When the Buffalo Bills traded up into the first round in the 2006 NFL Draft to select North Carolina State DT John McCargo, the ideal career path was laid before him (just as it is with every rookie) - contribute as a rookie, start by year two, anchor a defense for a decade. Easy breezy. McCargo went into training camp as a rookie with high expectations, and though he wasn't particularly impressive, he flashed enough athleticism to keep people excited.
Then he got hurt and missed all but five games of his rookie season. Fellow rookie Kyle Williams took his projected starting spot and has yet to relinquish it. After a 2007 season in which he was very inconsistent but flashed the most promise he'd displayed at any point in his career, McCargo regressed badly in 2008 - to the point where Buffalo actually traded him to Indianapolis. That trade was voided after a bad disc was discovered in his back. Less than three years after drafting him, the Bills were stuck with him - and not in the way they'd hoped.
Many have given up on McCargo, believing that entering his fourth season, the chances of reviving his career aren't great. With a new position coach, a healthy body and a healthy dose opportunity, however, McCargo may be poised to prove his doubters wrong.
The effect of Bob Sanders
Much has been made about the (potentially negative) effect that coaching has had on McCargo in his first three seasons. Buffalo's previous defensive line coach, Bill Kollar, was an intense, highly demanding coach. It's true that some players have a hard time learning and improving under a certain type of coach; it's a popular theory at this point that McCargo simply could not improve under Kollar's tutelage. Sometimes, personalities just need to mesh.
Kollar left for a promotion in Houston, and former Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Bob Sanders (pictured above with McCargo at Sunday's morning training camp practice) was brought in to replace him. Sanders is a different type of coach; he's much less intense and far more philosophical, proving that already by focusing more on techniques and preaching maximum effort, rather than merely demanding effort on a play-by-play basis. All reports from spring workouts indicated that a fully healthy McCargo was responding to his new coach and improving steadily with Sanders' guidance.
McCargo has the benefit of an extra-long pre-season with his new position coach. He'll also likely receive a significant amount of playing time to capitalize on.
Buffalo's run defense without McCargo
There's really no getting around the fact that, even while he was healthy last season, McCargo was in the dog house. When he played, he was the fourth defensive tackle in the rotation, and he saw less playing time than most defenders. He was inactive for several weeks as well. His work ethic was questioned on a weekly basis; this was the big reason behind the team's willingness to trade him in the first place.
Yet when McCargo wasn't playing (he ended the season on IR), teams were able to wear down the interior of Buffalo's defense as games wore on, as the Bills were playing with three tackles much of the time. The Bills gave up over 100 rushing yards nine times last season, including seven of the final eight games, when McCargo was rarely available for wave purposes. That's not to say that McCargo was the reason for Buffalo's solid run defense early in the season - that clearly isn't the case - but not having a fourth wave player inside hurt the Bills as the season wore on.
Unless McCargo can capably fill that fourth wave position, Buffalo's defensive tackles are likely to wear down again as the season wears on. That can't happen. Even in his currently underwhelming (for a former first-round pick) position, McCargo is quite valuable to this team - and right now, his biggest competition for the wave slot is probably little-known veteran Marcus Smith. His playing time could even increase with a few minor developments.
Taking advantage of the pre-season
It's all in front of McCargo for the taking. He'll get a substantial amount of playing time in camp and in pre-season games, particularly now that Marcus Stroud is dealing with a hamstring injury. He's got a new coach that is, apparently, getting more out of him. If he shows well, the Bills aren't going to forcibly keep him off the field - they need great depth along the line, and McCargo can turn that depth opportunity into a more concrete role if he plays well.
Just like with the vast majority of his teammates, excuses are running short for McCargo. After nearly being unceremoniously dumped last season, McCargo is in a position to not only help this Bills team win football games, but to further his slumping career in this league. The question now, of course, is whether or not the soon-to-be 26-year-old can take advantage of the opportunity.