As we continue to await news on the offensive coordinator front, we'll continue our roster breakdowns by switching over to the defensive side of the ball to discuss Buffalo's much-maligned defensive ends. A defensive strength in 2006, the Bills saw a massive drop-off in production at this position last year. Injuries riddled the group on and off all season, and the lack of true speed at the position was apparent. As the catalyst for success in Buffalo's Cover-2 defense, this unit has come under harsh criticism as being one of the main causes of the Bills' defensive woes this season.
There is, however, upside with this group. Let's take a look at its members:
Due to his prominent stature, Schobel is the main scapegoat for this group. He totaled just 6.5 sacks last year - his lowest total since his rookie season - but finished fifth on the team with 57 tackles, and was voted by his peers as a Pro Bowl alternate. Schobel wasn't the main problem; he was often asked to do too much, mainly cover backs and tight ends on zone blitzes. He is still a defender that opposing offenses must game-plan against; the veteran is a heady player, and still has something left in the tank. He just needs some help - he's not a guy who can carry a defense (though he's paid like it).
Will Improve in '08 if - he's asked to do less in blitz packages :: a pass rusher is added to take pressure off of him :: his linemates can stay healthy
If you want a scapegoat, Kelsay is your man. It's hard to question his work ethic and leadership skills, but when you sign a $23 million extension with your team, you have to provide more than 44 tackles and 2.5 sacks. Kelsay is a solid player, but he'll never strike fear into his opponents as a pass rusher. Still, he had one of Buffalo's coolest plays in '07 - a batted pass of Tony Romo that he caught in the end zone for a touchdown. I can rip Kelsay all I want, but that play was the stuff of legends.
Will Improve in '08 if - he's off the field on third downs :: he retains his team captaincy :: he can stay healthy
Denney's troubles with injury last season really hurt the team from a depth standpoint. Kelsay and Denney are essentially the same player - hard-working, hustling, great against the run, so-so pass rushers. When he went down, however, the Bills had nowhere to turn. His importance to this club is underrated; if he can stay healthy in '08, he should re-assume his niche on this line.
Will Improve in '08 if - he can stay healthy :: he's not used as often on pass downs
If the Bills are looking to add depth at defensive end this off-season, Hargrove may be the odd man out. He provided a nice energy boost for much of 2007, but he also has a suspension and an expired contract under his belt. With recent long-term contracts handed out to Schobel, Kelsay and Denney - and with Ryan Neill the team's long snapper - there really is only room for one more end on the roster. Hargrove may get the axe if, say, a mid-round pass-rushing rookie is added.
It was a bit surprising to see Neill earn some playing time toward the end of the season as an end; massive amounts of injuries will do that to you. Neill struggled a bit late in the season with his long-snapping, but in general was pretty consistent in his first year on the job. A virtual lock to hold that position again next season.
The enigma of Buffalo's 2007 roster, Bryan was added very early in the season after the Bills cut Eric Powell - a player who saw a significant chunk of time in the opening day loss to Denver. Bryan rarely saw the field, however, before ending his season by being placed on the Injured Reserve. Has virtually no shot at being on the roster in '08.
Signed in the pre-season after Denney was injured, Wallace's Bills career lasted about half a game. The veteran's one-year deal has expired, and while he was fun to watch during that one pre-season game, he won't be here next year.
Other roster members: Daniel Watts, Shaun Nua, Khari Long. These three young men ended the season on the practice squad (Watts was there the entire season) and will be lucky if they're in that same position this time next year.
Let's get this out of the way: Schobel, Kelsay and Denney are here to stay. They're solid, hard-working football players that can be successful in this type of defense. What they can't provide, however, is game-breaking speed; finding that type of explosiveness is precisely what the Bills need to do this off-season, even if it comes in the form of a mid-round pick. A situational pass rusher with speed would really elevate the effectiveness of the three veterans on the roster; maybe, at that point, they'd no longer be scapegoats. Maybe, at that point, they'll return to their '06 production and earn a bit of their massive paychecks.
Possible additions: speed rusher
Possible subtractions: Hargrove, Bryan, Wallace