Last season when the Bills picked Shawne Merriman up off waivers it was largely done with the hope that the three-time Pro Bowl linebacker could inject some life into Buffalo's moribund pass rush. While an Achilles strain prevented that from happening in 2010, Merriman has a chance to make an impact before the 2011 campaign even begins.
The Bills linebacker has been rehabbing his strained Achilles for the past few months in an effort to get back to full football strength. All indications are he'll be ready for whatever offseason there might be with a new CBA agreement still up in the air.
"All things are positive at this point," said head coach Chan Gailey. "I think we're all looking forward to seeing how he progresses, his continual improvement and what he'll be able to do if we can get on the field with him."
Leading up to the NFL draft at the end of April, if Merriman is still on a positive path to being football ready it could alter the thinking of Buffalo's brass with respect to positional needs.
Suddenly the need for a pass rushing linebacker would be significantly reduced allowing the Bills to address other areas of their defense.
"A big factor for us is if Merriman gets healthy," said Bills GM Buddy Nix. "So far, so good. If he does (get healthy) he adds a lot to the pass rush. I think a lot will depend on that."
That would appear to take prospects like Texas A&M's Von Miller out of the equation early in the draft for the Bills and possibly players like Georgia's Justin Houston and Arizona's Brooks Reed, who have been forecast to come off the board early in round two.
Buffalo's decision makers also are encouraged by some of the youth they already have on the roster at outside linebacker with Arthur Moats being the most notable example.
"We feel good about outside backer," said Nix. "We do have a bunch of good young guys. We need a couple of inside backers. We need some bigger, stronger guys to help us stop the run."
But Merriman appears to be the linchpin. If they know he'll be in the fold for 2011 Buffalo can then focus on addressing their defensive end position, inside linebacker, cornerback and safety.
And Nix has every confidence that Merriman can return to form.
"I know him and I've got a lot of confidence in him too," said Nix. "He's a great player. He did a lot of good things for us in San Diego and when he came in there we really started getting better on defense."
Nix wouldn't mind a repeat performance.