Can Aaron Schobel re-gain his 2006 form? (Photo Source)
He was, perhaps, the least deserving Pro Bowl alternate-elect of the 2007 season. Sure, he'd been there before; he'd even deserved his previous trip, in which a 14-sack season elevated him to a lofty status league-wide (and also led to a big pay day). But 2007's 6.5-sack performance was a let-down for Buffalo Bills defensive end Aaron Schobel.
Known around the league as an effort end more so than for his talents, Schobel's play wasn't all bad in 2007. He was one of Buffalo's better run defenders - though, clearly, that didn't make much of a difference as the Bills were league bottom-dwellers in rush defense. Many of Schobel's teammates dropped like flies, as well - especially on the defensive side of the ball, where by season's end, the team had placed four heavily-involved players (Ryan Denney, Paul Posluszny, Jason Webster, Ko Simpson) on Injured Reserve. Schobel was asked to carry the defense at that point; unlike his Pro Bowl 2006 season, Schobel was not up to the task. It also didn't help that Buffalo's anemic offense, in most cases, did very little to give their defensive counterparts a significant breather.
Those issues, at least on paper, have been eradicated. The team imported Marcus Stroud and Spencer Johnson from Jacksonville and Minnesota, respectively, to give the Bills a deep and versatile corps of defensive tackles. They drafted Chris Ellis from Virginia Tech to be a situational pass rusher, taking some heat off of the team's starters. Kawika Mitchell solidifies the starting linebacking unit, and the team has two experienced reserves there in John DiGiorgio and Keith Ellison. The team stockpiled on cornerbacks during the draft, and their safeties are healthy once again. Unlike 2007, Schobel appears to have plenty of help as he makes his bid to return to 2006 form. He no longer will be asked to carry this defense - but especially on passing downs, he'll be asked to be the unit's catalyst.
Should there be a question, then, whether or not Schobel can return to form? Even during his excellent 14-sack '06 season, Schobel still had stretches in which his presence was not felt. Defenses generally have an easier go of containing Schobel than they do with the league's truly elite pass rushers. Schobel can be a problem for opposing offenses, but he's not a constant force to be reckoned with. The Bills are betting a lot on their shiny new defensive toys to change that; you can make the argument that Stroud is now the team's most important defender, but I'd still give the slight edge to Schobel. This team needs a consistent pass rush more than anything.
Schobel himself, however, doesn't care what his stats look like, so long as they're not giving up points and the team is winning. His head, at least, is in the right place.
"It's all about points. That's what matters. As long as we're not giving up a lot of points and we're creating turnovers, I don't care about the rankings. As long as we're playing and not giving up points, that's what's important. It's points, period."
The excuses have been made, and far more importantly, they've been made non-excuses. Not only does Schobel have help defensively now, he has a lot of it. The front office, through several calculating moves, has put together a deep, versatile, athletic and very fast defense. There are no more excuses for Buffalo's highest-paid player. Time well tell whether or not we'll see 2006 Aaron Schobel or 2007 Aaron Schobel in 2008.