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Schobel holds keys to Bills' D efforts in 2009

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Schobel has questions to answer in 2009 (Getty Images)

In August of 2007, the Buffalo Bills handed out the (then) richest contract in team history when they signed DE Aaron Schobel to a 7-year, $50 million contract with $21 million in guarantees. The record-setting contract guaranteed the base salaries of the first four years of Schobel's deal, which amounts to $17.525 million ($12.525 million of which has yet to be paid). The deal cemented Schobel's status as a likely "Bill for life", and it rewarded Schobel for a solid career in which, up until the point the contract was signed, the end had averaged a hair over 10 sacks per season.

Long story short, in two full NFL seasons since the ink dried on Schobel's deal, the Bills have gotten just 21 games, 7.5 sacks, five forced fumbles and one serious foot injury out of Schobel.

Now, with the Bills facing a "playoffs or blow it up and start from scatch" ultimatum in 2009, it's Schobel - a player that many Bills fans are conflicted over - that holds the keys to Buffalo's defensive success next season.

Schobel's foot injury
2008 marked the first season in which Schobel did not appear in all 16 games in a season in his entire eight-year NFL career. The Lisfranc foot injury he suffered - an injury that occurs in the arch between toes and ankle - is the type of injury that takes months to heal. Schobel made a valiant effort to return to the Bills' lineup prior to the end of the regular season, but ended up on IR as his foot could not heal to the point where he could bear the pain of even a workout.

It was announced yesterday, however, that Schobel will not require off-season surgery to repair the issue. According to the report, Schobel is largely pain-free right now and believes that he'll be completely healthy by the time training camp rolls around this July.

If Schobel is correct, it's the best news we've heard about him in quite some time. Even prior to his season-ending injury, many Bills fans believed that Schobel had begun his descent down the slippery slop that is being a 30-something in the NFL.

Can Schobel regain former impact?
When Buffalo transitioned to a Cover-2 defense upon the arrival of Dick Jauron and Perry Fewell in Buffalo in 2006, Schobel quickly adjusted to the new defense by posting his best season statistically (14 sacks, four forced fumbles) and earning his first Pro Bowl invitation. In 2007, his sack total dropped by more than half, and he in general lacked the impact that he had had during the early portion of his Bills tenure. 2008 was looking bleaker prior to his injury, with Schobel picking up just one sack in Buffalo's first four games.

The biggest question marks surrounding Schobel, unfortunately, do not surround his ability to recover from the aforementioned foot injury. The true concerns center around whether or not Schobel is amidst the final decline of a solid, productive career. While Bills fans wonder if Schobel can ever be the steady contributor he once was again, Schobel himself has repeatedly (and adamantly) opposed the idea that he's on the decline.

“I don’t want to just be an average player,” [Schobel] said. “I want to feel like I’m one of the best, if not the best, and that’s how I’m going to prepare and that’s the mindset I’m going to take into (the off-season). Hopefully it works out that I prove people that think I’m over the hill wrong.”

Prophecy or denial? That's the big question here. Regardless of the answer, Schobel's contributions next season will be the tipping point between typical (read: very average) Bills defense and a potential Top-10 unit.

Like it or not, Schobel's the centerpiece
Any Bills fan that pays even the slightest bit of attention knows where the Bills need to get better defensively. Even when Schobel is healthy, the team's pass rush ranks amongst the league's least explosive. Safety play has been incredibly average. Depending on what happens with fellow IR-buddy and unrestricted free agent Angelo Crowell, strong-side linebacker is a need. The team could still use some help in its defensive tackle rotation.

Buffalo could go out and fill every one of those needs tomorrow and then some, and do it in an incredibly satisfying way to both the coaching staff and the fan base. That wouldn't change the fact that success hinges on Schobel in 2009. Even if the Bills were to find an impact rookie at defensive end, Schobel still needs to play the bookend role well. Even if the Bills find playmakers for their holes in the back seven, they'll need Schobel's pass rush to achieve the greatest payoff.

It's in the contract; it's in the investment. It's in Schobel's established credibility. It's in the methodical pace at which the Bills choose to address their holes, particularly under the current regime. Rookies and free agents can only help so much. This is a critical off-season not only for Schobel, his goals and his injury, but by extension for the entire defensive success the Bills hope to enjoy next season. No matter what, he remains the centerpiece of Buffalo's defense. Like it or not, it's the veteran end that holds the keys to success or failure in 2009.