"It's really tough to come back and think about work when every time you turn around you lose someone that's close to you. And you really don't have a mother or father to fall back on and talk to. It took a toll on me last year. I just had to be a man and finish the season hard and suck it all up... Things just started turning around for me. It took me a lot to come out of my slump for the things that happened to my family. I think the Patriots game was my coming out game, and I kind of started picking it up from there, picking up the pieces and it started to come together for me." - Marcell Dareus, via BuffaloBills.com
As the No. 3 overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, Marcell Dareus began his Bills career facing lofty expectations. He had an uneven but fairly productive rookie season, recording 5.5 sacks.
Expectations increased heading into the 2012 season, but hours after a Week 1 loss, his younger brother, Simeon Gilmore, was murdered. The loss - merely the latest in a long string of personal issues Dareus has endured in his life - derailed the defensive tackle for much of his second season, though he did turn in several solid performances near the end of the 2012 campaign. Again, he finished the year with 5.5 sacks.
Dareus has managed to somehow be a disappointing investment in his first two seasons - though some allowances are made, naturally, for his off-field distractions. BuffaloBills.com has even pointed out that Dareus, who missed some spring practices over the past few months, has lost some first-team reps to Alex Carrington and even Jay Ross. There is some question about whether or not he'll be a three-down player in the new defense being installed by Mike Pettine. He's also come out and told reporters that he'd like to lose a little weight to better prepare himself for this season.
Add in the fact that the Bills will need to make a decision on whether or not to exercise a fifth-year option on Dareus' rookie contract next spring, and it's very easy to see how 2013 is a year of monumental importance for No. 99.
Here's the thing, though: Dareus is still just 23 years old. His 11 sacks in two seasons equal the same output that his lauded defensive line mate, Kyle Williams, produced in his two best seasons in 2010 and 2012. It's funny how expectations can cloud perception; general opinion holds that Williams has been better than Dareus (and he probably has, largely due to the factor of consistency), but it's not as if Dareus has been a bum on the field. His 5.5 sacks last year were the tenth-highest total among interior defensive linemen in the league.
Expectations matter, however. Despite the fact that Dareus has only scratched the surface of his potential, it's already worth pointing out that he was drafted ahead of several established NFL stars. Players like wide receivers A.J. Green and Julio Jones (combined: 295 receptions, 4,564 yards, 36 touchdowns in two years); pass rushers Aldon Smith and J.J. Watt (combined: 59.5 sacks, nine forced fumbles, 24 deflected passes); and cornerback Patrick Peterson (nine interceptions, four punt return touchdowns) were all passed up by Buffalo in favor of Dareus. Buffalo needed an elite player with their highest draft pick since Bruce Smith; they don't have one yet, while several teams that picked right after Buffalo do.
2013, then, will be a year for Dareus to make significant strides towards being that difference-maker, if not reaching that level outright. It's all sitting there in front of him. Re-surpassing Carrington and especially Ross on the depth chart should be a breeze, given Dareus' talent level. Unlike Williams, he profiles as the every-down defensive tackle on the team - one that can play several positions in any front thanks to his dynamic size and athleticism. There is talent around him, at every level of the defense. He's playing in a far more aggressive system that should free him up more. The time is now for Dareus to step up and be the force he was drafted to be.
If that doesn't happen, the b-word may start to be flung around - and the Bills will have an interesting decision to make on his contract next spring.