If one were to look a year ago at the roster, one would not see half the names nowadays on the roster a year ago. [Thank you Brian for reposting the 2010 Opening Day Roster] In the massive effort to revamp the Bills into playoff contenders, Chan Gailey and Buddy Nix knew that they would need more than a few drafts to get players to fit their design. Rather than waiting for free agency in 2011, the roster overhaul began during 2010 season itself with several key signings that are still around today. Additionally with the post-lockout free agent market bringing in a fair number of players, the Bills are now bigger offensively and defensively more geared for a 3-4 scheme. (Please note I have already commented on the 2011 draft picks seen in the links above.) With many new faces, including four within the last few weeks, I thought I'd take a slightly closer look at the Bills latest additions.
2010 Mid-Season (MS) Acquisitions
OT Erik Pears – Colorado State [6-8, 305]
OG Kraig Urbik – Wisconsin [6-5, 323]
OG Chad Rinehart – Northern Iowa [6-5, 307]
OG Colin Brown – Missouri [6-8, 325]
TE Scott Chandler – Iowa [6-7, 272]
DL Kellen Heard – Texas A&M [6-6, 345]
LB Shawne Merriman – Maryland [6-4, 261]
OT Erik Pears came to the team as the fourth starting right tackle at the end of the season. A bigger guy than the past three, Pears tends to grade better in the running game, but played well enough in camp to warrant the majority of the starting reps. Pears may not be the long term solution after the Bills drafted Chris Hairtson in the fourth round and pursued a few talented right tackles a few months ago. Still for the short term, Pears seems to have solidified his holding on the right side and because he satisfies a major need for the team for now.
OG Kraig Urbik comes from the same draft class as starters Levitre and Wood on the line, and being a former third round pick, has quite a bit of potential. Urbik saw limited time as a starter as he suffered a season ending injury, but emerged high on Gailey’s radar. In fact, Gailey’s trust in Urbik, who improved throughout the preseason, did not have much competition in camp.
OG Chad Rinehart is also a former third round pick and spent time on the practice squad last year before getting called up after injuries impacted the interior line last year. In his brief time on the field, Rinehart showed himself to be more than capable in pass and run situations. Rinehart has played well in camp earning him starting reps at left guard (although at the time, people viewed him as a right guard) and should be the immediate backup on the interior should Levitre or Urbik go down with injury, or Levitre switches to left tackle.
OG Colin Brown came to the Bills around the same time as Pears last year. The biggest lineman on the block, Brown still has yet to show consistent skill on the line, but given that most of the linemen are struggling with consistency, shows that Brown may have potential as a backup yet.
TE Scott Chandler was taken off the Cowboys practice squad in a time when the Bills had no true starting tight end. A big blocker with good hands, the former fourth rounder clearly had potential necessary for a big threat tight end and has yet to disappoint in limited action with the Bills. Is Chandler elite… not yet, but he is undeniably the best tight end the Bills have right now. The fact that he can catch and block well will help the Bills offense on running plays and short passing game, areas where the Bills have struggled last year. Thus Chandler is my second best MS acquisition.
DL Kellen Heard emerged out of nowhere as a hulking defensive lineman. Though he sat on the sidelines for the most part at the end of 2010, Heard matured rapidly to be a force late in the game in preseason to earn a sixth/seventh lineman spot on the roster to back up Dareus.
OLB Shawne Merriman brought in a fair amount of criticism when he came in last season from the Chargers after being placed immediately on the injured reserve, a spot he has been relegated to for three seasons prior. Before that though, Merriman had been a first rounder worthy of three bowl appearances with his lightning speed as a pass rusher. Fans got a taste of his prowess in the first preseason game when he recorded two sacks. A crucial aspect that the Bills lacked for the better part of 2010 in a 3-4 defense, Merriman’s presence should take the load off rest of the front seven in pass and rush defending situations even if he does not post as good of statistics that he had in his first three years. The simple potential for the Bills D with Merriman more than makes up for his health concerns (which the Bills medical staff believe they have worked out) and is therefore the best 2010 MS signing.
2011 Free Agents Acquisitions
QB Tyler Thigpen – Coastal Carolina [6-1, 224]
QB Brad Smith – Missouri [6-2, 218]
OL Sam Young – Notre Dame [6-8, 323]
TE Lee Smith – Marshall [6-5, 269]
LB Nick Barnett – Oregon State [6-2, 236]
LB Kirk Morrison – San Diego State [6-2, 245]
CB Drayton Florence – Tuskegee [6-0, 195]
QB Tyler Thigpen was brought in to serve as Ryan Fitzpatrick’s backup with an outside chance to become a starter in a few years. While the latter is probably untrue, Thigpen is familiar with Gailey’s system of offense having spent some time in Kansas City with him. Thigpen though proved to be somewhat disappointing with his completion percentage during the preseason and needs major improvement.
QB Brad Smith was an interesting signing that surprised many Bills fans initially. Used largely as a wide receiver and an kick returner with the Jets, both areas in which the Bills already had good depth in, Bills fans became more enthralled when they realized Smith’s use as a wildcat QB. Used to great success in training camp to get first downs, Smith’s multi-threat potential makes him the second best signing the Bills made in 2011.
OL Sam Young was a reserve lineman of the Cowboys following a sixth round selection in last year’s draft, the same class as Ed Wang. Young’s biggest asset is his massive size, but has only average blocking skills so far. Young played the majority of his time at right tackle, so odds are Gailey is liking Hairston more at left tackle unless Young is to shift to the inside sometime later in the season.
TE Lee Smith shows us that the Bills did indeed use the draft to improve their tight end corps albeit indirectly. A fifth round selection by New England (which is curious given that they drafted two successful tight ends the year before), Smith had good production as a blocking tight end in college. With a large frame, Smith could be seeing more playing time than David Martin as the season progresses.
LB Nick Barnett signing was of huge relief following the departure of Poz and a few unsuccessful bids to sign others. Barnett is a proven starter with the Packers, despite sidelined with a few injuries over the years, excelling in run and pass coverage. Perhaps the most important aspect of Barnett is that he is well versed in the 3-4 system, which Poz was not, and as such should help to improve the Bills defense.
LB Kirk Morrison is an interesting addition especially given that the Bills signed him in the last few weeks of the offseason. Once thought to possibly supplement Poz in free agency, Morrison joined the team to backup Andra Davis once Reggie Torbor was placed on the IR. Morrison played well as a Raider, is very durable and has seven interceptions as a pass defending linebacker. A decent player on a one year contract, Morrison could prove a capable piece of the 3-4 inside linebacker interior.
CB Drayton Florence is on the list even though he played with the Bills last season as the Bills paid a pretty multimillion dollar penny to re-sign him after a bidding war with the Jets. On one side Florence is a bit of a penalty machine. Still, he is a tall corner with above average pass defense ability and proved to be reliable as a starter over the years with the Bills.
To recap, the three best CHIX signings during the 2010 season in my opinion were…
1 – OLB Shawne Merriman
2 – TE Scott Chandler
3 – OG Kraig Urbik
The Best 2011 offseason signings were…
1 – ILB Nick Barnett
2 – QB/WR Brad Smith
3 – CB Drayton Florence
Given that the Bills already made two roster changes from their original debuted final roster, bear in mind that the Bills could bring in someone else (especially in the event of a major injury). But the end result is that the Bills are starting to look like a stronger and more whole unit.