Mitchell adds size, versatility to LB corps (Photo Source)
Last season, despite a rash of injuries, rookies at quarterback and running back, and incredibly long odds, the Buffalo Bills were playing for their playoff lives in Week 15. In that game, which took place in Cleveland, the Bills were shut out in a winter storm. That day, the rather large Browns pushed the Bills around the field of play like blocking sleds.
The following week, history repeated itself. After taking a 14-0 lead on the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants, the aptly named champions used their size and toughness to overpower the Bills after heavy rains and wind infiltrated Ralph Wilson Stadium. Take away those 14 points - which were scored before the harsh weather hit Buffalo that day - and in two successive weeks, the tiny Bills had been outscored 46-7 in weather that was supposed to be to their advantage, not their undoing.
Simply put, the Bills weren't big enough. Playing a Cover 2 defense, the Bills for two years focused on bringing in small, quick athletes. This off-season, that changed. For two years, Buffalo watched opposing defensive coordinators blanket Lee Evans and dare one of the team's other sub-6'0" receivers to beat them. This off-season, that changed. The Bills have gotten bigger in five key areas this off-season:
At no other position was it as important for the Bills to get bigger than it was at wideout. Gone is veteran Peerless Price, whose 5'11" frame made no one consider him on game day. Enter rookie James Hardy, an imposing 6'5" red zone threat whose mere presence will need to be game-planned for. Seventh-round draft pick Steve Johnson (6'2") also has nice size, which could allow him to stick even considering his low draft status.
Last season, the Bills' biggest tight end was current starter Robert Royal (6'4", 255). Royal is very average-sized when it comes to NFL tight ends, and he's not an ideal red zone threat. 6'4", 245 pound Ryan Neufeld and 6'3", 277 pound Michael Gaines are gone; they've been replaced by two 6'6" giants in Courtney Anderson and Teyo Johnson. Neither of the two imports are world-beaters as receivers, but they do give the Bills taller red zone options than they had last year. They will be assets in the red zone if one or both makes the team. Rookie TE Derek Fine (6'3", 255) will be the between-the-twenties receiving tight end.
Buffalo's biggest off-season addition - literally and figuratively - came at defensive tackle, where 6'6", 310-pound Marcus Stroud replaces Larry Tripplett, whose 6'2", 293-pound frame made him a great liability defending the run. Buffalo's top three defensive tackles now average 308 pounds between them (as opposed to 302 last year), and the fact that Stroud is a much more stout defender that plays with outstanding leverage increases the effects of the size gain up front.
We'll set aside the fact that the Bills will be gaining 10 pounds at inside linebacker when Paul Posluszny re-takes his starting job from the very active John DiGiorgio. The big change comes at weak side linebacker, where 6'1", 253-pound free agent signing Kawika Mitchell replaces the passive, 229-pound Keith Ellison. Last season, Buffalo's starting linebackers weighed in at an average of 238 pounds. They've added 7 to that number this off-season. Weighing in at 245 across the board, Buffalo's linebackers are now much more equipped to shed blocks in this Cover 2 scheme.
After watching the New England Patriots score nine aerial touchdowns in just two meeting last year, the Bills needed bigger corners to match up with the likes of Randy Moss. First-round draft pick Leodis McKelvin isn't huge, but at a shade under 5'11", he's already taller than Buffalo's two starting corners from last year. Free agent addition William James gives the Bills a large, physical slot presence as well, as his 6'0", 200-pound frame is ideal for redirecting small slot receivers (like New England's Wes Welker) from their intended course. These size changes are subtle, but should help.