I was recently having a conversation with a good friend of mine about the Buffalo Bills - as you might imagine, I spend a great deal of time talking about the Bills - and was asked by said friend to name the three most important new starters that the Bills have going into the 2011 season. That question was an easy one for me to answer in person, and I get the sense most of you will agree with me here (though, as always, arguments for other players are encouraged).
By my count, as of right now, the Bills have penciled in seven new starters on offense and defense. With proper apologies to the likes of Scott Chandler, Kraig Urbik, Erik Pears and George Wilson, I'm focusing this argument on three front seven defenders.
1. DE Marcell Dareus. The No. 3 overall pick in April's draft is a 340-pound behemoth with a fully guaranteed contract that's being asked to come in and be the focal point of the team's efforts to reach, at minimum, respectability defending the run. That's an awful lot to ask, and it speaks not only to just how much faith the organization has in Dareus, but also how desperately they need him to perform immediately.
2. OLB Shawne Merriman. He's appeared in just 18 games over the past three seasons, yet a few strong training camp practices have Merriman's name buzzing amongst the fan base. Until the pads start popping and the action is live, Merriman is still a huge (calculated) risk the team is taking. Merriman's here to shore up a pass-rushing unit that is consistently one of the league's worst.
3. ILB Nick Barnett. Just today, Bills GM Buddy Nix told Ross Tucker (Sirius NFL Radio) that he thought Barnett was an upgrade over the man he's replacing, the ultra-popular Paul Posluszny. Though Barnett is also an injury risk, he represents a significant upgrade in the pass coverage department, where Buffalo's linebackers were absolutely abysmal in 2010. He, like Dareus, will also be asked to help shore up the run defense.
Three players. Three different (and very weak) areas of the defense. Three gambles that, if they pay off to their fullest potential, could help the Bills turn things around defensively very quickly. I don't see how any of the other four new starters can trump that, but perhaps one of you can convince me.