GLS Preview: Buffalo Bills

When was the last time the Buffalo Bills were good? Seriously, think about it. I actually can’t recall. I remember being somewhat excited about the team in the early part of the 2000s, when Drew Bledsoe was brought in to save a franchise trying to revive itself after going 3-13 in 2001.

In three years with Bledsoe at the helm, the Bills had just one winning season (9-7 in 2004). That’s also the only winning season the franchise has had in 11 years. And the resulting 11-year playoff drought will almost surely continue in 2011, because this version of the Bills doesn’t appear to be any better than the one that went 4-12 in 2010.

I don’t enjoy constantly deriding the team down the street, but what choice do I have? This is a franchise that, despite having over $30 million in cap space, let two quality defensive starters — linebacker Paul Posluszny and safety Donte Whitner — walk in free agency. Their replacements, Nick Barnett and nobody, are downgrades.

Their top offseason acquisition: former Jets reserve receiver and wildcat specialist Brad Smith. Hooray?

2010 in a nutshell: The Bills settle for only four wins in their worst season since 2001. Still, that doesn’t feel so bad considering that the team started the campaign with eight straight losses. Stevie Johnson and Kyle Williams emerge as stars, but top pick C.J. Spiller disappoints.

Three predictions for 2011:

1. Tyler Thigpen will start at least four games: No disrespect to Ryan Fitzpatrick, who is one of the NFL’s best dudes. But despite what homer local sportscasters will tell you, he’s not good enough to consistently start in this league. He isn’t a bad decision maker and makes the odd great throw, but he makes too many bad ones to deliver as a starter. Thigpen, who the team signed as a free agent, served under Bills head coach Chan Gailey in 2008, his best season as a pro. The 27-year-old has a better track record than Fitzpatrick does as a starter.

2. Marcell Dareus won’t save the run defense, but he’ll make them better: I’m quite excited about what Pro Bowl-caliber nose tackle Kyle Williams will do with No. 3 overall pick Marcell Dareus lining up next to him. Those two could make up an exceptional duo up front for years to come. The problem is that the Bills gave up a league-high 4.8 yards per carry in 2010, and the losses of Posluszny and Whitner won’t help. No one’s criticizing this team’s secondary (they had the third-best pass defense in the league last season), but Buffalo still has lots of work to do with the front seven.

3. Shawne Merriman won’t save the day: I’m not buying into the talk that Merriman is about to have a big bounce-back season. The guy is done. He’s a 27-year-old in a 37-year-old’s body. He’s already missing training camp practices due to “leg soreness,” which just sounds like something old people deal with. There’s no way Merriman makes it through the 2011 season without missing several games due to injury, and he proved in 2009 that, even when suited up, he’s simply not the same player anymore. I don’t hate the small financial risk that Buddy Nix took on a guy with such a notable past, but I wish the Bills had protected themselves with more depth at outside linebacker.

The final word(s): The Bills are significantly less talented than the Patriots and Jets and probably remain a step or two behind the Dolphins. They’ll be better on paper than they were last season, but only because that 0-8 start warped the numbers a bit. They aren’t a four-win team, but they also aren’t an eight-win team. This season, the key will be the improvement/emergence of guys like Dareus, Spiller, Aaron Williams, Jairus Byrd and Stevie Johnson. I’m guessing they finish 6-10.