It took three years.
But finally the Buffalo Bills have turned the corner. Since losing the back end of its sumo-sized DT pairing of Ted Washington and Pat Williams – and their combined 680 pounds – the Bills run defense has been a sieve. Washington, Williams and Sam Adams made running backs claustrophobic on a week-to-week basis – consistently giving an inept Drew Bledsoe a chance.
But since Williams departed in 2004, Buffalo's defensive front has never been the same, getting manhandled by opposing offenses. The Bills have rarely been able to set the tempo in any games the past three seasons. In Williams' final two seasons with Buffalo, 2003 and 2004, the run defense ranked eighth and seventh. The last three years? 31st. 28th. 25th.
In 2008, this trend may be reversed. The Bills' front office committed itself to infusing bonafide talent at defensive tackle with heavy investments. Kyle Williams' three-year, $14.5 million contract extension last week was the latest chapter in an offseason's worth of splashes up front. Buffalo traded for Marcus Stroud, who is in the fourth year of his five-year, $31.5 million contract. They signed Pat Williams' backup in Minnesota – Spencer Johnson – to a five-year, $17.5 million deal and the Bills are still are holding out hope for '06 first-rounder John McCargo, who is in the third year of his five-year, $8.6 million contract.
Collectively, it's adding up to one massive risk. Buffalo could have pursued over endeavors this past spring. The Bills had the cap space to cherry pick in free agency and buy any toy they wanted. Tight end Alge Crumpler would have instant aging for first-year starter Trent Edwards. Linebacker Lance Briggs could have made Buffalo's good linebacker corps great. Bernard Berrian may have been the antibiotic Lee Evans needs to take flight as a top 5 receiver in the NFL and make Turk Schonert's downfield aspirations realistic.
Bank on the decision paying off.
When healthy, Stroud is quite possibly the most dominant run-stuffing force in the NFL. At 6-foot-6, Stroud smears the passing window for quarterbacks with windshield-wiper arms, and he has the quickness to penetrate into the backfield. The dogfight next to him should produce a formidable running mate for Stroud.
Williams has done the grunt work on Buffalo's defense the past two seasons at the nose tackle spot. While swallowing double-teams and charging fullbacks, Williams still made 94 tackles over the past two seasons. No easy feat. He may be a sixth-round steal simply waiting to blossom. In a typical 4-3 alignment in one-on-one situations, Williams could be a 70-tackle force.
Having Stroud next to him will surely open up clearer lanes. The 6-foot-1, 305-pound Williams will feel like a blind man that can see once again. Opportunities that never existed. Big plays that were formerly impossible to unravel. A whole new world. Just ask John Henderson. In Jacksonville, Stroud and Henderson thrived off each other's ability to attract multiple blockers. At the duo's peak in '03, the Jaguars run defense ranked second in the NFL.
That being said, McCargo and Johnson won't roll over. The former was probably taken too high. The latter was probably paid too much. But both have a mysterious aura about them. Injuries have thrown a kink into McCargo's development, but in his second season he did flash moments of brilliance i.e. 1.5 sacks on the elusive Donovan McNabb in Week 17. McCargo is the quickest of the DT bunch, which could be the yin to Stroud's yang.
Johnson is an unknown. With the Vikings, his fresh legs gave an already stacked defensive front another weapon. Unless he takes training camp by storm, Johnson will probably play the super-sub role with the Bills too.
The eye-sore replays of Larry Tripplett getting mauled and safeties making tackles 15 yards downfield should be drastically minimized in '08.
Enough's enough. That was the attitude in the front office. The Bills aggressively acquired two tackles and rewarded another with a hefty extension – action that should have been in motion earlier in the post-Washington/Williams/Adams era.
Maybe the Jason Peters situation is getting ugly behind closed doors and maybe the Lee Evans extension is dragging on much longer than expected, but the Bills effectively addressed their No. 1 offseason priority. A healthy rotation of Stroud, Williams, McCargo and Johnson will kick-start a promising defense into motion.