Back in April of 2008, when Round 3 of the 2008 NFL Draft began, the Buffalo Bills had already added two players to its roster - cornerback Leodis McKelvin and wide receiver James Hardy. Fans expected the Bills to address the offensive line (Kansas' Anthony Collins was a big name that year), tight end (fans liked Jermichael Finley, Martin Rucker and Brad Cottam), or linebacker positions (Dan Connor had a huge following the year after the Bills picked Paul Posluszny). An undersized defensive end with great speed, like Bruce Davis or Cliff Avril, was not a terribly popular scenario.
Buffalo played that scenario, but not with a pure speed rusher. Instead, the Bills selected Virginia Tech end Chris Ellis with that pick. Fans saw the logic - pass-rushers have been a need with this team for years - but reaction to the player was muted. Any initial excitement to the pick has deteriorated greatly since then, as Ellis has struggled to stick on the roster since his rookie year, has appeared in just ten NFL games, and has eight tackles to his name in two years. That makes Aaron Maybin look super productive, folks.
When the Bills, under new coaches Chan Gailey and George Edwards, announced that they'd be transitioning to the 3-4 alignment in 2010, many wondered how the decision would affect the team's incumbent 4-3 defensive ends. Ellis (6'4", 260 pounds) was one of those players. If what we saw Friday night was any indication, Ellis is answering his doubters with surprisingly snappy retorts.
With veteran end Chris Kelsay - for now, the projected starter at OLB on the strong side - temporarily shelved with a shoulder injury, Ellis began taking reps with the first team on the strong side in Kelsay's stead Thursday. On the surface, this might have been just a formality, as Ellis had been with the team longer than deeper reserves Danny Batten and Antonio Coleman. It might also have had something to do with the fact that Batten and Coleman, both rookies, have been getting more time on the weak side than on the strong side.
But Ellis has looked good in his new role, albeit in the very little time we've seen him doing it. It's just one practice, folks, but the biggest concern with Ellis was how he'd move in space - and while he's certainly not as athletic as Maybin or the aforementioned rookies, Ellis looked smooth covering the flats and rushing from a standing position. On several occasions Friday night, Ellis was able to beat starting right tackle Cornell Green cleanly, and showed good pursuit in logging hurries when Bills quarterbacks ran bootlegs.
Buffalo is installing some 4-3 looks, as well, and from what we saw Friday night, Ellis would flip over to the weak side on those occasions, playing from a three-point stance as part of the defensive line, with one inside linebacker and the other outside linebacker lined up behind the defensive front four. Again, Ellis looked comfortable here, showing nice burst and good hand use in taking on blockers in run fits.
Ellis was very much on the roster bubble in 2009 before a strong close to the pre-season secured his roster spot. Naturally, with Gailey now running the team, one practice will hardly secure Ellis a roster spot - and there is a lot of competition at this position, particularly if Aaron Schobel decides to return. Ellis will need to perform consistently in the practice setting - that's the first step - and, far more importantly, will need to show as well as he did last pre-season. If he does those things, he'll not only make the team, but could push Kelsay for the starting strong-side job.
There's a long way to go, but Ellis has cleared one major hurdle - he looks comfortable in his new role, and athletic enough to pull it off. That's a start.