Athlon Sports is counting down its 2012 NFL preseason Power Rankings with in-depth team previews, schedule analysis and more as the start of the NFL season draws near.
The Buffalo Bills check in at No. 18.
The Buffalo Bills enter the 2012 season with the dubious distinction of having missed the playoffs 12 consecutive seasons. In the era of unrestricted free agency and advancements in scouting college players, NFL teams almost have to try to miss the postseason for that many years. But Buffalo has had only one winning season since 1999. Is this the year the drought finally ends?
While last season’s second-half swoon — a 1–8 finish after starting 5–2 — was painful, it did reveal areas the Bills needed to improve most, starting with a pass rush. The Bills addressed that aggressively, making headlines with the signings of defensive ends Mario Williams and Mark Anderson. With a better defense helping out a vastly improved offense under quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, Buffalo may be able to re-ignite some of that magic it had early in 2011. But if you’re a Bills fan, you’ve learned not to get your hopes up.
Even with their struggles in the second half of last season, the Bills made noticeable strides in operating coach Chan Gailey’s creative offensive schemes. Gailey favors spreading out defenses and running the ball, keeping opponents guessing with non-traditional sets.
The key to making it work, of course, is a smart, savvy quarterback. The Bills have that in Fitzpatrick, who came to Buffalo as a backup to the long-forgotten Trent Edwards in 2009 and found a permanent, well-paying home. Fitzpatrick, who operates like a faucet — hot and cold — still has a lot to live up to in justifying the six-year, $59 million contract he received during last season’s hot start, particularly after throwing 16 of his league-leading 23 interceptions during the club’s 1–8 skid.
Working in his favor was the club’s decision to retain two of his favorite targets, free agent wide receiver Stevie Johnson and tight end Scott Chandler. Johnson, who was given a $36.25-million deal, is the only Buffalo receiver ever to notch consecutive 1,000-yard seasons, but the team is still without an undisputed No. 2 wideout, and deep speed is a concern. There is no shortage of candidates who will try to complement Johnson in some form. Those to watch include David Nelson, Donald Jones, Derek Hagan, Marcus Easley, Brad Smith, third-round pick T.J. Graham and speedy free agent David Clowney.
The team’s most consistent strength, though, is the run game. Veteran Fred Jackson and emerging C.J. Spiller form a strong tandem. Spiller averaged more than 5.0 yards per carry after Jackson missed the final six games with a fractured fibula. Buffalo led the league in yards-per-rush on first down at 5.46, setting up advantageous second and third down situations.
It’s up to the pass-happy Gailey to commit to Jackson and Spiller even more behind a developing line that needs to replace left tackle Demetress Bell, who signed with the Eagles. Chris Hairston or second-round pick Cordy Glenn are the likely candidates.
The Bills allowed a club-record 5,938 yards last season along with 434 points, the second-most ever. Needless to say, Gailey was left with little choice but to fire defensive coordinator George Edwards and hand the reins to assistant head coach Dave Wannstedt, the well-respected and well-traveled former boss of the Bears and Dolphins. But even a coach as good as Wannstedt needs players, and he was given two early Christmas presents in the form of Williams and Anderson, who bring 88.5 career sacks to the shores of Lake Erie.
Williams, the first overall pick in the 2006 draft, was the most prized free agent pass-rusher on the market, and Buffalo scored a coup by selling him on the joys of a small city and an end-friendly 4-3 scheme. Anderson, who had 10 sacks for rival New England, arrived a week later. Considering the Bills had a paltry 29 sacks last year — with 10 coming in one game — this was their biggest area of need, and they filled it with gusto.
With Williams and Anderson on the outside and stalwart defensive tackles Kyle Williams, a 2010 Pro Bowler, and Marcell Dareus, last year’s first-round pick, in the middle, Buffalo will field one of the NFL’s best defensive fronts without question (provided Williams recovers fully from foot surgery). The hope is that those four players make a decent linebacker and secondary corps better; last season opposing quarterbacks completed a shocking 63.3 percent of their throws and threw 30 touchdown passes.
The three starting linebackers are expected to be Kelvin Sheppard in the middle flanked by Nick Barnett and Kirk Morrison, with rookie Nigel Bradham in the mix. Shawne Merriman, a former All-Pro with San Diego, will make yet another attempt to shake years of injury problems in a hybrid end-linebacker pass-rushing role.
Top draft pick Stephon Gilmore, meanwhile, has a shot at earning a starting cornerback job along with veteran Terrence McGee, though former first-round pick Leodis McKelvin and second-year man Aaron Williams will have a say in the matter. Safety is well staffed with Pro Bowler Jairus Byrd, George Wilson, Da’Norris Searcy and the re-signed Bryan Scott.
With free agent kicker Rian Lindell back in the fold and recovered from a broken shoulder, the Bills’ special teams will be formidable again. Lindell and punter Brian Moorman are battle-tested in the challenging weather conditions of Western New York. As for their return game, the Bills overflow with options. Spiller and McKelvin will handle punts and ease the loss of team record-holder Roscoe Parrish to the Chargers. Justin Rogers, meanwhile, emerged as the club’s top kickoff return specialist as a rookie, averaging 28.7 yards.
Final Analysis: 2nd in the AFC East
After three offseasons of work, GM Buddy Nix says it’s time for the Bills to become “relevant" again. And he means for an entire season, not two months.
Buffalo deserves kudos for addressing their defensive shortcomings. Landing Williams with a $100 million contract re-energized the fan base, and taking a cornerback No. 1 in the draft was widely applauded as a sound move. Offensively, money was spent freely to retain the services of core players Johnson, Chandler, Kraig Urbik and Chad Rinehart. But wide receiver depth and left tackle remain areas of concern, unless rookie picks Graham and Glenn make instant impacts.
Buffalo wasn’t that far from being a .500 team a year ago, and if it can avoid the injury bug that took down 17 players, including seven starters, and if Fitzpatrick can justify his contract and stay in one piece, the Bills might flirt with a wild card spot into December.
The Bills haven’t made that leap from “hoping” to win to “expecting” to win under Gailey. There can be no overtaking Tom Brady and Bill Belichick in the AFC East until that happens.
Related: 2012 Buffalo Bills Schedule Analysis
Outside The Huddle
Ralph Wilson often gets criticized for being frugal, but at various times in his 50-plus years as owner he has spent big. He made O.J. Simpson the game’s highest-paid running back, Jim Kelly its highest-paid quarterback, and now Mario Williams its highest-paid defensive player. Williams’ six-year, $100 million deal eclipses the six-year, $91.5 million deal Julius Peppers inked in Chicago.
Kelly On Target
Pro Football Hall of Famer Kelly played a major role in recruiting Williams to Buffalo, hosting the Houston free agent with small-town roots at his house and eagerly pointing out the deer in his backyard. Williams is a big hunter. “He did some heavy recruiting. He showed me some of his hunting pictures,’’ Williams says.
Patriots owner Robert Kraft was stating the obvious when analyzing Buffalo’s signing of Williams and Mark Anderson, who had 10 sacks for his team last season. He said the Bills made those moves to “come after our boy, No. 12.” That would be three-time Super Bowl MVP Tom Brady, who has lost to the Bills only twice in his career. “Well, he’s right. He’s exactly right,” coach Chan Gailey says.
Run it, Guys
It’s no secret Gailey and Ryan Fitzpatrick like to live by the pass, but too often in 2011 they died by it. Over the final nine games (1–8), Fitzpatrick threw 24 times on 3rd-and-short (four yards or less) and completed only five of those passes.
Pete Metzelaars, the greatest tight end in club history, has returned to coach that position on Gailey’s staff. Metzelaars, 51, played on all four Super Bowl teams in Buffalo, catching 302 passes good for 2,921 yards and 25 touchdowns. “It’s a little bizarre,” says Metzelaars, a Colts assistant for eight seasons. “It’s been 18 years or so since I’ve really been back here so to come back it’s neat. It’s neat connecting with good friends.”
Buffalo will face all four quarterbacks selected in the first round of the NFL Draft — Robert Griffin III (No. 2 overall to Washington) in the preseason and Andrew Luck (No. 1 to Indianapolis), Ryan Tannehill (No. 8 to Miami) and Brandon Weeden (No. 22 to Cleveland) in the regular season.
Fun-loving Stevie Johnson has drawn penalties and critics for his end zone celebrating, but nobody can say the guy doesn’t appreciate being a well-paid NFL player. During a news conference to announce his five-year, $36.25 million contract, Johnson thanked no fewer than 30 people and saved his mom for last: “I want to say ‘Mom, look at your son now, look at your son.’ I can take care of you guys now. Thank you. Once again to all my fans who showed support throughout my career, thank you.’’
2012 Athlon Sports NFL Power Rankings and Team Previews:
No. 32:Jacksonville Jaguars
No. 31:St. Louis Rams
No. 30:Minnesota Vikings
No. 29:Indianapolis Colts
No. 28:Cleveland Browns
No. 27:Miami Dolphins
No. 26:Arizona Cardinals
No. 25:Tampa Bay Buccaneers
No. 24:Kansas City Chiefs
No. 23:Oakland Raiders
No. 22: Washington Redskins
No. 21:Seattle Seahawks
No. 20: Carolina Panthers
No. 19:New York Jets
No. 18:Buffalo Bills
No. 17: Thur., Aug. 9
Order your 2012 Buffalo Bills Athlon Sports NFL Preview magazine here
Related: Top Buffalo Bills Top Twitter Accounts To Follow
Related: 2012 Buffalo Bills Schedule Analysis