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It's hard not to feel optimistic when it's a sunny August day and you're in Pittsford, N.Y., on the campus of St. John Fisher College, the Bills' training camp home for the 12th straight year and home of what has to be in the running for the best training camp cafeteria in the league (ask any player about the stir fry station). Of course, that optimism must always be of the guarded variety, as Buffalo's 11 previous training camps at St. John Fisher have resulted in a single winning season, and no playoff appearances. Still, the Bills have clearly improved in certain areas -- particularly as far as their defense's front seven and the breadth of their offensive weapons. Even if the playoffs might again not be in the cards in a top-heavy division, things are at least trending in the proper direction. And, you know, the food's good.
1. The Lights should be put Out once more. The Bills' run defense was last season remarkably bad, yielding more rushing attempts (571), and for a higher average per carry (4.8), than any other team. That, and that teams rarely felt it necessary to throw against Buffalo, obscured the fact that their pass rush was also poor -- it managed just 27 sacks, a figure only three teams had less than.
The presence of former Charger Shawne Merriman, finally healthy after injuries marred the last three seasons, should help. Merriman has been active and disruptive in practice, and head coach Chan Gailey's main concern is to make sure Merriman lasts through the regular season, by giving him sessions off here and there. "I have seen flashes of the old Shawne Merriman," says Gailey. "I think that what we're trying to do is make sure he gets to Sept. 11 with a consistent amount of those flashes."
Merriman should have little trouble becoming the second Bills defender since the turn of the millennium to record more than 6.5 sacks in a season, and he could have many more than that.
2. Brad Smith is the new Slash. Buffalo signed Smith to a four-year, $15 million deal in late July with the idea that he'll be more than the return man and occasional trick-play specialist he'd been during his five seasons with the Jets. "I've never, ever had the opportunity to throw so much since I've been in the NFL," says the former Missouri quarterback of his first Bills training camp.
Gailey plans to use Smith in much the same way he used Kordell Stewart with the Steelers in 1996 -- as a regular passing, running and receiving threat. "The difference between Kordell and Brad is, Brad's got four or five years of experience," says Gailey. "I think Brad's able to handle a lot more in the first year of our Wildcat than what we did with Kordell that year."
Time will tell whether it will make a real difference in the Bills' overall production, but it ought to be a fascinating experiment.
3. Stevie Johnson, Pro Bowl? Johnson had just 12 receptions during his first two NFL seasons, but last season had 82 catches, 1,073 yards, 10 touchdowns and, after dropping a would-be game-winning touchdown pass in overtime against the Steelers in November, an awfully memorable tweet. Now Johnson seems poised to take the next step, to become a legitimate star on a team that could use one.
"Stevie, the way he's worked this offseason, the way he's worked in training camp, he wants to be the guy," says quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, who will look Johnson's way more than ever after longtime deep threat Lee Evans was traded to the Ravens last week. "He's just hard to cover. He's slippery, he's a smart receiver, he's big. Especially once we get down to the red zone, people have a hard time covering him one on one."
C.J. Spiller, RB. Spiller wasn't exactly a bust after the Bills made him the ninth pick out of Clemson in the 2010 draft, but he was a disappointment. He received just 98 offensive touches (resulting in 283 yards rushing and 157 receiving) and scored a single touchdown. Spiller, though, promises his adjustment to the NFL has significantly advanced, and Gailey says he will find the ball in his hands more -- "in open spaces, if we possibly can."
Open spaces so that he can best take advantage of his agility and speed and also, presumably, so that he will have to less rely upon an offensive line that remains shaky and unsettled.
Nick Barnett, ILB. Barnett, 30, spurned big city suitors in part in an attempt to replicate the type of environment in which he spent his career's first eight seasons, in Green Bay. "I had some chances to go to some bigger markets -- Detroit, New York, Philly, whatever -- a couple places I could have explored," he says. "But I think you get a certain feeling, a certain vibe with these small town markets."
Barnett's antipathy toward the bright lights was fortunate for Buffalo, sometimes a difficult place to lure free agents to. He is a proven run-stopper with six 100-plus tackle seasons to his credit, and he and the Bills' 343-pound No. 3 overall pick, Alabama defensive tackle Marcell Dareus, should help ensure that their run defense will no longer be the league's most porous, if not better than average.
A 5-11 record is a distinct possibility. Buffalo might well win just one intradivision game, when it hosts Miami on Dec. 18, but matchups versus Oakland (Week 2), at Cincinnati (Week 4), versus Washington (Week 8), and versus Denver (Week 16) look promising. The result will be a seventh straight losing season, but at least it will represent a slight improvement on 2010's 4-12 finish.