When the Buffalo Bills hired George Edwards as the team's new defensive coordinator on February 4, it was announced that the team would be transitioning from the 4-3 zone-style defense implemented by previous head coach Dick Jauron to the 3-4 defense Edwards worked in with Cleveland and Miami. Switching from a defensive system that calls for light, quick personnel to a system that requires big, physical personnel is one of the more challenging transitions an NFL team can make.
After the Bills' free agent signings of former Ravens DE Dwan Edwards and former Broncos ILB Andra Davis on Tuesday, the team's 3-4 personnel is starting to take shape nicely.
With those two signings and a few tweaks to the depth chart, the Bills dramatically improved not only their starting lineup - where both Edwards and Davis will likely reside in Week 1 of the 2010 season - but their overall depth as well. While the Bills look much better equipped to move to the 3-4 today than they did yesterday, the team is still lacking personnel in the two most critical positional areas to this defensive system.
Buffalo's new system will call for physical, long-armed, two-gap players to control blockers and defend the run at defensive end. Marcus Stroud (6'6", 310 pounds) was always going to be a starter there; he's got the size, length and strength to control two gaps on the edge of the defense, and should be able to keep an inside linebacker and an outside linebacker clean on the vast majority of plays. Edwards (6'3", 315 pounds) is a similar player, and he'll team with Stroud to give the Bills two excellent run defenders as their starting ends.
Spencer Johnson (6'3", 286 pounds) is a more athletic player than Stroud or Edwards, but isn't necessarily capable of controlling two gaps. Johnson specializes in penetrating one gap, which should come in handy on passing downs as a rotational player. Kyle Williams (6'1", 306 pounds) is the wild card of the group; he's not a good fit physically at any traditional 3-4 defensive line position, but is active enough that he'll likely see a heap of rotational work at both end and nose tackle.
For the time being, John McCargo (6'2", 307), Corey Mace (6'3", 287) and Rashaad Duncan (6'2", 315) are in the mix as well.
Davis isn't making sure-fire starter's money, but the 6'1", 250-pound veteran of eight years has an inside track at a starting job in the middle thanks to his experience in the 3-4. If Davis is penciled in as a starter - and again, we think he will be - then there will be two competitors for the other starting job. Of those two, we think Paul Posluszny (6'1", 238) has the better chance at locking down a starting job.
That puts veteran Kawika Mitchell (6'1", 253) into wild card territory as well. He'll get an opportunity to start on the inside, but he's not as physical at the point of attack as Posluszny is, and could provide more value to the team as a reserve. Mitchell is not athletic enough to handle pass rushing duties on the outside, but would be a nice blitzing option on third downs from the inside, as Posluszny has traditionally struggled as a blitzer. Then again, Mitchell might just be the odd man out, though the Bills are hurting for depth at linebacker so badly at this time that it's hard to envision the veteran not making the roster in some capacity.
Keith Ellison (6'0", 229) could be a situational pass defender from the inside, but if the Bills make further investments at this position, he's not a lock to make the final roster. For now, Nic Harris (6'2", 232) and Jon Corto (6'1", 220) figure into the mix on the inside as well.
Buffalo has depth at end and linebacker, though particularly with linebacker, more could be safely had. For the moment, the Bills look well-equipped with personnel capable of excelling in the 3-4 at these two positions. Where the Bills lack, however, are at the two most important positions for a successful 3-4: nose tackle and outside linebacker.
Were the season to begin tomorrow, Kyle Williams would be the de facto starter here, and while Williams will certainly be a useful player next year, he's hardly ideal as a 3-4 nose tackle. He lacks the length, anchor and sheer size to control two blockers on a consistent basis, and while he could probably get you by in a pinch in that role, it wouldn't allow him to exploit his best talents - shooting gaps and making plays in the backfield.
Lonnie Harvey (6'3", 342) and Marlon Favorite (6'1", 295) factor in here as well, but both look more like project-type camp bodies than legitimate long-term answers. An end like Stroud or Edwards would be capable of taking snaps inside, but they aren't great fits at the nose, either.
The free agent market at nose tackle has dried up, but there are solid nose tackle prospects available via the NFL Draft this year, with Tennessee's Dan Williams (6'2", 327), Alabama's Terrence Cody (6'4", 354) and North Carolina's Cam Thomas (6'4", 330) widely considered the top three prospects available. All should be gone by the end of the second round given the demand for wide-bodied nose tackles around the league. Keep an eye on LSU's Al Woods (6'4", 309), as well.
Aaron Schobel's playing future is still in doubt, but if he decides to play again in 2010, he'll be doing it as a pass-rushing specialist from the OLB position. Schobel lacks the athletic chops that some of the league's elite 3-4 outside linebackers possess, but he's a consistent pass rusher that could excel simply because he'll be drawing different blocking assignments from his new position. He might not be an every-down player, but he'd be effective as a pass rusher in this alignment.
The jury is still out on second-year man Aaron Maybin, who had a horrendous rookie season in Perry Fewell's 4-3. Hope reigns supreme for Maybin (6'4", 250) in this alignment, as he has the quick first step and straight line speed to make a lot of noise at his new position. Maybin, who will turn 22 on April 6, is still maturing from a physical standpoint, and may need more time still to really become comfortable as a stand-up athlete in the NFL. His potential remains very good, but potential won't help Buffalo in 2010.
Beyond Schobel and Maybin, depth is scarce. Chris Kelsay and Chris Ellis will get looks at outside linebacker, but neither is athletic enough to be more than situational players at the position, and neither is an elite pass-rushing prospect in any capacity. In short, the Bills have a situational pass-rusher that might retire, a prospect that might be good but might also flame out, and two guys who don't fit the position.
That's precisely why I consider outside linebacker to be the team's more pressing need defensively, which isn't to diminish the urgency of the need at nose tackle at all. You need a nose tackle, yes, but you also need athletes that can get after the quarterback. Buffalo needs to look hard at this year's top pass rushing prospects athletic enough to man a 3-4 OLB position. My top six in no particular order at that position include Michigan's Brandon Graham (6'1", 268), South Florida's Jason Pierre-Paul (6'5", 270), TCU's Jerry Hughes (6'2", 255), Texas' Sergio Kindle (6'3", 250), USC's Everson Griffen (6'3", 273) and Clemson's Ricky Sapp (6'4", 252). All would be excellent picks for the Bills, and all could push for a starting spot on the outside immediately, even if Schobel decides to play.