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.
It's a question that's been met with nothing but question marks from the time he was claimed off waivers by the Bills in the middle of the 2010 season. A compromised Achilles however, has never allowed expectations about what Shawne Merriman could do in Buffalo's defense materialize. After a successful surgical repair of Merriman's Achilles late last season it appears the opportunity to see just what kind of role the three-time Pro Bowl pass rusher might have will come to fruition.
First and foremost Merriman is far ahead of the schedule he was originally given coming out of surgery to repair the frayed tendon. He was not expected to participate in any capacity until training camp at the end of July. Instead Merriman participated fully in all of the OTA and minicamp practices without any setbacks.
"Shawne really has been, I hate to use the word a pleasant surprise, but honestly that's what it was for me personally. Number one would he be able to come back? Number two, let's assume he comes back and he's healthy. Is his mindset such that he wants to come in and compete and really get his hands dirty and get in the mix? Number three he's really changing positions. He's going from outside linebacker to defensive end. These are all things that Shawne has had to deal with before he showed up here and he's done a remarkable job. He really has."
"I'm excited about where he is physically," said head coach Chan Gailey. "Really physically and mentally because he came out every day in the spring with an outlook that was just outstanding. He works hard, looks quick, looks healthy so that part of it has been refreshing for us to see. It's what I think we're going to see, which is the old Shawne Merriman this year."
Buffalo wasn't necessarily counting on Merriman to be a difference maker this season. They certainly were hopeful that Merriman could return to form, but signing Mario Williams and Mark Anderson in free agency served as indication that the club felt they had to acquire more reliable options.
Adding a healthy Merriman to the equation only adds to the top flight veteran competition that exists at the defensive end position. The question is just what will be Merriman's role? Will it be as a full-time starter? A situational pass rusher, or something else?
As far as Wannstedt is concerned there's still on hurdle for Merriman to clear.
"Contact," Wannstedt told Buffalobills.com. "Now he's lining up and he's banging and we're going to bang. We're going to be physical. From a health standpoint he just has to get over that. If he takes that last step with what he's done so far, I'm encouraged. I think we'll get a good year on him."
In the spring practices, Merriman worked primarily with the second unit defense at right defensive end while Chris Kelsay and Anderson rotated in and out with the first unit based on down and distance. Merriman also lined up with the first team nickel unit at right end.
So on the surface it appears there are a couple of roles that Merriman could have for the Bills on defense and not necessarily in just a pass rushing capacity. After three years of trying to play on one good leg, Merriman is just glad to have the ability to burst and explode off the ball like he used to.
"Whenever you can play football you play football and it is up to the coaches," he said. "Let the coaches go out and decide where they need the guys at. As long as everybody has that same mind frame and knows that's the case then we will be good. If you can play football and go out and contribute to the team then the coaches will find somewhere for you to be."
That's why Merriman isn't caught up with how many snaps he'll get per game or how many downs he'll play series to series. He's just happy to be getting back to the player that he was, the player that opposing quarterbacks feared. If he proves to be that again, Merriman's role will matter little because the results will be what everyone notices most. "I have overcome a lot of things in general," he said. "Nothing at this point is going to stop me, but me. I am going to have that attitude for the remainder of my career. I am just happy to be in a situation that I am now."