With the way the 2011 season ended for Shawne Merriman, many Bills fans viewed it as a risk that didn't pay off. What most don't seem to realize is that Merriman is still under contract and after undergoing Achilles surgery he's expected to be a noteworthy part of the 2012 Bills roster.
Merriman was originally signed to a two-year deal last offseason so the pass rushing specialist has another season to make good for the team that claimed him off waivers in the middle of the 2010 campaign.
Bills GM Buddy Nix was asked about Merriman earlier this week in his season wrap-up press conference and confirmed the veteran defender is very much in their plans moving forward.
"Right now he's in the (rehab) process," said Nix. "He's been through the surgery. He's had his shoulder fixed, he's in the process of rehabbing and getting healthy. He'll have a physical this spring and another in the summer. If he gets healthy and passes the physical, he's still ours. We'll take it from there and see what happens."
All indications are that Merriman will clear those hurdles and be back on the field later this calendar year. Nix knew going in that Merriman's injury history made him a risk, but he felt it was one worth taking with no proven pass rusher on their roster.
"We needed a guy of his caliber that we couldn't go anywhere else and get," said Nix. "We weren't the only ones that claimed Merriman, but we had the priority. There was a decision made that without surgery it could be fixed and he could make it. Well he didn't."
Merriman wound up on injured reserve when his Achilles problem resurfaced shortly before midseason. While he contributed just one sack in the five games he played, where he was missed most was in the run front.
"When he was out there even though he didn't have a lot of sacks, he was somebody that could set the edge (against the run)," said Nix. "We missed him when he wasn't in there. We lost containment continuously."
Buffalo's run defense left something to be desired for sure, but their pass rush wasn't much better. Outside of a 10-sack spike in Week 8 against the Redskins, the Bills had just 19 in their other 15 games. That was tied for the third fewest in the league in 2011.
That's why Nix wasn't shy in admitting that the lack of a pass rush affected their entire defense front to back.
"I think everything would look better if we had some pressure on the passer," he said. "If you can't disrupt passers in the NFL and make them get out of rhythm and make the move any of them, they'll wear you out. We had some rookies that looked like Dan Marino and we let them look like that because we let them stand there. You've got to disrupt the quarterback."
Though Merriman will have every opportunity to prove himself worthy of a pass rushing role in 2012, Nix also plans to add reinforcements at the position.
"Defensively I would say the priority would have to be pass rushers," said Nix. "One, maybe two."
One is likely to come via the draft with the other likely acquired in free agency after Nix's comments that if the right fit is out there the Bills will be aggressive in the open market.
So although the hope still exists in Buffalo's front office that Merriman's body will finally be right come the 2012 season it sounds as though there will be more options for new defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt to work with.
"Compared to where we are now to where we were, we looked and it was a hodge-podge of needs," said Nix. "We had them everywhere. It wasn't like you could pinpoint them. I think we're at a point where we can spot three or four positions that if we can fill those with the right guys and get our injured guys back we'll be competitive."
And if Merriman is one of those injured guys that makes a successful return the Bills will be all the better for it.