Over the past two days, we've taken in-depth looks at two positions where the Buffalo Bills have made the most change this off-season: cornerback and offensive tackle. The third and final position where things look radically different - defensive end - is our topic this morning.
Back in January, discussing Buffalo's group of pass rushers was a bleak and morose affair. In fact, those are good adjectives to describe the state of the team at that position much further back than January. Today, there may be a few lingering misgivings about the state of the defensive end position, but as far as fan sentiment goes, you'll be hard-pressed to find a more complete 180 thanks to two free agent signings - one of which is perhaps the most mind-blowing signing in the history of the NFL.
Contract: UFA in 2018. Signed a six-year, $100 million deal with $50 million guaranteed.
Two months after the fact, it's still hard to believe that the Bills shelled out an NFL record contract (for a defender) to sign the former No. 1 overall pick in the 2006 NFL Draft. Williams, prior to missing most of the 2011 season with a pectoral injury, had strung together four straight seasons with nine or more sacks, made two Pro Bowls, and is generally regarded as one of the most dominant defensive linemen in the league. The best physical talent on the defensive line that the Bills have employed since Bruce Smith, Williams is being counted on to facilitate a complete turn-around in the team's pass rushing endeavors. The best part: he won't have to go it alone.
Age: 28 (29 in May 2012)
Contract: UFA in 2016. Signed a four-year, $19.5 million deal with $8 million guaranteed.
Anderson, a former teammate of Williams' in Houston, signed a four-year free agent deal with the Bills after recording 10 regular season (and 2.5 post-season) sacks. It was the first season he'd recorded double-digit sacks since his surprising rookie year in 2006, and the Bills are betting that he's ready to become a consistent contributor now that he's entered his prime and found a home. Though many still question whether Anderson can be an every-down defender, that may be moot, considering the Bills have depth at this position. He adds extra juice to the pass rush, and gives the unit some speed off the edge, which it lacked.
Age: 32 (33 in October 2012)
Contract: UFA in 2015. Has three years remaining on a four-year, $24 million extension signed in September 2010.
A favorite whipping boy of the fan base for years, Kelsay has become a more consistent and productive football player in his 30s, recording 14 sacks in the last three seasons (he had 17 in the six prior). Now that he's not the team's best pass rusher anymore, the team's most tenured defender may be in line for a career year, thanks to a likely reduced amount of playing time and the amount of help surrounding him. Don't count him out as a starter, either; he is the team's best run-defending end beyond Williams.
Age: 27 (28 in May 2012)
Contract: UFA in 2013. Entering the second of a two-year, $9 million deal signed in January 2011.
Yet again in 2011, Merriman landed on IR with an Achilles injury. And, yet again, Merriman and the Bills have spent parts of the spring months talking about how healthy Merriman is, and how hopeful they are that he'll be back to his pre-2008 self. It has been a long time, however, since Merriman was a factor in the pass rush. If he's healthy - and obviously that's as big an "if" as you can find in pro football - he'll likely be looked at as a backup and a situational pass rusher. That may be the only role he's cut out for these days. Keeping Merriman on the roster feels more experimental than anything at this point, but we've got a summer to see how the experiment pans out.
Age: 30 (31 in December 2012)
Contract: UFA in 2013. Entering the final year of a five-year, $17.5 million deal signed in 2008.
Johnson spent the 2011 season playing defensive end and outside linebacker, for whatever insane reason. Now that the team is switching to the 4-3 under new coordinator Dave Wannstedt, most assumed that Johnson would switch back to his more natural defensive tackle position. The Bills, however, still list him as a defensive end; if they truly are intent on keeping him there, he'll likely be a run-down defender in base packages only. But for real: why the heck isn't this guy listed as a defensive tackle? Johnson is a good player, and it'd be a shame if the team misused him again.
Age: 25 (26 in October 2012)
Contract: UFA in 2013. Signed a two-year deal to leave Detroit's practice squad last fall.
Moore joined the team late in the 2011 season and got a shot to play as a pass rusher, but didn't show much. Still, he's a former fourth-round pick of Tampa Bay with game experience that stands to benefit from playing in Wannstedt's scheme. Moore has flown far under the radar this off-season thanks largely to everything else that goes on, but we think he's got a real shot at making this team. He's more of a base end than a pass rusher.
Contract: UFA in 2013. Scheduled to make $700K in 2012.
Dotson is apparently the poor man's version of Johnson - a defensive tackle that the Bills are currently listing as an end. Dotson spent most of the 2011 season on the practice squad, then came up and played a bit role when the team lost defensive tackles Kyle Williams and Torell Troup to season-ending injuries. His best chance at making the team as at tackle, but that's a small chance; it's smaller at end.
Age: 24 (25 in December 2012)
Contract: UFA in 2014. Entering year three of a four-year rookie deal signed in July 2010.
Batten got opportunities to earn a role early in the 2011 season as the primary backup to Merriman, but struggled to set the edge against the run and didn't add to the pass rush. By year's end, he was a bit player and specialist, and the team was exhausting all other options in the pass rushing category. The team lists him as an end, and we think that's his best position, but there's a chance that he plays a little linebacker in camp, as well.
Age: 23 (24 in October 2012)
Contract: Under contract for 2012 after signing a reserve/future deal in January.
It's easy to forget that Eddins, a 2011 undrafted free agent out of Ball State, made the Bills' 53-man roster last fall. It's also easy to get caught up in that fact once you do remember, considering the state of the team's outside linebacker position a year ago. Eddins, however, has some natural rush ability, and he'll apparently get to try it out at defensive end, the position he played in college. Eddins was on the practice squad where the year ended, and it'd be surprising if the Bills didn't stash him there again this year.
POSITIONAL OUTLOOK: Williams will be the left defensive end. Anderson has long been assumed as his most likely bookend, but Kelsay will get a shot to earn that starting nod. Merriman, if he's healthy, will be a situational pass rusher. Johnson is likely to have a role, but again, we'd be surprised if it actually came at end. Moore, Batten and Eddins are worth keeping an eye on, as well, with Eddins having the best shot at sticking based solely on his practice squad eligibility. Dotson, like Johnson, is probably a better fit at defensive tackle.