As in part two of this series, I will be analyzing the roster post free agency and draft, only this time on the defensive side. As Bills fans will remember (or not want to remember), the defense played poorly for the majority of the last season as they transited from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4/4-3 hybrid. With this in mind, CHIX devoted much of the draft, 7 of 9 picks (including the first four) to strengthen the defense and effect a permanent change to a 3-4 scheme. In free agency, the Bills lost their lead tackler ILB Paul Posluszny to the Jaguars and opted to let go SS Donte Whitner. Also gone are DL (first round pick) John McCargo, ILB Akin Ayodele, ILB Keith Ellison and CB Ashton Youboty. (Poz, Whinter and Ayodele were the top three tackles on the team, each with over 100… something to think about) The Bills did add Packer ILB Nick Barnett though to help strengthen their linebackers though. What is for sure though is that the defense is loaded with potential and a bigger (and hopefully healthier) front seven to compete with in the upcoming season. (underlined players are 2011 draft picks, italicized players are free agent additions (experienced and rookies)).
LE: Edwards, Johnson, Dotson
NT: Williams, Troup, Jasper, Heard
RE: Dareus, Carrington, Langley
SLB: Kelsay, Batten, Kirlew, Eddins
MLB: Davis, Torbor, White, Jefferson
WLB: Barnett, Moats, Sheppard, Hicks
JLB: Merriman, Coleman, Maybin
CB: McGee, McKelvin, Corner, Means
CB: Florence, Williams, Rogers, Doyle, (Cook)
SS: Wilson, Scott, Searcy, Corto, Glover
FS: Byrd, Coleman
Starting on the left end, we see the return of Dwan Edwards, who came to the Bills two years ago as a big free agent pick up. While he is not known as a sack guru, Edwards ability to make tackles on the line is quite valuable. His immediate backup is veteran Spencer Johnson who while is past his prime, is good for a down or two on the field. Lastly on my list is Lionel Dotson, a free agent pick up and four year veteran with a light resume. Dotson could make the team as a fifth DE, but given the versatility on the line already, I find this unlikely.
A position of worry in 2010 for the Bills turned out to be a false alarm after starter Kyle Williams, though undersized, led the team in sacks (5.5) and earned a pro-bowl nod. 2010 second round Torell Troup as such did not see as much playing time as such, but still provides quality depth and is supposedly in better physical condition. A name that has generated a lot of fan interest since his seventh round supplemental pick this year is Michael Jasper. Jasper since being drafted has reportedly lost somewhere around 50lbs (from his 395 beforehand) and would be a beast in sub-packages and definitely garners at least a practice squad spot to hone his techniques. Competing with him is big man Kellen Heard whose massiveness is second only to Jasper.
With Marcus Stroud gone after a lackluster season, the Bills made a big pick up with their overall pick, Marcel Dareus. Dareus is already making big plays in practice and should be a solid long term starter and could also back-up the nose tackle position as well given his size. Behind him is Alex Carrington, a second year man who did not see a lot of playing time last year, but should hopefully have developed enough from last year to see more this year. Lastly, undrafted free agent T.J. Langley from Carrington’s alma-matter could try to land a practice squad spot but needs a strong camp to do so.
Sam (Outside) Linebacker:
Starting on the strong-side outside is veteran Chris Kelsay. Kelsay re-signed with the Bills last season for a four year contract despite not having elite playmaking ability. Kelsay however is very durable and compared to his time as a 4-3 DE, had a very productive year. Behind him is untested talent however. First on the list is former sixth rounder Danny Batten who has the ideal build for the position and played well in college. Following him is 2010 practice squad member Jamie Kirlew who played well in Indiana but must bring it to the next level in camp to earn a final roster spot. Lastly, Ball State’s Robert Eddins was an undrafted free agent pick up whose performance in college may warrant a practice squad spot.
Mike (Inside) Linebacker:
A spot of the roster that has been under scrutiny as of late, current starter Andra Davis may be fighting for a roster spot. The ten year vet had a somewhat disappointing year last season that ended in injury. Immediately behind him is Reggie Torbor, another veteran whose value increases with his ability to play on the outside as well. Sixth round pick Chris White is another hard hitting ILB that the Bills drafted this year to serve as the eventual backup in this position. Lastly, Brad Jefferson, a free agent rookie pick up from Georgia Tech could be in consideration for a practice squad spot but with a depth filled interior, is not expected to make the final cut.
Will (Inside) Linebacker:
The playmaker inside, the Bills lost beloved LB Posluszny to free agency. In return, they picked up Nick Barnett, who although is a bit older (and has had injuries in two of the last three years), is an experienced 3-4 linebacker. Barnett is a sure tackler and pass defender so he seems set to start in September. Behind him is Arthur Moats, perhaps the productive player from last year’s draft class despite only being a sixth rounder. Moats played well at the end of last season as a jack LB and will be used largely for blitzes. I believe the decision to move Moats inside was done when there was no clear starter following the Poz departure and may still be the backup for Merriman as well. This is especially true given this year’s third round pick Kelvin Sheppard. Sheppard has the build and talent to play either strong or weakside and the coaches will definitely want to use that talent in subpackages to develop him for the years to come. Lastly Brandon Hicks (another rookie FA) will fight for a practice squad spot whilst focusing on special teams play.
Jack (Outside) Linebacker:
For a position that requires the fastest pass rusher, the Bills picked up one of the best in Shawne Merriman during the 2010 season. While Merriman was on his third year of recovering from a myriad of injuries (after three pro-bowl years), he seems to be in top form from first looks in training camp. Given that the coaches are moving Arthur Moats to the inside (although he did perform well as the jack LB at the end of last season), the next best option here is Antonio Coleman. Coleman saw a little playing time last year as an undrafted rookie so I’m not totally convinced he’ll land a roster spot. The other player to consider here is Aaron Maybin, a former first rounder whom has been declared by most fans as a bust. Maybin has a long way to go despite having good speed and physique due to a lack of technique and unless he has a phenomenal camp, may get the early boot.
The Bills seem to be at a bit of a crossroads this year at cornerback as, like the wide receiver position, have excellent depth with four potential starters. The first of these is Terrence McGee who has been a long term starter for the Bills. McGee has good speed and coverage ability but has been plagued by the injury bug over the past few years; if healthy McGee should start. Drayton Florence returns after an up and down year with a new contract. Was the new deal a little high… perhaps? But Florence is a tall corner who when not getting penalized can provide reliable coverage. Likewise former first rounder Leodis McKelvin has battled inconsistency in his career but played well overall as a starter in the latter half of last year. The last person fighting for a starting position (and will definitely make the team) is second round rookie Aaron Williams. While drafting Williams seemed somewhat controversial at first, strong first impressions at camp are changing minds and Williams seems in line to become the nickel-back. Where this puts McGee, McKelvin and Florence on the cornerback depth chart, I have no idea.
First person competing for a depth position is Reggie Corner. Corner is a four year vet who spent time as the nickel back last year whose play while inconsistent was not terrible. Behind him is seventh rounder Justin Rogers. Rogers is a special teams ace and was also noted for his speed and interceptions in college so he brings excitement to a secondary that struggled to get interceptions last year. Also in camp is Loyce Means, an undrafted rookie who is making some plays in training camp but seems to be more in line for a practice squad spot. Likewise Doyle Miller (another undrafted rookie) finds himself in a similar situation. Lastly rookie Domonic Cook who sustained an injury in camp was placed on injured reserve so the Bills may see some potential in him, but how he plays after healing is another story.
With the Bills opting to release Donte Whitner a gap at this position resulted. Fortunately, even before drafting Da’Norris Searcy in the fourth round this year. George Wilson (who has been backing up Byrd at free safety and a special teams ace) is pegged as the starter after displaying great playmaking ability in the backfield and having a good build to double at strong safety. (Wilson was ranked only two spots lower than Whitner on Walter’s FA list for safety). Behind Wilson and likely to see playing time is Bryan Scott who saw time last year in sub-packages to cover tight ends and run support. Searcy who may be the long term starter of the group will be used more in special teams this year as he develops. Next is Jon Corto who has been a special teams specialist likely pressed to keep a roster spot as a backup in the safety position. Last on my list is Sidney Glover, a rookie free agent the Bills picked up who ranked decently among safeties in college but is the most pressed to secure a roster spot.
The Bills are set in this area with Jairus Byrd returning. Byrd, despite not picking off as many passes as he had in his rookie year (1 in 2010 to 9 in 2009) developed as a tackler and easily earns the starter nod. Wilson would likely takeover for Byrd, were he to get injured although Aaron Williams, Da’Norris Searcy or Jon Corto could take over in that department as well. Rajric Coleman has good speed and played well in college but like Glover will be hard pressed to make the roster.
While the Bills offense clearly has a few question marks across the board, the defense has relatively few in turn. The Bills defensive line seems to be set with definitive starters and backups that seem versatile enough in some instances to double as nose tackles or defensive ends. While you shouldn’t expect a slew of sacks this year, expect a lot more pressure and a better run defense. Likewise the secondary seems to be set as well despite a few new roster additions. Inside linebackers also have great depth and the only question there is who/when will players see time on the field. Outside linebackers lastly have veteran starters although injury and playmaking concerns do exist. Behind them is an untested group of youths who hope to make an impact this year.
New Roster Changes:
As this is supposed to be a post on the defense, I shall try to keep this part short as the changegs mentioned are all offensively. Perhaps the biggest change that the Bills made to their roster was made with the trading of Lee Evans. Personally I am against the move as Evans took pressure off of the Bills young WR corps, but fortunately there is still talent in that position so hopefully Gailey can surprise opposing defenses. One such player is newly acquired (former first rounder) Buster Davis, who despite his talent has had quite a few injuries that have prevented him from hitting his stride. The only other roster changes that have been made since last week have been replacing backup rookie RB free agents Vai Taua and Emmanuel Moody with Bruce Hall (who has already spent time on the Bills practice squad a few years ago) and rookie FA Anthony Elzy.