Estimated reading time: 8 minute(s)
After an overview of the Bills offense yesterday, we turn our attention to the revamped Bills defense. It was actually the defense that received the bulk of the attention in free agency, as well as the #1 selection in the 2008 draft. Bringing in a couple recognizable names, and one less recognizable name, the Bills bolstered their defense in all the right places.
Let’s take a look at the defensive unit the Buffalo Bills will (likely) field in 2008, position by position, starting up front.
One of the main concerns surrounding the Bills defense the past several seasons has been stopping the run. They have not been able to do it, and the unit taking the most blame has been the defensive line. Although the Bills have a Pro Bowl DE in Aaron Schobel, some say he is just a pass rusher, and does not defend well against the run. The stats would show otherwise. Schobel set a single-season career-high in tackles, despite the dip in sacks from his first Pro Bowl season in 2007. There is more to Schobel than just his pass rush.
So with the Pro Bowler Schobel on one end, and Chris Kelsay, Ryan Denney, and 3rd-round draft choice, Chris Ellis, leading the way, Buffalo is hoping they have the pieces they need for an effective pass rush from the outside, but also quickness to the ball against the run.
That will, of course, be helped by the interior defensive linemen. Arguably the biggest move the Bills made in the off-season (pun intended) was to beef up the middle of their defensive line by trading for Marcus Stroud, perennial Pro Bowl lineman from the Jacksonville Jaguars. Stroud is exactly what the Bills were looking for. He’s large (6’6″, 310 lbs) and he’s experienced (8 years in the league) and he’s a player that the opposing team must account for. Just adding Stroud to the mix already makes the defensive ends mentioned above that much better, as the offensive line has to account for him.
In addition to the new big man, the Bills pulled off an “under the radar” signing of Specner Johnson from Minnesota. This free agent acquisition has experience stuffing the run, playing next to the Williamses (Pat & Kevin) with the Vikings. Johnson will add depth to an interior line that now features Stroud, promising third-year player John McCargo, and Kyle Williams. The Bills released Larry Tripplett just before the free agency period began, likely knowing they were going to bring in the two defensive tackles.
Some Bills fans will still bemoan the fact that our DL is small, but for the scheme the Bills run, that’s what they need. Their defensive scheme is about quickness to the ball, and that is definitely the model of player they have signed and drafted. Still, the addition of Stroud to the team – assuming he can play at the same level he has in his career thus far – will markedly improve the entire Bills defense.
There was a decent amount of turnover at the linebacker position, too, this offseason. The Bills released Coy Wire, and lost Josh Stamer to free agency, and have not yet renewed the contract of free agent Mario Haggan. Mostly those guys contributed on special teams, but they were certainly depth players at LB.
The Bills did bring in a few new faces at linebacker, most prominently Kawika Mitchell (pronounced kuh-WEE-kuh) from the Super Bowl champion New York Giants. Mitchell only played one year in NY, but was a starter there on a good defense and the Bills are hoping Mitchell completes the starting trio here of Mitchell and Angelo Crowell on the outside, with Paul Posluszny in the middle. They also added depth (as well as special teams help) by drafting Alvin Bowen in the 5th round of the draft.
Probably the biggest boost to the Bills defense will be the return of Poz. Posluszny was a force in his very short two-game season as a Bill. He was a tackling machine. Always on the ball. He says he learned a lot this season (he was with the team all year, even though on injured reserve) and is ready to jump back in and contribute on the field. He should bring a big, big lift to the Bills defense, which already will be improved with the addition of Stroud up front.
With the 11th pick of the draft, the Buffalo Bills selected Leodis McKelvin. Many expected the Bills to grab a corner in the first round, and McKelvin was ranked by most as the best at his position in this year’s draft, so this pick was no surprise. The Bills are very excited to have him as he is a super-athletic, hard-hitting, naturally gifted player. He will push for the starting spot opposite Terrence McGee, and has the added bonus of being a fantastic kick returner. Look for him to take his fair share of those duties alongside fellow return aces McGee and Roscoe Parrish.
Cornerback was labeled a “position of need” for the Bills heading into the draft, but with the addition of McKelvin, as well as fourth round selection, Reggie Corner (yes, a cornerback named Corner…) the Bills are actually quite full at that spot. Incumbent starter McGee is likely to retain his starting spot, but vying for the opposite starting role are McKelvin, Jabari Greer, veteran free agent Will James, and Ashton Youboty. Youboty has not yet lived up to the starting role the Bills thought he would play, drafting him in the 3rd round in 2006.
The Bills were definitely hit hardest on defense last season. Of all the injuries they sustained, it seemed the most damaging were to the defensive unit. Losing Poz early on hurt. A week prior they lost starting LB Coy Wire, and starting FS Ko Simpson. Simpson had a promising rookie season in tandem with fellow rookie Donte Whitner. Bills fans were excited to see that duo back for another bigger and better season in 2007. Simpson, however, was injured for the season in the first game against Denver. Getting him back should provide a big boost to the Bills secondary.
Donte Whitner is the leader of this group, and definitely one of the leaders of the defense and the team as a whole. He’s a hard hitter, and a vocal presence on the field. He doesn’t have a “nose for the ball” as far as INTs go, but that’s where Simpson seems to excel.
Due to injuries last season, wide-receiver-turned-safety George Wilson saw a lot of playing time as a starter, and performed admirably. So much so that when he was lost for the remainder of the season against the Dolphins late in the year, his loss definitely affected the team. Getting so much playing time and experience in 2007 should guarantee Wilson a spot on the roster and give the Bills some solid depth at the safety position. The Bills also really like 2007 draft choice John Wendling – an athletic, heady player who also contributed well on special teams.
No coaching changes here, just roster regeneration. There was definitely the normal turnover following last season via free agency, roster cuts, and the trade for Stroud, not to mention five players picked up in the draft – including probably starter Leodis McKelvin. But the main thing Bills fans will notice about their teams’ defense in 2008 is the addition of some familiar faces. Both Posluszny and Simpson should be a big lift to a defense that, with all the pieces listed above, could potentially be a top ten defense in 2008. (Barring 17 season-ending injuries of course…)
I need to mention this unit here, too, as it will again play a key role in the Bills success this year. From dazzling kick returns by 2007 league leader Roscoe Parrish, and Terrence McGee, and newcomer Leodis McKelvin (who compares himself to Devin Hester), to the great kickers that we have in Brian Moorman and Rian Lindell, to the great kick coverage teams that Bobby April fields every season… special teams will affect the outcome of games.
The unit took a pretty good hit this offseason via free agency and the Bills just trimming their roster. Special teams stars Sam Aiken, Josh Stamer, and Jim Leonhard all went to new teams in the offseason while Mario Haggan, Coy Wire and a few others are not currently on an NFL roster. The Bills filled those holes in the draft in rounds three through five with Chris Ellis, Derek Fine, & Alvin Bowen, all of whom have excelled at special teams at the collegiate level.
Though there were some losses, there were some great gains for this unit as well, and – especially in the return game – it should add some razzle-dazzle to the Bills team in 2008!
BUFFALO BILLS TEAM OVERVIEW
So to conclude, with some decent – and key – improvements on offense and defense, as well as the return of many players from season-ending injuries in 2007, the Bills are poised to make a serious run at the playoffs, and perhaps their division title for the first time since 1995. With a fairly favorable schedule, and all the pieces the staff have put in place, it’s certainly a possiblity, and for the first time in quite a while, Bills fans feel it might be more than just wishful thinking.
In 1986, Marv Levy came to a floundering, directionless team and gave it instant respect. There were some pieces in place, but over the next two seasons (and beyond) he crafted it into his team, along with Bill Polian and John Butler. By the 1988 season, this laughable NFL franchise found themselves in the AFC Championship game, after going 12-4 and winning their division.
This Bills team is now entering their third season after Marv came back to town, and moulded the team once more. This team is definitely stamped by Marv Levy. Might this be 1988 all over again? Could enough of the pieces be in place that this year will begin a stellar run of championship after championship?
Might the Bills not only reach, but win a Super Bowl before turning 50? (Which happens in 2010.)
All of these things are far off, but perhaps not as far as some might think. Many experts are alerting NFL fans to watch this young team being assembled in Buffalo. They just might be ready to make some noise.
Only a couple more months till we get to find out.
Bring on the 2008 NFL season!