The Buffalo Bills still have two games left to play in the 2013 regular season, but now that they've officially been eliminated from playoff contention, we can sit back a bit, remove ourselves from the minutiae of these meaningless-to-us final two games, and look at this Bills team from a broader perspective.
One of the questions that a reader submitted for this week's mailbag dealt with identifying the team's "foundation" - i.e. its core players on both sides of the ball. The guys that never leave the field, that are vital to each and every thing the Bills try to do to win football games. I consider that an important discussion worth having outside the mailbag; hence this post. To me, the easiest way to identify core players is to see which guys are on the field most - and, more importantly, which of them are producing.
As you're perusing the averages of these players, note that the Bills average 72.6 snaps per game as a defense. That'll give you an idea of how little time these players spend off the field. The eight names you see below are the players that have made up the foundation of the 2013 Bills defense - but which of them are true building blocks for the future?
Kyle Williams has played every game this season despite his usual practice rest day built in to account for his Achilles. He's averaged 59.2 snaps per game this season and has set a career high with eight sacks through 14 games. His 38 solo tackles are the second-highest total of his career, and he also has a forced fumble under his belt.
Marcell Dareus has twice had to leave games early due to injury, including last week in Jacksonville. He's averaged 57.8 snaps per game in those he's finished, and 54.4 even with the smaller rep totals included. Dareus, still just 23 years old and only now scratching the surface of his potential, is enjoying a breakout season with 42 solo tackles, eight sacks, three batted passes and a forced fumble.
Mario Williams plays more than any other Bills front seven defender aside from the next name on our list. At 62.3 snaps per game (86.2 percent of total snaps), Williams is a mainstay on the field regardless of circumstance, only coming off the field for breathers, just like Kyle and Dareus. Mario currently ranks third in the NFL with 12 sacks, and has also batted down four passes and forced a fumble this season.
Kiko Alonso averages 72.6 snaps per game. If you've seen that figure before, it's because that's how many snaps the Bills' defense averages per game. Alonso still has yet to miss a rep in his pro career. He also ranks third in the NFL with 137 tackles (78 of them solo), is tied for seventh with four interceptions, and has also defended five passes, recorded two sacks, forced a fumble and recovered two more.
Leodis McKelvin missed most of two games in Weeks 3 and 4, but has averaged 66.3 snaps per game in contests that he's finished at full health. A full-time starter once again, McKelvin has recorded 60 tackles and a forced fumble this season.
Stephon Gilmore is only now getting back into the swing of things after missing five games with a broken wrist, playing two more with a club on said wrist, and then slowly knocking off the rust for a few weeks after that. In the seven games that he's played without a club, Gilmore has averaged 65.9 snaps per game. He's recorded 30 tackles, two interceptions and seven defended passes in nine games this year.
Aaron Williams has proven himself to be Buffalo's most versatile defensive back this season, playing both safety and corner for stretches to account for injuries. He, too, has left a couple of games early, but is averaging a healthy 66.1 snaps in 14 games played, a 91.1 percent clip even with the injuries included. He has quietly put together a very strong season, with 82 total tackles (60 of them solo), four interceptions, 11 defended passes and a forced fumble.
Jairus Byrd, like Gilmore, missed the first five games of the season after missing the pre-season and developing plantar fasciitis in both feet. He, too, endured two games back wherein he was eased back into the lineup, and in the seven games that he's been a full part of the game plan, he's averaged 66.7 snaps per game. As he seeks a long-term deal, Byrd has made the most of his shortened season, registering 33 solo stops, four interceptions, a sack and six defended passes in nine games.
That, Bills fans, is the foundation of your favorite team's defense. The team obviously has several prominent role players involved - Alan Branch, Manny Lawson, Jerry Hughes and Nickell Robey chief among them - but in terms of every-down dependability, that's your group. We have two questions for you to ponder building off of this: where could the Bills stand to improve within this foundation, and which position(s) need an additional every-downer?