exactly world-beaters. Naaman Roosevelt, Ruvell Martin and Derek Hagan could also challenge for some playing time, but itís hard to imagine any team going into a season with one of them as a starter. Of the group, Roosevelt is the youngest and has the most upside, but he didnít do much with his opportunity last year when Jones was injured.
FRED OR C.J.?
Fred Jackson was providing first-round value before he got hurt last season, but C.J. Spiller picked up right where he left off. Jackson is the starter here, yet head coach Chan Gailey says the split will be closer to 50-50 than it was in the past. Jackson will certainly come off the board first in most drafts after being one of the leagueís more dynamic players last season, but a 31-year-old running back (even one with limited tread on his tires) is never a sure bet. If one of these backs were to get injured before Week 1, the other would warrant first-round consideration, especially in PPR leagues.
WILL THE REAL FITZ PLEASE STAND UP?
Which is the real Fitzpatrick? The player who threw 14 TD passes in seven games to lead his team to a 5-2 start? Or the guy who looked like a career backup as his team crumbled down the stretch? Expectations for 2012 should probably fall somewhere between. He doesnít have the arm strength to ever be an elite quarterback in that department, but the personnel here is more suited to the short and intermediate passing game and running the ball, anyway. Fitzpatrick will be in trouble if the defense does not improve and he has to play from behind often, but if Mario Williams & Co. live up to the hype, he wonít throw 23 interceptions again. Donít expect Fitzpatrick to attempt 569 passes again either, but increased efficiency and further familiarity among all the returning offensive starters could help Fitzpatrick approach last yearís yardage and touchdown totals of 3,832 and 24.
RISING: C.J. Spiller was labeled as a bust before he had a chance to prove himself, but now forms part of one of the leagueís top running back combos with Fred Jackson.
DECLINING: Fred Jackson set the league on fire for 11 games last season, but heís 31 and coming off a pretty big injury, plus the Bills plan to use Spiller as more than just a strict backup.
SLEEPER: Scott Chandler has the starting tight end job locked down, and at 6-7 is a serious (and now proven) red zone threat. Just donít expect big yardage totals.
SUPERSLEEPER: Marcus Easley still has not made it on to the field since being drafted two years ago, but the Bills rave about his size and talent. His variance sways from a possible cut to winning the No. 2 job in an offense that likes to chuck it around.
Nick Barnett, LB
After posting 130 tackles and three picks in his first season as a Bill, heíll start on the outside in the new 4-3 defense.
George Wilson, S
Topped 100 tackles in two of the past three seasons.
Mario Williams, DE
Healthy again and should be a top-tier defensive line option with other talents to keep the pressure off him.
RotoWire Rank: 11