Buffalo Bills 2011 NFL Preview
It’d be easy to declare the Buffalo Bills a broken franchise. They won all of four games a year ago and haven’t reached the postseason since the Clinton administration. Their small Western New York market has spilled into Canada, but even that foreign venture and Ralph Wilson Stadium’s healthy attendance figures aren’t enough to slow the rumors about the club’s possible relocation to Los Angeles.
But the Bills are not a broken franchise; owner Ralph Wilson’s staff has not brought all these hardships on itself. General manager Buddy Nix and head coach Chan Gailey have a plan. Is it a save-the-day/Cinderella story-in-the-making type plan? Probably not. It’s more like the type of plan an independent film director would have, where limited resources put extra demands on creativity.
You don’t need to be first class in all categories to win in the NFL. A team can compete with a “gritty, scrappy, feisty” quarterback. A Super Bowl is not in the cards, but the team can still compete. And it can compete with a developing, perhaps even makeshift offensive line. And with green receivers and an even greener running back. It can also compete with a piecemealed linebacking corps – even when the powers that be are bent on morphing into a 3-4 defense.
Competing with any of these limitations is difficult, but doable. Now…competing with all of these limitations? Borderline impossible.
Alas, this is what the 2011 Buffalo Bills are trying to disprove. They’re an indie film studio fighting in the same division as Paramount and Disney and looking at the 2011 season as an opportunity to create Slumdog Millionaire. Much like how a study of indie film production can offer a more intimate understanding of general motion picture creation, a study of these Bills offers a deeper appreciation for the strategies of pro football. How does a team maximize its strengths while masking its many deficiencies?
As many limitations as there are, the wild card in all this is that one key actor’s breakout performance can turn all the tables.
The Bills genuinely believe in Ryan Fitzpatrick. Head coach Chan Gailey openly regrets not naming him the starter ahead of Trent Edwards last preseason. The Bills had a chance to draft a prototypical NFL quarterback – such as Blaine Gabbert – but decided they’d rather have the seventh-year pro from Harvard.
Fitzpatrick can be politely described as a “survivor”. Ivy League background aside, he’s not a very cerebral signal-caller. His presnap recognition is average at best and, because he prefers to hold the ball a long time, defenses often try to force him into impetuous decisions. The proclivity for extending the play is a sandlot tactic that can compensate for so-so arm strength. Unable to sidearm the ball into tight windows through the gales at Ralph Wilson Stadium, Fitzpatrick has had to evolve into a scrambler to create his own passing lanes.
But this is a style he’ll have to outgrow if he’s to flourish this season in Chan Gailey’s offense. With the help of second-year offensive coordinator Curtis Modkins, Gailey, a run-oriented traditionalist, is installing more spread formations to take better advantage of speed at wide receiver. Spread formations don’t allow for backs and tight ends to stay in and pass protect. Given the pass-blocking mediocrity of offensive tackles Demetrius Bell and Erik Pears (and, with the blind side guardian Bell, “mediocrity” is putting it kindly – very kindly, in fact), Fitzpatrick will have to acclimate to three-step drops and quick releases. Style-wise, a better fit for this system might be a more anticipatory thrower like backup Tyler Thigpen.
But Thigpen doesn’t have Fitzpatrick’s chemistry with Buffalo’s wideouts. Fourth-year pro Stevie Johnson enjoyed a 2010 breakout season in part because he has an innate feel for getting open when the play is extended. Sound mechanics and crafty route running make all the difference given that Johnson, like most former seventh-round picks, lacks raging athleticism. Drops can be an issue at times (the overtime blunder against the Steelers was not an isolated incident) but all in all, the Bills have a 25-year-old 1,000-yard receiver they can count on.
They also have a well-rounded veteran in Lee Evans who still might be their No. 1 target. His ability to stretch the field and move the chains underneath makes him a uniquely tough matchup. Problem is, Evans has always had a way of disappearing for long stretches.
Lining up inside in the spread formations will be the darting Roscoe Parrish and either David Nelson or Donald Jones, two undrafted second-year pros with decent size (Nelson, in fact, is 6’5”). The Bills’ current regime has been cool on Parrish, viewing him primarily as a return specialist, but the fact of the matter is he has the quickness to get open late in routes and be a creator, while Nelson and Jones, and free agent pickup Buster Davis, do not.
An ability to create made C.J. Spiller a first-round pick in 2010. It’s early, but so far, the return on that investment has been unsatisfactory. Yes, Spiller can make any defender grasp air in space, but he’s equally adept at turning a would-be five-yard run into a two-yard gain. If he’s to become the featured ballcarrier ahead of Fred Jackson (who can respectfully be described as something of a poor man’s Fred Taylor), Spiller needs to dance less and become more willing to bang it up inside behind fullback Corey McIntyre.
It’s worth noting that shoddy athleticism along the offensive line has prohibited the Bills from taking full advantage of Spiller’s gifts. Yes, Eric Wood is a very good movement player (which is remarkable considering the gruesome broken leg he suffered late in his ’09 rookie season) who blossomed magnificently once he moved to center last year. (Don’t expect veteran Geoff Hangartner to get that job back anytime soon.) But Wood is a lone star in this sense. Left guard Andy Levitre gets out of his stance quickly and angles blocks well in the run game, but he’s not a dynamic puller.
More damning is that Buffalo’s meager pass-blocking offensive tackles also can’t get to the edges in the ground game. Demetrius Bell doesn’t have a quick-twitch, while Erik Pears is stuck playing next to right guard Kraig Urbik, a well-sized but disappointing former third-round pick of the Steelers who will get just his third career start in Week 1. The Bills would undoubtedly like to see fourth-round rookie Chris Hairston develop into a starter at right tackle, but he’s a project at this point. These front five limitations create issues for executing the tosses and sweeps that are central with a player like Spiller.
Saving the best (or the most exciting) for last, the Bills have a new five-tool weapon in ex-Jet Brad Smith. The former quarterback at Missouri gets an opportunity to be a wildcat specialist here. Don’t be surprised if Smith sees five or six shotgun snaps a game. The Bills tried to pull this stunt last season with Fred Jackson, but he didn’t present the pure speed or throwing threat that Smith does.
The Bills may also feature Smith in the slot in three-receiver sets, where he’d sub for base formation tight ends David Martin (a solid run-blocker) and Shawn Nelson (a superb athlete but non-contributor last season thanks to suspension, a groin injury and migraine problems).
General manager Buddy Nix insists that the mission is to field a 3-4 defense. But watching the Bills run a 3-4 has been like watching an episode of Survivor…if Survivor had the same cast as The Biggest Loser.
A 3-4 defense requires an edge-rushing presence – something the Bills haven’t had since Aaron Schobel. Their futility here is not for lack of trying. They invested a first-round pick in Aaron Maybin three years ago, not realizing Maybin’s scant lower-body strength would translate into scant general strength at the pro level. Maybin plays hard, but much in the same way William Hung sang hard. He was a healthy scratch in several games last year and may have trouble keeping a roster spot.
The Bills also picked up three-time Pro Bowler Shawne Merriman last season. He was re-signed to a two-year deal in January. But injuries have derailed the 27-year-old, as he’s missed 30 games the past three seasons and has posted just four total sacks. Unlike with Maybin, the Bills are counting on Merriman to start – and even set the tone – in 2011. Opposite him will be former defensive end Chris Kelsay, who’s an adequate run-defender but lacks the speed to make plays coming from space.
The inside linebacker position is nearly as tenuous, though at least there’s better depth. The Bills are banking on free agent pickup Nick Barnett staying healthy. If he can, he’ll provide enough downhill punch to erase the memories of solid but unspectacular Paul Posluszny (now a Jaguar). If Barnett, who missed 12 games with a wrist injury last year and seven games with an ACL in ’08, can’t stay on the field, the Bills will call on either Andra Davis (a 3-4 veteran who himself missed 10 games last season with a torn labrum) or Kelvin Sheppard (a third-round rookie with good agility).
Starting next to Barnett will be quick but underwhelming veteran Reggie Torbor. Though before long, it could be Arthur Moats, the guy best known for drilling Brett Favre’s shoulder last December. It’s surprising that defensive coordinator George Edwards and new linebackers coach Dave Wannstedt would move Moats inside; he struggles to shed blocks and is one of the few Bills who has some quickness turning a corner.
But perhaps any personnel change inside is a good thing. After all, this is a defense that gave up over 200 yards rushing in eight different games last season. Much of the blame can be placed on Buffalo’s overmatched defensive ends. One of those ends, Dwan Edwards, is back, but the other, Marcus Stroud, was let go. Wanting to authoritatively right this wrong, the Bills drafted Marcell Dareus, the third overall pick. Obviously, anyone picked this high is expected to be a stud in all fashions. The good news is, unlike many rookie 3-4 ends, Dareus actually played the five-technique at Alabama.
His presence should make opponents at least think twice about double-teaming tireless nose tackle Kyle Williams. Neutralizing Williams has been the key for opponents to run down Buffalo’s throat. At 306 pounds, Williams doesn’t have the girth to consistently tie up two gaps, which is why his game is predicated on penetration and lateral movement.
If the Bills need a banger, they can call on 314-pound Torell Troup, whom they spent a second-round pick on a year ago. However, he still needs to learn how to exert his size in NFL trenches.
The Bills have adequate depth in addition to Troup. Alex Carrington (who could see reps at outside linebacker) will get a close look simply for being a 2010 third-round pick, while eighth-year end Spencer Johnson consistently plays hard and can operate on a three-or four-man line.
A respectable pass-rush would make life much easier on what’s actually a solid secondary. Cornerback Terence McGee has the quickness to consistently make plays. No. 2 corner Drayton Florence is not a stopper but plays physical and can also cover the slot. It was surprising that the team gave Florence a three-year, $15 million contract this summer considering they drafted Texas cornerback Aaron Williams in the second round. Williams can ease into the pro game, as fourth-year pros Leodis McKelvin and Reggie Corner provide excellent cornerbacking depth. McKelvin is actually Buffalo’s most gifted defensive back but must make fewer mistakes if he’s to bring his playmaking prowess to the first unit.
At safety, Jairus Byrd is not quite the stud his interception numbers suggest (like a waiter, he makes most of his living off tips). Snagging tipped interceptions still requires an opportunistic nature. And, it’s worth noting that offenses don’t challenge this defense deep in Byrd’s centerfield realm very often.
Bryan Scott is more of a coverage based linebacker than true strong safety, which is why it wouldn’t be surprising to see sure-tackling, respected leader George Wilson start in the strong safety slot. Wilson just signed a new three-year, $7.05 million contract, which is the type of deal a team gives a veteran when they’re hoping but not banking on a rookie (like, say, fourth-rounder Da’Norris Searcy?) to one day steal his job.
The Bills will always have strong special teams as long as Rian Lindell is the kicker and Brian Moorman is the punter. Buffalo’s coverage units have been trustworthy over the years, though they tailed off just a bit after the departure of special teams guru Bobby April last season (Bruce DeHaven is the current special teams coach). In the return game, take your pick amongst explosive weapons. C.J. Spiller, Roscoe Parris, Terence McGee and Leodis McKelvin are all options.
If Ryan Fitzpatrick suddenly erupts into a top-15 quarterback (like Jake Delhomme for the ’04 Panthers or Derek Anderson for the ’07 Browns), and one or two new forces show up in the defensive front seven, the Bills could suddenly be a breakout team. But all we have to go on is this club’s recent history. And that recent history says don’t count on it.
Andy Benoit is the founder of N.F.L.Touchdown.com. He can be reached at andy.benoit[at]N.F.L.touchdown.com.
| Bills 2011 predictions, Buffalo Bills predictions, Buffalo Bills preseason, Buffalo Bills preview