Buffalo Bills training camp resumes this afternoon after an off day, but before we get to that, let's sneak in another reader-submitted question, this time regarding "x-factors" for the Bills heading into the 2012 season.
"Brian," writes Kate, "who do you consider x-factors for the Bills this year? And if you have some in mind, what are the chances that they actually contribute?"
To me, an "x-factor" is a player that has serious questions surrounding him. The player might be one that carries high hopes, but may also lack the burden of high expectations. In essence, this is a player that doesn't necessarily hurt the team if he doesn't contribute, but could change the perception of the team if he does.
As it turns out, I believe that there are two players currently with the Bills that fit that definition very snugly. I discuss after the jump, and will happily join the ensuing comment conversation, as well.
X-FACTOR, OFFENSE: BRAD SMITH
At this point, we have a very good basic understanding of what Chan Gailey's offense looks like from a foundational standpoint - we've talked about it here, here and here for those that have missed it. Yes, the Bills need to get better within the context of said foundation, and they can. But that shouldn't stop them from expanding on the foundation, and that process begins with Brad Smith.
Fans had high hopes for Smith in 2011 after the team signed the flashy slash player to a four-year, $15 million contract last summer after the lockout ended. Yet the lockout stunted the development of Smith's role in Gailey's offense; he spent the early portions of the season playing a limited Wildcat role and moonlighting as an occasional slot receiver before injuries forced him to play wideout full-time. He finished the year with 87 rushing yards, 240 receiving yards and two touchdowns.
That disappointing statistical output, however, has driven from the minds of fans the fact that Gailey likened Smith to Kordell Stewart when the signing was made a year ago. In Gailey's first year as offensive coordinator with Pittsburgh in 1996 - the year before Stewart became the starting quarterback - the original "slash" scored eight touchdowns on just 56 offensive touches (39 runs and 17 receptions). The following year as the full-time starter, Stewart managed 11 rushing touchdowns on 88 carries.
Yes, Gailey was speaking more to the role than to the statistical expectations when comparing Stewart and Young, and Smith may never reach a point where he's adding 8-11 touchdowns per season (though that would obviously be nice). But would it really shock any of us if, similar to Stewart in '96, Smith attempted 20-30 passes, nabbed 20-30 receptions and ran the ball 30-50 times this season? It's a secondary (or maybe even tertiary) role, but the offense is still the offense without it, and if the wrinkle can lead to points and third down conversions, it could be a big ace in the hole for Gailey.
X-FACTOR, DEFENSE: SHAWNE MERRIMAN
On the defensive side of the ball, we don't have as firm a grasp of the system as we do on offense, but we know enough to be getting on with: Dave Wannstedt's defense will rely on an active defensive front and a fast, play-making back seven to get the job done. After getting a lot of TLC from the personnel department over the past two years, Buffalo's defensive line looks fantastic on paper.
I look specifically to defensive end, however, to find the x-factor. The team's top trio of Mario Williams, Mark Anderson and Chris Kelsay looks good enough, but Shawne Merriman - or the Shawne Merriman of yesteryear, at least - could launch that group into the stratosphere.
Without Merriman, Buffalo's defensive end position will still reliably go three deep before the experimentation begins (i.e. they start using a guy like Spencer Johnson outside, as the chief example). The Bills will still have a superstar, a pass-rushing specialist and a dependable base end regardless of whether or not Merriman has finally kicked and recovered from the various injuries and surgeries he's dealt with over the last four seasons. And, if Merriman can play but looks like the Merriman we saw early in 2011, it's essentially the same situation, but with an additional warm body on the roster.
If Merriman comes back as even half of the player that he was in his first three seasons, however - and Gailey seems to think that's quite possible - then the Bills will essentially have themselves two situational pass rushers. It's not unreasonable to think that Merriman, even if only a shadow of his former self if he's healthy enough to produce, can add 6-9 sacks in a limited role. Anderson recorded 10 with New England last year while playing less than 50 percent of the team's snaps; Merriman, I believe, is capable of producing in that role in Buffalo. Health is the only (massive) hurdle in his way.
Who are your x-factors, Bills fans?