Leading up to the 2011 NFL Draft, the name most frequently linked to the Buffalo Bills was that of Texas A&M outside linebacker Von Miller. By now, you're well aware that Miller was off the board before the Bills selected defensive end Marcell Dareus, and you're probably also aware that the Bills accepted the status quo at rush linebacker through draft weekend.
That means the Bills are going to be heavily reliant on Shawne Merriman next year. They'll also be counting on one (or more) of five young pass rushers to develop. The team is, without doubt, gambling at this position - and yes, we're working under the assumption that the team won't add a rusher once free agency begins.
Merriman has been in the organization for six months at this point, and obviously has yet to play a down after landing on IR to end his 2010 season. Still, the Bills saw fit to sign Merriman to a lucrative two-year contract extension. Merriman, who has played in 18 of a possible 48 games over the last three years, has recorded just four sacks in that time frame - as opposed to, by my count, five different injuries.
There's little question at this point that the Bills are counting on a healthy Merriman to be the crux of the team's pass rushing efforts. He's not the only player they're relying on to step up, however, as there's a group if five young pass rushers that will be asked to develop and contribute quickly, as well. (Because let's face it - for all of the good that Chris Kelsay offers, he's never been a dominant pass rusher, and is out of position standing up.)
That group includes the likes of Arthur Moats, Antonio Coleman, Danny Batten, Jammie Kirlew and, yes, even Aaron Maybin. Every one of those players - with the exception of Batten, who landed on IR, and Kirlew, who only spent part of his rookie season on Buffalo's practice squad - has a year of experience as an outside linebacker in the Bills' system. The only player that has flashed significantly is Moats, who recorded three sacks as a rookie and has developed something of a cult following within the fan base.
This isn't a terrible situation that the Bills find themselves in, by any means. A chance exists that Merriman finally stays healthy and is, at the very least, enough of a threat to make opponents focus on him. There is also a solid amount of natural ability in that group of developing players - enough, in fact, that it's not unreasonable to expect one or more of them to emerge as a viable option this season.
The only question, then, is how soon the team can expect productivity. Development takes time. It may also take time for Merriman to shake off, in essence, three years' worth of rust - again assuming he's healthy to begin with. Here's hoping it doesn't take too long.