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Five Buffalo Bills Questions With Mike Tanier (Football Outsiders)

It's tough to say that the folks at Football Outsiders are high on the Buffalo Bills heading into the 2011 season, but they're certainly not as low on them as what we might call the traditional pre-season stance afforded the team. In FO's latest DVOA projections for the new year - which vary only slightly from what is published in this year's FO Almanac - the Bills come in at No. 19 in the NFL, and are projected for 7.7 wins this year. (They were projected for 5.2 wins in 2010.)

I got the opportunity to send a few questions to Mike Tanier, who authored the Bills chapter in this year's Almanac. Head on in after the jump for his take on Chan Gailey's offense, an interesting player comparison for David Nelson, and much more.

The essential guide to the 2011 season, the book that correctly predicted 9 of 12 playoff teams last year, fully updated with post-lockout free agency and trades. Buy Football Outsiders Almanac 2011 (PDF).

Buffalo Rumblings: You describe Chan Gailey's offense as a "gadget-heavy amalgam" and as "wide-open lunacy," which may or may not have competing connotations. My question: do you view Gailey's scheme favorably, knowing what Buffalo's offensive personnel looks like? Or would you try something different in his shoes?

Mike Tanier: I love watching Gailey's offense, and he is a great coach to have when your offensive personnel isn't great. As I said in the chapter, at least Gailey was doing "something" when he spread the field, ran all kinds of different formations, tried out different receivers, and so on: he was trying new things and putting his best players in position to do what they are good at. There is nothing a Gailey can do when the overall talent is lacking, though, and it has been so long since Gailey has been anything but an emergency-management coach that I am not sure how he will adjust his system if the offensive line gels and Ryan Fitzpatrick really takes a step forward. Maybe he will suddenly go back to his old vanilla Cowboys playbooks.

BR: It's interesting that you compare David Nelson to Muhsin Muhammad. Bills fans are high on Nelson, but as the team's receiving corps has changed, it's been other players - chiefly Donald Jones - getting looks ahead of Nelson. Does this surprise you as much as it surprises us?

MT: Absolutely. Nelson looked solid last year and seems to be a good system fit: that offense really needs a big guy who can run crossing routes. Jones looks like a pretty solid prospect, too. My guess is that the Bills are looking specifically to fill the Lee Evans role right now: the deep guy. Nelson is not that guy.

BR: You note that the Bills averaged a league-worst 2.8 yards per carry on draws, yet it seemed like Gailey dialed up a lot of them. I'd love to hear you comment on the style of Buffalo's running game in general, as we're still adjusting to its inherent finesse style (as opposed to a power running game).

MT: I think the big problem on draws was that the Bills line still is not very good, and that C.J. Spiller did not really have a feel for running them. With Gailey, you are going to always have lots of delays, draws, and runs from the shotgun. I don't think of them as "finesse" runs, because finesse is really a veiled insult in the NFL a lot of times. They are timing-based, and when the offensive line is in flux and the rookie running back does not know how to throttle down his approach, those plays can be hard to master.

BR: There's optimism expressed regarding Demetrius Bell in the Almanac, while the opposite is true of Kraig Urbik. Yet Bell's job may be given to left guard Andy Levitre, while Urbik's right guard spot goes unchallenged. What gives?

MT: There's a big difference between left tackle and right guard, of course. I saw that Levitre has been taking snaps at left tackle, and that does not surprise me because he is the Bills' best lineman at this point. I think Bell has the potential to be a decent left tackle, but at that position, coaches don't always have the luxury of waiting for a player to improve.

BR: It's noted that Leodis McKelvin gave up nine plays of 25 or more yards last season. He's entering his fourth year, and Gailey has made it known that it's put up or shut up time for him. Is it safe to say that the team should start Drayton Florence and Terrence McGee ahead of him?

MT: Keep in mind that nickel corners play more than half of a team's defensive snaps these days. As the nickel guy, McKelvin will probably have to cover guys like Deion Branch or Derrick Mason. It's not a matter of who starts ahead of him, it's putting him in a position to match up against players he can cover. Part of that may be using him underneath more often in zone coverage. Part of it must come from McKelvin.