In order to break the league's longest active playoff drought (and finally unseat the Pats at the top of the AFC East), the Bills will be counting on a number of players to perform in 2012. The Buffalo front office has high expectations from their starters, but throughout the off-season has been showing a commitment to building depth. Having capable backups on both sides of the ball means being able to spell starters and stay fresh late into games, and given the high-impact nature of play at the NFL level, injuries are an inevitability. Buffalo fans tend to have a soft spot for the underdog, as the team itself historically seems less often to be the favorite. Here are three Bills who, while not expected to start against the Jets on week 1, are nonetheless fan favorites who are poised to make an impact in 2012.
1. Michael Jasper (G)
The Bills have had a knack in recent years of picking up late round or undrafted players and molding them into NFL-caliber players (Fred Jackson, Justin Rogers, even Jason Peters). Michael Jasper was a DIII defensive tackle, but made a name for himself as a combine freak before the 2011 draft. With athleticism far exceeding his size, Jasper quickly became a fan favorite before cracking the 53-man lineup. After working out with the practice squad for most of 2011, Jasper was activated for the final game of the season against the Patriots, but didn't see a snap.
Throughout OTA's Jasper has been taking reps with the second team, and seems to stand a decent chance of making the lineup in 2012, which should be pleasing news for those who have been following his progress. Since arriving in Buffalo, Jasper has done everything to endear himself to the Bills faithful. Flip through news clippings from the past 12 months and you can see just how active Jasper has been in the Buffalo community, making several appearances and connecting with young fans. While "unpolished" Jasper is undoubtedly an athletic freak, and if he is able to make the mental switch to offense he could be a nightmare for opposing defenses.
2. Marcus Easley (WR)
This will be Easley's third season in the NFL, although he has yet to take a snap. In injury in 2010 and a heart ailment in 2011 have landed him on the IR for the entirety of his first few seasons, but with great size and reports of blazing speed, Easley has a chance to crack the starting lineup in 2012. A 4th round choice in 2010, Easley became the highest drafted receiver in UConn history, and despite his health issues, has stayed in the minds of fans who hope to see him display his athleticism on the field.
Stevie Johnson is the undisputed number one heading into the season, but the number two spot remains wide open to a large group of receivers currently on the Buffalo payroll. Incumbent starter Donald Jones and rookie TJ Graham may end up ahead of Easley in line for playing time, but a breakout season from a player who shows such promise would be big news for Bills fans. Multiple speed receivers lining up for the Bills in a spread package could spell disaster for opposing secondaries.
3. CJ Spiller (RB)
It's OK to admit that you once considered him a bust, but when Fred Jackson went down last year during an MVP caliber season, Spiller picked up the slack, finishing the year with over 800 yards on offense. A talented first round pick, Spiller has kept his head down learning from veterans like Jackson, as well as departed ball-carrier Marshawn Lynch, and has been priming himself for the opportunity to make an impact on the field. He's proven his ability to do so with last year's performance, and with his receiving and improving blocking ability, is poised to be an impact player in 2012.
The Bills are in an advantageous position with two backs who have starting talent. It's up to coach Gailey to figure out a way to use them both, but with Spiller becoming more and more of a well-rounded back, he can be inserted in running, catching and blocking scenarios. This could give the Bills one of the most dangerous backfields in the league. Although Spiller could start for any team in the NFL, he accepts his roll as a complement to Jackson with quiet dignity, and this is a quality that resonates with Bills fans. With QB Fitzpatrick improving his passing game under guru David Lee, and with a slew of potential new weapons in the passing game, keeping up with two dangerous backs might be more than most NFL defenses can handle.
It's clear the Bills have their work cut out for them in 2012 trying to take down the Patriots and climb back to the top of the AFC East. It's going to take outstanding effort and preparation from all 53 men on the roster to get the job done, and there's little that would make Bills fans happier than seeing these three players make a contribution.