The wait for training camp begins. Here are 10 prognostications to mull around, while you wait for the real deal to kick off at St. John Fisher College:
10. Paul Posluszny makes the Pro Bowl.
The latest greatest product from Linebacker U. has to be chomping at the big to get back on the field after his rookie season was derailed by a season-ending forearm injury. In his only two full games, The Poz was all over with 22 tackles (14 solo). Expect him to directly benefit from the addition of Marcus Stroud, who will eat up blockers. It's hard to fathom how this guy wasn't picked in the first round two years ago.
9. Derek Fine will start at tight end.
Robert Royal is not the answer to Buffalo's tight end woes, and he's recovering from knee surgery to boot. The Bills haven't had a legitimate weapon in the middle of the field since Jay Riemersma. The team would love for Courtney Anderson to bank on his potential, but that's a stretch. Fine is a do-it-all tight end that can be used as an H-back, in motion and as a serviceable check-down target. Weak competition though is the biggest ace up his sleeve.
8. The Bills produce Top 3 kick and punt return units.
Eventually, Leodis McKelvin will be counted on to take on opponent's No. 1 wide receivers on a weekly basis. But as a rookie, his biggest impact could be felt as a game-breaking returner. During his senior year at Troy, McKelvin averaged 17.3 yards per punt return and 23.2 per kick return, while taking three punts to the house for scores. He finished with eight total return TDs for his collegiate career. The guy's electric. Put him with Terrence McGee and Roscoe Parrish, and opposing special teams coordinators will sure be having some restless nights.
7. Kawika Mitchell and Spencer Johnson do not justify their $17.5 million contracts.
That's not to say both won't be adequate starters on the Bills' defense this season. But the front office sure shelled out a ton of money here. It's unrealistic to expect these free agent pickups to be game-breakers. Was Johnson a great DT stuck behind the best in the NFL with Minnesota? Was Mitchell an impact player or a bystander on the Giants' gangbuster defense? Hard to tell now. Give the Bills credit for aggressively diving into free agency, but Mitchell and Johnson are probably marginal, low-impact starters in the long-term.
6. James Hardy is the missing piece.
James Hardy against Michigan
The Bills had millions to spend. A multi-year, multi-million dollar contract was accessible. But Russ Brandon's front office team opted to pass on then-Arizona UFA Bryant Johnson. Genius. At best, Johnson is a 50-reception role player. Buffalo waited for April to address its glaring need for a possession receiver and had 6-foot-6 James Hardy fall into its lap. Hardy will make an immediate impact in the red zone and could have the best season of any rookie receiver this season. He'll diversify Buffalo's offense and help bring Lee Evans back to '06 form. This is still a good old fashion Dick Jauron, conservative, ball-control team (Remember the glory days of Jim Miller and Shane Matthews in Chicago…..13-3…division champs…anybody?). But with Turk Schonert promising to take more chances, the Bills should make vast improvements. Hardy's the biggest reason why.
5. Aaron Schobel returns to form.
After signing a seven-year, $50.5 million contract in late August last summer, Schobel failed to deliver. He only had 6.5 sacks (2.5 in Buffalo's first 11 games) and was one reason that Buffalo's run defense was gashed for 125 rushing yards per game (25th in NFL). But Schobel is too talented and too committed of a professional not to rebound. Expect the Aaron Schobel circa '06 to shine in '08.
4. J.P. Losman is traded at some point during training camp.
If Edwards is sharp in camp, Losman may be deemed expendable. Of course, Gibran Hamdan and Matt Baker would need to impress and/or the Bills would have to pick up another QB in the leftover bin. But it seems that starting quarterbacks are lost annually in July and August. A desperate team may dangle a high pick in front of the Bills that'd be too tasty to refuse.
3. Trent Edwards passes for more than 3,000 yards, 20 touchdowns and starts all 16 games.
Edwards has added 10 pounds of muscle this off-season, which should help his arm strength. Last season he was one Monday Night Meltdown away from a 5-0 start as the Bills' quarterback. Edwards isn't Losman, Rob Johnson or Todd Collins. He's poised. He's comfortable in the pocket. And now he has some playmakers to disperse the ball to.
2. Fred Jackson leads the Bills in rushing.
Well, we'll know more next week when Marshawn Lynch is in court. But as reported, he's expected to plead guilty to a hit-and-run nearly a month ago. Charges and punishment aren't clear quite yet, but considering Roger Goodell's heavy hand as commissioner, anything's possible. Jackson is a vicious runner that attacks open lanes and showed briefly in '07 that he's capable of carrying the ball 20 carries a game. If Lynch's case blows up, the Bills may need to lean on Jackson. Sheer speculation at this point, though.
1. Buffalo goes 9-7 and returns to the playoffs after an eight-year drought.
Three reasons. 1) The Schedule. Buffalo plays the NFC West this season, the NFL's developmental league. Plus, a late-season stretch of Chiefs-Niners-Dolphins will give the Bills momentum when they need it most. 2) The Defense. Stroud, McKelvin, the return of Posluszny and the emergence of second- and third-year players will make this a top 12 unit. 3) The offensive line. Assuming that Jason Peters eventually is given a new contract (as he deserves), the Bills' front five will anchor a strong running game and give Edwards time to make more plays downfield. This season could be a vital stepping-stone toward something much, much bigger. But for now, New England will keep the Bills safely in its shadow.