Over the past three weeks, we've spent a good chunk of time talking about the ten Buffalo Bills players that may hold the greatest influence over the team's fortunes in 2010. That series concludes this afternoon, as we've reached the player that I believe is most critical - by a rather gigantic margin - to Buffalo's success or failure next year.
That player is second-year pass rusher Aaron Maybin.
I'm not trying to diminish the importance of other positions (quarterback, left tackle) or players (most of whom have already appeared in this series). A very large number of young players on this team are vitally important not just to the 2010 season, but for the team's foreseeable future. But if we're talking about a combination of positional importance, investment, potential, and critical analysis of the roster, no single player is more important to the Bills' cause than Maybin.
That might not be fair; he's barely 22 years old, still coming into his own athletically, and is learning a new position. But the expectations exist whether I write this article or not, simply because Maybin was the No. 11 overall pick of the 2009 NFL Draft. So no, it's not necessarily fair. But Maybin does, indeed, face enormous pressure to produce as he enters his second pro season.
When veteran pass rusher Aaron Schobel informed the Bills that he wouldn't be joining the team any time soon, Buffalo's pass rushing depth chart - already thin and heavily unproven - transformed into something closely resembling a train wreck. The free agent addition of Reggie Torbor doesn't help matters, as he's spent most of his career as an inside linebacker. Buffalo's career leader in sacks is currently Marcus Stroud (26.5), who won't be striking fear into the hearts of Tom Brady, Mark Sanchez or Chad Henne any time soon with his pass-rushing prowess.
Consider that the six players on the roster projected to play outside linebacker - keep in mind that all six likely won't make the final roster - have combined for 28.5 career sacks. Then consider that each of those 28.5 sacks come from two players - Torbor (6.5) and Chris Kelsay (22). That means that two-thirds of Buffalo's outside linebackers have never sacked a quarterback at the NFL level. Maybin belongs to that group, along with 2008 third-round pick Chris Ellis and two rookies - Danny Batten and Antonio Coleman.
If Trent Edwards' career with the Bills has taught us anything, it's that any quarterback, regardless of skill, confidence level or circumstance, can carve up an opposing defense that lacks teeth in its pass rush. Edwards has proven himself one of the most efficient game managers in the league in those rare instances he's had time to make decisions. You'll see quarterbacks with far less skill than Edwards do the same thing against these types of teams. Buffalo's looking at a long season if it cannot find a way to pressure not just Brady - who feasts on Buffalo annually - but Sanchez and Henne, as well, even though both struggled against Buffalo a year ago.
New defensive coordinator George Edwards will need to be creative at the start of the season if he wants to generate pressure on quarterbacks right away - because there is a very serious problem at OLB in Buffalo, and Maybin may or may not be able to fix it right away.
Yes, it's true that one of Buffalo's current outside linebackers could step up to the plate before Maybin. Torbor, or a rookie like Batten - a player I'm very high on - could surprise. But it's no secret that we'll be looking to Maybin first and foremost, not just because he's by far the most athletically talented linebacker on the roster, but because his represents a level of organizational investment that just isn't present when talking about any other OLB.
Maybin has not rushed from a standing position very frequently in his incredibly brief football career. He struggled with his hand on the ground as a rookie, unable to earn much playing time and not being terribly effective when he did see the field. He ended his rookie season with 18 tackles and one forced fumble, and most of that production came from his work on special teams.
Edwards has preached playing to a player's strengths since the moment he got here, and Maybin's got a few critical strengths - his first step, his hustle, and his length. Buffalo will likely explore ways to let Maybin rush from a standing position as well as with a hand on the ground, not just to help ease his transition to OLB, but to try to keep opponents off-balance. But scheming can only get you so far. It's on Maybin to flash something - anything - in the way of natural pass-rushing ability, which he displayed in spades at Penn State, but hasn't produced yet in Buffalo.
There are plenty of scary positional situations in Buffalo right now. At those scary positions, there are plenty of very green players that need to step up - and if they don't, Buffalo's in for a long season. I firmly believe that the pass rush is the Bills' most pressing area of concern entering the new year, and with Schobel out of the picture, there is an enormous amount of pressure on No. 58 to not only improve on a (to be kind) very quiet rookie year, but emerge as the team's best pass rusher. I'm guessing that we won't see any Bills player this year that's met with as much criticism or praise as Maybin, depending on how his 2010 season unfolds.
Ten Bills To Decide 2010
10. G/C Eric Wood
9. ILB Andra Davis
8. CB Leodis McKelvin
7. RB Fred Jackson
6. FS Jairus Byrd
5. NT Torell Troup
4. QB Trent Edwards
3. RB C.J. Spiller
2. LT Demetrius Bell