ORCHARD PARK, NY - OCTOBER 09: Ryan Fitzpatrick #14 of the Buffalo Bills hands off to Fred Jackson #22 at Ralph Wilson Stadium on October 9, 2011 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images)
Often times when I'm sifting through inquiries sent in by all of you fine people here at Buffalo Rumblings, I find questions that are so specific that they're impossible to address without getting into the land of conjecture. Most frequently, these queries deal with statistical projections; what-if injury, performance and coaching scenarios; or my personal favorite, predicting a game's outcome weeks in advance. (I'm not going to predict the final score of the Buffalo Bills' Week 2 game against Kansas City, nor am I going to speculate as to whether the Chiefs will have a bounty on Stevie Johnson. Obviously, I hope not.)
A very specific question from a reader named Matt, however, is one that I can happily address. Matt writes in to ask, "BG - as you've re-watched games from 2010 and 2011 now, are there any players that to your eye got significantly better from year to year (aside from the obvious one, C.J. Spiller)?"
Many times, that's a question that I have a difficult time answering, because I watch the Bills, and the Bills have almost always been bad over the last decade. In this case, I considered mentioning a handful of names, but in most cases (the exception, of course, being Spiller), the gains were negligible enough that they weren't really worth mentioning. One player that deserves recognition here, however, is guard Kraig Urbik.
A late-preseason waiver wire addition going into the 2010 season, Urbik dressed in 10 games that season and made two starts - both at right guard, after Eric Wood became the team's starting center late in the season. In his brief glimpses of playing time in that first season, I thought Urbik was thoroughly unimpressive - to the point that heading into training camp a year ago, I was fairly baffled that the team wasn't giving Chad Rinehart a fair crack at the starting right guard job.
Urbik was much better in 2011, when he made 13 starts, most of those coming at right guard. His biggest improvements came technically, where he displayed much better footwork and hand placement, which allowed him to become a serviceable pulling guard in his first full year as an NFL starter. In Chan Gailey's offense, the ability to be mobile is of the utmost importance, and while that's not Urbik's strong suit, he is now capable on the move, which means that the team has three interior players (Wood and Andy Levitre count here) that can provide that element of versatility to the Bills' rushing attack.
The fact that Urbik also acquitted himself well as a fill-in center is icing on the cake. It's another dimension that adds to his roster value, as quite frankly, he now adds more tangible positional versatility than Levitre, who should only ever play left guard. With the unlucky-with-injuries Wood returning from a second major leg injury in three years, Urbik will likely enter the 2012 season as the primary backup in the pivot.
The Bills re-signed Urbik to a fairly lucrative one-year restricted free agent tender earlier this year, and GM Buddy Nix has already named him (alongside Levitre) as one of three players that the team would like to re-sign prior to unrestricted free agency next spring. There's a good reason Urbik made the cut: he made significant strides in 2011, offers strong positional value, and has proven to be a more-than-adequate starter in Gailey's offensive system. Aside from Spiller, I'd call Urbik the team's most improved player last year by a pretty significant margin.
I know I'm not the only one re-watching games, though. Who else caught your eye in the "most improved" category, Bills fans?