"I think (Mark Anderson) explained it well, that all of them go through a learning process. I think he found out that he was probably playing strictly on ability the first year and then he progressed, and you take a dip some. But he’s very athletic. He’s got the ability, and we think his good years are still to come." - Buddy Nix in March 2012
Every year here at Buffalo Rumblings, we run a summer series in which we talk about the ten most important Buffalo Bills players entering a given season. Where in past seasons we've focused the series on guys that needed to perform if the team was going to succeed, this year's focus will just be on the team's ten players most likely to directly influence the team's successes or failures in 2012.
Next up on the list: defensive end Mark Anderson, who is coming off of a 10-sack season with the New England Patriots.
Anderson has had an interesting journey in the NFL. He exploded onto the scene as a fifth-round rookie in 2006, registering 12 sacks in a part-time role as his Chicago Bears made it to the Super Bowl. The following year, Anderson was a 14-game starter, but only registered five sacks; that total dipped to 4.5 over the next two seasons, and then Chicago let him go in 2010. He then latched on first with Houston (where he was a teammate of Mario Williams for a brief time) and then with New England, and he's recorded 16.5 sacks in 30 games since then (including 2.5 in three playoff games with the Pats last year).
The Bills' decision-making duo of GM Buddy Nix and head coach Chan Gailey have made their stance very clear on Anderson, 29: they see him as a starting-caliber end that's only now coming into his own, despite the fact that Anderson has only ever been productive as a situational pass rusher. They certainly paid Anderson like a starter, handing him a four-year, $19.5 million deal with $8 million guaranteed in March.
In any other typical Bills off-season - one in which they don't hand out record-breaking contracts to ultra-high-profile players - Anderson would be the marquee signing for Buffalo. Don't let Williams' presence diminish Anderson's importance to the team: he's got just as much responsibility in helping to shore the Bills' pass rush up as Williams does, and perhaps more, considering that he's far less likely to face constant double-teams.
We can talk all we want about Buffalo's back seven defenders - I've already highlighted two in this series - but Dave Wannstedt's defense (and really, any competent pro defense in today's league) lives and dies by its pass rush. A good pass-rushing team can frustrate offenses, make plays and win games; a bad pass-rushing team is typically ripped to shreds, as we've seen from Bills defenses over the last several years. Anderson's going to play a lot, and is the team's most athletically gifted speed rusher (with the possible exception of the perennially injured Shawne Merriman, who won't be making an appearance on this list). Buffalo needs a big year from Anderson. Ideally, he'll have a lot of help achieving that goal.