Oct 16, 2011; East Rutherford, NJ, USA; Buffalo Bills running back Fred Jackson (22) runs with the ball and scores a touchdown as New York Giants cornerback Aaron Ross (31) chases during the first half at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: William Perlman/The Star-Ledger via US PRESSWIRE

Franchise Development 4 of 32: The Buffalo Bills

In 2011, the Buffalo Bills started strong but didn’t have the overall talent and depth to last the season and faded. The longtime lower-echelon team from the AFC East has been on the rise since their last couple of first-round flops, DE Aaron Maybin and RB C.J. Spiller. Of all the AFC East teams, the Bills look to have the best shot at giving the Patriots a scare in 2012 for the divisional crown.

Here’s their 2012 draft:

1 10 Stephon Gilmore CB South Carolina
2 41 Cordy Glenn T Georgia
3 69 T.J. Graham WR North Carolina State
4 105 Nigel Bradham LB Florida State
4 124 Ron Brooks CB LSU
5 144 Zebrie Sanders T Florida State
5 147 Tank Carder LB Texas Christian
6 178 Mark Asper G Oregon
7 251 John Potter K Western Michigan

Let’s first take a bit of a look here first. I think they had one of the top drafts of any NFL team, and I’m not even particularly high on Stephon Gilmore. While he has good speed and is very crafty, he is susceptible to the double-move and cannot be left on an island. I don’t think he’ll ever be a “shut-down” type corner, and at #10 overall one would think that would be the bar for the position.

The Bills fooled nearly all outside observers by taking Cordy Glenn early in round two and announced plans on making him ultimately their left tackle. Everyone (including myself) felt like the 350 pound light-footed Glenn would be asked to be a guard where we thought he’d dominate. Uh-uh. Ever since the Bills rather inexplicably got rid of cornerstone LT Jason Peters several years ago, they’ve struggled to replace him and even refused to use a high pick on the position until now. Glenn has the talent to succeed at LT but a lot of polish need be applied. Keep an eye on him though because he’s one of those freakish guys who are apparently too quick for their mass. Glenn is one that defies the eye test as he can move around.

Think former RB Jerome “The Bus” Bettis and his quick feet and that should give you an idea of his athleticism. For good measure, they added T Zebrie Sanders in the 5th round – a guy who some had mocked as high as the bottom of the first round. In the 2012 draft, ALL linemen slid down but probably none as much as Sanders did. CB Ron Brooks in the 4th was overshadowed at LSU by Peterson and Claiborne and could be a steal for them.

Perhaps the Bills feel differently, but I saw too many South Carolina games where Gilmore got burned on the deep ball. That’s something he’ll have to work on, but the Bills are going to be particularly difficult for opposing teams to game-plan for their defense. Gilmore CAN excel early if he’s in a zone-coverage scheme or some sort of zone-blitzing scheme, and this brings me to my next point: the Bills have a number of players that can play different schemes. Bills GM Buddy Nix even said during the combine that since defenses are in the nickel about half the time, “scheme versatility” is a high priority.

With that in mind, they went out and got the most coveted defensive free agent in years when Mario Williams hit the market. The 300 pounder has already proven he can play a 3-4 OLB/DE or put his hand in the dirt more often as a 4-3 end. We all know of the man’s skill, production, and reputation. This is a team building with one goal in mind:

Beat the New England Patriots.

When you’ve got linemen and linebackers that can play multiple positions in multiple fronts, it’s a “two-fer.” One, it makes “matchup issues” with opposing offenses somewhat less problematic in general and two, it creates doubt in opposing offenses. Just because the Bills have a particular 11-man group in the huddle on defense doesn’t necessarily tell you who will line up where or even what formation they might use.

With Super Mario chasing and hitting Tom Brady, the idea is to limit the time he has to make a decision. This is where Gilmore DOES make sense. If they’re in a zone, Gilmore will bait QBs and nobody – not even Tom Brady – is immune to falling for it once in a while IF he’s under constant pressure. Gilmore’s biggest strengths are his cunning in zone pass defense, his leadership, and his tackling.

Having such liberal passing rules in today’s game, the only proven way to slow down a good passing attack is with pressure. You just do not see those “coverage sacks” these days as you did 10 years ago and everybody knows it. If Shwane Merriman can show any sort of his old form of 4 or 5 years ago, things are going to be brutal for opposing quarterbacks.

My concerns about Gilmore’s deep man-coverage ability aside, the Bills look to be building a very intimidating defense and are using every legal trick in the book to help that uncertainty fester in opposing teams’ offensive game plans.

On the offensive side, QB Ryan Fitzpatrick seems to have people pushing for his job every year but nobody has unseated him. This year, at least, he’s “The” guy. He’s played inconsistently at times but he hasn’t had a lot of weapons at his disposal. I’ve always thought RB Fred Jackson was underrated and he’s proven it the past couple of seasons. He did suffer an injury last season which in my opinion was the teetering point that started the slide after their unexpectedly good first half of the season and C.J. Spiller actually had a couple of productive games for them as his replacement. If Spiller can finally live up to expectations, the Bills ground game could be as potent as anyone’s. The potential is there at least.

Buffalo’s main weakness now is the lack of targets for Fitz to throw to. WR Steve Johnson had 1,004 yards and 7 scores last year but they don’t have a proven guy to pair with him and no threats at the TE position. That’s a problem they need to solve and do so with their existing roster if they’re going to push the Pats. I think they’re one more year away.

My feeling on the team overall is that they’ve got the pieces in place on defense to be a top-5 or top-10 squad but still have some work to do on the offensive side. They’re a team that has been making strides towards respectability in fits and starts. Since they finished last year fading instead of improving, my grade for 2012 is….

One step forward.

Next up: the Carolina Panthers.

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Tags: Buffalo Bills CJ Spiller Cordy Glenn Fred Jackson Jason Peters Mario Williams Ryan Fitzpatrick Shawne Merriman Stephon Gilmore Steve Johnson

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