8/9/11 – State of the Bills Roster

So with the Bills heading to Chicago in less than a week to play their first game since January, albeit preseason, it’s time to take a look at what’s changed in the recent weeks.

Since the lockout’s been lifted, Buffalo has been making moves to further their football team, many of them substantial. Unfortunately, some areas in dire need of improvement still haven’t been tackled, but there are still a few rounds of cuts to go before the games matter and rosters go final.

QUARTERBACKS

Gailey is set on his starting quarterback going forward, at least throughout this season, and it’s undoubtedly Ryan Fitzpatrick. He made that point excruciatingly clear to Tyler Thigpen, formerly of the Miami Dolphins and Kansas City Chiefs, before signing him shortly after free agency opened up recently. Thigpen will be the #2 quarterback, and his upside is huge in that role – having had a high level of success with Gailey as his coordinator during a starting stint with the Chiefs a few years back. He has good size, zip, and athleticism, and knows the system – huge in a period with such limited preparation time. The team also added former Jet Brad Smith, a jack-of-all-trades type of guy who is listed here as a quarterback, and will be how Gailey takes advantage of the new league rule that allows your 3rd quarterback to both dress and be an active game participant. Smith will be the third quarterback, but will probably see the field a lot more than the majority of the ’emergency’ quarterbacks around the league as he will be slotted into various spread, shotgun, and pistol formations. Smith is also a wideout, tailback, and kick returner. Should be an explosive piece for this offense and is a great addition. Former Georgia Tech QB Josh Nesbitt was also added, and he can also play tailback and safety but he – and last years’ 7th round selection Levi Brown – likely won’t make the team, looking more like camp arms for now to spell the top three signal callers.

RUNNINGBACKS

Fred Jackson is sticking as the starter, and looks just as solid as he did last year. On the rise, though is second year tailback CJ Spiller. Spiller seems to have filled out his frame a bit and picked up on the little things that were keeping him off the field last year. He’s now more willing to take on contact, better between the hashes, and more reluctant to try and bring the play to the edge, where his natural speed just wasn’t matching the talent level of the opposition last year. Another major upgrade that will help Spiller see the field is his increased pass blocking ability. Anything is an improvement over where he was at in that department last year, but he is looking much, much better there now. Gone is last year’s equivalent of a power back in Quinton Ganther, stepping into that role looks to be 4th round rookie Johnny White out of UNC. White has good size and is more quick than fast, but has been showing a knack for finding the hole and shedding contact thus far in camp. Behind him, currently, are former UNC teammate Anthony Elzy and former Bills camp standout Bruce Hall – neither of which will make the team, especially after only being brought on in this past week. The fullback chart won’t change at all, with solid starter Corey McIntyre returning and his primary backup and special teamer Jehuu Caulcrick coming back as well.

TIGHT ENDS

Even with the departure of Jonathan Stupar, the only new face in this crowd is UNC’s undrafted starter in Zack Pianalto, who has an opportunity to make the roster. Scott Chandler looks to be the starter, so long as no more moves are made before September, with David Martin as the primary backup. I think that Shawn Nelson will be off of the roster sooner than later as he has never been on Gailey’s good side and hasn’t stood out at all in camp thus far. The third tight end spot looks to be a battle between Pianalto and Mike Caussin. Both have been on the same level, more or less, throughout camp and though they likely won’t have much impact, it’ll be interesting to see who makes the cut.

WIDE RECEIVERS

2010’s breakout star Stevie Johnson will top the depth chart to be the team’s number one target in 2011, something that only serves to further this vastly improved offense. Unfortunately, it sounds like there’s a growing market out there for former first round pick Lee Evans and Buffalo is in a position to be a seller. It makes sense, as Evans has been in a slump for the past two years and doesn’t exactly mesh with Fitzpatrick’s play style. It sounds like Baltimore has an interest, and with how bleak their situation is, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear Cleveland sniffing around the 30 year old. Still, I’m not sure how much we could get in return for him, and if it’s not much, we’re better off holding on to him, even with a deep corps. Returning are Roscoe Parrish, who was on pace for a career year before he was injured last season, as well as physical undrafted surprises from a year ago in David Nelson and Donald Jones. Marcus Easley, if he can get healthy, should make the team. After missing his entire rookie campaign and the first couple weeks of camp, that’s not looking too promising, however. Naaman Roosevelt, Paul Hubbard, Felton Huggins, and newcomer Kamar Aiken will compete with recent signee Buster Davis, a first round selection of Nix’ when he was with San Diego in 2007 for the final spot on the roster amongst wideouts.

OFFENSIVE LINE

Starters Demetrius Bell and Andy Levitre will be staying put on the left side, where they both played well for the most part of 2010 (Levitre was arguably the best, most consistent of the Bills linemen all year), while Eric Wood will abandon right guard to compete with Geoff Hangartner for the starting center job. Wood looks to have locked that job up early on, which means that Hangartner will be the primary backup for all three interior positions, which is honestly a better fit for him. As long as Wood maintains the center slot, Kraig Urbik seems to have a firm hold on the starting right guard position, and Erik Pears, though it’s being reported he’s battling with Mansfield Wrotto, will be the starting right tackle barring any acquisitions. Ed Wang, Wrotto, Cordaro Howard, Chad Rinehart, Colin Brown, and Jason Watkins are back in camp as backups, as are fourth round pick Chris Hairston at tackle and undrafted free agent Michael Switzer at center. Depth, obviously, is a huge issue here, especially at tackle. Hopefully someone rises to the challenge before camp closes, as with Bell out from an injury, Wang has been starting at LT lately and it doesn’t look good. An upgrade is needed, and that’s for sure. Wouldn’t be surprised to see the team bring in Bryant McKinnie if he makes weight and passes a physical,  but otherwise, I wouldn’t expect any real names to be added to the lineup.

SPECIALISTS

With long snapper Garrison Sanborn re-signed, this unit will stay in-tact as it has since 2009. Sanborn is one of the best in the game at what he does and is a valued asset to the team. Of course, stalwarts Brian Moorman and Rian Lindell return, and there is a camp body behind each of these three men throughout camp in Chris Hazley at kicker, Forrest Reid at punter, and Danny Aiken at long snapper. None of the latter will make the roster, but it’s good to be able to give your starters some rest in drills. Hopefully, the presence of extra bodies will push Moorman and Lindell to step their games up, both of which have been severely lacking over the past two seasons.

DEFENSIVE LINE

Can’t avoid the obvious here, the biggest addition to this line in the offseason is first round pick Marcell Dareus, who replaces Marcus Stroud, whom the team released early on. Since the draft, Dareus has put on close to twenty pounds and is over 340 at this point, yet still seems to be in the cards to line up at defensive end. Honestly, Dareus can play any spot on this 3-4 front, and shifting Kyle Williams to the edge may be necessary if the team wants to get the most out of Dareus by putting him at nose guard. Williams may not work all that well at end with his stout frame, but Dareus being as wide as he is – and he IS ridiculously wide – makes him a prime fit for the middle. Dwan Edwards returns to man the open end spot, and reserves Alex Carrington, Spencer Johnson, and Torrell Troup will be back. First round bust John McCargo was finally shown the door, and camp bodies Kellen Heard, TJ Langley, and waiver claim Lionel Dotson were added. Finally, mammoth tackle Michael Jasper, a late seventh round pick, was thrown into the mix and is turning heads at camp. He seems like he may make the team, and is currently a fan favorite due to his size at 6’4″ and 394 pounds.

LINEBACKERS

It’s hard to mention the Bills offseason without mentioning their perceived biggest loss, which came when Paul Posluszny chose to sign a lengthy deal with Jacksonville, which gives him a better fit, allowing him to come back to a 4-3 scheme. In his place, Buffalo has picked up eight year veteran Nick Barnett, formerly of the Green Bay Packers, who should be a better fit. Barnett is much more physical and better in coverage, and has more experience in 3-4 fronts. He came here primarily to play with another new starter, but not a new face, in outside linebacker Shawne Merriman. Merriman’s massive size needs to be seen to be believed, and as long as he and Barnett can stay healthy this year, we should have a greatly improved linebacking corps. Also starting will be veterans Chris Kelsay and Andra Davis, and you already know what you’re getting with both of them. 2010 fan favorite, the “Favre killer,” Arthur Moats has been moved back to inside linebacker, and per Gailey, it’s because of his height. Reggie Torbor returns to back up on the inside, as does practice squader Jammie Kirlew. Draft picks Kelvin Sheppard and Chris White will help bolster the interior depth, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see the quick, instinctual Sheppard take over Davis’ spot on the inside during the season. Danny Batten comes off of the injured reserve and fights for a roster spot with Brandon Hicks, Brad Jefferson, Antonio Coleman and Robert Eddison. The team continued to cut the garbage from their lineup, letting Keith Ellison and Akin Ayodele walk, and have reportedly placed Aaron Maybin on the trade block. Maybin has been awful since being drafted just a few years back and has dropped down to a career low weight, hovering around the 220’s throughout camp so far. I don’t think the last major bust of the Dick Jauron era makes it out of August with this team. He has nothing further to show us and seems to never care about football.

DEFENSIVE BACKS

Many fans are concerned with the departure of strong safety Donte Whitner to the San Francisco 49ers, but as my regular readers know, I’ve never been a fan of his terrible angles, big talk, and god-awful tackling. Starting in his place will be veteran George Wilson, who has spent the past few years climbing through the ranks and honestly, in my mind, is a placeholder as he fits better at free safety, where we already have a starter in Jairus Byrd. Backing up both Byrd and Wilson is a returning Bryan Scott, as well as Jon Corto, who will mostly play special teams. New draft pick Da’Norris Searcy, another UNC player, is the future at strong and should be able to weasel his way up the depth chart as the season crawls along. The team also has camp bodies Rajiric Coleman and Sidney Glover in at safety. Big time free agent reclamation Drayton Florence will likely be the top corner this year, with Leodis McKelvin starting opposite him and rookie sensation Aaron Williams being the primary nickel back. I don’t think that former starter Terrence McGee is on this team’s opening day roster, as he is in his contract year and hasn’t had a great camp so far. Teams in need could look to deal for him, or Buffalo could simply cut ties since they have decent depth at the position. After Williams, it’s Reggie Corner, rookie Justin Rogers – who has garnered a lot of praise from secondary coach George Catavolos, and undrafted rookies Lyle Means and Doyle Miller.

We’ll be able to make more educated guesses as to who will and will not be donning the new uniforms come opening day in September after we’ve made it through a couple of preseason games and the first round of cuts. Until then, it’s worth noting that the squad that we currently have looks significantly improved over last year’s club. It doesn’t seem improbable with the pieces added that Buffalo will rack up seven or eight wins  in 2011, and if the glaring weaknesses (right guard, right tackle, outside linebacker, tight end) get figured out, we may even see more.

Don’t hold your breath on that, though. See you all again in a couple of weeks – enjoy this Saturday’s game against the Chicago Bears.

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