In the weeks leading up to the start of Buffalo Bills training camp, Buffalo Rumblings will be taking a look at the ten most intriguing positional battles set to take place at St. John Fisher this summer. Previous entries in this series can be found in our training camp section.
The Buffalo Bills have a potentially elite defensive tackle pairing atop their depth chart, with healthy Pro Bowl veteran Kyle Williams teaming up with 2011 No. 3 overall pick and team sack leader Marcell Dareus on the inside. The duo is among three defensive linemen (joined, of course, by end Mario Williams) that, as teammates, should set the pace for one of the better defensive lines in pro football.
Depth at defensive tackle, however, is much more difficult to spell out, as the position is highly unsettled heading into training camp. Five players should factor heavily into a roster competition that could yield only two or three spots on the opening day roster.
Any conversation about the Bills' defensive line depth must start with veteran Spencer Johnson. The most tenured reserve lineman on the team (yes, we're counting end Chris Kelsay as a starter), Johnson is coming off of a strong 2011 season despite being asked to play some linebacker in the now-defunct 3-4 experiment orchestrated by former coordinator George Edwards. With the team moving back to a 4-3 under Dave Wannstedt, Johnson is still expected to see some time at end (likely on run downs), but will also get to play his more natural defensive tackle position far more frequently.
With Johnson a virtual lock to make the team, the question then becomes whether to count him as a defensive tackle, or an end. In the end, it may not matter enough to bother making the delineation; nine defensive linemen seems like the safe projection for the final roster, and with Johnson able to play tackle, there may be only one or two spots on the team for the remainder of the tackles on the roster.
That creates quite the logjam for four fairly significant names in the race at tackle: you try predicting two of veteran Dwan Edwards, 2010 early-round picks Torell Troup and Alex Carrington, and an emerging mountain of a man in Kellen Heard may have an early advantage heading into this camp battle.
Edwards, the 2010 free agent signing, has a clear experience advantage over his competition - but he's also the most expensive, set to earn $7.445 million in base salary over the final two years of his deal (including $3.8 million this year). If two or more of the younger prospects performs at around the level that Edwards does this summer, it is very easy to envision Edwards becoming a cap casualty. (Yes, the suddenly free-spending Bills can still have cap casualties, believe it or not.)
The biggest name on the list is Troup, the 2010 second-round pick that struggled as a rookie and then had a promising 2011 training camp cut short by a back injury that required surgery. Troup is still not 100 percent recovered from that surgery, and if he loses any sort of camp time because of it, he could be put at a disadvantage in this race. Right now, Troup looks like the shakiest early-round pick revered GM Buddy Nix has made in his three years on the job, but a strong camp could alleviate those concerns.
Carrington, the 2010 third-round pick, has shown only brief flashes of ability in his first two years in the league, and now the former college defensive end will be utilized as an interior player in the 4-3. Heard, a late-2010 roster addition that latched onto the back end of the final roster last year, made some strides throughout the 2011 season, and concluded with a two-sack performance in a season-ending loss to New England.
There are other intriguing prospects in the mix - superb athlete Jarron Gilbert at tackle and Kyle Moore at end, specifically - but in terms of the race for the backup defensive tackle roles, the primary candidates appear to be Edwards, Troup, Carrington and Heard. There is talent in that group, but there are also a lot of question marks. How this competition shakes out could go a long way toward determining not just the shape of the final roster, but how heavily the team believes it can rotate its reserves in to spell the two starters, Williams and Dareus.