State of the Bills Roster: Defensive End

Super Bowl XLIV is in the books, and while the city of New Orleans takes the next two weeks to party like they've never partied before - you deserve it, folks - the rest of the NFL can now turn its full attention toward building toward the goal that the Saints achieved last night.

Back here in Buffalo Bills country, we're still reeling from last week's news that the team will be moving to a 3-4 alignment under head coach Chan Gailey and new defensive coordinator George Edwards. Few facts are known at this point, but what we do know is that Buffalo isn't anywhere close to being equipped to run a traditional 3-4, and that the front seven in particular will be subjected to a great deal of house cleaning.

Late last week, we talked about the team's current prospects at nose tackle and rush linebacker, the two most critical positions to any 3-4 alignment. Defensive end is not as critical in most 3-4 alignments, as they're usually gap-control positions at which average athletes can get you to the promised land. That's not to say good players can't be dominant factors from that position; I'm sure you all remember Bruce Smith fondly. Buffalo has a lot of candidates to play end in a 3-4; unfortunately, most of them, again, aren't snug fits.

What the new regime might be looking for
Again, this all depends on whether or not Edwards attempts to draw a distinction between 3-4 Over, which the Bills are most easily equipped to play at the moment, or the Bullough-Fairbanks 3-4, which he learned at the end of his tenure at Miami. The difference is that in the Over, ends are one-gap players, whereas in the more traditional setup, they're two-gap players.

Right not, the Bills have exactly one player that can play two-gap at the end position, and he's probably not an every-down player at that position. They have a few candidates for the one-gap scheme. If Edwards wants to transition to that two-gap front as soon as possible, the Bills will, obviously, be looking at two-gap ends, most likely via free agency or during the middle rounds in the draft.

Current personnel
We slotted in two players as nose tackle candidates, and a further four as rush linebackers. That leaves eight Bills defensive linemen that project best to the defensive end position in the 3-4, and in most cases, the fit is not snug.

Marcus Stroud. Stroud has been asked to do things he doesn't excel at in his two years as a Bill, switching between 1-technique and 3-technique on a Bills run defense that has, to be obvious, really struggled. At a minimum, the 3-4 switch helps Stroud in that it gets him back to what he does best - occupy two gaps and free up other defenders. He's not a perfect fit as a two-gap end, because he's lost some athleticism over the last couple of years, but as a run defender in this defense, he should really excel. And no, folks - he is not a nose tackle.
  Contract status: Entering year two of a four-year, $28M ($12M guaranteed) extension.

Spencer Johnson. He's a good athlete and he's got long enough arms and enough anchor to play two-gap, but he'd be excellent as a one-gap end that can penetrate and disrupt, which has always been his forte. In a one-gap system, he could start and be pretty solid in that role; in a two-gap system, he's probably better as a situational player, with the ability to make plays against both the run and the pass.
  Contract status: 3 years remaining. Owed $9M in base salaries.

Ryan Denney. Denney has spent his entire career in the 4-3 defense, but he might actually have more value in the 3-4. The 6'7" Denney might need to add a pound or two of muscle, but he's got the long arms and enough anchor to control blockers, and enough athleticism to be a factor as a pass rusher from the 3-4 end, a position not traditionally utilized in that capacity. He's a UFA, so the Bills would need to sign him back; that's a move that I, personally, believe would be worth the short-term investment.
  Contract status: Unrestricted Free Agent.

Chris Kelsay. This move looks like the end to Kelsay's career in Buffalo. He seems pretty specific to the 4-3 at this point in time; he doesn't have the athleticism in space to play outside (and unlike Aaron Schobel, doesn't possess the pass rushing ability to make up for his lack of athleticism), and lacks enough bulk and anchor to play up front. He could certainly be asked to add weight, but at a hefty salary and with just one year left on his deal, it might be better for the Bills to simply cut him loose and explore other opportunities, particularly with Denney a more realistic option.
  Contract status: 1 year remaining. Owed $3.7M in base salary.

John McCargo. The short, squatty McCargo has been a major disappointment as a 2006 first-round pick, and in no way does his penetrating style fit into the traditional 3-4 system. He's got one year left on his deal at a cheap price tag, but that's not likely to save him with a complete re-build about to take place.
  Contract status: 1 year remaining. Owed $685K in base salary.

Corey Mace. Was re-signed last year thanks to his familiarity with Buffalo's defensive scheme. That's obviously now not a factor for Mace, who isn't tough enough or long enough to play end in a 3-4. Good luck, sir.
  Contract status: Undisclosed. Not listed as a free agent by BuffaloBills.com.

Rashaad Duncan. In the same mold as the two previous names on this list - very much a 4-3 defensive tackle ideally. Spent part of '09 on the Bills' practice squad, and has little to no ties to the current regime. Could get a look in mini-camps or even during training camp.
  Contract status: Signed a reserve/future contract on 1/5/10.

Marcus Smith. Actually has the measureables to play in this system - in fact, he broke into the league with Baltimore, a 3-4 team - but spent much of the past two seasons injured. Not a lock to stick by any means, even as a training camp body, but might be worth a look now that he's in a system better suited to his talents.
  Contract status: Undisclosed. Not listed as a free agent by BuffaloBills.com.

Who stays? Who goes?
Stroud and Johnson aren't going anywhere, because they're good players under contract for a while. I think it'd be a smart investment to re-sign Denney, who has the length to be a solid player as a pass rusher from the end position in any 3-4. The rest of the names, with the possible exception of Smith, don't have a ton of value in the 3-4, and could lose roster positions because of it.

If I were a betting man (and no, I'm not)...
I'd bet that things play out as described above. Stroud is penciled in as a starter and Denney is re-signed to team with Johnson as, at worst, depth players at end. Kelsay and McCargo get released outright, and the younger guys (excepting Mace) are given a look during camp as fourth quarter bodies.

Names to keep an eye on
These are all names that Der Jaeger told us to keep an eye on as five-technique end prospects via free agency, and they're easy (and cheap) enough to roll with: Dwan Edwards, Nick Eason and Alfonso Boone. In terms of the draft, under-the-radar prospects worth keeping an eye on include Tyson Alualu, Alex Carrington, Brandon Deaderick, Jeffrey Fitzgerald and Will Tukuafu, among a few others.

Previous installments of the State of the Bills Roster series: QB, RB, WR, TE, OT, G/C, NT, OLB.
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