The Buffalo Bills are currently in the second week of voluntary Organized Team Activities, a critical time period for new Bills defensive coordinator George Edwards and his new-look 3-4 defense. Buffalo's defenders are currently busy learning new techniques and installing defensive looks in preparation for training camp and, ultimately, the regular season.
Switching to the 3-4 scheme, there aren't many players on Buffalo's roster that will be making bigger technical changes to their game than the team's holdover personnel at defensive tackle. The likes of Marcus Stroud, Kyle Williams, Spencer Johnson, John McCargo and Rashaad Duncan will all be switching from one-gap responsibilities in the team's previous 4-3 defense to the two-gap, five-technique responsibilities of 3-4 defensive end. The jury remains very much out on just how quickly and effectively those players can make that transition; it's not a radical one, but it's just significant enough to count.
After the jump, we'll take a look at one of the most veteran-laden positions on Buffalo's defensive unit. The Bills still have a lot of question marks defensively, but if players transition smoothly, this unit should, at the very least, be highly effective against the run in 2010.
Buffalo's defensive ends, playing the five-technique, will be two-gap players. They'll spend a great deal of time playing directly against offensive tackles, where their job will be to control two gaps in the run game and free up the team's outside linebackers to take on backs and tight ends against the pass. This is a very technical position - critical to the success of a defense, but not a position that will put up huge numbers. If the Bills are successful against the run and the team's linebackers put up big numbers, Buffalo's defensive ends will have done their job, regardless of what their own statistical production looks like.
Don't read anything into the order in which players appear below - they appear based purely on level of NFL game experience, and nothing more.
99 - Marcus Stroud. Having never played in a 3-4 scheme before, Stroud has spent the off-season preparing to learn an entirely new position, as he's currently penciled in as a starter at end. Despite that lack of exposure to the 3-4, Stroud's 6'6", 310-pound frame (and there are reports that he's dropped a few pounds to try to get quicker) and length make him an excellent fit at five-technique. Teaming up with the next player on this list, Stroud and Dwan Edwards give the Bills a potentially elite duo of run-stopping five-technique defensive ends with lots of experience. Stroud has worn down a bit and been banged up over the past couple of seasons, so it's imperative that the team find viable rotational depth to keep Stroud fresh and healthy for a full sixteen games. If that happens, Stroud could be in for an outstanding season.
98 - Dwan Edwards. Signed to a four-year, $18 million deal this past March, Edwards was Buffalo's biggest-name, and most critical, free agent addition. Edwards has toiled in relative anonymity through his first six NFL seasons, all spent in Baltimore, where he accumulated 120 tackles, two sacks, an interception, a fumble recovery and a defensive touchdown as a rotational player and part-time starter. Edwards isn't a big-time stat producer, but very few good defensive ends are; make no mistake, Edwards is in Buffalo to help shore up one of the league's worst run defenses. Defending the run is Edwards' bread and butter, but he can put up a few pursuit sacks as well. He's an instant starter on a Bills defense that is desperate for leaders familiar with the 3-4 scheme.
91 - Spencer Johnson. Though he hasn't quite lived up to the solid free agent money he was given in 2008 (five years, $17.5 million), Johnson has been a useful reserve player for the Bills in his two years with the club. Now he's making a scheme switch with the rest of the team's holdover talent, and is kind of in no-man's land as far as a true position goes. Johnson will still be useful as a reserve, but there's a chance that he gets more time in sub-package looks than he does as a traditional five-technique end.
97 - John McCargo. I covered McCargo's current situation extensively here, so I won't re-hash to save a little space. The bottom line regarding McCargo: he needs a change of scenery badly. He'll have a tough time making this team.
72 - Rashaad Duncan. A second-year player that spent the 2009 season on Buffalo's practice squad, the 6'2", 315-pound Duncan is a much better fit for the 4-3. He's young enough with enough athleticism to merit a look this pre-season, but he's sitting behind some veterans and a highly-drafted rookie, making his chances at landing on the roster bleak. Has some practice squad potential if the Bills' pure DT rotational players (Kyle Williams, Johnson) get injured.
92 - Alex Carrington. Drafted in the third round out of Arkansas State, the 6'5", 284-pound Carrington has excellent natural strength, solid athleticism and prototypical size for the five-technique position. The soon-to-be 23-year-old put together an excellent career, racking up 94 tackles, 33.5 tackles for loss and 19.5 sacks over his final two collegiate seasons. He's very rough around the edges, so it's tough to expect a lot out of him as a rookie, particularly given the talent jump and the position he plays. Carrington is a down-the-line prospect, but his upside is fairly significant.
79 - Will Croner. A little-known commodity out of Howard, the 6'2", 279-pound Croner has an uphill climb to make even the practice squad. Not knowing much about the undrafted rookie free agent, I'm interested to see how he plays this pre-season, as he might end up being a more natural fit for the five-technique than some of Buffalo's holdover talent.
Stroud has three years remaining on a four-year, $28 million extension he signed in April of 2009. Edwards agreed to a four-year, $18 million deal this past March. Johnson has three years and $9 million remaining on the five-year free agent deal he signed in 2008. McCargo is in a contract year; he'll make $685K this year. Carrington is likely to get a four-year rookie deal as a third-round pick, while contract details on both Duncan and Croner are unknown.
Stroud and Edwards are locked in as the opening-day starters; the two vets are both stout against the run and active in pursuit, and should be in line for excellent seasons. Carrington is the most natural fit at end in reserve, and he'll get rotational snaps, particularly on passing downs. Johnson should see snaps at end, too, but he's a far more useful player as an end/tackle in sub-package looks that utilize four defensive linemen.
I view Stroud, Edwards, Carrington and Johnson as locks to make the final roster. Four defensive ends is plenty, particularly considering nose tackle Kyle Williams will swing out to end on occasion as well. Duncan or Croner could wind up on the practice squad, but I don't view that as overly likely given the nice mix of veteran and youth at the position. If there's any position on Buffalo's roster that appears set for the long-term, and has a nice succession plan, it's defensive end.