Ladies and gentlemen, the 2012 NFL season is upon us. The Buffalo Bills have put in a lot of effort this off-season to improve their roster, and their quest to end their playoff drought starts on Tuesday when they report to training camp at St. John Fisher College.
There are some big names to see and certainly some jobs on the line, so this is a brief primer for you heading in to Bills' training camp.
Here are some stories to watch for:
1) Brand new D-Line on display
- Mario Williams, Mark Anderson, Kyle Williams, Marcell Dareus, Shawne Merriman, Chris Kelsay, Dwan Edwards, Spencer Johnson and etc. That's a pretty hearty rotation, one that puts the Bills in the conversation as one of the top defensive lines in the NFL on paper. But as we all know, being a paper tiger is not the end game. All eyes will be on number-94 throughout training camp. Being fortunate enough to be at the OTA sessions and mini-camp, I can tell you that Mario Williams looks like a monster on the field. Expectations are high for him -- as they should be -- and fans will be watching his every move at St. John Fisher College.
2) Can Ryan Fitzpatrick lead the team to the playoffs?
- This is a broader story as we head in to training camp, but it's one that will be on the minds of many. Fitzpatrick has started the past two seasons, statistically speaking, at a very high level. His production in both seasons hit a proverbial wall. Touchdowns went down, interceptions went up and the Bills weren't getting the quarterback play they so desired. This is a big, big season for Fitzpatrick, and no one else has to tell him that. Can he lead this team to the promised land? Can he finally put to bed the image of the Music City Miracle being the lingering playoff memory in Bills' fans minds? It's going to be a hot topic as the season progresses. One that I wrote about more here.
3) Rookies aiming to start
- In the 2012 NFL Draft, the Buffalo Bills got a pair of players that can potentially come in and start right away. Out of the two, it seems first-round selection Stephon Gilmore has the best chance to win the job outright. At cornerback, the discussion seems to revolve more around second-year player Aaron Williams, and if he'll win a starting job, than if Gilmore will. The rookie will be forced to make an impact in his first season. The same could go for second-round pick Cordy Glenn. The left tackle will be in a battle with Chris Hairston for the starting left tackle job. Can he prove to Chan Gailey and Joe D'Alessandris that he has what it takes this early on in his career? It's an important three weeks for him.
4) Positional bubble battles
- The most compelling bubble battles for the Bills are with two positions in particular. The first of which is at defensive tackle. In switching from a 3-4 to a 4-3, all those former five-technique defensive ends become defensive tackles in the new scheme. It also means a couple of higher-priced backups could be battling one another for a spot on the 53-man roster. I believe there will be a contest between Spencer Johnson and Dwan Edwards for the main backup role to Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus. Both make considerably more than younger players like Torell Troup, Alex Carrington, Kellen Heard and etc. It's possible both could stay, but I think it's more likely one will be let go. The second position is wide receiver. Four players are guaranteed to make the team from that group: Stevie Johnson, Donald Jones, David Nelson and T.J. Graham. Then you have Derek Hagan, Ruvell Martin, Marcus Easley, Naaman Roosevelt, David Clowney, Kamar Aiken and Derek Session battling it out for one-to-three spots.
5) Vince Young
- Of course he's only the backup quarterback, but his progress will be tracked all throughout camp. First of all, he has to beat Tyler Thigpen for the job -- which doesn't sound all that daunting of a task based on Thigpen's record as a starter. Then, it will be a combination of how Fitzpatrick looks early on and if Young has a solid preseason. The team needs their backup quarterback to be able to come in and win some games, and Young has shown that he can win a team a game in the clutch. His reputation for that certainly precedes him.
Player (besides quarterback) that's under the most pressure this year: LB Kelvin Sheppard - Many are excited about the second-year middle linebacker, but he really has to prove some things this season. Solid but unspectacular last season, Sheppard has an opportunity with the defensive line in front of him to have a monster season. It's his duty to get himself in the right spots and make the plays when he has those opportunities.
Player that could break out in 2012: WR Donald Jones - I know, you're not particularly excited about me listing Jones here, but I think he's as good a candidate as any to really exceed his expectations. Jones will be moved all around the place this season. If he solves his issue with drops, he could be heavily depended on this year. Fitzpatrick, Gailey and Stevie Johnson all think he can really make an impact.
Under the radar player that just may make the team: TE/FB Dorin Dickerson - An intriguing possibility, Dickerson brings the H-back role to the Bills offense. His rather undersized and unique skill-set dictate that he could be a matchup the team can exploit. With Corey McIntyre doing little to nothing for the offense anymore, Dickerson could gain favor in that respect. McIntyre, though, is a fantastic special teams players. But perhaps the additions of Nigel Bradham and Tank Carder to the special teams units could spell the end for McIntyre in Buffalo if Dickerson impresses.
Player that some call "safe" that could be cut: WR Marcus Easley - I've been consistent in my analysis of Easley. This is a huge year for him to prove that he can stay on the field. While unfortunately having to deal with a heart condition last year, Easley now has to put all that behind him and prove to be a contributor on the field. He's showed signs in the past -- most notably in the Bills final preseason game and during mini-camp this year -- but he has to put a three-week audition together this year to make the roster outright.
Player that the Bills cannot afford to lose to injury (besides quarterback): LB Nick Barnett - The veteran linebacker is the best at his position, there's little doubt about that. My main concern is what's behind Barnett at linebacker. Who would take his place in that scenario? Rookie Nigel Bradham? Defensive end turned inside linebacker turned outside linebacker turned inside linebacker turned outside linebacker turned 4-3 linebacker Arthur Moats? Whoever it is, there will be a huge drop-off. The Bills can't afford to lose Barnett.
The Bills are in a unique position this year. At one point the darlings of the NFL in 2011, Buffalo can once again capture that momentum with a fast start in 2012. Can they turn all the positivity from the off-season in to wins during the regular season?
Only time will tell, and it all starts at St. John Fisher College on Tuesday.
Join me all the way throughout training camp right here on WGR550.com, on the air on WGR Sports Radio 550 and as I report along on Twitter.