AFC East: Paul Posluszny

Camp Confidential: Buffalo Bills

August, 15, 2011
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PITTSFORD, N.Y. -- Buffalo Bills inside linebacker Nick Barnett knew bad news was coming this summer, and he still couldn’t fully accept it. Despite his eight seasons with Green Bay, the speculation was that the Packers had to trade or release him this offseason. Barnett had been placed on injured reserve in both the 2008 and 2010 seasons, and his heir apparent, Desmond Bishop, already was in place. It was a no-brainer move to most observers, even though Barnett was still thinking about the possibility of helping the Packers repeat as Super Bowl champions. “If you read my tweets,” he said, “that’s all I kept talking about.”

These days Barnett is talking about something different -- how he can help the Bills transform one of the league’s worst defenses into a sturdy, reliable unit. No team in the NFL was worse against the run in 2010 (Buffalo allowed 169.6 yards per game), and that was one key reason the team signed Barnett so quickly after the Packers released him in late July. At 30, he still has the quickness and playmaking ability that allowed him to amass 787 tackles, 15.5 sacks and nine interceptions during his Green Bay career. He’s also aware that his energy and leadership will be invaluable to a team that lost its top tackler, Paul Posluszny, in free agency.

Bills assistant head coach and linebackers coach Dave Wannstedt said Barnett already is the team’s best linebacker. Head coach Chan Gailey has raved about his new player’s approach. “He brings experience and speed to this defense,” Gailey said. “He’s a guy who always plays fast.” Added Barnett: “I’m just trying to be myself. I haven’t played since Week 4 [a dislocated wrist ended his season] so I’m still finding my way. But the biggest thing I wanted to bring to this team was an attitude. I want to help the younger guys relax and have fun out there because that’s what I do.”

Though Barnett needed some time to accept his release from the Packers -- “I’ve never been fired from anything before,” he said -- he quickly sensed that Buffalo was the right place for him. He liked the team atmosphere, the family environment and the die-hard fans who are the city’s trademark. In many ways, Barnett felt like he was going to a place quite similar to Green Bay. “The talent level is there,” Barnett said. “But like everything, it’s going to come down to communication and attitude. If we do those things, we’ll be productive.”

THREE HOT ISSUES

1. Will Ryan Fitzpatrick be better? Yes. Fitzpatrick was a decent quarterback in 2010 -- 3,000 yards, 23 touchdowns, 15 interceptions -- especially considering that he was basically thrown into the job after the Bills gave up on former starter Trent Edwards. Fitzpatrick also has far more advantages coming into this season, despite not having an entire offseason to work with coaches. The major areas that he needs to improve? Accuracy and consistency. What he doesn’t have to worry about any longer? Proving to his teammates that he can lead this team and knowing whether the job is his alone. “Last season was interesting, but my whole career has been about being ready to show what you can do when the opportunity comes,” said Fitzpatrick, who spent his first five NFL seasons as a backup before getting his shot as a full-time starter three games into 2010. “One of the good things we have as an offense is that we have a lot of guys who’ve spent an entire season playing together and getting familiar with each other. When you look at the offenses in New England and Indianapolis, that continuity is what makes them so successful, and now we’re one step closer to that.”

[+] EnlargeShawne Merriman
Richard Mackson/US PresswireBuffalo defense is relying on Shawne Merriman to return to Pro-Bowl form.
2. Can Shawne Merriman return to an elite level? As long as he’s healthy. Right now the three-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker thinks that the strained Achilles that limited him to only three games last season won’t be an issue. The bigger challenge for him is finding a comfort level after registering only four sacks over the past three seasons. The Bills are banking on his getting up to speed in a hurry. For a team that tied for 27th in the NFL in sacks last season (with 27), having a rejuvenated Merriman harassing opposing quarterbacks would be a much-needed blessing. “I don’t feel like I need to respond to people who’ve been counting me out over the last couple years because all you have to do is watch me practice,” said Merriman, who had 43.5 sacks in his first 60 career games. “It’s definitely been hard [not playing] but I also feel like I’ve done everything I’ve needed to do to get back. I can see good things happening this season.”

3. What role will C.J. Spiller play in the offense? One of the more disappointing aspects of the Bills' offense in 2010 was the lack of productivity from Spiller. Drafted ninth overall in last year’s draft, he was supposed to bring breathtaking speed and elusiveness to the Bills. Instead, Spiller wound up with only 283 rushing yards and 24 receptions in his rookie season. Those numbers should increase now that Buffalo has a less crowded backfield (the team traded Marshawn Lynch to Seattle midway through last season) and a greater sense of urgency about involving Spiller. “We need to get him more touches,” Gailey said. “We need to find more ways to get him in space so he can use that speed. He’s already grown as a runner because he’s better at running inside, and he’s shown more patience. The one thing I’d really like to see him improve on now is ball security. He had some problems with fumbles last year [Spiller had five fumbles and lost three], and we can’t have that.”

WELCOME SIGHT

Roscoe Parrish: The Bills' offensive players know that Parrish has developed into a valuable receiver after being used mainly as a returner early in his career. They realize it even more now that he’s healthy. After missing the last eight games of 2010 with a broken wrist, Parrish has been impressing teammates with his trademark speed and quickness. The explosiveness he brings to the offense after sitting out half a year also hasn’t gone unnoticed. “Now that he’s back, you remember how much he means to this offense,” Fitzpatrick said. “He really adds another dimension.”

PLAYER TO WATCH

Brad Smith: Don’t be surprised if Smith becomes a more dangerous playmaker in the Bills’ offense. He made his name as a kick returner/wide receiver/Wildcat quarterback with the New York Jets, and rule changes should allow him to increase his playing time in Buffalo. The NFL agreed to abolish the rule requiring teams to determine a third quarterback on game-day rosters -- that player could participate only in emergency situations, and his presence would prevent the team from using any other quarterback during a game. Now a player like Smith can be used far more often in Wildcat situations. Even if Smith appears as a quarterback in three or four plays a game, his involvement won’t limit his coaches’ options. “We were going to use him in a similar role anyway, but that rule really helps,” said Gailey, who has gained a reputation for finding creative roles for versatile players. “Now you don’t have to wonder about whether he needs to be listed as a third quarterback who can only play in emergency situations or if he can be used as a Wildcat quarterback whenever we like. It’s going to make a big difference.”

OBSERVATION DECK

  • [+] EnlargeMarcell Dareus
    Rick Stewart/Getty ImagesFirst round draft pick Marcell Dareus has impressed his coaches in training camp.
    Rookie defensive end Marcell Dareus hasn’t needed much time to make a strong impression on his coaches. Wannstedt called him a “special kid with the right approach to the game,” and Gailey thinks it shouldn’t take long for Dareus to prove why he was worthy of the third overall pick in this year’s draft. “He’s a big, physical guy and he’s got an edge to him,” Gailey said of Dareus, who's 6-3 and weighs 323. “You have to like that about him.”

  • Even though the Bills lost their second-best tackler from last season -- strong safety Donte Whitner -- the loss may not be as troubling as it looks. Though he was a strong presence in run support, the team thinks strong safety George Wilson can help the Bills more in the playmaking department. When Whitner was injured two years ago, the tandem of Wilson and Jairus Byrd gave the secondary a bigger boost with their pass defense skills.

  • The emphasis on stopping the run is going to put more pressure on the Bills cornerbacks this season. Gailey believes he has the personnel to handle the increased responsibility, and Terrence McGee is essential to this approach. He has spent more time covering slot receivers in training camp, which will allow Leodis McKelvin and Drayton Florence to handle outside receivers when the defense faces three-receiver looks.

  • Wide receiver Donald Jones is another player worth watching. When asked about teammates who have caught his eye early in training camp, Fitzpatrick said Jones had elevated his game in his second season. An undrafted rookie in 2010, Jones was a nice surprise in camp and finished with 18 receptions. This year he’s using his size and strength to make himself a tough receiver to handle at the line of scrimmage.

  • The Bills recognize that their biggest challenge this season will be learning how to change expectations. Gailey has talked about the difference between hoping to win and expecting to win, and his players believe they can make great strides. Fitzpatrick agreed that last season, too many players were worried about losing their jobs as the team transitioned into Gailey’s tenure. This year, there is far more comfort and a sense of purpose on a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 1999. “We definitely need to take the approach that we deserve to win,” Fitzpatrick said. “And we have a chip on our shoulders. We hear all the people talking about how tough the AFC East is, and nobody mentions our name. That can be fuel for our fire, and we have to believe we can surprise people.”

AFC East post-lockout grades

August, 3, 2011
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Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. graded each AFC team on how much it improved after the NFL lockout ended in this ESPN Insider piece. Insider Here are some of the things he had to say about each team in the AFC East.

New England Patriots: B+

The Patriots released a couple of key contributors from their past few seasons. But they obviously adhere to the philosophy that it is better to get rid of a player a year too early instead of a year too late, and their track record pretty much speaks for itself. Because of that track record, many tend to just assume that adding Albert Haynesworth and Chad Ochocinco will pay off in spades. Well, personally, I think one of these two moves will pay off (and pay off huge), and that is the addition of Haynesworth.

New York Jets: B

When the lockout ended, the Jets were a team that wasn't in particularly good shape with respect to the salary cap. But they were quick to lock up Santonio Holmes, a guy I view as a true No. 1 wide receiver (and I very rarely use that distinction). Although his off-the-field history is a concern, bringing Holmes back was a must to keep things as simple as possible for Mark Sanchez.

Miami Dolphins: B-

Miami hasn't gone out and grabbed a big-time quarterback, but I see this team as vastly improved. The Dolphins have improved the supporting cast around the quarterback position and have made life easier on Chad Henne. I also expect Miami to have one of the elite defenses in football this year. Bringing back Tony McDaniel for depth is a valuable re-signing, but upgrading from Channing Crowder to Kevin Burnett -- who offers a wider overall skill set -- makes a lot of sense, considering that, to thrive in this division, the Dolphins need to deal with the wide variety of offensive personnel groupings New England will throw at them.

Buffalo Bills: D+

Buffalo probably isn't the most attractive place for free agents to go, but the Bills need to be more active than what they have done so far if they are ever going to compete in the AFC East. Nick Barnett is a fine consolation prize after losing Paul Posluszny and his leadership, every-down skills, and ability to play in an even or odd front, a prize that should pay off immediately in Buffalo's multiple defense.

AFC East links: Bills get linebacker help

August, 1, 2011
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Buffalo Bills

The Bills have found their replacement for Paul Posluszny in the form of ex-Packers linebacker Nick Barnett.

Quarterback Tyler Thigpen is excited to be back on the same sideline as Chan Gailey.

Miami Dolphins

The Sun Sentinel details Brandon Marshall being diagnosed with borderline personality disorder.

Miami signed defensive tackle Ronald Fields to a deal on Sunday and also brought in former Giants center Shaun O’Hara for a visit.

New England Patriots

Albert Haynesworth made a positive impression during his first practice with the Patriots.

The Patriots and Matt Light have come to terms on a two-year deal.

New York Jets

Ian O'Connor of ESPNNewYork.com: "The Jets were embarrassed the other day when they lost Nnamdi Asomugha to the Philadelphia Eagles, this after asking just about everyone except Joe Namath and Don Maynard to restructure their deals to make Asomugha theirs. The rejection rocked the foundation of the Jets' program, the core belief that every free agent worth a damn was desperate to play for Rex Ryan. With the rest of the AFC surely mocking them in private, reveling in their misery, the Jets needed to reestablish their credibility as a preferred destination for the stars. Plaxico Burress gives them that credibility at the Giants' expense."

The New York Daily News' Mike Lupica says acquiring Burress is a win-win for the Jets.

Posluszny heading to Jacksonville

July, 26, 2011
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The Jaguars reached a six-year agreement with Buffalo Bills middle linebacker Paul Posluszny, according to a source.

Posluszny labored with the decision, a source said, because he wanted to stay with the Bills, but he agreed with the Jaguars because of the change to be in a 4-3 defense. The Bills have switched to a 3-4.

Posluszny will be the middle linebacker in Jaguars 4-3.

Posluszny intends to test free agency

July, 25, 2011
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Buffalo linebacker Paul Posluszny has said he would prefer re-signing with the Bills, however, he'll consider offers from other teams when he NFL's free agency period opens.

Speaking to The Associated Press by phone shortly after NFL players voted to OK a deal on Monday, Posluszny said he considers the Bills to be his "top priority."
NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

A look at the free-agent priorities for each AFC East team:

Buffalo Bills

1. Add new blood: For the most part, most of the Bills’ free-agents-to-be would not be big losses. Buffalo should have plenty of money to spend once free agency does finally open. Obviously, this has been a losing franchise for some time now, and transforming the roster and changing the culture of the organization should be a very good thing. The Bills did take a fine step in the right direction in the 2011 draft, taking several prospects from big-college programs with winning histories.

2. Keep Paul Posluszny: Although inside linebackers generally are not difficult to find, Posluszny is the type of guy Buffalo needs to keep within the organization. He is productive, tough and able to lead the defense on every down. Last season wasn’t his best, but Posluszny was fantastic in 2009, and I fully expect him to get back to that form, especially playing behind what should be a vastly improved young interior defensive line.

3. Eliminate needs: I list the Bills’ three greatest needs as left tackle, outside linebacker and tight end. Rome wasn’t built in a day, but if Buffalo could knock out one or two of these needs in free agency, it would go a very long way in its rebuilding process. Jared Gaither or Doug Free could potentially fill Buffalo’s left tackle position for years to come, while Matt Light could hold down the fort and provide leadership until Chris Hairston or a future draft pick is ready. An outside linebacker such as Manny Lawson, Matt Roth or Mathias Kiwanuka could also be money very well spent to pose an edge presence opposite Arthur Moats, whom I featured in my Soon to be Stars series. Zach Miller is really the only free-agent tight end who would qualify.

Top free agents: Posluszny, Donte Whitner, Drayton Florence

Miami Dolphins

1. Add running back help: Miami used the 62nd overall pick in 2011 to select Daniel Thomas, a big, bruising runner with a lot of ability. But of course, Thomas is going to be a rookie this season, and fully counting on him to carry the load and learn the pass protections would be foolish. Miami needs a backup plan. Bringing back Ronnie Brown, or more likely, Ricky Williams, wouldn’t be a terrible situation. But just adding Brown or Williams wouldn’t be enough. Snatching up Ahmad Bradshaw or DeAngelo Williams would obviously be a huge addition and would push Thomas to backup status. Even bringing in a reliable back like Joseph Addai or Jason Snelling might do the trick as Thomas develops. Another option is to add a specialty player like Darren Sproles.

2. Find competition for Chad Henne: Personally, I am not ready to write off Henne. I believe in the approach that Miami has taken this offseason. The Dolphins have surrounded him with pieces to make his life much easier. But still, adding a veteran signal-caller seems like a must at this point. Suitable options include Marc Bulger, Donovan McNabb or even Vince Young, who is soon to be released by Tennessee. If quarterback remains a problem after this year, then Miami needs to sell the farm to draft its next franchise quarterback. But in the meantime, this would be my approach.

3. Make a splash on D: To me, the Dolphins’ three biggest needs are quarterback, running back and then free safety. Even if Miami didn’t add a defender of any sort in free agency, I would rank its 2011 defense among the best in the NFL. I am that high on this group. But what if the Dolphins could land a real talent at free safety? Imagine the possibilities. This is a deep free-agent class of safeties. I would love to see the Dolphins sign someone like Michael Huff or especially Eric Weddle. Even adding a solid player with upside like Brodney Pool would be helpful here.

Top free agents: Ronnie Brown, Ricky Williams, Tony McDaniel, Richie Incognito, Tyler Thigpen

New England Patriots

1. Lock up Logan Mankins: Because the Patriots designated Mankins their franchise player, I didn’t include him among their top free agents. But New England does have to get him locked up. Mankins might just be the best guard in all of football. With Matt Light potentially leaving town, the Patriots cannot afford additional unrest along their offensive line. Mankins would be the ideal player to line up next to Nate Solder to help the rookie’s transition to the NFL.

2. Find a pass-rusher: I see outside linebacker as New England’s greatest need, followed distantly by wide receiver and defensive end. Although I expect Jermaine Cunningham to develop quickly into a solid starter, adding one more edge player who can be disruptive on throwing downs is something that still needs to be addressed after the team curiously ignored it in the draft. The name I like best for the Patriots here is Mathias Kiwanuka, if his health checks out. He is smart, versatile and has some experience at linebacker. Two other players who fit the bill are Matt Roth and Manny Lawson.

3. Acquire a deep threat: I am not as sold as most that New England must add a wide receiver who can stretch the field. But this is a tremendous organization, and the Pats just don’t have many needs, so picking up such a luxury player could be the difference between a Super Bowl championship or another early exit in the postseason. My favorite fit for the Patriots is Braylon Edwards. Edwards is immensely talented, and if submersed in this environment with Tom Brady throwing him the ball, he could quickly rank among the top wideouts in all of football.

Top free agents: Matt Light, Gerard Warren

New York Jets

1. Make critical decisions on their own players: The Jets have a lot of free agents, and they are one of the teams in the league with the least amount of money to spend as it stands today. New York has come very close to its goal the past couple of seasons, but this free-agency period is absolutely critical to staying among the best teams in the NFL.

2. Address wide receiver: Considering who is up for free agency, wide receiver has to be the biggest worry for the Jets right now. I greatly respect Braylon Edwards’ abilities, but Santonio Holmes is just the better player right now. In fact, I see Holmes as a top-10 wide receiver. He is incredible in the clutch. Mark Sanchez needs quality options to throw to at this point of his young career. If the Jets brought back Holmes, increased TE Dustin Keller's role and also found a bargain at wide receiver late in free agency (maybe Randy Moss or Chad Ochocinco), then I think they would be OK.

3. Don’t forget about the trenches: The Jets are a physical team that is strong on both lines of scrimmage. Two of their starting offensive line spots are uncertain at this point. And although they drafted Muhammad Wilkerson and Kendrick Ellis, rookie defensive linemen rarely make a major impact -- especially in a 3-4. Shaun Ellis is probably going to be playing elsewhere, and New York doesn’t have a high-end outside linebacker. So there are concerns up front. The Jets will have to sign some cheaper veteran options -- probably to one-year contracts -- to shore things up.

Top free agents: Santonio Holmes, Braylon Edwards, Shaun Ellis, Antonio Cromartie, Brodney Pool, Brad Smith

Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com. Follow Matt Williamson on Twitter @WilliamsonNFL.

Bills back-to-work FYI

July, 25, 2011
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NFC: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South Unrestricted FAs

Readiness factor: The Bills will need every moment they can find to prepare for the season. Their offensive skill players gathered at quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick's home in April. A larger contingent convened in Western New York for casual workouts in May.

Biggest challenge: Buffalo must find a defensive identity quickly. The Bills switched from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 with bad results last year. As it became obvious they had the NFL's worst run defense, they mixed their fronts. Head coach Chan Gailey has said that they will be a hybrid defense leaning toward a 3-4 base. Then he hired longtime 4-3 mastermind Dave Wannstedt -- not to replace defensive coordinator George Edwards, but as assistant head coach and linebackers coach.

Line in the sand: The Bills have a tenuous offensive line, although all the late-season starters are back. The line mostly has been mediocre and often riddled with injuries. Demetrius Bell has been a bargain at left tackle, but far from dominant. Right guard Eric Wood could eventually shift to center.

Key players without contracts for 2011: Inside linebacker Paul Posluszny and safety Donte Whitner have been two of the Bills' most prolific tacklers. Cornerback Drayton Florence is an overlooked free agent who could be popular on the open market. Disappointing former first-round pick John McCargo is a goner.

Video: An overview of free agency

July, 7, 2011
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In a preview of the upcoming free-agency period, Alex Loeb (with the help of a few ESPN.com bloggers) takes a look at which teams will be most active on the open market.

Look at free agency under proposed CBA

June, 21, 2011
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ESPN's reports from Chicago indicate the latest labor proposal would allow players to become unrestricted free agents after four seasons.

That would clarify the market whenever it opens. Rules for the uncapped 2010 campaign didn't allow for unfettered free agency unless a player had been in the league six seasons. Any player with an expired contract and fewer than six years of experience was a restricted free agent, allowing teams to place qualifying tenders on them and receive compensation if another club tried to sign them.

Now it looks like players will be up for grabs -- with former teams receiving no compensation -- after four seasons.

Here are the AFC East players who would've been restricted with the six-year threshold but unrestricted at four years:

Buffalo Bills
Miami Dolphins
New England Patriots
New York Jets

Mankins' situation remains uncertain because we don't know if franchise-tag rules will remain in place under the next CBA. They probably will, meaning Mankins should be back with the Patriots in 2011.

Ball carriers had it tough against AFC East

June, 13, 2011
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Football Outsiders produced its data on broken tackles for individual defenders last week. Now we can take a look at how each team fared when it came to taking down ball carriers.

The AFC East fared well overall through Football Outsiders' analysis. The New England Patriots allowed the fewest broken tackles and the lowest percentage per play in the league. Opponents broke 44 tackles on 1,058 defensive plays (4.0 percent).

Patriots inside linebacker Jerod Mayo was second among all NFL defenders (minimum 50 tackles) with a 0.8 broken-tackle percentage. Nose tackle Vince Wilfork was one of five defensive linemen with zero broken tackles and at least 40 tackles.

The New York Jets were fifth-best, yielding 50 broken tackles on 976 defensive plays (4.6 percent). Sione Pouha was in Wilfork's select club, while inside linebacker Bart Scott gave up only two.

Also in the NFL's upper half were the Miami Dolphins. They ranked 15th at 5.5 percent, allowing 60 broken tackles on 969 defensive plays.

The Buffalo Bills were 23rd. They allowed 70 broken tackles on 1,062 defensive plays (6.3 percent). They were buoyed by the efficiency of linebacker Paul Posluszny and safety Donte Whitner. Posluszny ranked sixth among all defenders with only 2.6 percent of his tackles getting broken. Whitner ranked sixth among defensive backs at 3.7 percent.

Mayo, Posluszny, Scott near automatic

June, 8, 2011
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Three of the NFL's surest tacklers resided in the AFC East last season.

Football Outsiders charted broken tackles and found the trio of New England Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo, Buffalo Bills linebacker Paul Posluszny and New York Jets linebacker Bart Scott were given the slip a total of six times.

Mayo was responsible for one broken tackle against 118 successful tackles for a failure rate of 0.8 percent. That was second to only Green Bay Packers outside linebacker Clay Matthews, who Football Outsiders didn't catch with any broken tackles.

Posluszny had three broken tackles, but with 114 takedowns, he tied Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison for sixth with a 2.6 percent inefficiency rate. Posluszny had just three broken tackles in 2009, too.

Ball carriers broke two of Scott's tackles. He made 62 tackles, giving him a 3.1 percent inefficiency rate. That placed him eighth on the list of best stoppers.

Football Outsiders also revealed the worst tacklers, but nobody from the AFC East appeared on either the overall competence list or among those who allowed 10 or more broken tackles.

Specifically among defensive backs, however, Miami Dolphins cornerback Vontae Davis was fourth in terms of inefficiency. Davis allowed nine broken tackles. With 44 successful tackles, ball carriers broke free 17 percent of the time.

Buffalo safety Donte Whitner ranked sixth on the good side. He had four broken tackles, 105 tackles and a 3.7 percent inefficiency rate.

As a reminder, tackles are not official NFL stats and will vary, depending on the evaluator. Tackle numbers that appear on NFL.com come from the game books produced immediately after a game. Teams keep internal tackle stats while reviewing their game film and treat them as numbers of record.

Dolphins LBs supreme in AFC East

June, 6, 2011
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This week's Scouts Eye feature on ESPN Insider examines linebacking units within the AFC East.

Scouts Inc. analyst Matt Williamson proclaims the Miami Dolphins will have one of the league's best defenses in large part because of their linebackers, whom he rates the division's best. Williamson is high on outside linebackers Cameron Wake and Koa Misi, inside linebacker Karlos Dansby and the unit's overall depth.

Next in line are the New York Jets. Although Williamson calls franchise player David Harris "slightly overrated" because of his coverage skills, the tandem of Harris and Bart Scott is one of the league's most formidable. Outside linebackers Calvin Pace and Bryan Thomas are "adequate," Williamson writes, but the Jets need to add a pass-rusher who strikes fear in opponents.

The New England Patriots are third on the list behind the strength of Pro Bowl inside linebacker Jerod Mayo. Aside from him, however, there's a lot to be desired in regard to established talent. Williamson believes sophomore inside linebacker Brandon Spikes has a bright future. Many questions remain on the outside, a spot that could be improved in free agency.

Not surprisingly, the Buffalo Bills are considered last in the division. Williamson notes the Bills need to re-sign free agent Paul Posluszny, hope Shawne Merriman resurrects his career and need to add one more "legit starting outside linebacker who can rush the passer" to get their defense on track.

Bills don't have a ball at informal workout

May, 23, 2011
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ELMA, N.Y. -- The only footballs that exchanged hands were when long-snapper Garrison Sanborn fired a few through his legs.

Other than that, about 30 Buffalo Bills conducted a workout sans pigskin Monday morning at Sahlen's Sports Park in the bucolic suburbs. The Bills staged their first mass gathering of the labor stoppage, but merely getting together was more important than the practice.

"When you add a ball to the mix it just brings out the competitiveness and aggressive nature in us," Bills safety and team NFL Players Association representative George Wilson said. "We're just moving at a slow pace."

Several key players were there, including quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, running back Fred Jackson, receiver Lee Evans, safety Jairus Byrd and three-fifths of last year's starting offensive line.

Injuries were on the minds of most players. Going too hard and getting hurt could put seasons or contracts in jeopardy. Any player injured while not working out under the supervision of the team could be placed on the non-football injury list and could be forced to repay bonus money.

"You have to be smart about it," left tackle Demetrius Bell said. "Don't go out there too hard and hurt yourself. Get a good sweat, get your work in and get off the field."

As long as the lockout wears on, offseason routines are being disrupted. At this time last year, all four AFC East teams had held their rookie camps. The New York Jets held three organized team activities by this point, and the Miami Dolphins had conducted two. The Dolphins staged last year's mandatory minicamp May 28. The others were in mid to late June.

Workouts such as the one the Bills are participating in this week help keep the players focused on football.

"We're accustomed to coming in, getting breakfast, getting taped, having the typical warm-up," Wilson said. "The routine is out. But being pros and being at this level, we have to be able to know what we need to do to be ready.

"The trust is there. I truly believe that after the season we had a year ago, the guys are working to get that bitter taste out of their mouths. We definitely want to have high expectations to be more competitive and put ourselves in position to have one of those playoff spots.

"They say championships are won in the offseason because of the work that you put in, the closeness of the team. But the good thing about this is all 32 teams are experiencing this. All 2,000-plus players have to endure the same plight. So it's all about who handles this lockout the best and once it's all over, who gets ready the fastest."

Two draft picks, linebacker Kelvin Sheppard and defensive back Da'Norris Searcy, showed up. But Wilson wouldn't let them take part in drills for insurance purposes.

"I'm not allowing them to get on the field during any of the agility or conditioning or anything," Wilson said. He noted the rookies could extract usefulness from "putting faces with names, getting more acquainted with guys from their position."

Buffalo continues D upgrade in third

April, 29, 2011
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ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- The Buffalo Bills drafted a third straight defender, adding Louisiana State inside linebacker Kelvin Sheppard with the 68th pick Friday night.

Why the Bills took him: The Bills already have addressed each level of their defense with a lineman (Marcell Dareus), a defensive back (Aaron Williams) and now a linebacker, a position that was thin last year. Sheppard is considered a smart and emotional leader, and he might need that kind of passion to overcome limitations as a sideline-to-sideline tackler.

How it affects the roster: Veteran linebackers Paul Posluszny and Akin Ayodele are free agents. Sheppard could contribute immediately.

Scouts Inc. says: Good communication skills. Quickly reads keys and reacts. Do not see many false steps from him. Has improved his discipline and rarely got fooled by misdirection or play-action in 2010. Flashes ability to sniff out draws and screens. Shows awareness to go for the strip when wrapping up ball carriers. ... Is technically sound with his hands and will almost always take on blocks properly. He is tough and fearless, but he does not have explosive upper body power. He rarely shocks the blocker with initial pop and he has some trouble disengaging from bigger blockers.

Holmes, Cromartie highlight division moves

March, 1, 2011
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Tuesday afternoon brought a surge of AFC East roster updates. Teams are scrambling to conduct business before the collective bargaining agreement expires in two days.

The New York Jets have announced they will place the high free-agent tenders on receiver Santonio Holmes and cornerback Antonio Cromartie.

That means (under the current CBA) the team that signed either player would need to compensate the Jets with first- and third-round draft choices. But there's uncertainty over what restricted tenders will mean under the new CBA.

Other Jets are expected to get low tenders.

ESPNNewYork.com's Rich Cimini, citing unnamed league sources, also reports the Jets will retain running back LaDainian Tomlinson. There was speculation the Jets could part ways with Tomlinson, who will turn 32 before the next season.

Also Tuesday, the Buffalo Bills extended restricted free agent tenders to inside linebacker Paul Posluszny, safety Donte Whitner and tight end Scott Chandler.

Also Tuesday, ESPN's Adam Schefter reports the New England Patriots have signed former Bills defensive tackle Marcus Stroud to a two-year deal. ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss wrote an analysis of the move and surmises Stroud likely will be a first- and second-down defensive end in the Patriots' 3-4 base defense.

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