The 2011 Buffalo Bills starting defense skewed towards seasoned veterans with seven opening day starters at or over the age of 30. With the release of Drayton Florence today and a continued influx of younger talent in free agency and the draft, the defense Dave Wannstedt starts 2012 with will be dramatically younger.
"I want to thank Drayton for all he’s done for our team during his three years in Buffalo," said Bills GM Buddy Nix upon releasing Florence. "But we have some good, young talent at the cornerback position that has tremendous upside. They need to take as many of the reps at practice as they can to continue to develop that talent. Our defense has gone through a number of changes since the end of last season and we feel that it’s necessary to give these young corners the opportunity to be in the lineup."
It's not just the corners that will be given the opportunity to be in the lineup. Buffalo has gotten younger at every level of the defense. In 2011, six 30-somethign members of the Bills defense started a majority of the team's games; Chris Kelsay (32), Drayton Florence (31), Dwan Edwards (30), Spencer Johnson (30), Nick Barnett (30), and George Wilson (30). That doesn't including Andra Davis (33) and Terrence McGee (31) who started the year but were replaced for ineffectiveness and injury, respectively.
Those players will all be a year older in 2012 and most are being phased out of the defense quickly. Of those six, not including the departed Florence and Davis, four should expect to see a significant drop in playing time. The Bills signed Mario Williams (27) and Mark Anderson (29 this month) to rotate at defensive end with Kelsay while Shawne Merriman (28 this month) will be attempting to come back from an Achilles injury. Edwards and Johnson will rotate on the defensive line but with the healthy return of Kyle Williams (29 next month) paired with Marcell Dareus (23), their playing time will be down dramatically. The Bills have drafted four cornerbacks in two years, preparing for McGee's exit. Only Barnett and Wilson will likely still see the field on most defensive plays barring injury.
Not all the veteran defenders are gone, however. The Bills re-structured McGee's deal earlier this offseason and re-signed safety/linebacker Bryan Scott (31). Both should see significant playing time this season although not the number of snaps they have played in the past.
It's clear that Nix has not just infused the defense with talent, but young talent. In the last two drafts, Buffalo has spent a total of eleven of their 18 picks on the defensive side of the ball with just six picks for the offense and one special teamer.
On opening day in 2011, the average defensive starter was 29 years old. With 21-year-old Stephon Gilmore joining the mix and other offseason additions playing more prominent roles, one thing is sure - the defense is going to have a much younger look in September.