After ranking near the top in almost every defensive category a season ago, the Bills defense is poised to become even stronger under Rex Ryan and defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman. With minimal personnel changes, only the strong safety position is vacant after the departure of Da'Norris Searcy. Although Duke Williams is considered the early favorite to assume the position, there are some interesting names to keep a close eye on as offseason activities ramp up.
"Searcy was an outstanding player, there's no doubt about that," said Bills head coach Rex Ryan. "But we feel pretty good about Duke (Williams). And really some other guys. (Jonathan) Meeks was coming on and got hurt, so we'll see. There's going to be some opportunities for other guys. Clearly, that's going to be a spot where when you lose a starter, the next man steps up. I think with Duke Williams in particular, we're excited to see what he can do."
Entering his third NFL season, Williams believes he is ready to fully demonstrate why Buffalo made him a fourth-round selection in 2013. Last season, Williams became a contributor on the defense as he was on the field for nearly half of all defensive snaps, rotating with Searcy. During the offseason, Williams has applied the lessons he's learned from mentors like Searcy and defensive backs coach Donnie Henderson, who has been a mainstay over the past three years.
"Study more, be in the playbook more," said Williams. "Realize that I'm the quarterback of the defense and I need to get everyone lined up. Its something I've struggled with a bit in the past. I was able to get my feet wet by sharing snaps with Searcy. Now, coming into year three, its about knowing that I'm the starter and actually becoming that guy."
The most notable competition that Williams will face is Bacarri Rambo. Washington's sixth-round selection in 2013, Rambo registered 48 tackles as a rookie. In what was a bit of a surprise, Rambo was released early in his second season and had to wait two months before an NFL team gave him another chance. Washington's loss was Buffalo's gain as Rambo recorded two interceptions in an electrifying week 15 win over Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers. As he prepares to continue his career in Buffalo, Rambo uses his two months away from football as a constant reminder of what it means to play in the NFL.
"It made me more humble," said Rambo. "It made me look at the game from a different perspective. I cannot allow myself to think I'll ever get another second chance. I've got to play each down like its my last and just go out there and have fun and do the best I can do because I'll never know when my last play will be."
Other contenders for the strong safety position are Kenny Ladler and Jonathan Meeks. Ladler was signed as an undrafted free agent last year and saw action in two games. The Vanderbilt product hopes to secure a position on the 53-man roster and battle for playing time. Meeks, like Williams and Rambo, was selected in the 2013 draft. In an incredibly injury-laden start to his career, Meeks has yet to suit up for a regular season game in two seasons. While his circumstances have been unfortunate, the former Clemson playmaker used his time off the field to master the mental side of football.
"I was around the facility and was able to learn," said Meeks. "Instead of using my athletic ability I was able to gain knowledge by watching and learning the game from a different perspective. I could put that knowledge together with my athletic ability and be able to be a smarter player, a better player."
Regardless of individual status, Duke Williams believes that the safety contingent will help lead the defense to new heights.
"We are all young guys trying to make a name for ourselves in the league," said Williams. "Its going to be a great competition and I can't wait. I'm excited about year three. I'm excited about the things to come for this team. Our defense is even better this year so it's just an exciting experience. We have an opportunity to do great things this year so I'm really looking forward to it."