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. This year we want your opinion on what the most likely answers to these questions will be. After reading each daily installment as the Bills get set for Year 1 under head coach Doug Marrone, go to the Bills daily fan poll leading up to report day at training camp and vote. You could be eligible to win tickets to night practice. Here is the latest daily installment as we closely examine some of the answers the Buffalo Bills have to come up with between July 28th and the Sept. 8th home opener.
After a season in which the defense struggled mightily despite possessing some top-level talent, the Bills are hopeful that the introduction of Mike Pettine as defensive coordinator will lead to a turnaround in 2013. Pettine's defenses are known for their aggressiveness, ever-shifting fronts, and pressure packages, as well as the way they put players in positions that utilize their individual strengths. With that in mind, the question is which defensive players will prosper from the new scheme and step up as a playmaker in 2013?
Stephon GilmoreIf one player will need to consistently be in position and make plays for the Bills defense it is cornerback Stephon Gilmore. Pettine's defense is going to be aggressive and blitz-heavy, and to do so Pettine needs a number one corner who can be left one-on-one with top receivers. That corner will be Gilmore and the role is one he is excited for and ready to embrace.
"That's what I love to do," said Gilmore. "I've been practicing hard and listening to Coach (Donnie) Henderson and learning different techniques, so I'm going to be ready for that role."
With just one interception and 17 passes defended, Gilmore's numbers do not jump off the stat sheet, but a play-by-play break down from the entire 2012 season by Presnapreads.com shows Gilmore's rookie season was one of the best of among all corners in the NFL. According to the analysis, Gilmore had a success rate (meaning in position in man coverage only) of 76.2 percent on the season, and he was ranked just outside the top tier of corners that includes only Darrelle Revis and Richard Sherman.
Gilmore will be leaned on heavily, but he appears to be poised to handle the load.
Aaron Williams2013 brings a position change for Williams, and the move from corner to safety has been seamless thus far.
"I think he's ahead of schedule of where we thought he would be," Pettine said of Williams. "He's flashed just the things we saw in him as far as being safety. He's had some interceptions and obviously his range, his ability to get to the sideline is obviously something we're going to take advantage of."
Williams tied for the interception lead in spring practices, including one on each day of the three-day minicamp, so his ability to make a play on the ball seems to have carried over nicely. What he is lacking is experience making calls from the position, but Williams believes he is progressing with every snap.
"It's coming along. It's progressed since week one," said Williams. "It took me a while just because I didn't know what I was doing. I was just out there feeling it, but now I know a little more and know what I'm doing a little bit and making the calls and feeling confident about it."
In a defense that places a premium on versatility and speed, Bradham has the physical tools and experience at multiple positions to be a significant weapon as a linebacker in Pettine's defensive attack.
Bradham played weak side as a freshman and sophomore at Florida State University, inside as a junior and senior, and strong side as a rookie in 2012. Though rookie Kiko Alonso is leading the way, Bradham is making a push for the starting middle linebacker role while also receiving work at the weak side, and his effort has impressed Pettine.
"Nigel can run now," said Pettine. "That's the one thing we're going to take advantage of. He's explosive so there are times where if he's a little slow to diagnose he can make up for it with his speed. We've been real pleased with that. He's a guy that's been real coachable. It's not often that he makes the same mistake a second time."
Bradham is a physical freak and the varying fronts and blitzes of Pettine's scheme could lead to a big sophomore season for the young linebacker.
Marcell DareusAfter a disappointing 2012 season in which Dareus dealt with a horrific personal tragedy, the 23-year-old will look to return to the form that made him a top-three talent in the 2011 draft.
At the conclusion of spring practices it was clear the Dareus was not going to be handed a starting role. With Kyle Williams and Mario Williams as locks on the defensive line, Dareus is competing with Alex Carrington for the last spot in the three-man front, and Carrington has seen a significant share of first-team reps this spring. In a four-man front, Dareus saw more snaps, but still split some time with first-year defensive tackle Jay Ross.
Still, Dareus possesses the most talent at the position and in all likelihood will fully claim his job. With a skill set that allows him to play nose, defensive tackle, and defensive end in a three-man front, Dareus has the versatility that Pettine's defense requires, and his production should jump in his third season.
Alex CarringtonWith Kyle Williams out with an Achilles injury, Carrington ran with the first team defense through spring practices and defensive line coach Anthony Weaver absolutely loves what he has seen from the fourth-year player.
"I've seen an awful lot out of Alex," said Weaver. "The think about it looking at his tape last year, he played with so much technique last year that it's amazing he wasn't more productive. We plan on maximizing that work he put in this offseason and all the different jobs he can play because he's so flexible. He can play nose, he can play defensive tackle, he can play defensive end, and that in our system particularly makes him so valuable."
With four field goal blocks in 2012, 'Megahand' had the highest grade by a special teamer according to Pro Football Focus. More noteworthy would be Carrington's success as a pass rusher. As previously noted on the Inside the Bills blog, according to Pro Football Focus, Carrington averaged a pressure every 10 pass rushed last year, and his 7.8 Pass Rush Productivity tied for the 10th-highest mark of any defensive tackle, with most of his success coming from the inside.
Pettine's versatile system is known for putting players in the best position to succeed, and almost all of Carrington's reps have come from the inside. If he continues his progression and gets work in the right spots, Carrington could be a breakout player.