The Buffalo Bills defensive front has undergone a massive transition this season. Both in scheme and regarding personnel. Training camp will provide fans, coaches and media the chance to see the new, deeper Bills defensive line.
When Dave Wannstedt decided to switch from a 3-4 to a 4-3, it ensured that the Bills two most dominant lineman would be on the field on nearly every down. While Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus each played a significant role in George Edwards’ porous 3-4 front, they will be able to anchor the defensive interior in an even front.
Think back to the dominance the Bills enjoyed with Pat Williams and Sam Adams or Ted Washington in the middle of their defense. That is what Wannstedt is toying with by allowing those two to line up side-by-side.
Obviously signing Mario Williams galvanized the rest of the front from a talent standpoint. With that one signing, the Bills went from having little pop in terms of pass rushing, to an elite, superstar talent rushing off the edge. Adding Mark Anderson and the speculation that Shawne Merriman has returned to full health provides even more talent on the edge.
In total, the Bills only added two new players. But they represent a 50% change for the defensive front. At the beginning of the year, the Bills were lining up Dwan Edwards, Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus with their hands in the dirt with a mix of either Alex Carrington, Spencer Johnson, Chris Kelsay or Merriman mixed in one way or another. Penciling in the 2012 starters would put Anderson, Kyle Williams, Dareus and Mario Williams down on the front four. Obviously, Kelsay will factor into that competition along with a few others. Regardless, that is an impressive turnover for a defense that struggled mightily in 2011.
Training camp is going to provide an interesting for a number of players, specifically those who aren’t penciled in as week one starters. A few – namely Danny Batten and Dwan Edwards – are facing an uphill battle after being specifically acquired to play in a 3-4 scheme. Others, like Torrel Troup, will simply be battling for a roster spot.
With Anderson and Williams all but guaranteed a spot along with Kelsay, there will probably only be two or three spots to be determined at camp. While Merriman’s history might give him a step-up in the competition for a roster spot, it also could be a curse for him. There isn’t much room for a hobbled pass rusher who is better suited to be playing from a two-point stance in a 3-4. In addition to Merriman, you have Danny Batten, Lionel Dotson, Robert Eddins, Spencer Johnson and Kyle Moore.
Batten and Eddins were both lining up as outside linebackers last summer while Dotson and Johnson are each bulkier ends who have previously seen time at defensive tackle. Moore is a free agent signing who could serve as a wild card.
Inside, Kyle Williams and Dareus are a sure thing to start this season, while the other two or three roster spots are quite the mystery. Alex Carrington, Dwan Edwards, Jarron Gilbert, Kellen Heard, Jay Ross and Torrel Troup will each be vying for a spot on the 53-man roster.
Troup and Heard are both big bodies who can succeed in both an even or odd front. If Troup could stay healthy he would probably be an easy choice to slot in behind Dareus and Williams. Heard was solid at times last year and probably impressed his fair share of coaches and scouts. Meanwhile, Gilber and Ross seem to be darkhorses to make any sort of noise in competition for a spot. The two interesting cases will be Carrington and Edwards. Both are prototype defensive ends in a 3-4, but will be trying to make the team inside. Each likely project to a three-technique tackle, which means keeping both isn’t a very real possibility.
The Bills are entering camp with seventeen defensive linemen and will likely be whittling that number down to ten by the time final cuts are to be made.
Carrington, Edwards and Johnson all have the ability to flex between end and tackle if necessary. While none of the three are deadly pass rushers, their ability to bounce in or outside could provide one or two with a roster spot. As it stands now, a decision will certainly need to be made between Carrington and Edwards as each serves a near identical purpose.
One thing that is incredibly impressive about the Giants defense is their ability to roll out four pass rushers at the same time. The Bills may have the opportunity to do something similar this season. If they wish to get creative with stunt and slant rush packages, the Bills could put Mario Williams, Anderson, Merriman and Dareus on the field together as a power rushing quartet. That would leave Anderson and Merriman on the outside with Mario and Dareus inside. That has a very similar look to the various combinations of Canty, Kiwanuka, Pierre-Paul, Tuck and Umenyiora that the Giants enjoy utilizing.
Seeing Shawne Merriman cut is as much of a possibility as seeing him back on the roster in a pivotal role this season. If he is truly healthy, Merriman will likely be able to prove his is worth keeping around at camp. However, any sign of struggle will not bode well for him. Especially since there are a number of options available to the Bills this season. For me, Chris Kelsay could be part of that equation as well. Kelsay has been steady, but not explosive during his tenure here. If the Bills feel they have a better option, don’t be surprised to see one of those two out the door.