AFC East: Shawn Nelson

Scouts Inc.'s Matt Williamson breaks down the tight ends of each AFC East team. Today: Buffalo Bills.

The Bills clearly rank last in the AFC East at tight end. It is a real area of weakness for Buffalo, and adding a good option there could really help this offense.

Amazingly, Jonathan Stupar’s 12 catches led all Buffalo tight ends last season. He doesn’t excel in any area of playing the position, though. His blocking is suspect, and his receiving skills are far from special. He has only 18 catches over his three-year career. Stupar should be a backup.

Shawn Nelson is the most talented player in this poor stable of tight ends, but he missed the last five games of the season with migraine issues. It is unclear whether this will be a recurring problem, but obviously Buffalo needs Nelson to be on the field. Nelson has much work to do, though, as a blocker.

David Martin, Scott Chandler and Mike Caussin also are in the mix. Martin has had flashes of productivity as a receiver over his 10-year career, but he consistently gets pushed around in the run game. Martin caught only seven passes in 2010. Chandler has done nothing to speak of since entering the league and played only four games last season, but he is a big target with some natural athleticism. Caussin will have to excel on special teams to make the final roster -- especially if Buffalo spends money in free agency to add a legitimate tight end. That would be a great move if Buffalo can pull it off. Zach Miller immediately comes to mind -- he would be perfect for the Bills. And wow, do they need him.

Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.

Bills draft record not as bad as you think

April, 21, 2011
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Kyle Williams and Steve JohnsonUS PresswirePro Bowler Kyle Williams (left) and receiver Steve Johnson were both drafted in the later rounds.
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Buffalo Bills fans have pondered some persistent questions over the years.

How would life have changed if Scott Norwood made that kick?

What will happen to the team when Ralph Wilson passes away?

Was the Music City Miracle really a forward lateral?

How on earth does Tom Modrak still have a job?

Modrak is Buffalo's vice president of college scouting. Modrak, formerly a Pittsburgh Steelers scout during their Steel Curtain years and director of football operations with the Philadelphia Eagles, has held the Bills' top scouting job since May 2001 and worked his first draft for them in 2002.

In that time, the Bills' streak of seasons without a playoff appearance has extended to 11 and counting. Despite holding prime draft-order slots, they have repeatedly squandered them with maddening first-round decisions.

The list is enough to make the most optimistic Bills fan groan: pass-rusher Aaron Maybin (zero sacks) 11th overall instead of Brian Orakpo (19.5 sacks) two years ago; small-school cornerback Leodis McKelvin 11th overall instead of Pro Bowl left tackle Ryan Clady in 2008; safety Donte Whitner with the eighth pick in 2006 and then trading up for defensive tackle John McCargo; trading up for quarterback J.P. Losman in 2004; useless tackle Mike Williams fifth in 2002.

"Certainly we've had our misses up at the top," Modrak said Tuesday at a news conference to preview next week's draft. "We've done pretty well in the middle and at the end, the non-glamour kind of picks. But we've missed some. That is regrettable."

There are additional selections one can criticize: wide receiver James Hardy in the second round; running back C.J. Spiller ninth overall even though the Bills had a pair of 1,000-yard rushers already ...

[+] EnlargeTom Modrak
George Gojkovich/Getty ImagesDespite some high-profile misses, Tom Modrak's draftees have performed well on the whole.
OK. I'll stop now. That's enough to illustrate why there's frustration over Modrak and his scouting department's evaluation skills.

The fact Modrak joined the Bills to serve under former president Tom Donahoe -- an executive Wilson and Bills fans came to despise -- only adds to fascination of Modrak's continued employment.

Now that I've set the table, let's yank the tablecloth out from underneath the plasticware.

Data suggest the Bills haven't drafted much worse than the average NFL team since 2002.

ESPN researcher John Fisher -- he claims no relation to St. John Fisher, the namesake of the college where the Bills hold their training camp -- shuffled some spreadsheets and came up with some information that's not particularly damning when compared to the rest of the NFL.

  • The Bills have drafted five Pro Bowlers with Modrak in charge of scouting. That's tied for 14th in the league. One of those Pro Bowlers was Willis McGahee for the Baltimore Ravens, but Modrak was the chief scout who drafted him. What the Bills did with McGahee afterward that isn't his fault. Same goes for Marshawn Lynch.
  • Although a game started for the Bills isn't as impressive as a game started for the New England Patriots the past nine years, Bills draftees from the first through third rounds have started 804 games, 15th in the league.
  • Bills draftees from the fourth round or later have started 417 games, eighth in the league.
  • When it comes to individual statistics accumulated with the teams that drafted them, Bills taken from 2002 onward have ranked third in 1,000-yard rushing seasons, tied for seventh in 1,000-yard receiving seasons, 20th in total sacks and 19th in total interceptions.

While the Bills have missed badly on several of their prominent selections, they have done quite well in the latter part of the draft with gems such as cornerback and Pro Bowl kick returner Terrence McGee (fourth round in 2003), Pro Bowl defensive lineman Kyle Williams (fifth round in 2006), receiver Steve Johnson (seventh round in 2008) and left tackle Demetrius Bell (seventh round in 2008).

Top running back Fred Jackson and perennial Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters -- traded to Philly two years ago -- weren't drafted at all.

"If you look at other teams, they do it. They miss at the top," Modrak said. "When you don't win, it's magnified. It looks bad.

"But I think from a strictly homer point-of-view [late-round success] is the work and the labor that goes into it and the detail that's paid to those kinds of things. That does not say that other teams don't do the same thing, but we have a good group, and we fortunately have done that."

The Bills have had some obvious blind spots in the draft.

A refusal to pick a tackle earlier than the fifth round since 2002 has hurt them. Peters' success as a converted tight end is a factor in that trend, but the Bills were having contract problems with him while he still was on the roster. Foresight would've been helpful. But that's an organizational philosophy more than Modrak's domain.

The Bills' track record at tight end is miserable, too. They've drafted five: Tim Euhus, Kevin Everett, Derek Schouman, Derek Fine and Shawn Nelson. Everett was the lone selection sooner than the fourth round. A broken neck while covering a kickoff on opening day in 2007 ended his career.

That tight end quintet has combined to score five NFL touchdowns. Of the 143 tight ends drafted since Modrak joined the Bills, 43 of them have scored more than five touchdowns individually.

Some might also say finding a quarterback has been a failure. Starting quarterbacks, however, aren't easy for any team to locate.

Forty-seven quarterbacks have been drafted within the first three rounds since 2002. The only three teams not included in this pursuit have been the Indianapolis Colts, New Orleans Saints and Dallas Cowboys. The Bills took two within the first three rounds, Losman 22nd overall in 2004 and Trent Edwards 92nd in 2007.

That league-wide group yielded nine Pro Bowlers, but just two of them -- 24th overall pick Aaron Rodgers and third-rounder Matt Schaub -- weren't selected in the top 11. Rodgers and Schaub served as backups for three seasons before they became starters.

Bills general manager Buddy Nix explained that scouting is only one of three critical phases that determine whether a draft pick explodes or fizzles.

"You've got to pick the right guy," Nix said Tuesday. "He's got to have enough athletic ability and enough intelligence, production to do the job, which is what you spend the year doing. We're scouts and personnel guys.

"The second phase, now -- and don't make light of it because it's just as important -- is coaching, strength coaches, trainers. That's the second phase, and both of those things have to be in place. If not, the development of the guy is retarded.

"I'm not going to name teams, but you can name teams every year that get top guys and they don't get any better. They actually may go the other way, and it's the developmental part."

Chan Gailey is Buffalo's fourth head coach -- fifth if you count interim coach Perry Fewell -- since Modrak came aboard. Coordinators have passed through a revolving door. The Bills also have overhauled their strength and conditioning program a couple times.

Nix then stressed that even if the precisely correct draft choice is made and the proper infrastructure is in place, a third phase still can torpedo development. The player can ruin his future if he's "not willing to be a professional and do everything it takes."

"You can go back and look at the so-called busts, and it's one of these three phases," Nix said. "You've got to have it all for them to be really good.

"So even though we put it all on one thing -- 'That was a terrible draft. That was a bust. Those idiots don't know.' -- that's just about a third of it."

Another element that must be considered when discussing Buffalo drafts is the question of who makes the final pick.

Nix and Gailey have been clear Nix makes the final call, although Wilson still can exercise his ownership privilege.

Before Nix became GM last year, trying to decipher who was to credit or blame for a Bills draft choice was like a "Three Stooges" scene. The irate boss hears a commotion, storms into the room and asks "Say! What's the wise idea? Who did this?" Moe pointed at Larry. Curly pointed at Moe. Larry pointed at Curly.

Modrak has been a constant since 2002, but there have been many voices in the Bills' draft room in that period, from Donahoe to GM Marv Levy to chief operating officer Russ Brandon to the various opinionated head coaches who lobbied for prospects they hotly desired.

The Bills' scouting department clearly needs to step its game up to help turn around the franchise. They'll never be the kind of team that lures top free agents because of their market conditions. Buffalo simply isn't as sexy as Miami or San Diego or New York and doesn't offer a perennial chance to win like New England or Pittsburgh does.

But, believe it or not, the Bills' drafts could have been substantially worse since Modrak arrived.

Will Patriots TE success cause a trend?

March, 1, 2011
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INDIANAPOLIS -- The NFL is a league of imitators. One team does something well, another team will try to emulate it.

The New England Patriots seemed progressively retro when they morphed their shotgun offense into sets with multiple tight ends. The Patriots used rookies Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez and in-line blocker Alge Crumpler masterfully.

At the NFL scouting combine in Lucas Oil Stadium, I asked Buffalo Bills coach Chan Gailey if he thought the Patriots' success could spark a trend and make an otherwise weak tight ends class more valuable in this year's draft.

"That's all on who you have," Gailey said. "If you have those two tight ends [the Patriots] had, you've got to think about 'How am I going to use these guys? How am I going to get them in the game?'

"If you get that personnel, you've got to use it."

Gailey doesn't have that personnel. He is a bright offensive coach with a gaping hole at tight end.

Bills tight ends combined for 23 receptions, 187 yards and one touchdown last season.

Jonathan Stupar was their most prolific tight end with a dozen catches for 111 yards and no touchdowns. That was an acceptable week for Gronkowski, Hernandez or New York Jets tight end Dustin Keller.

By comparison, Patriots tight ends combined for 93 catches, 1,161 yards and 18 touchdowns. Keller had a Jets-high 55 catches for 687 yards and five touchdowns. Miami Dolphins tight end Anthony Fasano had 39 receptions for 528 yards and four touchdowns, and that apparently wasn't enough. The Dolphins reportedly gave free agent Jeremy Shockey a physical last week.

Buffalo's disappointment at the position can be summed up with Shawn Nelson, a 2009 fourth-round pick who missed more games while serving a drug suspension (four) than he had receptions (three).

"The question for us is where we want a blocker because we want to run the ball and be effective there," Gailey said. "We'd like to have a pass-catcher.

"We just have to find the best football player at that position, knowing that we have to have at least one blocker and one receiver. You'd like to have two in one. But you may not be able to find that guy."

The Bills are intrigued by Scott Chandler, who they pulled off the waiver wire from the Dallas Cowboys in December.

Chandler has had the misfortune of playing on teams with established tight ends. The San Diego Chargers drafted him in the fourth round in 2007, but they have Antonio Gates. He signed with the Cowboys in 2009, but they have Jason Witten. The New York Giants signed him off the Cowboys' practice squad later that year, but they had Kevin Boss.

Gailey said Chandler "gives us a chance at that" two-way tight end. "So it'll be interesting for me."

Notre Dame tight end Kyle Rudolph is considered by many analysts to be atop this year's draft class. Virgil Green from Nevada has some scouts buzzing, but he's undersized at 6-foot-3 and 249 pounds and is from the H-back mold.

Bills lose Lee Evans for last three games

December, 14, 2010
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Another disappointing Lee Evans season has come to an end.

The Buffalo Bills placed their highly paid receiver on injured reserve Tuesday. Evans hurts his ankle in Sunday's victory over the Cleveland Browns.

The Bills also placed tight end Shawn Nelson on the non-football injury list because of recurring migraines and signed offensive linemen Colin Brown and Erik Pears.

Evans' average salary ranks 12th in the league at $8.25 million a year. Yet he hasn't made the impact he and the Bills expected when they drafted him 13th overall in 2004.

"Absolutely, I have something to prove," Evans told me during June workouts at One Bills Drive. "The reality of it is, I haven't done anything yet."

Evans caught 37 passes (29 fewer than team leader Stevie Johnson) for 578 yards and four touchdowns.

Evans' time in Buffalo can't be viewed as a success by victories or statistics. That's not necessarily his fault. He has played in weak offensive systems with a carousel of starting quarterbacks and coordinators over the past seven years.

The Bills rank 26th in total offense this year, one of their highest rankings since Evans joined them. In his first six seasons, Buffalo's offense has ranked 25th, 28th, 30th, 30th, 25th and 30th.

Buffalo's receivers for the past three games, including Sunday against the Miami Dolphins, will be a collection that went into the season with a dozen career catches: Johnson (a 2008 seventh-round draft choice), David Nelson (an undrafted rookie), Donald Jones (an undrafted rookie) and Naaman Roosevelt (an undrafted rookie promoted from the practice squad last month).

The Bills lost slot receiver Roscoe Parrish to a wrist injury in Week 9.

Inactive list intrigue for AFC East games

December, 5, 2010
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There are some notable inactives to report for Sunday's games involving AFC East teams.

For their must-win game against the Cleveland Browns in Sun Life Stadium, the Miami Dolphins have scratched receiver Brandon Marshall, linebacker Channing Crowder and cornerback Al Harris.

The absences of Crowder and Harris might be more significant than Marshall. The Dolphins won without him last week in Oakland, and quarterback Chad Henne played one of his best games.

Dolphins defensive end Phillip Merling is back from his Achilles injury and active for the first time this year.

For the Buffalo Bills' game at the Metrodome, guard Eric Wood, tight end Shawn Nelson and cornerback Terrence McGee are out, as expected.

Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson will play, but receivers Percy Harvin, Greg Lewis and Hank Baskett are out. So is right guard Steve Hutchinson. That might help Bills nose tackle Kyle Williams add to his sack total.

As NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert notes, the Vikings have just three receivers: Sidney Rice, Bernard Berrian and Greg Camarillo. Rookie quarterback Joe Webb could see some action as a target.

Aaron Maybin active for Buffalo

November, 28, 2010
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ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Aaron Maybin will wear shoulder pads on Sunday.

Maybin, the struggling Buffalo Bills outside linebacker, doesn't appear on the inactive list for Sunday's game against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Ralph Wilson Stadium. The 11th pick in last year's draft has been a healthy scratch the five previous games.

These players have been deactivated:

Pittsburgh Steelers
Buffalo Bills

Bills missing out on TE extravaganza

November, 17, 2010
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Not even in 1983, when Todd Christensen, Ozzie Newsome and Kellen Winslow finished 1-2-3 in receptions did tight ends enjoy the type of production they're having this year.

Tight ends are on their way to breaking positional records for receptions and yardage in a season. Through 10 weeks, tight ends have accounted for 1,307 catches for 14,798 yards.

They're on pace for 2,323 receptions and 26,307 yards. Last year's record-breaking totals were 2,249 receptions and 24,659 yards.

I pass this information along not to rehash the impressive contributions of New York Jets threat Dustin Keller, Miami Dolphins battler Anthony Fasano or remarkable New England Patriots rookies Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski.

Most notable to me is the Buffalo Bills aren't even close to tapping into this trend.

The Bills haven't gotten much production out of their tight ends for years. The Bills haven't had a tight end with at least 35 receptions since Jay Riemersma in 2001. Head coach Chan Gailey, a respected offensive mind, hasn't gotten much of his crew either.

Bills tights ends Jonathan Stupar, Shawn Nelson and David Martin have 11 catches for 90 yards and one touchdown combined.

Per-team tight end production is averaging out to 41 catches for 462 yards.

Nelson supposedly is Buffalo's most gifted receiving tight end. He missed the first four games while serving a suspension but has two catches for 16 yards in the five games since.

Bye week inventory: Buffalo Bills

October, 14, 2010
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A look at the Buffalo Bills heading into their bye weekend ...

Reason for hope: I considered leaving this section blank because it's difficult to envision the Bills making serious headway this year. They're 0-5, have allowed at least 30 points in four straight games and won't play another game at home for about a month. They're not going to the playoffs, and even a game-to-game spoiler role seems ambitious. Owner Ralph Wilson recently said the rebuilding process will take three more years.

[+] EnlargeFred Jackson
Tom Croke/Icon SMIFred Jackson is averaging 5.0 yards per carry this season.
So what is there to root for? Individual players, I guess. Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick has been decent, which for the Bills is a coup. In his three starts he has thrown seven touchdowns and just two interceptions. Running back Fred Jackson is an overachiever who leaves it all out on the field. Head coach Chan Gailey hasn't yet figured out how to use ninth overall draft choice C.J. Spiller in the offense, but the rookie playmaker is almost certain to provide a few highlight-reel plays over the last 11 games.

Cause for concern: Perhaps most alarming is the "reason for hope" category should be rife with the names of prospects who are contributing, but too many of them have failed to develop. Last year's 11th overall pick, pass-rusher Aaron Maybin, can't get on the field. Top draft choices over the past three years -- Trent Edwards, Marshawn Lynch and James Hardy to name a few -- have been released or traded. Those players should have been the young nucleus of a rebuilding team.

The Bills are weak at critical infrastructure positions: quarterback, offensive tackle, defensive line, linebacker. Their biggest strength heading into the season was their secondary, a unit that helped the Bills rank second in pass defense and second in interceptions last year. Through five games, the Bills rank 11th in pass defense and have one interception. They spent the entire offseason switching to a 3-4 defense, but now they're gravitating back to four-man fronts because they're getting physically overpowered on a weekly basis.

Time to heal: The week off especially will help cornerback Terrence McGee (back), safety Bryan Scott (knee), linebacker Keith Ellison (knee) and tackle Cornell Green (knee). Tight end Shawn Nelson was suspended for the first four games and will benefit from the extra week of practice.

AccuScore forecast: The Bills have not been mathematically eliminated, but AccuScore's computers give them a zero percent chance of winning the division or going to the playoffs. They're pegged for a 3-13 record.

Transaction wire humming in AFC East

September, 5, 2010
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A lot of paperwork was flying around AFC East front offices Sunday.

Teams fiddled with their rosters by rummaging through a free-agent pile enlarged by Saturday's cuts.

The Buffalo Bills made a big signing at tight end, bringing in veteran David Martin for immediate help at a position of need and claimed guard Kraig Urbik off waivers from the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Miami Dolphins surprisingly cut Martin, leaving them with only Anthony Fasano and John Nalbone. Joey Haynos is out with a foot injury.

The Bills were hit hard by tight end injuries this summer, and Shawn Nelson was suspended for the first four games for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy.

Buffalo cut tight end J.P. Foschi and cornerback Dominique Harris to make space for their new players.

The Dolphins placed cornerback Will Allen on injured reserve and picked up four players off waivers: offensive linemen Jeremy Parnell (New Orleans Saints) and Joe Reitz (Baltimore Ravens) and defensive ends Clifton Geathers (Cleveland Browns) and Robert Rose (Seattle Seahawks).

To clear room, the Dolphins cut offensive lineman Cory Procter and defensive end Charles Grant and Marques Douglas.

Also on Sunday, the New England Patriots officially announced a pair of trades: safety Jarrad Page from the Kansas City Chiefs and linebacker Tracy White from the Philadelphia Eagles for undisclosed draft picks.

New England claimed guard Stave Maneri off waivers from the Houston Texans and released linebacker Tyrone McKenzie.

NFL suspends Bills TE Shawn Nelson

August, 20, 2010
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The NFL announced it has suspended Buffalo Bills tight end Shawn Nelson four games for violating its policy on substance abuse.

A four-game suspension means Nelson violated the policy multiple times. The first infraction puts a player into a confidential intervention program. A second violation brings a four-game suspension without pay.

Buffalo drafted Nelson in the fourth round last year. He started 12 games, catching 17 passes for 156 yards and a touchdown.

Nelson hasn't played in the preseason and had been overtaken by Jonathan Stupar for first-team reps on the practice field. Michael Matthews is Buffalo's other tight end after Derek Schouman suffered a knee injury in Thursday night's preseason game against the Indianapolis Colts.

A look at Buffalo's first depth chart

August, 9, 2010
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Since we took a gander at the Miami Dolphins' first depth chart of the summer, we ought to peek at the one other AFC East club that released theirs on Monday.

The New York Jets haven't released one yet. And I won't bother to analyze the New England Patriots' depth chart because Bill Belichick has been known to take an arbitrary approach.

Nick Kaczur still listed at right tackle? Devin McCourty a third-string cornerback? A two-back set with Laurence Maroney and Kevin Faulk both starting?

Doesn't look right.

But new Bills coach Chan Gailey seemed to sketch an honest depth chart in advance of Friday night's preseason opener against the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field.

No real surprises on the first-team offense, but it should be noted Demetrius Bell is listed at left tackle despite missing time while coming back from his knee injury. Jonathan Stupar is the tight end ahead of Shawn Nelson.

Most interesting are the reserve receivers. James Hardy, a second-round pick two years ago, is fourth at one receiver spot. He's behind starter Steve Johnson, Roscoe Parrish and undrafted rookie David Nelson.

Felton Huggins is on the second team behind Lee Evans and ahead of former Patriots second-round draft pick Chad Jackson.

For the record, the quarterbacks are Trent Edwards, then Ryan Fitzpatrick, then Brian Brohm, then Levi Brown.

No bombshells on defense.

Most notable is Drayton Florence ahead of Leodis McKelvin at right cornerback. Last year's 11th overall draft choice, Aaron Maybin, is behind Miami Dolphins castoff Reggie Torbor at outside linebacker.

Third-round rookie Alex Carrington is the top backup at left defensive end ahead of 2006 first-rounder John McCargo.

Paul Posluszny still appears as a starting inside linebacker even though he has missed almost all of camp because of groin surgery. Donte Whitner and Jairus Byrd are the safeties.

Who's handling the punt and kickoff return duties? No clue. TBA is listed in both slots.

Camp Confidential: Buffalo Bills

August, 2, 2010
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ESPN.com NFL Power Ranking (pre-camp): 31

PITTSFORD. N.Y. -- Of any preseason prediction I can make, the one I'm most confident in is that the Buffalo Bills will finish fourth in the AFC East.

That slot would be neither general manager Buddy Nix's nor head coach Chan Gailey's fault. The problems they inherited have set the course for 2010.

But they are setting a tone for the long-term future the players can respect.

Gailey is trying to establish a new culture with his first training camp. He wants people to use two adjectives that haven't been associated with the Bills for a long time: tough and disciplined.

"He's very particular about things and how he wants them done," Bills receiver Lee Evans said. "We haven't really had that for a while here, with the head man running the show. You understand what he's trying to get done."

Gailey has kept his players in full pads at St. John Fisher College. Previous coach Dick Jauron rarely had his players in complete gear at camp.

Gailey believes players should be in pads and tested both physically and mentally. He's in a discovery phase not only about what he'll be able to work with on Sunday afternoons, but also keepers who will help him build a long-term foundation.

"When you actually have those shoulder pads on, mouthpiece in, chinstrap buckled up and you have to get off a block to make a play," safety George Wilson said, "that really shows the true testament of a real football player.

"That's what our coaching staff needs, a new staff that's coming in to evaluate this entire team and be able to put the best 53 men together for this 2010 season. I like what we’re doing. It's going to make us a lot more physical, a lot tougher, a lot more mentally prepared, and I have a positive outlook about it."

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeEdwards
AP Photo/David DupreyTrent Edwards is being given the chance to win the starting quarterback job.
1. Can quarterback Trent Edwards capitalize on another opportunity? Bills fans seemed to be pulling for Brian Brohm to emerge as the favorite to win the starting quarterback job. A major reason is they haven't seen him truly fail yet -- unlike Edwards and Ryan Fitzpatrick.

Yet, after several months working with his quarterbacks, Gailey liked Edwards best and installed him as the No. 1 quarterback to begin training camp. The battle remains open, but with Fitzpatrick and Brohm sharing reps with the backups and surrendering a few here and there to rookie Levi Brown, it's Edwards' job to lose. Based on Edwards' medical chart (combined with Hot Issue No. 2 below), there are no guarantees.

But Edwards has yet to get a fair shot to prove what he can do. He has experienced plenty of chaos since the Bills drafted him in the third round in 2007. Gailey is the first offensive-minded head coach Edwards has played under. Last year, offensive coordinator Turk Schonert got fired 10 days before the season, the Bills jettisoned both starting tackles (two-time Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters and the most experienced member of the offensive line, Langston Walker) from the season before and endured a futile no-huddle experiment.

Gailey has run successful offenses everywhere he has been. This finally could be a legitimate chance for Edwards to show what he can do.

2. How will the Bills survive without proven offensive tackles? The Bills aren't known for their pass rush, but it was apparent in the early days of practice their offensive tackles were overmatched in pass protection. For their safety, quarterbacks wear red jerseys to remind oncoming defenders not to hit them. Good thing, or else the Bills might have needed to sign some replacements already.

While some front offices believe guards are fungible and tackles vital, the Bills have operated contradictorily in recent years. They've drafted guards within the first two rounds (Eric Wood and Andy Levitre) and paid big bucks for a free agent (Derrick Dockery) while declining to draft a tackle earlier than the fifth round since 2002.

Left tackle Demetrius Bell has been limited in 11-on-11 drills because he's recovering from knee surgery. He received his first snaps Sunday. His replacement, Jamon Meredith, has been overwhelmed at times. The other tackles likely to make the 53-man roster -- Cornell Green, Kirk Chambers and rookie Ed Wang -- have looked ordinary at best.

[+] EnlargeSchobel
Bob Donnan/US PresswireThe Bills have decided to move forward without linebacker Aaron Schobel.
3. What will happen with vacillating pass-rusher Aaron Schobel? He spent the entire offseason at his home in Texas, perhaps playing possum. He didn’t return to the Bills' facility to collect his roster bonus or participate in offseason workouts. He told some media outlets he was all but retired.

Then, on the verge of camp, the two-time Pro Bowler with a $6 million base salary expressed a change of heart. Schobel might want to play after all. Or maybe he's posturing for a trade, threatening to show up a month before the regular season despite failing to attend so much as a chalk-board session on the team's transition from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4.

On Monday morning, the Bills provided a nebulous answer: In a news release, Nix announced the team is moving forward with plans that do not include Schobel.

Nix said: “Aaron has been contemplating retirement for the past seven months, but we are at the point where we are moving forward and have informed his agent of our plans.”

Schobel can improve the defense with his talents, but the team is rebuilding and going through a defensive transformation he has demurred from. If they cut him, then they forfeit an asset. A trade appears to be the best option to me.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Wide receiver Steve Johnson was an afterthought when the Bills drafted him in the seventh round three years ago. But the front office was quietly confident he would be a player someday. After getting buried on a depth chart that no longer includes Terrell Owens and Josh Reed, Johnson might be ready to emerge. Johnson opened camp as the starting No. 2 receiver opposite Evans. That puts James Hardy on the spot. The Bills took him in the second round the same year they drafted Johnson.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Rookie running back C.J. Spiller, the ninth overall draft choice, still hasn't been signed. Reports indicate it might be a while before he's under contract. The players around him in the draft order have come to terms, but Spiller was the first running back off the board and was considered the most electric playmaker in the draft. His agent, Gary Wichard, certainly is hammering home that point every time he speaks to the Bills. While it's true running backs can afford to miss practice more than other positions because their role is so reactionary, Spiller is more than that. The Bills also consider him a receiver, and that makes practice time more precious for learning the nuances of Gailey's offense.

[+] EnlargeChan Gailey
AP Photo/ David DupreyChan Gailey is trying to learn as much about his team by working them out in full gear.
OBSERVATION DECK

  • The atmosphere at St. John Fisher College has been lifeless. It hasn't mattered whether it's morning, afternoon, night, weekday or weekend. The few fans who have shown up are silent.
  • Fitzpatrick has been plagued by interceptions through the first few days of camp. Bills defenders seem to have developed a strong read on where he's going to throw.
  • Gailey has mandated knee braces at practice for the offensive linemen, whether they've had injuries or not. He has been doing that since he began working with O-line coach Joe D'Alessandris at Georgia Tech in 2002. The players can opt out of the knee braces for games if they don't like how they feel.
  • The Bills' defensive backs have sensational hands. In every drill I watched, it was rare to see a ball hit the ground.
  • Left cornerback Leodis McKelvin has demonstrated lapses in concentration. He seemed lost in a passing drill Saturday, getting beaten by Hardy for an easy touchdown. Secondary coach George Catavolos had trouble getting McKelvin's attention afterward for some instruction. Soon after, McKelvin was dropping punts in a return drill.
  • Inside linebacker Kawika Mitchell told me the unit relies on free-agent acquisition Andra Davis' insight when it comes to 3-4 questions. That also goes for inside linebackers coach DeMontie Cross, who hasn't coached an NFL 3-4 before.
  • Mitchell on the 3-4: "It gives you more freedom. It allows you to showcase your ability a lot more. It's going to be a lot more fun."
  • Brian Moorman and Rian Lindell are one of the NFL's best punter-kicker combos. The Bills didn't bother to bring in any additional legs.
  • Wood is a head knocker. His quick return from a shattered left leg and no-nonsense demeanor on the field will make him popular in Buffalo.
  • After obstructed media views on the opening day, the Bills did a fine job of reorganizing their access areas to allow better viewing of 11-on-11 drills.
  • Outside linebacker Aaron Maybin has a body shape that stands out the moment you see him. Maybin looks like a Wii character, with a tiny waist that flares upward toward his shoulder pads. He told me his waist is 36 inches, but in pads it seems like a 28.
  • I focused on the tight ends at the blocking sled Friday morning. I saw why sophomore Shawn Nelson is viewed as more receiver than blocker. He looked considerably less powerful than the rest. While Derek Schouman, Jonathan Stupar and Michael Matthews jacked the sled, Nelson merely budged it. Nelson is listed at 6-foot-5 and 240 pounds. Only Matthews is larger at 6-4 and 270.

AFC East wire: Year to forget for Merling

July, 23, 2010
7/23/10
8:45
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Miami Dolphins
Buffalo Bills
New England Patriots
New York Jets

A look at AFC East in the fantasy world

June, 23, 2010
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ESPN.com's fantasy crew has produced their football draft kit, complete with 200 player rankings, analysis and an early mock draft to consider (take Shonn Greene ahead of Peyton Manning?).

The top AFC East players rated by position:

Quarterback

4. Tom Brady, Patriots

16. Chad Henne, Dolphins

21. Mark Sanchez, Jets

32. Trent Edwards, Bills

Running back

12. Shonn Greene, Jets

22. Ronnie Brown, Dolphins

23. Ricky Williams, Dolphins

31. C.J. Spiller, Bills

34. Fred Jackson, Bills

41. LaDainian Tomlinson, Jets

46. Laurence Maroney, Patriots

52. Marshawn Lynch, Bills

60. Joe McKnight, Jets

Wide receiver

2. Randy Moss, Patriots

5. Brandon Marshall, Dolphins

30. Braylon Edwards, Jets

33. Lee Evans, Bills

34. Santonio Holmes, Jets

39. Jerricho Cotchery, Jets

46. Wes Welker, Patriots

62. Julian Edelman, Patriots

Tight end

17. Dustin Keller, Jets

24. Anthony Fasano, Dolphins

26. Shawn Nelson, Bills

31. Rob Gronkowski, Patriots

37. Aaron Hernandez, Patriots

Kicker

2. Stephen Gostkowski, Patriots

16. Dan Carpenter, Dolphins

18. Rian Lindell, Bills

28. Nick Folk, Jets

Defense/special teams

1. Jets

13. Patriots

19. Dolphins

20. Bills

ESPN.com fantasy expert Christopher Harris ranked the top rookies to consider for this year. Spiller was fourth behind San Diego Chargers running back Ryan Mathews, Detroit Lions running back Jahvid Best and Cleveland Browns running back Montario Hardesty.

Harris wrote "Spiller was my favorite rookie going into the draft, but landing in Buffalo did him no favors." Harris devalued Spiller because the Bills also have Jackson and Lynch in the backfield and a bad offensive line.

Harris rated McKnight the 14th-best rookie and included Patriots receiver Taylor Price as a sleeper.

How do AFC East receiving corps rate?

May, 10, 2010
5/10/10
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Brandon Marshall, Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Santonio Holmes, Braylon Edwards, Lee Evans.

That's quite a collection of receiving talent in the AFC East, providing a sense the division contains some of the elite receiving corps in the league.

Not so fast.

Jason Cole of Yahoo! Sports composed a reasonable set of rankings for each collection of targets and doesn't have any AFC East team listed in the top third and three of the four ranked no better than the midline.

11. New England Patriots

  • Cole's take: If Wes Welker was healthy, this group would rank higher. Adding Torry Holt helps, although we'll see how he gets along with Randy Moss.
  • My take: The Patriots have some question marks. Age is a concern with Moss and Holt, and they don't have an established tight end. They'll probably need sophomore Julian Edelman to stand in for Welker for a few weeks. That said, Cole's ranking is fair.
16. New York Jets

  • Cole's take: If Braylon Edwards returns to Pro Bowl form and Santonio Holmes can get his head straight, this group could be awesome by December. If so, the Jets will be a serious contender.
  • My take: The caveats are warranted, but I think Cole rated the Jets too poorly. Once Holmes finishes his four-game suspension, they will field three 1,000-yard receivers and one of the NFL's top young receiving tight ends in Dustin Keller.
19. Miami Dolphins

  • Cole's take: The Dolphins finally landed a No. 1 receiver in Brandon Marshall after years of not having one. The question is whether Marshall will be enough.
  • My take: Dolfans have taken exception to Cole's rating. I wonder if they're the same ones upset I ranked Mark Sanchez slightly ahead of Chad Henne; the main point of contention is the Dolphins had substandard receivers last year. I'd have the Dolphins a couple of rungs higher than 19th, but Cole's assessment is fair. Their top three wideouts last year were undrafted, undrafted and since released. One star doesn't a receiving corps make.
25. Buffalo Bills

  • Cole's take: Much like good friend and former Wisconsin teammate Chris Chambers, Lee Evans spent a career teasing people with his talent. Sorry, but it's hard to believe he'll ever be truly great.
  • My take: After six seasons, Evans' career is shaping up as disappointing. The Bills need third-year receivers James Hardy and Steve Johnson and second-year tight end Shawn Nelson to make an impact this year. Rookie Marcus Easley is intriguing.

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