Postcard from camp: Bills
The Bills' starting D-line is stout, but what's most impressive is the depth it boasts
Despite his play falling off late in 2011, Ryan Fitzpatrick is a lock as the starting QB
In his rookie camp, first-rounder Stephon Gilmore looks like a shutdown corner
SI.com has dispatched writers to report on NFL training camps across the country. Here's what Ben Reiter had to say about Bills camp in Pittsford, N.Y., which he visited on July 31. Read all of our postcards here.
On the bucolic campus of St. John Fisher College in Pittsford, N.Y., which Peter King earlier this week ranked as the league's third-best training camp site -- although it wasn't on Tuesday. That was because a fearsome lightning storm rolled in about an hour and 40 minutes into the afternoon's practice, sending fans scurrying for shuttle buses and the Bills into the school's gymnasium. They finished up their session underneath raised basketball hoops, on a hardwood floor on which yard-line numbers had been applied in white tape.
But even that couldn't dampen the optimism here, as the Bills seem genuinely poised to make the leap at which they'd hinted during last season's 5-2 start. On Tuesday, running back Fred Jackson passed out 100 T-shirts to staff and teammates (well, most teammates; 331-pound DT Marcell Dareus requested a size XXXXL, which was one X more than Jackson had) that was emblazoned with a Shepard Fairey-like image of head coach Chan Gailey and the slogan, "YES WE CHAN." There are, indeed, many reasons to believe that Buffalo's first playoff appearance since 1999 is within reach.
1. Even more impressive than the defensive line's star power is its depth. You know about the Bills' additions via free agency of Mario Williams, the former Texan signed to the richest deal ever for a defender (a potential $100 million, including $50 million in guaranteed money), and Mark Anderson, who parlayed his 10-sack rejuvenation as a Patriot last season into his own four-year, $27.5 million deal. Both ends have in practice demonstrated the type of disruptive edge speed that the team has long lacked.
Even more significant is the depth that the line now boasts, which seems to rival even that of the Giants. Dareus and Kyle Williams will ably clog the middle in the Bills' new 4-3 scheme, which will be orchestrated by new defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt. But backing up and spelling the starters will be experienced and talented veterans like Dwan Edwards, Chris Kelsay and Shawne Merriman -- who seems again healthy after having played in just eight games the past two seasons.
"I think probably one of the best things in the world for Shawne will be not to have to play every snap of every game," says Gailey. "Let him recover slowly from the injuries he's had, get out there, do what he does best -- rush the passer -- but not have to play 60 plays a game."
Buffalo produced just 29 sacks last season -- 10 in a single game, against the Redskins -- and a newly teeming line should lift its defense into the league's upper echelon.
2. There is no QB controversy here. Ryan Fitzpatrick's two main backups, Tyler Thigpen and Vince Young, have made 62 NFL starts between them. However, unlike in Jets camp, some 60 miles southwest of here, there is absolutely no talk that the starter's job is in jeopardy -- even though Fitzpatrick last season ranked 22nd in quarterback rating (79.1) and Mark Sanchez 23rd (78.2). "Is Fitz secure? There's no question," says Gailey. "He is our quarterback, and will be. I don't see any change there in the foreseeable future."
For one, neither Thigpen nor Young has impressed in practice. More than that, though, is that Fitzpatrick has established himself as the team's unquestioned leader, and has worked with new quarterbacks coach David Lee to make sure he plays more like he did during the team's 5-2 start (when he threw 14 touchdowns and seven interceptions) than their 1-8 finish (when that differential flipped to 10:16).
"My footwork was all over the place," Fitzpatrick says. "I was not an accurate passer the second half of the year." Fitzpatrick and Lee have refined his mechanics, particularly as far as his footwork and hip rotation, and those changes will nicely complement his intelligence and drive for a full 16 games, at a minimum.
3. The Bills now have their Darrelle Revis. He is Stephon Gilmore, the rookie cornerback picked 10th overall out of South Carolina, and he has so far had the type of camp that leads teammates from both side of the ball -- Fitzpatrick, center Eric Wood, safety George Wilson -- to bring up his name, unprompted, as an obvious standout.
Of course, no one on the team is much inclined to give the clips-devouring Jets much bulletin board material, but the feeling is that the 6-foot-1, 190-pound Gilmore has the ability to immediately become the shutdown corner that Revis is for their rivals, and to further enhance the Bills' defensive renaissance. "Everything I see in Revis, I see in Gilmore," says wideout Stevie Johnson. "Of course, Revis does a few things better, and I think Gilmore has a few things that may be better than Revis. I can't say too much like that, because I don't want to put too much out there. But he's definitely going to be a shutdown corner. You definitely can tell."
Stevie Johnson, receiver. Johnson last year became the first Bills receiver to achieve consecutive 1,000-yard seasons -- something even the great Andre Reed never did. "I couldn't believe it -- I had to check the stats for myself," says Johnson. "I didn't know he had never done it until at least Week 11."
Now, Johnson, 26, has a contract befitting a premier receiver -- for five years and $36.25 million ($19.5 million of which is guaranteed) -- and he knows he has room to improve so that he really becomes one. For example, he averaged just 4.5 yards after the catch last year, 40th among wideouts and a drop from his breakout 2010, when he ranked 22nd. "Whatever I can get out of it, I'm going to try to get it," he says. The Bills will need a lot out of Johnson, because while their receiving corps contains some promise -- such as in speedy rookie T.J. Graham -- it is on the whole thinner than other areas of the team.
Mario Williams, DE. Who else? While the 6-6, 292-pound Williams was presented with 100 million reasons to make Buffalo the only city he visited in his free-agent tour, he insists he wasn't fully sold on becoming a Bill until he toured the city, and realized it was a place that felt like home -- like Richlands, N.C., where he grew up.
The signing of Williams was a landmark in the franchise's history, and might have a long tail, as subsequent free agents who have traditionally not even considered the possibility of Buffalo might now follow his lead. His biggest impact, though, will be immediate, and on the field, as a team that had no player record more than 5.5 sacks in 2011 all of a sudden has one who had 5.0 in the five games in which he played last year, before he suffered a torn pectoral muscle.
The Bills have been blessed with the league's third-easiest schedule, and while their talent should ensure that they will not again suffer a late-season slide like last year's, so does their slate. Between Weeks 11 and Week 16, they play the Dolphins, Colts, Jaguars, Rams, Seahawks, and then the Dolphins again -- six eminently winnable games, four of which are at home in what should by then be a very chilly Buffalo. If they can enter that stretch at even 4-5 -- and their first nine games include visits to the Jets, 49ers and Texans, and both matchups with the Patriots -- they will be in prime position to finish at least 10-6. While that record likely will not win the AFC East, it should be good enough for a Wild Card. At the very least, the Bills will finally be relevant once more.