For more than seven months now, conversations about Pro Bowl defensive tackle Marcell Dareus have focused on issues unrelated to football - namely late-season suspensions, offseason arrests, and even reports of extended substance abuse.
Dareus is currently sorting through two separate legal issues - one for felony drug charges in Alabama, another for a street racing incident in Buffalo - that, undoubtedly, will be brought up early and often with Bills coaches and Dareus himself (if he's allowed to speak with reporters) when the team reports to St. John Fisher for training camp this weekend. It remains possible that Dareus will face league discipline once each legal situation concludes, meaning that the Bills should be entertaining the possibility of playing meaningful games without one of their most important players.
In terms of zeroing in on Dareus as a make-or-break player for the Bills in the 2014 season, the off-field issues are merely the underlying detail to his availability, or potential lack thereof. Dareus has personal and legal hurdles to clear, and naturally, we're all hoping that he's able to right the proverbial ship. If Dareus misses time, the Bills will be without not just one of the best young defensive tackles in the league, but quite frankly, their best defensive lineman.
2013 was a coming-of-age season for Dareus on the field, despite the two in-game suspensions and a few minor injuries that limited him to playing 72 percent of snaps (he had the same figure in 2012, and would have exceeded it last year otherwise; by comparison, Kyle Williams played 82 percent of snaps despite missing practice time every week due to his longstanding ankle issues). He set career highs with 46 solo tackles and 7.5 sacks, emerging as one of the most dominant run stuffers in the league.
Dareus is good enough as a pass rusher - 18.5 sacks in three seasons as an interior lineman is nothing to sneeze at, and he is only getting better in that department - but it's as a run defender where he is of critical importance to the Bills. Run defense has been a major issue in Buffalo for several seasons now. Dareus' ascent last season was a major reason that the Bills were able to improve, as a team, to 4.4 yards allowed per rush. That figure ranked a meager 23rd in the NFL, but it was also down from 5.0 yards per carry in 2012, and was their lowest average allowed as a team since the 2008 season. Buffalo spent its offseason attempting to get better against the run - it's a focus of new coordinator Jim Schwartz, and the motivating factor behind signings like Brandon Spikes - but it's Dareus that is the centerpiece of those efforts.
On the field, Dareus is an every-down player capable of dominating against both the pass and the run. If he stays on said field, the 24-year-old has the chance to emerge as the Bills' best and most important defender in 2014, and the type of feared presence up front that he was drafted to become as a former No. 3 overall pick. That "if," however, will remain the focus - by necessity - for the foreseeable future.
This post continues a series in which we'll discuss the ten most important Bills players entering the new season. We'll update this list each time a new entry in the series posts.
1. coming July 18
2. DT Marcell Dareus
3. CB Stephon Gilmore
4. LB Kiko Alonso:(
5. WR Sammy Watkins
6. DE Mario Williams
7. OT Cordy Glenn
8. DB Aaron Williams
9. DT Kyle Williams
10. RB C.J. Spiller
11. DE Jerry Hughes