Every summer leading up to training camp Buffalobills.com asks 25 of the most pressing questions facing the team as they make their final preparations for the upcoming regular season. With a new regime and practices at St. John Fisher fast approaching, here is the latest installment as we closely examine some of the answers the Buffalo Bills have to come up with between July 28th and Sept. 12th.
The transition to the 3-4 defense has certainly left the Buffalo Bills with a variety of options at a number of positions on the field. The team drafted players like Alex Carrington and Torell Troup, to play defensive end and nose tackle respectively, because each man's skill set fits the new scheme, and have signed free agents like Andra Davis who have previously played the 3-4 elsewhere.
Bills mainstay Paul Posluszny is projected to be one of the inside linebackers in the new alignment, as he has shown consistent improvement through his first three seasons in the middle of the 4-3. With Posluszny likely to hold down a spot on the inside, the competition is on for the player who will line up on the inside next to him. The candidates that emerged from spring OTAs appear to be Davis, Kawika Mitchell, Keith Ellison, Nic Harris, and rookie Arthur Moats.
Davis seems to have an edge, given his past experience in the 3-4 while playing for Cleveland and Denver. He is a nine-year NFL veteran who reads the run extremely well, helping to shore up a question mark lingering from last season's defense. In 13 starts with the Broncos in 2009, Davis posted 90 tackles and 3.5 sacks.
As a new addition bringing knowledge of the system to the table, many of Davis' teammates, including Posluszny, are looking for him to play an important role.
"He's been huge so far and it's going to continue to be that way throughout the course of the year because he has experience in this defense," Posluszny said. "Any time you can get a guy like that in your locker room it helps team chemistry and also just helping out younger guys to learn a new system."
For the spring, Davis was the man responsible for calling plays in the defensive huddle. He said that he welcomed the opportunity to play a leadership role for the Bills defense right off the bat.
"It shows his (defensive coordinator George Edwards) confidence in me, not only his confidence, but the guys' confidence in me to listen to what I'm saying. Obviously I'm new here," Davis said. "They know of me, but they really don't know me, but they respect me and I respect them so it's a two way street. I don't want to let George down, I don't want to let myself down and I definitely don't want to let them other guys in the huddle who are looking at me and giving me their attention and looking at me in my eye when I'm talking, I don't want to let those guys down either."
Mitchell is looking to make an impactful return to the Bills after missing 11 games in 2009 with a torn patella tendon. He brings winning experience to the table, as he was a key element in the Super Bowl upset of the New England Patriots by the New York Giants in 2007.
Working his way back toward full strength during the spring, Mitchell showed a knack for timing his blitzes in the 3-4, even though it was clear he was not yet at 100 percent. If he does recover fully, he is a sure tackler who has made his fair share of plays since he was added to the Buffalo defense as a free agent in 2008.
As he has been working diligently to get back from injury, Mitchell was eager to get back on the field with his teammates, and get acclimated to the new defensive philosophy, even if he wasn't full go.
"I want to be in there. I want to get a taste of the new stuff we're doing. I miss playing the game," he said. "I've never really missed a game for injury so it's new to me, but I'm going to be patient with it. I'm trying my best. That's the biggest challenge now."
Ellison has steadily improved at linebacker since the Bills drafted him out of Oregon State in 2006. In only eight starts last season, Ellison was the team's leading tackler for most of the season before being placed on Injured-Reserve after injuring his quadriceps, joining the long list of Buffalo players who saw 2009 come to a premature end.
During the spring, Ellison saw limited snaps in the new 3-4 scheme, as he was battling an injury suffered during OTAs. He has shown an intelligent ability to recognize his assignment in coverage, and should be a quick study once he returns to the field. Ellison's coverage ability is what will give him an edge in the competition.
Harris is a player who was off to a great start as a rookie in 2009, before he too was lost with a serious knee injury. His breakout game was the last one he played, a 12 tackle performance against Atlanta in Week 16.
For the season, Harris finished with 30 tackles for the year, coming off a standout career as a safety with the Oklahoma Sooners under head coach Bob Stoops. He is sixth all-time in the Sooners record books with 233 tackles, and was an All-America third-team selection by the Associated Press as a senior in 2008.
Harris continued his rehabilitation efforts during the spring, but has yet to take any snaps in the new Bills defense. Still, he was at every voluntary OTA practice, so he was hard at work visually learning the new scheme, and should have an idea of where to begin when he returns to the field.
Moats will enter camp as more or less an unknown in the equation, given the fact that it will be his first in an NFL uniform. Moats was the 178th overall selection in the 2010 NFL Draft out of James Madison University, where he was awarded the Buck Buchannan Award as the best defensive player in the Football Championship Subdivision in 2009.
Moats consistently saw reps with the second team during spring workouts, and showed improvement as the spring progressed. He appeared very comfortable with his surroundings once things got going, and has emerged as the dark horse candidate in the race.
By the end of OTAs, Moats said he felt he had picked up on the defensive playbook, and was mentally ready moving forward as he attempts to battle for a spot in the lineup when training camp opens at St. John Fisher July 29.
"Now, I'm definitely more comfortable with the book. I remember the first day they threw the book at me and I'm sitting here saying, 'There's no way I'm going to know all this and then if I do there's no way I'll remember all this,'" he said. "But once you understand the different concepts and different ways to break it down to remember everything it becomes more simplified for you and you get more comfortable the more times you do it."