Wow. I mean, "Wow!" It has been a loooooong time, but I think I'm actually a bit excited to be a Bills fan again. I guess I feel like Godzilla in one of those old Japanese monster movies. You know, hibernating for years, finally awoken. Stretch, yawn, come to life. It's been like that for Bills' fans for quite some time now.
Yeah, there have been occasional teases. The Bills rode a really weak stretch of their schedule a few years ago to the brink of the playoffs, only to lose, AT HOME, to Pittsburgh, who had their 9th stringers in the game, thus missing the playoffs. The occasional tease also occured when players the Bills acquired were overhyped, sold as something they were not. Off the top of my head, I can think of J.P. Losman, Willis Magahee, London Fletcher, Drew Bledsoe, etc. as examples of guys who, while maybe not bad, were not what previous management suggested.
However, two years ago things began to change. A new regime came in, and wasn't fooled by that aforementioned false hope provided by that illusory "run" towards the playoffs. The Bills weren't very good, especially in the trenches, and they had a lot of aging players that were not worth their salaries. They dumped the old guys, took the predictable media hits that, while ridiculous, were inevitable given that these were name players (never mind that they were so good, the Bills never made the playoffs with any of them). Takeo Spikes, Nate Clements, London Fletcher, Willis Magahee, etc. What, exactly, did any of them do last year with their other teams? Only Washington even made the playoffs, and were promptly bounced in the first round. But the media went after Bills management for letting all of the "marquee" players go. Where are the apologies to Marv Levy, who in retrospect was on the money in terms of dumping those guys (oh yeah, I'll throw in Darwin Walker, who was built up by the media as a "savior" last year when Marv traded him - I missed him at the Pro Bowl...)
Instead, Marv Levy and company infused the team with some much needed youth. They went after players who could fit in their system, who were athletic, and who are young. Two straight drafts where they landed solid players. In addition, they made the effort to revamp the trenches. Last year, it was the offensive line. Over the previous decade, no area of this team had been more neglected than the O-Line, which was truly offensive. While other teams' scouting reports would laugh at our front five, Tom Donahue would continue to go after specialty skill position players like Losman, Magahee, and Parrish. None of that matters if there is no blocking.
Now, the Bills have revamped their D-Line, taking it from a weakness to a strength. With the additions of Marcus Stroud, Kawika Mitchell, and Spencer Johnson, this defense looks 100% better. Here's why:
1) Marcus Stroud finally gives the Bills an athletic run-stuffer in the middle. When healthy, he will often command a double team, which will allow John McCargo to continue his progression. Everything I've read has said McCargo was really coming on at the end of klast year. DTs generally take a bit longer to develop, and McCargo's injuries set him back a bit further. Even after cutting Larry Triplett, the Bills now, with Johnson, also appear to have some depth as well.
2) Chris Kelsay and Aaaron Schobel just got better. With the significant upgrade in the middle, the DEs can't be double teamed as much. I've read many posts that believe Schobel is the big beneficiary here, but I'm thinking Kelsay will be a big surprise. He's a high motor guy - a guy that can't get it done when he's the main focus, but a dangerous guy when he's an afterthought for the opposing team's gameplan. I think he may thrive with all the attention the other guys will command.
3) The linebacking core - this could be fun! Paul Posluszny, Angelo Crowell, and Kawika Mitchell form a really nice group, with the potential to be even more. This is especially true if the front four do what is expected of them. Man, the Bills haven't had a truly attacking defense in a long time, and even in the Cover-2, I think this front seven has the potential to be nasty (again, I don't think I've been able to say that since Bruce Smith, Cornelius Bennett, and Darryl Talley were anchoring the defense).
4) Similarly, the secondary also stands to benefit. The corners did a better job than people thought they would, but there were games last year where it seemed like they had to cover people forever. With the front seven more improved, they won't be as exposed.
Okay, so what happens next? Rumors abound regarding Bryant Johnson, who I understand is in Buffalo today. I've also heard the name Ben Troupe thrown out there. Lee Evans is entering a contract year, and Trent Edwards is only a second year guy. Losman is still here, also going into a contract year. What has to happen? My opinion:
1) Need to draft a WR in either the first or second round, regardless of whether we sign Bryant Johnson or not. There is no guarantee Lee Evans will be here more than one more year, and true contenders tends to have three solid wid outs. Also, most WRs need some time to develop - if Lee Evans does walk, we want his replacement now, not next year.
2) Another CB. This is an obvious area of need, despite their overachievement last year. In addition, you can never have too much depth, and if you are going to compete with the Patriots, you'd better have numerous cover guys on your team.
3) More D-Linemen. Can't have too many, and Stroud's injury history means we want even more meat ready to man the trenches, if necessary. And, like WR and QB, interior D-Linemen usually take a little longer to come around.
4) More interior O-Lineman - especially someone to replace Melvin Fowler. Fortunately, good guards and centers are usually available later in drafts.
5) Pass catching TE - especaily if we don't get Troupe.
6) Depth Depth Depth!!! What is truly sweet about the Stroud deal is that we used accululated picks to get him, we still have a full complement of picks in this draft, as well as some possible compensatory picks (won't be much, because of the O-Line signings, but we might get a 6th and/or 7th rounder). Part of the reason for the Giants' success this year is that they had a fantastic draft last year, especially the later rounds. When guys went down, others stepped in. We need that.
Outlook - obviously, a lot depends on the rest of free agency, as well as the draft. Also, you simply can't figure out the injury factor - last year was atrocious for injuries, and I'd like to think that would even out, but you never know. In addition, the Patriots are still in the division. We're closer, but they are still, by far, the team to bet. You've also got the Colts, Steelers, Jags, Titans, and Chargers, not to mention the rapidly ascending Browns. The AFC is simply killer. But, for the first time in a long time, it looks like we are moving in the right direction again!