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Posted: Wednesday, 08 May 2013 3:13PM

How the Bills fit in to the new NFL: Defense



(WGR 550) -- It's an eternal struggle with professional sports.

The same way businesses have adapted to new technologies over the past twenty years in order to survive, franchises have to stay with the times to not fall behind. However, there's a bit of a pushback within games like professional football.

Some coaches get caught sticking with the operating procedure of old that worked years ago. There is an overwhelming "save thy butt" stubbornness when it comes to recognizing new trends and having an overall willingness to change. Going out on a limb, for whatever reason, is often highly discouraged.

Think about even just the most general of facets of the game. Going for it on fourth-down is often mocked and thought to be an overwhelming risk, when in reality it's often times the correct percentage play. For those skeptical, here's some empirical evidence for you from the fine folks at AdvancedNFLStats.com.

That's just a minor example that drifts in to the larger landscape change in football. Last week, I outlined the importance of certain positions on the offensive side of the ball. It doesn't take advanced stats or a rocket scientist for that matter to show you a great quarterback will be the biggest key to success. However, it's the positions you address to help that quarterback -- most notably the pass-catchers -- that will determine the success of that offense.

The evolution process that's happening in the National Football League isn't isolated to only offensive tendencies. With the ever-changing rules and principles of the offense, the defense has to find ways to compensate and force the opposing team to try and switch up the way they attack the game.

Defense is certainly an important part of the game and playmakers on that side of the ball can have a massive effect on the outcome. However, as FootballPerspective.com points out, it's offense that reigns supreme, which plays in to the initial point. The players a team employs on the defensive side of the ball must attempt to appropriately neutralize the threat of the playmakers on offense.

That leads in to addressing what is the most pressing issues to address on a team, and where to commit early draft picks on the defensive side of the ball.

Now, keep in mind, there are always exceptions to the rule, and the same goes with the offensive side of the ball. Outliers exist in whatever industry you talk about, and professional football is no different.

These players have a convergence of skills that make them in to a multi-faceted threat to any offense. Some (not all) of the current defensive outliers in the NFL include Houston five-technique defensive end J.J. Watt, Baltimore versatile defensive lineman Haloti Ngata and San Francisco inside linebacker Patrick Willis. With these outliers, you obviously pay more than you normally would to keep those players at similar positions.

For the most part, though, certain positions carry more weight than others in terms of sinking high draft picks, and then eventually big money in to them if they pan out.

Like last time, before we analyze the Bills, let's first look at the importance of positions in today's defense.

1) Pass Rushers
2) Cornerbacks
3) Safeties
4) Defensive Tackles (4-3) / Defensive Ends (3-4)
5) Linebackers

As it's currently constructed, how have the Bills attempted to adapt their roster to the way the NFL is trending? Here's a look:

1) Pass Rushers - Signed Mario Williams and Mark Anderson in 2012 free agency, signed Manny Lawson and traded for Jerry Hughes in 2013
- With the NFL trending towards shorter drops for quarterbacks and less time in the pocket with the ball, the overwhelming importance on pass rushers isn't as high as it once was. However, with the skill required for the position and the potential yield, still keeps it atop the list. With pass rushers, they either have the skills necessary to get to the quarterback or they don't. It's that simple. The Bills put an enormous amount of money in to addressing their sub-standard pass rush from two seasons ago. The results didn't exactly jump out at you in 2012, but there was a steady improvement. With the defense shifting between a 3-4 and a 4-3 all season long in 2013 and beyond, player versatility is a big issue for their pass rushers. In a five-game sample size, Mario Williams showed he could play outside linebacker with a good amount of production. The bigger questions are with the other three designated pass-rushers. Mark Anderson was injured for the majority of 2012, and was unimpressive when healthy. This coming season will be big for him, and despite his four-year contract, it will likely determine whether or not he has a future in Buffalo past 2013. Manny Lawson and Jerry Hughes were each first-round picks, and each have failed to live up to those expectations as pass-rushers. Lawson has carved a niche for himself in coverage and will also rush the passer at times, but he should not be depended on for the latter. If Anderson doesn't improve this season, the Bills could be in the market for a versatile pass rusher early in the 2014 NFL Draft.

2) Cornerbacks - Drafted Stephon Gilmore 10th overall in 2012, re-signed Leodis McKelvin
- As wide receivers are getting taller, stronger and more athletic, the immediate response is to have cornerbacks that are built the same way. With wide receivers being as important as they are to an offense nowadays, finding great cornerbacks should be near the top of the list as well. I'm still shaking my head a bit as to why the Bills have not addressed the cornerback position in the 2013 off-season, outside of re-signing Leodis McKelvin. At this point of his career, McKelvin is what he is -- and that's a player that can stay with receivers, but lacks both the ball skills and the wherewithal to make a play on the ball at times. The Bills are hoping Stephon Gilmore turns in to the shut-down cornerback he flashed at times in 2012, so that a team's top receiver will be locked up for the majority of the game. They're going to need him to, and hope that Ron Brooks can not only improve dramatically, but stay healthy in the process. If not, then the Bills are going to have to hope that the pass rush is strong enough to cover up their second cornerback. They'll have safeties Aaron Williams and/or Duke Williams come in and drop down in to coverage when teams attempt to spread the field, but that doesn't solve the conundrum at starting cornerback. Along with tight end and defensive end, this position is on the short-list for a potential high draft pick in 2014.

3) Safeties - Franchised Jairus Byrd, moved Aaron Williams from CB to S, drafted Duke Williams in the fourth-round and Johnathan Meeks in the fifth-round
- To their credit, the Bills recognize the increasingly important position that safety is in the evolving NFL. These players have to know where everyone is on the field at all times, require the instincts to move on a play perhaps before it happens, have the athleticism and coverage abilities to stick with freakishly athletic tight ends and be able to support in the run game. Knowing this, the Bills kept one of the most instinctive safeties in the NFL, Jairus Byrd, by dishing out the franchise tag and should do whatever possible to sign him to a long-term contract. Past that, they need a second starting safety that is versatile enough to play both positions or to drop down in to both coverage and run support. It seems Da'Norris Searcy and Duke Williams will both be competing for those honors. Each were fourth-round picks, and Searcy gets the edge for now just for being in the league for three years. They haven't given up on Aaron Williams just yet, and he may serve as the contingency plan in case Jairus Byrd walks out the door to another team. There are some unknowns, but the Bills are adapting especially at this position.

4) Defensive Tackles (4-3) / Defensive Ends (3-4) - Drafted Marcell Dareus third overall in 2011, signed Alan Branch in 2013
- Outside of the outliers I listed above the rankings, there are a few different reasons why these positions shouldn't be placed ahead of the first three. First, the run game isn't as important to the NFL as it once was. Secondly (the elite notwithstanding), the difference between the great, good and above average at these positions isn't all that stark. Do you need someone that is at least above average? Yes. But there are countless examples throughout the league that show you can find those players outside of the first round, and certainly outside of unrestricted free agency. In fact, you can find the elite outside of the first round. That is why, while he is a good player for the Bills and by no means a bust, I will think back to 2011 as a missed opportunity for the Bills. They were horrifically bad against the run in 2010, yes, but they passed on two players (WR A.J. Green and CB Patrick Peterson) that each play what I believe to be a superior position in the NFL. Not to mention, both were a need at the time of the pick. If you'll recall, the Bills spent their second-round selection on a cornerback and also traded Lee Evans away before the season began, pushing the undrafted Donald Jones in to the starting lineup. Besides Dareus, the Bills have done well filling in the pieces at these spots. Alan Branch was a solid low-cost, low-risk signing. Kyle Williams continues to be extraordinarily dependable after being just a low-round pick in his draft year. Alex Carrington has turned in to a dependable depth player as well. However, the focus is on Dareus. If he turns in to an elite player, that third overall pick was worth it. He hasn't to this point, making 2013 a very big season for the third-year player.

5) Inside Linebackers - Drafted Nigel Bradham in 2012 fourth-round, drafted Kiko Alonso in 2013 second-round, traded away Kelvin Sheppard
- Linebacker, while many fans will yell and scream that it's of the utmost importance, really isn't all that great of a need to address early in the NFL Draft. Outliers of early picks on linebackers that prove to be worth it will inevitably exist (Patrick Willis), but the rest of it is merely statistically induced logic. Linebackers get high tackle numbers because they're supposed to. It's because of this, that linebackers often will win rookie of the year awards even if they don't deserve it. Big numbers attract people, even if there are more important players at positions that aren't meant to rack up big statistics. That's a fight for another day. Just like any other position, you need above average players at least. The Bills believe they have that with Nigel Bradham and Kiko Alonso, who slot in as the starting inside linebackers at this point. Alonso as a second round pick might be a little high (for the position, not the player), but if they intend to use him to rush the passer as his work at Oregon showed he can do quite well, that would be a valuable addition to the roster. Trading the plainly average Kelvin Sheppard for an average pass-rusher in Jerry Hughes was an incredibly smart move with the type of greater return a pass-rusher could bring over an inside linebacker.

On Thursday, I'll be going through potential candidates on the current Bills roster that could be in jeopardy of getting cut in or after training camp.

Twitter: @JoeBuscaglia

All photos courtesy of AP
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