New look Bills hope to improve by leaps and bounds

Head Coach Chan Gailey has a simple plan for this upcoming season. Find as many good players as you can and let them battle it out for a position.  If you win, you play.

“We made some good additions to our football team. We said at the end of the season, our biggest challenge was to improve our pass rush, and that’s what we have done to this point. We haven’t done it on the field, but at least we’ve done it on paper. We’re excited about that. And when you help your football team in one area, you help your football team – there’s a ripple effect in a lot of different areas. So help your team in a lot of ways.” – Coach Chan Gailey on Buffalo upgrading its pass rush with free agents Mario Williams and Mark Anderson.

But the key for the year will be a defense that ranked the  third worst in the NFL giving up 27.1 points a game.

New Defensive Coordinator Dave Wannstedt is looking to switch the Buffalo Bills defensive scheme from 3-4 to 4-3 and, with the help of former Hall of Fame QB Jim Kelly, they are keying in on and signing the right players.  That was evident when the team offered former Houston Texan Mario Williams a 6-year deal worth over $100 million.  Williams will most likely switch back to his natural DE position.

On the opposite of Williams will be Mark Anderson who also signed a long term deal.  The former Patriot had fantastic  2011 season and finished with 10 sacks on the year.   Both players are expected to make such an impact for the team that the Bills are already being proclaimed the “unofficial season champs.”

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Bills Land Williams With $50 Million Guarantee

Mario Williams would have had plenty of other options. The former first overall draft pick by the , Williams was the best defensive player available this year, the rare elite pass rusher to hit the open market in his prime. But the Bills made him their goal for free agency, not just to shore up an anemic pass rush but also to give a boost to a franchise and a fan base desperate to be relevant again after not making the playoffs in a dozen seasons.

So when free agency began Tuesday, the Bills were there with a private plane to whisk Williams to Buffalo, and then they would not let him leave.

He remained there for two nights — an unusually long visit for a free agent — while the Bills plied him with everything from tours of residential neighborhoods to conversations with the former Bills star Jim Kelly.

Finally, they overwhelmed him with an offer that no other team was prepared to approach — a six-year deal that guarantees Williams $50 million, the biggest guarantee ever given to a defensive player. It surpasses by nearly 20 percent the $42 million guarantee given to Julius Peppers by the Chicago Bears only two years ago and makes Williams the third player in N.F.L. history to be guaranteed $50 million, after quarterback Sam Bradford and receiver Calvin Johnson, who got his Wednesday.

On Thursday, Williams signed, becoming the biggest free-agent acquisition in Bills history and the biggest — so far — in free agency this season.

The Bills had been a long shot to land Williams, but now that they have him, the defense that had only 29 sacks last season — only two teams had fewer — should have one of the most dominant defensive lines in the game. Williams will join end Chris Kelsay and tackles Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus in the 4-3 defense.

The signing also sends a signal for future free agents: Buffalo is not that bad. Just ask Williams.

“You hear so much about living here, until you actually get here and see what’s here and see the fans and everything this great city has to offer, even seeing my name on pizzas — it definitely got the message across,” Williams said when he was introduced at a news conference Thursday afternoon. “You don’t get many chances like this to be the guy who can help the team get across the hump. And that’s definitely what I’m here for.”

The Bills probably overpaid a bit for Williams, but Buffalo has not had a pass rusher like Williams since Bruce Smith, who left the team in 1999. Williams has had 53 sacks in six seasons, including five in five games before he tore a pectoral muscle that ended his 2011 season.

And the signing instantly energized a franchise that started 5-2 last season — igniting hopes that it, like the Detroit Lions, was about to begin a renaissance — before fading and finishing 6-10.

Buffalo receiver Stevie Johnson, who received his own extension this off-season, offered praise on his Twitter feed for the Bills executives who made the Williams deal.

“I Love it!” he wrote. “Welcome SuperMario!”

The Texans drafted Williams in 2006 instead of taking Reggie Bush in an effort to stop Peyton Manning when he was with the Indianapolis Colts. Now, the Texans may have to take on Manning again without Williams. Manning continued to mull his options Thursday, after spending about eight hours Wednesday meeting with coaches from the Tennessee Titans.

The Titans are making a big push to sign Manning. The owner Bud Adams told a Houston television station that he had offered to make Manning a Titan for life. And on Thursday, they may have helped their chances when they signed guard Steve Hutchinson, a former Pro Bowl selection who was also being sought by Seattle, the team that drafted him.

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Needy Bills Hope NFL Draft Goes as Easy as 1-2-3

Once the first two selections are made Thursday night, the general manager figures all he has to do is look down the list of his top-three prospects and pick the one still available.

“We’ve got three guys and we figure one of them will be there,” Nix said. “Actually, I could tell you exactly who we’re going to take if you would guarantee me who the first two picks are.”

It sounds simple enough. With so many holes to address on a team that’s coming off a 4-12 season, the Bills aren’t in a position to be choosy.

A pass-rushing or run-stopping linebacker’s an option, with ‘s Von Miller listed in numerous mock drafts as a potential selection. Buffalo’s porous defensive line can use help. How about an offensive tackle?

Who knows, with coach Chan Gailey’s reputation for developing quarterbacks, maybe this is the year Buffalo takes a serious run at filling the face-of-the-franchise-sized position that’s been left unsettled since Hall-of-Famer Jim Kelly retired after the 1996 season. Cam Newton, Blaine Gabbert, anyone?

Nix, of course, won’t provide any hints. But with four picks among the first 100, and nine overall during the three-day draft, he considers this weekend an ideal opportunity to help make the Bills relevant once again.

“We feel really good about making the next step,” Nix said in addressing season-ticket holders last month. “I know you’ve heard that before, but we’re optimistic.”

He was right about one thing, at least.

In his second season on the job, Nix isn’t the first Bills general manager to have made that claim to a win-starved fanbase that’s endured 11 seasons without a playoff berth — tied with Detroit for the NFL’s longest active drought.

If Nix intends on delivering upon his high hopes, it begins with reversing a spotty drafting history that has put the Bills in this position as a perennial NFL pushover in the first place.

Of all the holes the Bills have, the one thing they don’t need is yet another first-round bust.

There was offensive tackle Mike Williams, who flamed out and was cut three seasons after being selected fourth overall in 2002. The Bills got very little in return from trading back into the first round to land quarterback J.P. Losman (22nd overall in 2004) and defensive tackle John McCargo (26th overall, 2006).

Then there’s supposed pass-rushing specialist Aaron Maybin, who has as many NFL career sacks as he does starts — namely, zero — since being selected 11th overall two years ago.

“Certainly we’ve had our misses up at the top,” chief scout Tom Modrak said. “But there are a bunch of things that go into making a team. In this draft, you’re going to try to solve some of those problems. I don’t think that you can solve them all.”

Nix set an even higher goal.

“Where we’re picking, we’ve got to hit it on the nose,” Nix said. “There’s no way around it.”

The Bills braintrust has made it no secret that their top priority is bolstering the front-seven of a defense that was undone by injuries and had difficulty making the switch to a 3-4 scheme. Buffalo allowed 200 yards rushing eight times last year, and 2,714 overall — the second-highest total in team history. The 425 points allowed was also second worst.

To make matters worse, the Bills were unable to generate a consistent pass rush, failing to fill the loss of Aaron Schobel, who was cut in August after Buffalo couldn’t wait any longer for the veteran player to decide on whether to retire.

The Bills did claim Shawne Merriman off waivers in November, but the former star pass-rusher failed to make an impact. He didn’t play a snap for Buffalo after aggravating an Achilles’ tendon injury.

Despite the injury, the Bills re-signed Merriman to a two-year contract in January.

Don’t rule out the Bills selecting a quarterback, if not with the No. 3 pick then potentially in the second round, 34th overall, which makes Florida State’s Christian Ponder a possibility.

Though confident in how journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick provided the Bills offense a spark last year, Nix and Gailey haven’t ruled out finding his eventual replacement.

“Now, our greatest need is not quarterback,” Nix said. “But if there were to be a franchise guy there and one we deem as a guy that can go eight or 10 years, be the face of the organization and take us to the playoffs and win every year, you can’t pass him up.”

Gailey maintains Fitzpatrick will remain his starter next season. That was particularly apparent during a telephone conference call last week.

In fact, in promoting the Bills annual game in Toronto, Gailey was asked who his starter would be Oct. 30, when Buffalo “hosts” Washington.

“I would expect Fitz to be that,” he said, “unless you think he’s going to get hurt or something.”

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