The Buffalo Bills traded third- and fifth-round picks in the 2008 NFL Draft to the Jacksonville Jaguars for the rights to DT Marcus Stroud. The goal in acquiring Stroud (and in releasing veteran Larry Tripplett) was to fortify a Bills run defense that was ranked No. 25 in the NFL the previous season, surrendering 124.6 yards per game.
There's little doubt that the presence of Stroud brought about solid change in Buffalo; Stroud started the season out brilliantly and cooled off, but was always consistent in his play. Despite that fact, however, proof that one man does not a dominant run defense make emerged, as the Bills improved to only No. 22 in the league in run defense, giving up 121.6 rushing yards per game - an improvement of only three yards despite a far easier schedule.
Despite the minimal improvement, Stroud had a solid season in Buffalo - and was rewarded for it by receiving a contract extension that keeps him in Buffalo for the next four years and pays him $28 million. He turned 31 in late June, and after staying healthy for a full 16 games in his first year in Buffalo, he appears to have put microfracture surgical issues and steroid allegations firmly behind him. He is now the unquestioned anchor of a slightly overrated Bills defense coming off of a No. 14 league ranking. His importance is paramount to a defense that needs to help its offense out more than it has in years past; that importance increases when one ponders what the Bills' options are should Stroud falter or succumb to injury.
First and foremost, it's important to mention that while the Bills made a statistical leap forward last season in terms of defensive rankings, they didn't improve as much as we'd all like to believe they did. The pass rush was still horrendous, turnovers were few and far between, and the aforementioned run defense was essentially the same outfit, even with Stroud on board. Not all of that is Stroud's fault, obviously, but it's not as if we can't expect him to play more consistently, either.
Stroud picked up two of his 2.5 sacks in the season-opening win against Seattle. While his play was consistent throughout the entire year, the absolute dominating brilliance he displayed in that first game didn't re-surface throughout the remainder of the season. Expecting Stroud to perform at that level throughout an entire season is foolish, but more flashes of that dominance throughout the season would go a long way toward creating a more consistent defensive unit.
Unfortunately, Stroud's importance goes beyond his play and his contract. The Bills have a solid four-man rotation at defensive tackle - and Stroud's starting mate, Kyle Williams, is severely underrated by the masses - but the reserve combination of Spencer Johnson and John McCargo are, at best, spot contributors. Williams himself probably isn't anything more than a vastly underrated number two defensive tackle. With Stroud in the lineup, the Bills are solid at DT. Without him... well, things then become a bit more of a stretch.
The Bills are in a tight spot on their defensive line. They have some talent, but the critical pieces - Stroud perhaps chief among them - need to play a full season of games, and they need to play far better than what was on the field in 2008. I've called Stroud the anchor to the defense, and I'll stand by it. If Buffalo loses the anchor to their defense, or if said anchor doesn't anchor so well, the Bills are in serious trouble.