With NFL training camps just around the corner, we’re taking a team-by-team look at how the offseason played out and what you can expect in 2012. Click here to read them all.
Things started off so well in Chan Gailey's second year as head coach in Buffalo. The Bills clobbered Kansas City on the road in Week 1, then returned home to down Oakland and New England. By the end of Week 8, thanks to a 23-0 smackdown of Washington, the Bills were 5-2 and thinking playoffs.
And then the wheels fell off. Ryan Fitzpatrick got banged-up and started handing out interceptions like Halloween candy; Fred Jackson suffered a season-ending injury; the Bills lost back-to-back games in Dallas and Miami by a combined score of 79-15.
When the dust settled, Buffalo finished with a 6-10 record and headed into a critical offseason. There, the Bills reclaimed their momentum, keeping Stevie Johnson around and adding piece after important piece to their defense.
The pressure now falls on Gailey -- and Fitzpatrick -- to put it all together.
2011 Record: 6-10 (fourth place, AFC East)
Team Strengths: RB, G/C, DL, S
Team Weaknesses: QB, WR, OT
Three Things to Watch:
1. Mario Williams' impact on the defensive line: Consider this a little heads-up for the quarterbacks of the AFC East, who might see Buffalo's defensive front in their nightmares. The Bills' signing of Williams for $100 million was arguably the biggest coup of the offseason -- and they put a cherry on top by also swiping pass-rusher extraordinaire Mark Anderson from New England. Buffalo plans to switch to a 4-3 look this season, which should produce a D-line of, from left to right, Williams, Marcell Dareus, Kyle Williams and Anderson. That's scary.
Williams is the key. He missed 11 games plus the playoffs last season because of injury and sat out three additional games in 2010. When he's healthy, though, there is not a better DE in the league. Williams had 53 sacks during his six seasons with Houston, 26 of which came between 2007 and 2008. If the interior of the Bills' line holds up, Williams could have a career season on the outside.
2. Is this Ryan Fitzpatrick's last shot?: Fitzpatrick signed a seven-year, $62 million contract midway through 2011, then fell apart down the stretch -- coach Chan Gailey blamed an injury (Fitzpatrick reportedly played through cracked ribs) for that slump. Whether or not that's the case, this is a crucial year in that contract, because Fitzpatrick is set to make more than $7 million, including a $3.25 million offseason roster bonus, in 2013. So if the Bills are going to cut bait and walk away, next summer might be the time to do so.
Fitzpatrick is just 13-21 as Buffalo's starter, and he threw a league-high 23 picks last season. The aforementioned Williams addition, plus Fred Jackson's return to health, Johnson's re-signing and the addition of WR T.J. Graham in the draft, means that the Bills believe they can win now.
And if Fitzpatrick can't get it done, Vince Young will be waiting in the wings for an opportunity.
3. How good can Stephon Gilmore be in Year One?: Drayton Florence started every game of the 2010 and '11 seasons, but Buffalo let him walk via free agency in favor of Gilmore, the No. 10 overall pick. Clearly, the expectation is that Gilmore can step in and start opposite Terrence McGee, Leodis McKelvin or Aaron Williams right away. That's a lot to ask, but the Bills have to get a better performance out of their cornerbacks than they did in 2011.
Outlook: The Bills are built to be a playoff team in 2012. Williams is a potential franchise-changing addition, and Buffalo wisely kept going once it landed him. Last year's late-season swoon was regrettable, but it also handed this team a fourth-place schedule in 2012, meaning games with Cleveland, Indianapolis and Jacksonville, to name a few.
The defense should be imposing, possibly one of the AFC's best if Gilmore helps settle the CB spot and an aging linebacking corps can hold up. The offense could be lethal, too, if a receiver emerges alongside Johnson and Fitzpatrick takes care of the football. Buffalo has not been to the playoffs since 1999 -- and anything less than breaking that streak would be a disappointment.