DT Stroud will carry the burden inside in '09 (photo source)
Now that the 2009 NFL Draft is in the books and off-season player acquisition will crawl at a snail's pace, Buffalo Rumblings has begun re-examining the Buffalo Bills' revamped roster. We continue off our 'State of the Roster' series this morning with a look at the safety position. Previous installments: QB, RB, TE, OT, DE, S.
During the 2008 season, the Buffalo Bills defense made an overall statistical jump from being one of the league's worst units in 2007 (ranked No. 31 overall) to a respectable middle-of-the-pack unit (No. 14 overall). This rise is generally attributed to two factors: the Bills' luck in drawing a schedule with several weak offenses, and the addition of DT Marcus Stroud.
Cast away in Jacksonville, the Bills traded for Stroud in March of 2008; Stroud would become the centerpiece addition of Buffalo's entire off-season. Though he did not put up gaudy statistics last season (45 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 1 forced fumble, 7 batted passes), he was perhaps the only Bills defender that opposing offenses had to concentrate on last season. With a brand new four-year, $28 million contract extension in hand, Stroud remains the cornerstone of Buffalo's defense. Whether he'll have enough help on the inside in 2009, however, remains a key question entering the season.
STARTER: Marcus Stroud
He's clearly the best defensive lineman on the team, capable of occupying multiple blockers in the running game and knifing into the backfield for quarterback pressures against the pass. Stroud had a stretch or two of games last year in which he was not as effective as he could have been; this was most noticeable in games against the team's AFC East rivals. He also dealt with a shoulder injury during the mid portions of the season. Stroud needs to stay healthy; as long as he does that, Buffalo's most valuable defender will be fine.
STARTER: Kyle Williams
Williams may be the Marv Levy/Russ Brandon and Dick Jauron regime's best draft pick to date; the former fifth-round pick has helped off-set the bust factor of draft classmate John McCargo, and in three seasons as a starter, Williams has racked up 149 tackles and four sacks. He's never going to be a player that defenses have to game-plan for, but he complements Stroud well in that he chases plays effectively, is stout against the run, and is an exemplary teammate. You won't hear many complaints about this kid - he's just a good, solid football player.
For whatever reason, Johnson developed a negative reputation during his first season with the Bills. As a situational defensive tackle, Johnson was pretty productive last season, picking up 31 tackles and two sacks spelling Stroud and Williams inside and even moonlighting at defensive end on rare occasions. He is only 27 years old and just entering his prime; if the Bills can play with more leads this season, Johnson's athleticism should be put to better use.
If McCargo deserves credit for anything, it's his ability to keep his head down and continue to work. The 2006 first-round pick failed to make an impact through his first three seasons, then was traded last year to Indianapolis - only to fail a physical and get shipped back to Buffalo. Through it all - and let's be honest, that had to have been an embarrassing situation for the player as well as the organization - McCargo has kept his mouth shut, and by all accounts, he's been in Orchard Park this off-season working alongside his teammates. He deserves credit for that. But it might be time to throw in the towel with this kid in terms of our once-lofty expectations - he looks like nothing more than a spot contributor at this point in his career.
He has stuck around for two seasons as a practice squad player called up to the active roster due to injury late in the season. Barring injury, the Toronto native is a longshot to make the roster.
Smith was signed to the Bills' practice squad during the 2008 season. He, like Mace, faces an uphill climb to make the roster.
David Lindquist, John Faletoese, Ventrell Jenkins
I won't pretend to know much about these three undrafted free agents. So I won't say anything more than this: they're longshots to make anything other than the practice squad.
Contract situations: With Stroud's new deal in hand, the only significant player with a contract running out any time soon is McCargo, whose rookie deal expires after the 2010 season. Stroud, Williams and Johnson are all under contract for the next four seasons.
It was pretty apparent that the Bills weren't going to do much at this season - they've got one guy that they're paying to be their top tackle (Stroud), and two more scrappy vets they're paying to complement their centerpiece (Williams, Johnson). They've even still got a quasi project in McCargo. Still, this area - just like any other position on a football team - is in constant need of attention, which in part explains the recent tryout of Wendell Bryant. It was a bit surprising that the Bills didn't look for a project to work into the rotation; perhaps the club views Lindquist, Faletoese and/or Jenkins in that light. This position is set depth-wise - but it'd be nice to see the team add another significant piece here next off-season. Stroud isn't getting any younger.