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 Year 3 under head coach Chan Gailey and veteran player report day at St. John Fisher fast approaching, here is the latest daily installment as we closely examine some of the answers the Buffalo Bills have to come up with between July 24th and Sept. 9th.
Crucial, vital, essential, necessary are just a few of the words that describe indispensable. Buffalo's defense has made some critical additions that should raise the level of play on that side of the ball. Their depth is also appreciably better in some areas, but injuries have compromised promising Bills' seasons before. And as hard as GM Buddy Nix has tried to make his roster complete there are still a few areas where if a starter goes down it will be hard to maintain the same level of play. Here are the candidates on defense that the Bills can least afford to lose.
Kelvin SheppardHe might just be a second-year player, but there isn't as good a fit at middle linebacker on the roster right now as Sheppard.
I'm pretty comfortable with the system because it's the same system I ran in college where I had a lot of success," Sheppard told Buffalobills.com.
Sheppard is expected to take a giant step forward in his second NFL season. He was the emotional leader of the LSU defense where he was the team's leading tackler for three straight seasons.
"This is our year and I plan on bringing my game and my intensity to the locker room and to the field," he said.
Should Sheppard succumb to injury at some point during the season it's believed the either veteran Kirk Morrison or Nick Barnett would shift inside to the middle backer position and run the defense. But the Bills would be subtracting from another position to fill the middle linebacker role, which is far from an ideal situation at a position where proven depth is still lacking.
Kyle WilliamsBills fans saw just what life was like without the penetrating interior lineman. Williams was not only a playmaker, but dependable and consistent with his run fits.
The fact that Williams looks more than ready to return to the fold is very good news coming off Achilles surgery. He participated in the OTAs and minicamp practices, though his reps in the team setting were minimal. Williams should be full go for training camp.
Should the unfortunate happen and Williams misses more time this season, Buffalo appears a bit more equipped to fill the hole. With veteran Dwan Edwards moving to defensive tackle in the Bills new 4-3 scheme, there is a starting caliber option right behind Williams and Marcell Dareus on the roster.
If Torell Troup successfully returns from offseason back surgery it'll only add to the depth of talent behind Williams. That should be sufficient to help to sustain Buffalo's run front.
Mario WilliamsJust about anyone on Buffalo's roster would tell you that there is no replacing Mario Williams. He's clearly the most talented defensive player, but last season Houston was able to finish as the second best defense in football despite not having Williams for the final 11 games of the regular season and the playoffs. The reason why is they had talented depth behind him on the roster.
Arguably the Bills do as well. Mark Anderson and Shawne Merriman are both more than capable of picking up the pass rushing slack, should Williams miss time due to injury. Merriman appears poised to finally make a full return to form and Anderson is quietly productive in his own right.
That's why Williams believes competing with one another every day in the practice setting will have all of them ready to take on added responsibility if it comes to that.
"We know we all have each other's backs and that's the most important thing, but you're not going to get any better without competition," Williams told Buffalobills.com. "That's why you should always thrive off of competition and thrive off the opportunity to get better amongst your peers. Anytime we can get out here and can mix it up amongst each other and get better its welcome."
So although Williams is a unique talent, Buffalo's pass rush would not be devoid of capable talent elsewhere on the roster.
George WilsonThe starting strong safety is the defense's compass. Whatever Wilson points out pre-snap to his teammates they listen. Kelvin Sheppard knows the defense and will capably call out checks and pre-snap changes, but he doesn't have the offensive background that Wilson has as a former receiver. It allows Wilson to accurately predict what's coming before anyone else.
That kind of value is hard to duplicate. Add in the fact that he's finished second in tackles two of the last three seasons and has been first or second on the squad in interceptions each of the last three seasons and the production isn't easy to replicate either.
Were the Bills forced to spell him in the lineup it would likely be Da'Norris Searcy, a promising but green player or Bryan Scott, though that would compromise his hybrid nickel linebacker role.
ConclusionThere are valuable contributors throughout Buffalo's defensive unit, but replacing Sheppard or Wilson might prove to be the most difficult. Knowing Wilson's replacement would most likely be a young player and not a veteran as in the case of Sheppard, Wilson is probably the defensive unit's most indispensable player.