Welcome to the new Buffalo Bills, version 20.12, where depth and options have replaced a lack of talent and unknown names. From the biggest defensive free agent signing in NFL history, to a Draft characterized by solid choices addressing needs, looking at the Bills current 90-man roster of options is like looking at a jigsaw puzzle without a box: i.e. a lot of possibilities, but no real clear picture as to how it'll all fit together.
I know, we haven't seen any of these rookies perform yet and aren't even close to knowing who'll get those 53 available slots come the regular season, but what is sports journalism if not a game of educated guessing?
So, looking over the plethora of available players for Buffalo in 2012 (How many would you say is in a plethora?), staggered for the first time in too long by the depth of viable football talents on the team (so far, Buffalo should just consider labeling this year's campaign "The Off-Season of Depth"), we've got enough base materials here to construct a scale model of what the actual starting roster might end up looking like.
Again, we're doing some guesswork here and I will make sure to highlight some of the more unsure choices (positions where competition, not clarity, exists just now will be marked with a star "*"), but, regardless, here's one man's idea of what the Bills may look like when they come out on the field to start the season.
- It's his team, at least for another season, though he'll need to show some marked improvement, not just another 3,000 yard season (though those back-to-back ones the past two year have been nice). He's got Buddy's seal of approval, has a definite rhythm with star receiver Steve Johnson, and has the franchise quarterback onus on his shoulders. It's Fitz or fail in 2012, the competition is saved for the backup role.
- His broken leg is more than 100% healed and, based on his (almost) 11 healthy weeks last season (934 yds, 6 TDs), he projects to be Buffalo's number one weapon (both in running and passing... and in fantasy leagues around the world). The job's truly all his for 2012, but youth (CJ Spiller) will be nipping at his heals, waiting for the old man to go down again (with Jackson's extension, their contracts now run out at the same time). As a result, this is the spot that may end up causing the only controversy of the 2012 Bills.
Not really a need in Chan's scheme... usually is a third receiver instead... so Corey McIntyre and we'll move on.
1. Steve Johnson
- No argument here, not even a question mark. Only player in Bills history with back-to-back 1000 yd seasons and sporting his shiny, new contract extension. Also, he and Fitz are magic when on the same page.
*2. Donald Jones/TJ Graham/Marcus Easley
- The first real toss up on this list, there's not a 100% guarantee listed. It's Jones' spot to lose based on his limited performance last season (231 yds, averaging 10 YPC, with a TD in roughly seven games), but you can't argue with Buffalo's need for a speed demon opposite Stevie. Both TJ and Marcus posted 4.39 40 yd dashes and though Graham may have a better vertical leap, Easley's just a bigger target for Fitz (TJ-5'11", 182 lbs; Marcus-6'2", 221 lbs). Jones should have it coming into training camp, but he better perform well above last season and stay healthy if he plans on being the Bills #2 the whole season.
3. David Nelson
- Buffalo's best slot option, Nelson's comfortable in this role and looked great in 2011, staying healthy all 16 games and posting 61 rec. for 658 yds and 5 TDs. Should see more of the same come 2012.
- A no-brainer here after Scott's 2011 breakout performance (389 yds, 6 TDs), though it also serves to show Buffalo's lack of options for the new look tight end in the NFL (the ones who operate as giant wide receivers... see Hernandez and Gronkowski). If Chandler gets injured again, there aren't too many other weapons at the position, with most more comfortable filling out the traditional tight end specs (blocking primarily, though with short, dump passes occasionally an option). A healthy Chandler, though, is a great asset and unreserved starter.
- Again, no questions other than Wood's health, as the fourth year center (and unofficial leader of the offensive line) has yet to play a full season in the NFL (only 9 games last season). However, he's the man when he's in there and was a crippling loss last year (just ask Fitzpatrick, who was chasing hiked balls and running for his life after Wood tore his ACL).
- He's strong at several spots on the line and though he's most comfortable at guard, he was the strongest replacement at center when Wood went down in 2011. Though he'll likely be relieved of that responsibility in 2012 (if Wood stays healthy, it won't even be an issue), Urbik's talents make him uber adaptable and he can play tackle or guard should he need to.
- Missed zero games last year (one of only two starting lineman to do that) and one of the only players to stay in one spot all of 2011. He's a seven year NFL veteran and if it ain't broke, I don't see any need to fix it.
- Coach Gailey tried him at several spots last season as the injury carousel dictated, but after a disastrous attempt to make him a center and some limited work at left tackle when Demetress Bell went down, Levitre should be returned to the spot he seems most capable of playing on the weak side.
Chris Hairston, Cordy Glenn
- My money's on Glenn to start, as the Bills just weren't overly impressed with Hairston's abilities when called on to replace the oft-injured Bell (though you could blame the shortened pre-season for many of his faults). Though the Clemson alum was showing promise by the end of the year (see the Broncos game), Fitzpatrick was still taking major heat on the weak side in the New England finale and Buddy Nix has spoken higher of Cordy then he has Chris this offseason, even before they spent their second round pick on the Georgia big man. In the end, this is too early to call and though Hairston has the inside track to start camp, Glenn's size, length, and flat out athletic ability may get him his shot before the season begins. Even if Glenn doesn't end up starting by September, his use at both guard and tackle could see him on the field come the first line injury.
- He just signed a four year extension, and though he may only be field goal kicking before too much longer thanks to John Potter's superleg, there's no doubting his ability to score 3 points (even at 35). He has an accurate 80.9% lifetime average, was the AFC Special Teams POTW when he broke the Bills' 15 game losing streak against the Patriots with a 28 yard game winner, and looks to be ready (he was sidelined last season with a shoulder injury). Norwood who?
- Again, like Lindell, he may be getting a little grey (he's 36... and bald, so it's hard to tell), but many in Buffalo still think he's the most consistently great player on the team the past decade (he's now going into his 12th season, all with the Bills). He averages 43.9 yds for his career, was still kicking 48.2 averages in 2011, and is one of the more physical and impressive special teams tacklers ever in a punter's body (he's taken down 9 players in his time... a lot for a kicker... he's also thrown for 2 TDs). Also, if you're going to spend that much time on losing Buffalo teams, you should get the start for the suffering alone.
Leodis McKelvin, TJ Graham
- I hate to ruin the surprise, but later in this article, McKelvin will not be chosen as one of the two starting cornerbacks (he can't cover, only had 39 tackles and an INT last season...quickly becoming a wasted first round pick). In fact, I'd even put 4th rounder Ron Brooks ahead of him on the depth chart, so hopefully he'll start focusing on impressing as the prime kick returner, or Leodis might be looking to relocate to another city. Graham had 4 TDs returning kicks in college and averaged 22.4 yds per return in 2011, so McKelvin will have to replicate his numbers in 2008 (52 returns for 1,468 and a TD) if he wants the job over the rookie upstart. Unlike the cornerback spot (which McKelvin doesn't have a shot at anymore), the return job is Leodis' to lose and Graham would love to have it (especially if he doesn't get the number two receiver role right off).
- Another spot we really don't have to talk about much. You don't pay $50 million guaranteed to a guy if he's not a starter (okay, maybe if you've signed Albert Haynesworth...). No doubt here, so why waste time convincing ad nauseum.
Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams
- Dareus had a monster rookie season (43 tackles, 5.5 sacks), especially considering the load he suddenly thrust on him when Williams went down with injury. Now that Kyle is healthy again, he and Marcell will be a force to reckon with in the center of the defensive line, especially if Dareus improves in his second year and Williams has a season similar to 2010 (77 tackles, 5.5 sacks). There's no real challenger to this duo, regardless of the defensive line depth, and they're both guaranteed starters in September.
- We'll call this my upset pick. I know they brought in Mark Anderson from New England and he's the consensus pick for the right side, but he had has never had a season of more than 31 combined tackles and his 10 sacks in 2011 are almost double any total he's put up since 2006 (and may be largely due to being the only real force on the New England line last season). Kelsay, on the other hand, may be getting on in years (32), but in his nine seasons with the Bills, he's averaged 47 tackles per season and though he may never have had a double digit sack total any year, he's a constant, stable force on the line (he also has 22 pass deflections, 8 forced fumbles, and a safety). Yes, Anderson got a decent 4 year contract worth $19.5 mil, but Kelsay has been solid for too long and should get the loyalty vote unless age has truly started slowing him.
- The LSU alum had an eye-opening rookie season, with 70 tackles and a safety in his 2011 NFL debut. He's got speed, tackles strong and clean, and should be able to lock down the center of the field on short passes, or take down the runner before he gets to the next level with equal aplomb. Young talent has become the new core of the Bills defense and Sheppard is one of the stars of that youth movement.
- I wish I could put Arthur Moats here as the starter, but Morrison has more experience and is by far the better coverage option in pass defense, something he'll be called on to do often on the strong side. Yes, Kirk managed just 7 tackles and a sack in 2010, but in the newly installed 4-3 scheme under Dave Wannstedt, Morrison should find his rhythm again and will be looking to reward Buffalo's faith in him (they gave him a two year deal even with his poor 2011 stats). Either way, I just hope the Bills can still find a place for Moats.
- THE defensive standout last year in Buffalo, he had 130 tackles, 3 sacks, 5 pass deflections, 3 INTs, a forced fumble, and a TD in 2011. What more evidence do you need that he's the guy on the weak side? He can blitz, he can cover, he can destroy screens, and he just pummels running backs into the ground. The star of the linebackers in Buffalo maybe the star of the whole D.
- He led the team with 4 INTs in 2011, had 106 tackles, and is a lock at the strong safety position (though, to tell the truth, neither safety spot has much depth just now). Though he got a little dinged up last season (he missed three games), there's no arguing that a healthy Wilson is the starter here.
- Neither safety position is in much danger (other than from injuries) and Byrd will have no competition in getting the starting nod for a third straight year. He had 9 INTs his rookie year in 14 games (he's got 13 total for his career, 2 TDs), and set a new best in tackles last season with 98 (along with 8 pass deflections and 3 forced fumbles). Again, not much depth at safety, but when Byrd and Wilson are healthy, there's no reason for it.
Terrence McGee... maybe
- I want to believe the McGee's focus on staying healthy will actually keep him that way all year, but with a penchant for getting on the I.R. resulting in him playing just 15 games in the last two seasons, you might just as well pencil in Aaron Williams instead (who had 32 tackles, an INT and a forced fumble his 2011 rookie campaign). However, a healthy McGee is a force and there could still be another 2007 season left in the nine year veteran (he had 78 tackles, 21 deflections, and 4 INTs that year)... or he could play four games before getting hurt, which would pretty effectively end his time as a member of the Bills.
- When Drayton Florence got dumped, this became Gilmore's spot to win or lose. Maybe it'll be Williams and McGee as the two starting corners, but with the speed (a 4.4 sec. 40, 3rd among DBs at the Combine) and experience Stephon has coming in (he played in all 40 games at South Carolina,usually as the boundary corner against the SEC's top receivers), you'd be hard pressed to not give him the tentative nod here. Sure, he might just end up being a nickel corner for the first year, but when you've got a rookie with this much understanding of the position, as well as love to hit and a dangerous athleticism (as well as a pretty big paycheck when Buffalo finally signs him), why not put him in right away? All Gilmore truly needs is to develop a little more in his man-to-man coverage abilities (he ran mostly zones at SC) and he's the best corner option on the team (healthy, young, fast, and smart). Again, though, I haven't seen him play at a pro level yet, so...
Well, there you have it, the tentative starting roster for your 2012 Buffalo Bills. Unlike other years, this one was actually a tough list to compile, with numerous options at almost every position, so you've got to feel good about Buffalo's chances to still compete even if they lose some players to injury. Looks like they fixed the depth problems, now let's see if they can fix that playoff aversion problem they've had with their newly loaded squad.