NFL Nation: Rian Lindell

Bucs' free agents Nos. 16-18

February, 12, 2014
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The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are in a unique, and favorable, position as they get ready for the start of free agency in March. That is because the Bucs don’t have any major potential free agents to worry about re-signing.

They do have some role players that will be re-signed, but there are no marquee players. Let’s start taking a look at Tampa Bay’s potential free agents with Nos. 16 through 18 in my rankings.

16. Brian Leonard, running back. A Rutgers product, Leonard was a favorite of former coach Greg Schiano. Leonard wasn’t very productive in a backup role. He’s expendable because the Bucs will have a healthy Doug Martin, with Mike James and Bobby Rainey as the top backups.

17. Rian Lindell, kicker. The Bucs have Connor Barth returning from a torn Achilles. That means Lindell’s time in Tampa Bay is up.

18. Lawrence Tynes, kicker. Tynes spent all of last season on the non-football injury list. He’ll have to resume his career elsewhere.
TAMPA, Fla. – Give Buccaneers kicker Rian Lindell credit for one thing. He’s honest.

All too often in the NFL, a player is asked about facing his former team and says it’s no different than any other game.

“It will feel a little strange seeing guys that you grew up with football-wise and even the equipment guys,’’ Lindell told WDAE’s Tom Krasniqi on Thursday. “It’s a little different.’’

That’s understandable. Lindell spent the past 10 seasons kicking for Buffalo. But this game is more than a reunion.

Once again, Lindell went with the honest approach. He has missed four field goal attempts in the past three games.

“It’s pretty disappointing because I felt better on them,’’ Lindell said. “Sometimes, I can look back on my career and I was sick or the laces weren’t turned right or there was weird wind. But I felt better than the results.’’

Lindell realizes this is a results-based business.

“I need to start making some field goals,’’ Lindell said. “I need to make my kicks.’’

Rapid Reaction: Cardinals 13, Bucs 10

September, 29, 2013
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A few thoughts on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 13-10 loss to the Arizona Cardinals at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday.

What it means: You can change quarterbacks, but not results. Rookie Mike Glennon started in place of Josh Freeman and looked adequate for most of the game. But Glennon was intercepted with 3:12 remaining to set up Arizona’s tying touchdown. The Bucs, who controlled the game most of the way before squandering a 10-0 lead, are 0-4, and it’s pretty clear their problems go well beyond the quarterback. Coach Greg Schiano is officially on the hot seat.

So much for the defense: The Tampa Bay defense was outstanding much of the day. But two fourth-quarter turnovers gave the Cardinals prime field position, and the defense couldn’t hold up.

Suspension time? Safety Dashon Goldson appealed a previous one-game suspension and won. But he probably won’t be as lucky this time around. Goldson was called for a personal foul that set up the winning field goal. He probably will get a suspension, because he is very much on the NFL’s radar.

Stock watch: Rising -- Kicker Rian Lindell entered the game on the hot seat after missing a field goal attempt in each of the previous two games. He put himself back on good footing with a 50-yard field goal.

Stock watch: Falling -- The one thing the Cardinals did well was bottle up Doug Martin. They put a lot of defensive focus on Martin, and he wasn’t able to do much. Martin also lost a fourth-quarter fumble that led to an Arizona field goal.

Demps’ debut: Recently signed running back Jeff Demps got his first playing time of the season. Demps had a 14-yard run in the first quarter, three kickoff returns and a catch out of the backfield for 8 yards.

What’s next: The Buccaneers have a bye week. They’ll return to action Oct. 13 at home against Philadelphia.

Upon Further Review: Bucs Week 3

September, 23, 2013
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An examination of four hot issues from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 23-3 loss to the New England Patriots:

Freeman’s future: After the season-opening loss to the New York Jets, I laid out a hypothetical scenario for quarterback Josh Freeman to be replaced by rookie Mike Glennon coming out of the bye week. Well, that scenario seems to be becoming more plausible. If the Bucs lose to Arizona on Sunday, they’ll be 0-4 heading into their bye week. As long as the Bucs stay winless, coach Greg Schiano is going to have to start thinking about saving his own job. His best bet to buy another season might be inserting Glennon and hoping the rookie shows some promise.

[+] EnlargeGreg Schiano
Winslow Townson/Getty ImagesFans are already calling for Greg Schiano to be fired after an 0-3 start.
Schiano’s future: During our in-game chat Sunday, a lot of fans were very vocal in saying Schiano should be fired after (and some were saying during) this season if things don’t change dramatically. The thing to keep in mind is that Schiano has three more years on his contract. Unless things continue to go really badly, ownership likely will be hesitant to fire him.

A kicking dilemma: The Bucs basically are on their third kicker and they soon could be on their fourth. Rian Lindell has missed a field goal attempt in each of the last two games and both have hurt the Bucs badly. Connor Barth was supposed to be Tampa Bay’s kicker, but he suffered a torn Achilles tendon in an offseason charity basketball game. The Bucs replaced him with Lawrence Tynes, who came down with a staph infection and will miss the season. Lindell is a veteran who has made some big kicks in his career. But there are other experienced kickers available and the Bucs have to decide if they’re going to stick with Lindell.

Nothing from the tight ends: The Bucs got two catches for 9 yards from their tight ends against the Patriots. They need more production out of that position because it would take some of the defensive attention from Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams. But there might be some reason for hope. Schiano said Tom Crabtree, who probably is Tampa Bay’s best pass-catching tight end, is progressing well from his ankle injury. Crabtree isn’t going to fix all that ails the offense, but he can make it a little more diversified.

It's getting uglier for Buccaneers

September, 22, 2013
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- This time, it was not some last-second loss. This time, the bulk of the blame cannot fall on Josh Freeman.

This time, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers simply played a horrible game and showed that, contrary to popular belief, Freeman isn’t the root of all their troubles.

[+] EnlargeJosh Freeman
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesJosh Freeman and the Buccaneers are now 0-3 after falling to the Patriots 23-3.
Sunday’s 23-3 loss to the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium showed the 0-3 Bucs have major problems in many areas. Their season already has been a soap opera with reports that Freeman and coach Greg Schiano don’t get along and that some prominent players don’t like Schiano’s militaristic approach.

Now, there’s material for many more episodes of the soap opera.

Start with kicker Rian Lindell, who set the tone for the day by missing a 38-yard field goal on Tampa Bay’s first drive. Lindell also missed a field goal in last week’s loss to the New Orleans Saints and you have to wonder if his shakiness was why Schiano decided not to go for it, rather than attempt a long field goal, twice in the first half.

Don’t be surprised if the Bucs have a new kicker next week. Some new receivers also might be a good idea. There receivers failed to catch four very catchable balls. The biggest drop came on Tampa Bay’s second drive -- when Freeman had the team moving better than it has all season -- as a pass in the end zone went off tight end Tim Wright's hands and the Bucs had to settle for a field goal.

“The plays you have control over, you have to make," Schiano said. “When you have a situation that you’re in control of and you don’t make it, then you’re living on borrowed time.’’

Tampa Bay’s time to win the game disappeared in the second quarter. That’s when Tom Brady and his young receivers started clicking and that’s when Tampa Bay’s defense showed some holes.

“You can’t pinpoint any one thing,’’ defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. “The defense, we gave up 23 points. If we hold them to zero, we win, 3-0. We didn’t do what we were supposed to do.’’

Holding the Patriots to zero points would be a major accomplishment for any defense. You cannot pin this one on the defense, just like you cannot pin it all on Freeman, who completed 19-of-41 passes for 236 yards.

Freeman is not completely blameless. He did throw an interception to former Buccaneer Aqib Talib late in the second quarter to set up a field goal that helped the Patriots to a 17-3 halftime lead.

Throw in an offensive game plan, some play calling that was questionable, and a rib injury that kept top receiver Vincent Jackson out of the game for most of the second half and the Bucs seem to have all the elements of disarray.

“We’ve got to get better,’’ Schiano said. “There’s no magic pill."

It’s hard to look at the Bucs and see this season suddenly turning around. The first two losses were close. This one wasn’t and it looks like things are only getting worse for the Buccaneers.

Upon Further Review: Bucs Week 2

September, 16, 2013
9/16/13
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An examination of four hot issues from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 16-14 loss to the New Orleans Saints:

The soap opera continues. If you thought last week was bad with rumblings flying about coach Greg Schiano and quarterback Josh Freeman not being on the same page, wait until you see what’s next. Things are only going to get uglier after Freeman threw an interception, lost a fumble and again failed to complete even 50 percent of his passes. There is some sort of dysfunction going on between the coach and the quarterback, and that’s why the Bucs are 0-2. There has been a report that Freeman might demand a trade. The rumors aren't going to fade away. Instead, they'll keep growing.

[+] EnlargeJosh Freeman
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsAfter another subpar game, quarterback Josh Freeman is on the hot seat.
No trust? Schiano didn’t even have enough trust in Freeman to throw a pass on third-and-6 late in the game. Instead, the Bucs called a running play and Rian Lindell then missed a field goal. In short, Schiano showed more trust in a kicker who was signed off the street than he did in his quarterback. If the Bucs go into their bye week at 0-4, which looks like a real possibility at this point, I think there's a very good chance Schiano will pull the plug on Freeman and hand things over to rookie Mike Glennon. And, based on what I saw from Glennon in the preseason, I don't think he's going to provide any sort of instant solution.

The vanishing tight ends. The Bucs targeted their tight ends just once the entire game. That resulted in a 34-yard completion to Nate Byham. But the Bucs need more than that out of their tight ends to take the pressure off receivers Mike Williams and Vincent Jackson. Tampa Bay has been playing without the injured Tom Crabtree. But the lack of production from this position so far makes you wonder if the Bucs should have added another pass-catching tight end in the offseason.

The defense isn’t bad. For the second straight week, the defense played well enough to win. Linebackers Lavonte David, Dekoda Watson and Mason Foster, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, defensive end Adrian Clayborn and the secondary are all playing well. If you can hold Drew Brees & Co. to one touchdown, you should be able to win. The Bucs came up with four sacks and two interceptions, but it all was for naught because the offense didn’t do its part.

NFL Week 2 Sunday Studs and Duds

September, 15, 2013
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For two consecutive weeks, I've spent an NFL Sunday switching breathlessly between close finishes. Sunday, nine games were decided by seven points or less. That raised the total to 22 (of 30) in the first two weeks of the season, not counting Sunday night's game in Seattle or Monday night's contest in Cincinnati.

What follows might not be a comprehensive overview of the day, but it reflects the highs and lows of what I saw during Week 2. Thanks in advance for coming along on the ride:

Studs

1. Green Bay Packers offense: Quarterback Aaron Rodgers will get the headlines for a 480-yard, four-touchdown performance, but in the big picture, Sunday's game was one of the best all-around offensive showings in Packers' history. The most amazing turn of events at Lambeau Field might have been the Packers' first 100-yard rushing game in 45 games. What's more, tailback James Starks' 132-yard performance came only after starter Eddie Lacy suffered a concussion. Four Packers produced career-best days against the Washington Redskins: Rodgers, Starks, receiver James Jones (11 catches, 178 yards) and receiver Randall Cobb (128 yards). Finally, it was the first game in Packers' history with a 400-yard passer and a 100-yard rusher.

Hester
2. Devin Hester, Chicago Bears kick returner: Hester set a career high with 249 return yards, bringing separate kicks back for 80 and 76 yards in the Bears' 31-30 victory over the Minnesota Vikings. (One set up a Bears touchdown and the other led to a Jay Cutler interception in the end zone.) Most important, at least to me, was the Vikings' determination to kick away from Hester with 3 minutes, 17 seconds remaining. The Vikings succeeded by kicking to upback Joe Anderson, but in essence they conceded the start of the Bears' game-winning drive at the 34-yard line. A deep kick/touchback -- a strong possibility given Blair Walsh's leg strength -- would have pushed the ball back 14 yards. But the Vikings weren't willing to risk it after Hester's day.

Williams
3. Mario Williams, Buffalo Bills defensive end: Williams sacked Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton 4.5 times, a big part of the Bills' 24-23 victory. It was the third instance in the past four seasons where an NFL player recorded at least four sacks in a game, according to Pro Football Reference. Newton was sacked six times overall and was limited to 249 all-purpose yards. After a summer of injury and intrigue at Bills training camp, Williams is off to an excellent start.

Bryant
Bryant
4. Dez Bryant, Dallas Cowboys wide receiver: Bryant dominated the Kansas City Chiefs early on, and I don't think he was to blame for his quiet finish. He opened with five catches in five targets for 100 yards, all in the first quarter. Included in that outburst was a diving 53-yard reception and a 2-yard touchdown. After that point, Bryant managed 41 more yards on four receptions. If anything, however, the Chiefs deserve credit for an adjustment that destroyed the rhythm of quarterback Tony Romo. After Bryant's fifth catch, the Chiefs brought at least five pass-rushers on almost half of Romo's drop-backs. He didn't have time to find Bryant.

Graham
5. Jimmy Graham, New Orleans Saints tight end: Graham set a career high with 179 yards and tied his mark of 10 receptions in the Saints' victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Quarterback Drew Brees targeted Graham 16 times, including one pass that resulted in a 56-yard score. He also contributed a key 15-yard reception at the start of the Saints' game-winning drive, putting the ball near midfield with about a minute remaining.

Hopkins
6. DeAndre Hopkins, Houston Texans receiver: With veteran Andre Johnson sidelined, the Texans' top draft pick took over as Matt Schaub's top option and was the critical player in overtime. His 25-yard reception on third down set up the Texans at the Tennessee Titans' 1-yard line, and on third-and-goal, Hopkins pulled in the game-winner. He finished with 117 receiving yards, all but 14 of which came after halftime. In his first two NFL games, Hopkins has 12 receptions for 193 yards.

Duds

Meriweather
1. Brandon Meriweather, Washington Redskins safety: It would be crass to suggest that what goes around, comes around. So I won't go there. I'll just present the facts: Meriweather's helmet-to-jaw hit caused Lacy's concussion in the first quarter at Lambeau Field. The next time Meriweather lowered his head on a Packers running back, he was the one who wound up with a concussion. Meriweather connected with Starks' helmet along the sideline in the second quarter, spun in the air and was on the ground for several moments. I didn't perceive dirty intent from Meriweather on either hit. It was just poor technique that resulted it two unnecessary head injuries.

2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers futility: After a chaotic week of rumors about quarterback Josh Freeman, the Bucs played a near-dysfunctional game against the Saints -- and still nearly won! They lost two big plays, a touchdown and a third-down conversion, on illegal formation penalties. They had 10 men on the field on a fourth-and-goal play in the second quarter, and still miraculously stopped the Saints on the play. Freeman completed only nine passes in the game, but the Bucs would have been in excellent position to win if Rian Lindell had converted a 47-yard field goal with 1:06 left. This could be an ugly week at the Bucs' practice facility.

3. San Diego Chargers defensive scheme: I'm aware that the Chargers pulled off a 33-30 road victory over the Philadelphia Eagles, but mercy me. It was difficult to understand how the Chargers allowed receiver DeSean Jackson to get into so many single-coverage looks, especially after he ran past defenders several times in the first half. Jackson finished with nine receptions for 193 yards, but he could have approached 300 yards if he and quarterback Michael Vick had been able to connect on four deep near-misses. The Chargers gave up 511 offensive yards to the Eagles despite being on the field for only 19 minutes and 43 seconds. Talk about dodging the proverbial bullet!

Manning
4. Eli Manning, New York Giants quarterback: Manning might have thrown for 362 yards, but he tossed another four interceptions in the Giants' loss to brother Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos. He is the first player to throw seven interceptions in his first two games of a season since Daunte Culpepper for the Minnesota Vikings in 2005. He is (mostly) responsible for 70 percent of the Giants' staggering 10 turnovers in their 0-2 start.
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- My thoughts on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ 18-17 loss to the New York Jets on Sunday at MetLife Stadium:

What it means: This was a horrible opening for the Bucs against a rookie quarterback (Geno Smith) and a Jets team that appeared to be heading into the season in disarray. But it was the Buccaneers who were dysfunctional on Sunday. The Bucs were undisciplined on defense and unimaginative on offense. Quarterback Josh Freeman was dismal as well. It all cost them dearly. Tampa Bay desperately needed a fast start to its season because the New Orleans Saints and New England Patriots are the next two teams on the schedule. All of a sudden, the Bucs are staring down the barrel at a potential 0-3 start.

Play of the day: Linebacker Lavonte David was a bright spot most of the day. But he ended up costing the Bucs the game. David was flagged for a late hit on Smith, and that set up the winning field goal by the Jets.

Stock watch falling: The run blocking. Aside from the touchdown run in the second quarter, running back Doug Martin didn’t seem to have any holes to work with. Sure, it’s easy to say guard Carl Nicks was out, but the offensive line needs to be able to open some holes.

Fine time? Tampa Bay safeties Dashon Goldson and Mark Barron probably will be getting letters from the league office. Each of them was called for an unnecessary roughness penalty that more than likely will lead to fines. By the way, the league has made it abundantly clear that officials will be policing that type of play, so the Bucs don’t have any excuses.

What’s next: The Bucs host the Saints at Raymond James Stadium next Sunday.

Tampa Bay general manager Mark Dominik told ESPN’s Chris Mortensen that the team recently treated its facility to erase any existence of MRSA, a serious staph infection which has sidelined guard Carl Nicks and kicker Lawrence Tynes.

The Bucs previously said Tynes was dealing with a toe injury and that Nicks had a blister on his foot that became infected.

You can read much more about MRSA in this article about how the University of Southern California dealt with an outbreak. But the short version is that MRSA can be particularly dangerous because it is resistant to some antibiotics.

"We had a company come in and nuke the building a week ago after the cultures taken from Nicks and Tynes confirmed it was MRSA," Dominik said. "It was a precautionary move, but we didn't want to fool with it. Our owners said spare no expense; we had the facility treated, and the league office approved of our actions."

ESPN injury expert Stephania Bell said other college and NFL teams have dealt with MRSA outbreaks. She said high school and college wrestling programs also have frequent problems with MRSA.

“It’s an issue in sports and it’s talked about more and more,’’ Bell said. “Most teams have all sorts of procedures in place to prevent it, but it still happens. What you’re seeing Tampa Bay do now in treating the facility is the right thing, and the only thing to do, once there’s been an outbreak.’’

It’s unclear how long Nicks and Tynes will remain sidelined. The Bucs signed veteran kicker Rian Lindell this week.

On Thursday, tackle Gabe Carimi was working with the first team at left guard during the portion of practice that was open to the media. Ted Larsen and Mike Remmers also could fill in for Nicks.

Rian Lindell's letter to Bills fans

August, 21, 2013
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Released by the Buffalo Bills on Monday, kicker Rian Lindell signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Wednesday, the team announced.

Lindell played 10 seasons for the Bills and ranks second in franchise history with 225 field goals and 980 points.

On Wednesday, the Bills' official website posted an open letter from Lindell to Bills fans:
Bills Nation,

Thank you, Bills fans, for all the support I've received over the years and over the last few days. I always tried to remember the people I represented every time I put the Bills uniform on. Over the years, I've truly enjoyed hearing the many stories Bills fans had to share from Sundays at the Ralph.

I’ll never forget the feeling of driving into the parking lot on game day and seeing the excitement of fans young or old, warm or cold, going through their pregame routines in anticipation of a Bills victory. What I came to understand over the years, was the genuine passion Western New York and Bills nation has for their Bills, and I can't tell you how appreciative I am to have been a part of it for a decade.

I also want to thank Mr. Wilson and each and each and every person in the organization for 10 great years together. You made my family and I feel like we were truly a part of your family, and we were proud to “circle the wagons” with you.

Thank you Buffalo, and while I begin a new and exciting chapter of my career, I look forward to our paths crossing again down the road.

Rian Lindell
The Buffalo Bills released long-time kicker Rian Lindell on Monday morning, the team announced.

Hopkins
Even after 10 seasons with the team, the writing for Lindell's departure had been on the wall after the Bills drafted kicker Dustin Hopkins in the sixth round in April.

Lindell performed well this preseason, with three of his four kickoffs reaching the opposing end zone. In his only field-goal attempt, Lindell converted from 30 yards.

But at 36 years old and with a $2.1 million base salary, it was tough to see Lindell in the Bills' plans once Hopkins was added.

Hopkins, 22, has a $405,000 base salary and was perfect on his field goals in the first two preseason games (24, 23, 39, and 35 yards).

In four seasons at Florida State, Hopkins became the NCAA's all-time leader in points (466) and field goals made (88). In 2012, he was named to the first-team All-ACC and was a finalist for the Lou Groza Award for the nation's best kicker.

But among Seminoles, Hopkins won't be alone in the Bills' special teams room.

Punter Shawn Powell and long snapper Garrison Sanborn also played at Florida State, although Sanborn graduated in 2009, the spring before Hopkins arrived in Tallahassee.

With Sanborn one of the NFL's better long snappers and Powell locking in his job earlier in training camp, the Bills' all-Seminole specialists can expect to spend at least this upcoming season together.
Quarterback isn't the only position where there will be various competitions involving rookies in training camp. Two teams in the AFC East also drafted place kickers on Day 3 of the NFL draft.

The Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills picked kickers in the fifth and sixth rounds, respectively. The Dolphins selected Florida kicker Caleb Sturgis and Buffalo picked Florida State kicker Dustin Hopkins.

Sturgis will compete with Dolphins veteran kicker Dan Carpenter, who struggled at times last season. Carpenter missed five field-goal attempts in 2012 and botched 21 attempts the past three seasons. Carpenter has kicked in Miami for six consecutive seasons, but may have to earn his spot against Sturgis this summer. It's also possible that Carpenter could be a salary-cap casualty for the Dolphins, who spent a lot of money in free agency this offseason.

Meanwhile, veteran kicker Rian Lindell has been a staple in Buffalo for nine seasons. His accuracy remains solid. But at 36, Lindell's leg strength is diminishing. Hopkins comes to Buffalo as the NCAA's all-time leading scorer. Most importantly, Hopkins has a strong leg, which is needed in Buffalo's inclement weather for field goals and kickoffs. Similar to Carpenter, Lindell also could become a salary-cap casualty. But at the very least, Lindell must compete for his job.

Keep an eye on both of these new kicking developments in the AFC East this offseason.
Buffalo BillsUS PresswireCoach Chan Gailey, with Mario Williams and a healthy Fred Jackson, could lead a dark-horse team.

The scene at the AFC coaches' breakfast in Palm Beach, Fla., recently was fitting.

To my far left was New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan. He was surrounded by a large group of media that wanted to know how the Jets would handle Tim Tebow-mania and whether they could bounce back from a disappointing 2011.

To my immediate left was new Miami Dolphins coach Joe Philbin. A throng of reporters wondered what the rookie head coach had in store in his first season.

On my right was future Hall of Fame coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots. He continually gave non-answers about his team as reporters tried to dig up something -- anything -- about the reigning AFC champions.

In the middle of this madness was Buffalo Bills head coach Chan Gailey. His table was relatively empty most of the hourlong breakfast, with the exception of a few passers-by and this AFC East blogger. Few in the national media cared to know what Gailey and the Bills were up to. They're a small-market team that finished 6-10 last season and hasn't been to the playoffs in 13 years.

But by this time next year, people will be talking about Buffalo. The Bills are my sleeper pick in 2012. Here are five reasons why Buffalo will get over the hump and finish with a winning record:

Reason No. 1: Bills made right moves in free agency

[+] EnlargeMark Anderson
Fernando Medina/US PresswireFormer Patriot Mark Anderson gives Buffalo another proven pass-rusher on its defensive line.
Analysis: I will give myself a pat on the back. I was one of the first to note Buffalo's interest in two-time Pro Bowl defensive end Mario Williams. Despite my prediction, I did not think Buffalo would be able to land the top defensive free agent on the market. But the Bills put on the full-court press and gave Williams 100 million reasons to join the Bills. Buffalo gained an elite pass-rusher and its first game-changer on defense. The Bills didn't stop there. They continued to improve their anemic pass-rush by signing former Patriots defensive end Mark Anderson, who recorded 10 sacks last year. Williams, Anderson and defensive tackles Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus make up one of the top defensive lines in the NFL. It's a group that can stop the run and get push up the middle while attacking the edges and pressuring the quarterback. Buffalo's talented front four will be a problem for a lot of teams next season. The Bills also retained their own key free agents. Buffalo re-signed No. 1 receiver Steve Johnson at an affordable rate they were comfortable with, as well as starting tight end Scott Chandler. There are still a few more holes Buffalo would like to fill. But the team is one of the biggest winners in free agency.

Reason No. 2: Double trouble at running back

Analysis: When they are healthy, there may not be a more dynamic running back duo in the NFL than Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller. These two will be headaches for opposing defenses once Buffalo figures out how to blend both into the offense simultaneously. Jackson and Spiller could complement each other well. Buffalo's coaching staff admittedly did a poor job of balancing the two tailbacks last season. Jackson received a bulk of the carries when healthy, and Spiller finally showed what he could do at the end of the year once Jackson was injured. Now, both are hungry and want the football. Gailey called it "a great problem to have." Jackson is 31 and coming off a season-ending leg injury. That should open the door for Spiller to get more carries. Will it be a 50-50 split? Probably not. But the Buffalo offense will be dangerous if it can use Spiller and Jackson just enough to keep each fresh and productive the entire season.

Reason No. 3: AFC East is weakening

Analysis: A case can be made that the AFC East became a weaker division this offseason. The division wasn't very strong to begin with. Only the Patriots finished with a winning record in 2011. But the 6-10 Dolphins gutted their roster, getting rid of top players such as Pro Bowl receiver Brandon Marshall and leading tackler and starting safety Yeremiah Bell. Miami also failed to land a franchise quarterback and settled on 34-year-old David Garrard as the potential starter next season. It's early, but it's hard to imagine Miami's finishing with a better record than last season. Meanwhile, the Jets are an aging team with chemistry issues. New York gave embattled quarterback Mark Sanchez a three-year contract extension and traded for popular backup Tebow, setting up a potentially explosive situation. The Jets will be on a year-long implosion watch, and their arrow could be trending downward after last year's mediocre 8-8 season. The Jets, Dolphins and Bills are all chasing the Patriots, who are clearly the favorites in the division. But the Bills, who split with New England last season, did a solid job to make up some ground.

Reason No. 4: Players are getting healthy

Analysis: I usually try to avoid the injury excuse, because every team has them. But I think it legitimately applies to the Bills. Buffalo suffered key injures last year at running back (Jackson), defensive tackle (Kyle Williams), linebacker (Shawne Merriman), offensive line (Eric Wood), receiver (Donald Jones) and even kicker (Rian Lindell), just to name a few. Bills starting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick also played much of the season with a painful rib injury. By the second half of the year, the Bills didn't have anywhere near the same depth they had during their 4-1 start. Most of these players are expected to be back and healthy in 2012. Merriman is perhaps the biggest question mark after his second season-ending Achilles injury. But chances are slim that Buffalo will be hit this hard with injuries again. Health will be key for Buffalo to maintain a successful run over 16 games.

Reason No. 5: Bills have a top-10 pick

Analysis: The Bills have had a very productive offseason, but they aren't done yet. They still have a top-10 pick in this month's NFL draft. This is a great opportunity for Buffalo to plug more holes on the roster. The Bills could use a starting-caliber left tackle, another threat at receiver, a cover corner and depth at linebacker. The Bills also have more than $9 million in cap room to spend. Don't rule out late signings in free agency. After years of not spending to the cap, Buffalo tabbed 2012 as the year to make a push.

All of these reasons make the Bills my ideal sleeper pick for next season. Don't forget that you heard it here first.

Inside the Buffalo Bills' offense

September, 30, 2011
9/30/11
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Fred Jackson, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Steve JohnsonGetty ImagesFred Jackson, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Steve Johnson have the Bills leading the NFL in scoring.
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- The NFL's highest-scoring offense may be found Buffalo, but it was hatched in Pittsburgh.

In the mid-1990s, Buffalo Bills head coach Chan Gailey was a wide receivers coach for the Steelers. Gailey realized he had a deep and talented group and convinced Pittsburgh -- primarily a running team -- to use more four-receiver sets.

"We kind of evolved to it, to be honest with you," Gailey said. "Ron Erhardt was the offensive coordinator and we had four really good players. We had Ernie Mills, Andre Hastings, and Charles Johnson and Yancey Thigpen. So we said 'How can we get them on the field at the same time?'"

The concept helped lead the Steelers to the Super Bowl after the 1995 season. Sixteen years later, Gailey's spread offense is tearing up the NFL once again. The Bills lead the league in scoring with 113 points in three games. Buffalo (3-0) averages 37.7 points per game, is third in total offense and is the only undefeated team in the AFC.

Now, instead of Neil O'Donnell, the Bills have fast-rising quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. Thigpen's role as the No. 1 receiver in Gailey's offense is filled by Buffalo's Steve Johnson. Charles Johnson and Hastings are replaced by Donald Jones and David Nelson. Receiver Naaman Roosevelt, tight end Scott Chandler and tailback C.J. Spiller share time as Buffalo's fourth receiver.

Even Kordell "Slash" Stewart, who was used on trick plays by Gailey and Pittsburgh's staff, is comparable to Bills receiver/quarterback/returner Brad Smith. But so far Buffalo hasn't used many trick plays.

Gailey's system thrives on several core principles. First, by lining up with four receivers, Buffalo is able to "expand the defense." Buffalo's alignment forces defenses to spread out. It creates bigger seams and makes it easier for the quarterback to read defenses and recognizes blitzes.

Fitzpatrick, a Harvard graduate, is one of the smartest quarterbacks in the league. He’s done a great job of reading defenses pre-snap and changing routes and protection. It's led to Fitzpatrick’s fast start and earning AFC Player of the Month honors. He's thrown for 871 yards and nine touchdowns in three games.

"When he's confident, on top of his game and hot, he's really hard to deal with," Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc said of Fitzpatrick. "I don't know if that's going to keep up for 16 games. But he's on fire right now. He's at the pinnacle of his game."

Buffalo's spread also takes defenses out of its comfort zone. Every base defense in the NFL has three or four linebackers. The Bills, with three and four receivers, create tough choices. If opponents stay in their base defense, they have to cover wide receivers with linebackers. If opponents go away from their base defense, some of the better, front-seven players are taken off the field. That makes it easier to run the football. Bills tailback Fred Jackson is fourth in the NFL in rushing yards (303).

It's a Catch-22 opponents have yet to figure out.

"Oakland stayed in a lot of base and we exploited that," Jones said. "David in the middle, if they're going to keep a linebacker on him, that's a mismatch all day. Kansas City did the same thing.

"That's why we do it: To see what the defense is going to do. Are they going to bring in extra corners, or are they going to stay base? We're going to exploit it, whatever it is."

Buffalo's offense works because it defies stereotypes. With spreads, typically you think of big plays in the passing game but also a lot of sacks and struggles running the ball. Fitzpatrick has been sacked just once this season, and Buffalo is fourth in the league in rushing. The Bills average 5.6 yards per carry.

One of the secrets of Buffalo's success has been its receivers' blocking downfield. Buffalo is second in the NFL with six runs of 20 yards or more.

"This is what we tell our receivers: 'Do you want the running back to block the protection when you're running a route so you can catch a pass?'" Gailey explained. "If you do, then when he's running the ball, you block for him because we're in this thing together."

Gailey's selfless team concept is working for the Bills. Buffalo usually sends four receivers out on passing plays, and it's Jackson's responsibility to block the extra rusher.

"I don't know if there's a better pass-protecting back in the league with what he does," Fitzpatrick said. "The fans and everybody watching the game, they see his runs, they see what he does after the catch, but that’s the thing that nobody really talks about and that’s what makes him one of the most complete backs in the game.

"He's taken on defensive lineman, he's taken on defensive ends and he's storming linebackers. Whatever it is, he's the best I've played with in terms of picking up blitzes. There are no stats for that."

The success of Buffalo’s offense has permeated the entire team.

Veteran Bills kicker Rian Lindell has seen a lot of bad offenses in his eight seasons in Buffalo. He provided some insight into how this year's offense has changed things.

"I have a kicking shoe that's tighter, so I don't wear it all game," Lindell said. "It used to be, I would wait until we get to midfield or in field-goal range until I put it on. Now, if we get the ball on our own 20, 25 or 30, I say, 'I better put the shoe on. It might be a couple plays and I have to get warmed up.'"

This Bills believe they can score with anyone. They proved it in a 34-31 shootout victory against New England. The Bills fell behind 21-0 in the first half and became the first NFL team to overcome deficits of 18 or more points in back-to-back weeks. Buffalo trailed by 21-3 at halftime of a 38-35 victory over Oakland in Week 2.

The offense is clicking because players better understand the system, Gailey said. In 2010, Gailey's first year in Buffalo, the Bills were ranked No. 25 offensively. The Bills got off to a horrendous 0-8 start but finished the second half of the season 4-4. The Bills are 7-4 in their last 11 games.

Surprisingly, Buffalo's offensive playbook is not huge, players say. Gailey puts an emphasis on keeping things manageable. He believes that if everyone knows exactly what he's doing, the plays will work and it's easier to hold players accountable.

Many question whether the Bills, a four-win team in 2010, have the staying power to remain in contention. Much of it rests on this offense's ability to perform at a high level over 16 games.

Through three weeks, Buffalo is on pace to score 602 points this season. That would break the NFL record set by the Patriots (589) in 2007.

"I don't know if we'll set records this year," Gailey said. "But it'd be nice if we did."

Making millions in the AFC East

March, 4, 2011
3/04/11
1:26
PM ET
Mark SanchezRichard A. Brightly/Icon SMIMark Sanchez is set to earn $14.75 million in base salary next season, the most in the AFC East.
Sports labor squabbles often are described as billionaires arguing with millionaires over money.

While that's a catchy rhyme that sums up fan frustration, the phrase is not entirely true.

Inspired by a blog entry from the minister of all things AFC South, Paul Kuharsky, I looked at NFL Players Association files to count up the number of AFC East players scheduled for $1 million base salaries in 2011.

Granted, up-front bonuses and incentives can make base salaries misleading. But base salaries are the only figures that create a common ground, player for player.

You'll see a vast majority of NFL players make much less than $1 million a year. Although many will make seven figures before they walk away from the game, careers are short and treacherous. They'll never see that kind of cash again for the rest of their lives.

That's why they're fighting for every dollar now.

Of the 226 players under contract in the AFC East, only 62 of them (27.4 percent) will make base salaries of $1 million or more.

The NFLPA hasn't acknowledged any franchise tags that have been signed. Those players are marked with an asterisk and not factored into the totals.

Buffalo Bills
Base salaries of $1 million or more: 19

Players under contract: 54

Percentage of roster making $1 million or more: 35.2

Miami Dolphins
Base salaries of $1 million or more: 15

Players under contract: 55

Percentage of roster making $1 million or more: 27.3

New England Patriots
Base salaries of $1 million or more: 14

Players under contract: 60

Percentage of roster making $1 million or more: 23.3

New York Jets
Base salaries of $1 million or more: 14

Players under contract: 57

Percentage of roster making $1 million or more: 24.6

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