Roughly a year ago now, the Buffalo Bills were planning on moving to a 4-3 defensive alignment under new coordinator Dave Wannstedt. That decision necessitated an influx of talent at the defensive end position; roughly two months later, the team had signed Mario Williams to the richest contract ever handed to a defender in NFL history, and had also thrown considerable cash at the little-known Mark Anderson.
The results of their efforts? Mixed at best. Hampered early by a wrist injury, Williams accumulated 10.5 sacks - the most by a Bill since 2006 - while somehow leaving a lot to be desired. Anderson appeared in five games and recorded one sack before a knee injury, which eventually required two surgeries, derailed the rest of his season. The Bills accrued 36 sacks on the season - only eight more than in 2011, and good for a No. 18 ranking in the league - and the position could be in for more upheaval this off-season with a new defensive coordinator (Mike Pettine) in place.
- Age: 27 (28 on January 31)
- Contract: Signed through the 2017 season. Owed an $8 million option bonus at the start of the new league year; will get a $500,000 workout bonus, as well. Has a fully guaranteed $6.5 million base salary in 2013.
Hampered early on in the season by a wrist injury that required surgery during the bye week, Williams had an up and down first season in Buffalo as the richest defender in NFL history. He accumulated just 3.5 sacks in his first seven games (prior to surgery) - and all 3.5 came in two of those seven games - before recording another seven sacks in the six games following the bye, including a three-sack performance in Indianapolis. He was then a complete non-factor in the Bills' final three games. But then, no Bills defensive lineman was on the field more than Williams in 2012 despite his injury; perhaps he just ran out of gas along with the rest of the team.
Williams flashed dominance, but also disappeared far too often. That has been his modus operandi throughout his professional career; it's why Houston didn't fight particularly hard to re-sign him last off-season, and it's why he'll have a large contingent of detractors for the rest of his career. (Unless, of course, he bucks that trend and becomes the consistently dominant force he's capable of being.)
Regardless of anyone's personal opinion on Williams - and that will include Pettine - Williams remains the centerpiece of Buffalo's defense. You're likely going to see him moving around a bit more in Pettine's more aggressive and versatile defense, but his job description won't change: rush the passer and set the edge in the run game. Williams is capable of putting up much bigger numbers and much more consistent play than he did in 2012; that will be the expectation in 2013, when he'll rake in a cool $15 million.
- Age: 29 (30 in May 2013)
- Contract: Signed through the 2015 season. Owed a $1.5 million option bonus at the start of the new league year; will get a $100,000 workout bonus, as well. Scheduled to make $2.4 million in base salary in 2013.
In the first quarter of the season, when Anderson was healthy, he was getting nearly as much playing time as Williams, recording 199 snaps to Williams' 231 in that four-game span. Then he got hurt in Week 5 at San Francisco, had two knee surgeries in the next three months and didn't play another snap all season. We don't have a lot to go on with Anderson - in his brief appearance this season he looked weak against the run and middling to bad rushing the passer - but he'll be here next year, perhaps even as a starter, so we're left to keep an open mind.
- Age: 26 (27 in October 2013)
- Contract: Unrestricted Free Agent
For a brief period of time, Moore was all the rage for the Bills. In an unexpected mid-season stretch, Moore was the team's best pass rusher, though he only wound up with three sacks to show for it. By the time the season came to an end, however, Moore had been moved out of the starting lineup in favor of Shawne Merriman thanks to his horrendous play against the run; even though Moore played more snaps than any end other than Williams, the unrestricted free agent is clearly a one-dimensional player - and as that dimension is valued on the open market, he could very well get starter-level contract offers.
Fans have had Moore on their proverbial re-signing wish list for months; with a new coaching staff coming in, fans should begin to embrace the possibility that Moore might not be back.
- Age: 33 (34 in October 2013)
- Contract: Signed through the 2014 season. Scheduled to make a $3.7 million base salary in 2013.
For the first time in his career, Kelsay suffered a serious injury (this one to his neck) and landed on Injured Reserve. He's now missed 11 games in the last two seasons due to injury, and it may be that the veteran is simply reaching the end of the road after spending the last decade playing the position. We have heard rumors that Kelsay is considering retirement; if he does decide to continue playing, he may not get the opportunity to do so in Buffalo. The time seems ripe for Kelsay and the Bills to part ways.
- Age: 28 (29 in May 2013)
- Contract: Unrestricted Free Agent
The Bills released Merriman in August well before they were required to make final cuts, only to pluck Merriman back off the beach in Week 7 after injuries had decimated the team's depth at the position. Merriman wound up appearing in 10 games, averaging just over 20 snaps per game in a reserve role. He recorded 17 tackles and a sack. An unrestricted free agent, Merriman may not be retained as the Bills transition to a new coaching staff with a new scheme.
Free agency outlook: Depending on how good Pettine and his defensive coaches are at overlooking how poor Moore is against the run, the team may wish to bring him back as a situational pass rusher - if they can do so and beat out other teams on the open market in the process. Merriman seems less likely to return, and we doubt that Kelsay's career will continue in Buffalo, either. We're looking at the possibility of the Bills needing a complete depth overhaul in the pass rushing department.
2013 NFL Draft outlook: If the Bills add a pass rusher (or pass rushers) this April, look for the team to focus those efforts on players that can add some positional versatility to Pettine's scheme - i.e. players that can stand up and rush the passer if Pettine wants to fold in some 3-4 looks. This year's draft class is top-heavy with that type of prospect, which should put names like Damontre Moore (Texas A&M), Barkevious Mingo (LSU), Jarvis Jones (Georgia), Ezekiel Ansah (BYU) and Dion Jordan (Oregon) squarely on the radar of Bills fans contemplating the direction the team might take with the No. 8 overall pick.
Discussion topic: We've got two questions for you to discuss as a group pertaining to the Bills' current stable of pass rushers.
- Functionally, Anderson and Moore are similar in that they are billed as good pass rushers and poor against the run. Would re-signing Moore make sense given the potential redundancy there?
- Assuming you're keeping an open mind about the No. 8 overall pick in April, would you at all be surprised to see GM Buddy Nix again focus on the defense and draft one of the versatile pass-rushing prospects listed above?