The Buffalo Bills completely reloaded on defense this offseason and should be one of the most improved units in the league. The front four will be one of the most revered in the league while the secondary and linebacking corps seems to have some young up-and-coming talent. The likely resurgence on defense should equate to more wins in 2012 but don’t kid yourself, the Bills success this season depends on Ryan Fitzpatrick’s right arm.
Quarterback is the biggest question mark position on the roster. Fitzpatrick is the unquestioned number one but the depth behind him should be much improved with the acquisition of Vince Young. Here’s a look at how the roster currently looks at QB.
Ryan Fitzpatrick: Fitzpatrick’s 2011 season ended with drastically varied results. He looked like an All Pro over the first seven games of the season which earned him a 5 year extension worth close to $60 million. He totaled 1,739 passing yards (About 249 YPG), 14 TD passes compared to 7 INTs, and a 98.43 QB Rating. Fitzpatrick ran the offense efficiently and effectively and even led the team to two consecutive thrilling comeback victories against the Raiders and Patriots. He gave the fan base a glimpse of what a franchise quarterback actually looks like.
The second half of Fitzpatrick’s season was a complete and utter disaster. After starting the season 5-2, the Bills dropped their next seven contests, effectively decimating any hope of ending their 12-year playoff draught. Although all the blame can’t be placed on Fitz’s shoulders, he wasn’t the same player in the team’s second half. After a 23-0 drubbing of the Redskins in week 9, Fitzpatrick put up three of his worst career performances in consecutive weeks against the Jets, Cowboys and Dolphins, throwing for over 200 yards only once while tossing only two touchdowns compared to seven interceptions. He had a few promising performances before the end of the season but only winning one game the rest of the way.
This is a make-or break year for Fitz. Buddy Nix didn’t draft a developmental quarterback in April so the team does still have faith that he can be the passer that he was over the first half of last season. A contributing factor to his steep decline in play can certainly be attributed to the broken ribs he suffered against the Redskins. Multiple injuries along the offensive line and inconsistent play, especially at the center position when Eric Wood went down, made Fitz more tentative in the pocket which made him force throws which in turn led to more interceptions. Adding a few more tools like T.J. Graham, a healthy Fred Jackson and a revamped offensive line will certainly help him. An improved offensive line, more weapons and a defense that has the potential to be dominant should lead to success for the 2012 Bills but it will also lead to a short leash for Fitzpatrick. Signing Vince Young was supposed to just improve the depth behind Fitz but make no mistake, if he falters after the first few weeks he’s likely to feel the former Heisman Trophy winner and Pro Bowler breathing down his neck.
Vince Young: The Bills signed Young to a one year deal in the offseason. He has the skills and ability to give the Bills a new dynamic in their pistol offense and is a significant upgrade in talent over Tyler Thigpen. Some people questioned the signing after Young’s putrid 2011 season that saw him start three games while appearing in six. He threw for 866 yards and four touchdowns compared to nine interceptions which was good enough for a 60.8 QB Rating. He didn’t provide much in terms of running the ball out of the backfield either, rushing for just 79 yards on 18 attempts.
Nevertheless, Young has proved that he can find a way to win in the pro ranks earning a 31-19 record in 50 career starts for the Titans and Eagles. He won’t beat anyone with his accuracy but he’s able to expand the pocket better than most QBs in the league and he’s always a threat to run. Make no mistake if the Bills find themselves with a losing record after the first five or six games and Fitzpatrick isn’t performing up to standards, the Ralph and the streets of Buffalo will undoubtedly flood with the outcry of “Bring in Vince”. In the meantime he should provide a nice change of pace out of wildcat and pistol looks.
Tyler Thigpen: The Bills saw enough out of Thigpen during his playing time in the preseason and the eight passes he threw (three were completions and one was picked off) to know that they needed a better failsafe. He was signed before last season because he was familiar with Chan Gailey’s offense from his time in Kansas City and the brief glimpses of aptitude he showed while dawning the Chiefs and Dolphins uniforms. At 28 he’s by no means the quarterback of the future however so his only chance of seeing the field this season or even making the roster will probably be beating out Young for the primary backup job. Don’t be surprised if he’s a late August cut.
Brad Smith: Smith looked great operating out of the wildcat/pistol in one game last season against the Eagles. He scored a touchdown and proved to be an asset against Philadelphia’s strong d-line. He threw one total pass last season and it was caught by a guy wearing the opposite teams jersey and it came in the team’s first game of the year. Smith wasn’t brought in for his passing talents however. He was brought in to give the team option packages. He ended the season with 20 rushes for 87 yards and that lone touchdown against the Eagles.
He still has plenty of potential to do damage receiving snaps out of the backfield but the acquisition of Young will likely relegate him back to special teams and receiving duties. Although the quarterback experiment didn’t work incredibly well last season, Smith did have some nice games at wideout after the Bills receiver pool was depleted by injury. He looked great in a week 12 matchup against his former team in New York, hauling in four catches for 77 yards including an incredible acrobatic touchdown catch. He finished the season with 23 catches for 240 yards and that TD grab.
Smith is also extremely valuable on special teams. His returning abilities seemed almost none-existent in 2011 and he wasn’t nearly the threat the Bills thought he’d be but he’s a major asset as a gunner on coverage units. Smith will likely wear many hats again in 2012 and could be a true weapon if the Bills use him correctly.