Running back Marshawn Lynch's legal problems stemming from a hit-and-run incident in late May are behind him.
But with training camp set to begin July 25, his public image will need repairing. The NFL is reviewing his case for possible sanctions under its personal conduct policy.
Lynch pled guilty to a reduced traffic violation, paid a small fine and had his licensed suspended. The second-year pro was driving his luxury SUV when it struck Kimberly Shpeley in Buffalo's entertainment district.
I am sorry that Ms. Shpeley was struck and injured," Lynch said. "Please know that I was completely unaware that my car had made contact with anyone until after the investigation had begun. I would never knowingly leave the scene of an accident and did not do so in this instance."
Lynch could've been charged with leaving the scene of a personal injury accident -- a misdemeanor -- but accepted a plea deal that took a month to work out. The prolonged affair brought great embarrassment to the team, with the district attorney issuing subpoenas at one point to top club officials in order to get more answers.
"My greatest concerns and well wishes are of course for Ms. Shpeley," Lynch stated. "However, I also wish to apologize to my teammates, the entire Buffalo Bills organization and the Buffalo fans for this unfortunate accident."
Until entering his plea in court, Lynch declined to speak with reporters. How he handles the media and fans in training camp will go a long ways toward Lynch rebuilding his image.
Meanwhile, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, speaking to reporters at the Chautauqua Institution south of Buffalo recently, said the league was monitoring Lynch's case very closely.
"We would like to understand the facts, as everyone else would," Goodell said, "There have been a lot of discussions going on privately with law enforcement and Marshawn Lynch's people. I think from our standpoint we'll wait and see what the facts are and then we'll decide whether it's a violation or if it has any involvement with our personal conduct policy."
Working in Lynch's favor is that no drugs or alcohol were found in his SUV and he did not try to hide his vehicle at his home, lending credence to his claim that he didn't know he had struck anyone.
July 25 to Aug. 20 at St. John Fisher College in Rochester, N.Y. Players report July 24. First practice is 8:30 a.m. July 25. There are just two double-session days -- the first two days of camp. There are seven scheduled evening practices with 7 p.m. start times. As in past years, coach Dick Jauron has not scheduled any scrimmages against other teams.
--At some point, you've got to figure playing error-free football is going to pay off for the Bills, who have missed the playoffs eight consecutive seasons, longest such streak in the team's history. In coach Dick Jauron's first two seasons (consecutive 7-9 finishes), the Bills have established club records for fewest penalties and last year they tied for the fourth fewest turnovers in the NFL.
--Nothing is a lock in sports, but drafting a cornerback first, then a wide receiver, has put the odds in Buffalo's favor. The Bills top two picks were CB Leodis McKelvin of Troy and WR James Hardy of Indiana. Last season, 61 percent of the starting corners in the NFL were first-round picks compared to just 24 percent for receivers. The odds of finding a starting wide receiver in the second round were better (27.2 percent) according to a league-wide roster analysis by the Bills.
--OT Demetrius Bell, one of Buffalo's three seventh-round draft picks, has signed his rookie contract. Bell figures to be one of the more popular stories of training camp -- his biological father is former NBA legend Karl Malone and his half-sister is WNBA star Cheryl Ford. The 6-5, 304-pound Bell was a good basketball player in his own right and earned a scholarship to play that sport at Northwestern Louisiana State. After three seasons, he passed up his senior season of hoops to concentrate on football and improving his NFL prospects, playing in various all-star games and participating in the NFL combine. Somehow Bell found time to complete his studies, earning his undergraduate degree in May.
--Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters is lobbying for a new contract and isn't expected to be present for the start of camp. His absence hurts a unit that jelled in 2007. Buffalo started the same five offensive linemen for 15 consecutive games until Peters missed the season finale with a hamstring tear. Peters, Derrick Dockery, Melvin Fowler, Brad Butler and Langston Walker allowed 26 sacks, a team record for fewest in a season.
QUOTE TO NOTE
"I run good routes, I'm a really hard worker and I take a great amount of pride in all of my blocking. I think my blocking is kind of what's gotten me this far and got me through the combine. I feel really confident with my game, and with special teams, too." -- Rookie TE Derek Fine analyzing his game.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
It's never a bad idea to lock up young players to long-term deals in the salary-cap driven NFL. But the Bills' decision to give third-year defensive tackle Kyle Williams a three-year extension worth $14.5 million has given critics more fuel to wonder what the team's top brass is thinking.
The 6-foot, 295-pound Williams, a fifth-round pick in 2006, earned a full-time starting job last season and went all 16 games, recording 81 tackles and two sacks. But why raise his pay so significantly above the $445,000 base salary he was due in '08 when there's a good chance his role will be as a backup, not a starter this season?
Furthermore, former No. 1 pick John McCargo is poised to finally meet his potential and earn more playing time. It's not that Williams, who plays at a high tempo and with toughness, isn't valued. But every dime should count when a team is looking to play games in Canada to survive.
When it comes to Bills quarterbacks, it's difficult to judge what's more dramatic: Edwards' rise to starter as a third-round draft pick nobody paid much attention or Losman's fall to backup as a former first-round pick given numerous chances. Edwards enters camp No. 1 but it's a tenuous grip on the starting spot until he proves his durability and that he can succeed in new coordinator Turk Schonert's system. The offense won't be nearly as bland as Steve Fairchild's. Edwards, whose strengths are his decision-making and leadership, threw eight TDs last year in going 5-4 as a starter, but four of his scores came in one game against Miami. Still, his 1,630 passing yards were most by a third-round rookie QB in NFL history (Dan Fouts had 1,126 in 1973). As for Losman, he's set to play out the final year of his contract and with 31 career starts, he's good insurance, as long as he's not a disruptive force in the locker room.
Lynch, the team's 2007 first-round pick, was as good as advertised -- a poor man's LaDainian Tomlinson and a little bit more. The former Cal star ran for 1,115 yards, second most ever by a Bills rookie, topped only by Joe Cribbs' 1,185 yards in 1980. In Buffalo's new offense, he figures to be more of a factor in the passing game (he had just 18 catches). The big question? Can he rebound emotionally from the public relations fallout stemming from his hit-and-run case in late May? With Lynch as the designated workhorse, there's not a big need for a No. 2, but Jackson steps into the role vacated by Anthony Thomas. Last year, the Division III free agent from Coe College chipped in 490 all-purpose yards, including 115 yards rushing against Miami. Meanwhile, a traditional blocking fullback has been reintroduced. Veteran free agent Barnes should emerge with the starting job.
Yet another offseason went by with Buffalo failing to seriously address its need for an elite pass-catching tight end. Royal looks to improve on his 25-catch, three-TD season but his main value remains as a top-notch blocker. The 6-6 Anderson has potential and Schouman is a versatile player. But this group won't scare many defensive coordinators.
Evans' production dropped from a career-best 82 catches to 55 last season but opponents shouldn't be fooled. The lightning-fast fifth-year pro is among the NFL's underrated stars who should benefit greatly from stability at quarterback and the addition of 6-6 rookie Hardy, who can draw some attention away. Evans' 233 catches is more than all-time Bills' receiver Andre Reed (229) had through four seasons. Hardy, meanwhile, gives Buffalo the ability to create matchup problems, especially in the red zone. He had 36 TDs in three seasons at Indiana. With Hardy on board, Reed, a steady if not flashy possession player with good run-after-the-catch ability, can return to the slot and the speedy Parrish will get opportunities in four-wide looks.
OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- LT Jason Peters, LG Derrick Dockery, C Melvin Fowler, RG Brad Butler, RT Langston Walker. Backups -- G Duke Preston, T Jason Whittle, T Kirk Chambers, T Matt Murphy, T Nevin McCaskill, T Demetrius Bell, OL Christian Gaddis, G Robert Felton, T Patrick Estes.
Line coach Jim McNally has retired but his final masterpiece returns intact. This is easily the best Bills' front wall since their Super Bowl teams of the early 1990s. The 6-4, 328-pound Peters is the unit's linchpin, earning his first Pro Bowl berth in 2007. Extremely athletic, he's able to neutralize the game's best speed rushers without help. The expensive additions of free agents Dockery and Walker paid dividends as Buffalo cut its sack total from 47 to a team-record low 26; Fowler had his best season at center since joining the Bills from Cleveland three years ago; and Butler, a fifth-round pick in 2006, emerged to end the revolving door at right guard. Whittle, a 10-year veteran who missed most of last year with a hamstring tear, was a key re-signing. He can back up all three inside positions.
DEFENSIVE LINE: Starters -- LE Chris Kelsay, RE Aaron Schobel, LT Marcus Stroud, RT Kyle Williams. Backups -- E Ryan Denney, E Bryan Copeland, E Corey Mace, E Chris Ellis, E Ryan Neill, E Shaun Nua, T John McCargo, T Spencer Johnson, T Jason Jefferson.
The Bills made moves to shore up their leaky run defense with the addition of Stroud and Johnson. Stroud, 6-6, 310, earned three Pro Bowl trips with Jacksonville but has battled ankle problems in recent years. If he's anything close to the player he once was, he'll be a huge improvement anchoring the middle of Buffalo's 4-3, which was undersized with the departed Larry Tripplett. Williams and McCargo are two rising young players, with McCargo, a former No. 1 pick, vying for more playing time this year. If Buffalo's interior holds up, it stands to reason its ends will fair better in the pass rush department. Pro Bowler Aaron Schobel and Chris Kelsay combined for a disappointing 9.0 sacks last year and Denney, a key reserve, had two ankle surgeries. Rookie third-round pick Ellis (22 sacks for Virginia Tech) should contribute.
This unit should be vastly improved with the addition of veteran playmaker Mitchell from the Super Bowl champion Giants and the return to health of Posluszny from a broken arm. They join the active Crowell, who tied for fourth in the AFC in tackles last season with 126. At 6-1, 253 pounds, Mitchell brings much needed quickness, size and toughness on the outside. Posluszny was the leading tackler in Penn State history who had his rookie NFL season cut short after three games. He should excel if Stroud plays well in front of him. Ellison and DiGiorgio are two overachieving athletes who earned valuable playing time the past two years as emergency replacements.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters -- LCB Terrence McGee, RCB Leodis McKelvin, FS Ko Simpson, SS Donte Whitner. Backups -- CB Jabari Greer, CB Will James, CB Ashton Youboty, CB Kennard Cox, DB Reggie Corner, DB Dustin Fox, S George Wilson, S Bryan Scott, S John Wendling, DB Jon Corto.
The Bills had no choice but to use the 11th overall pick in the draft on McKelvin, the best cornerback available. After losing veteran Nate Clements in free agency, Buffalo allowed an average of 238.4 passing yards per game, most in club history. McKelvin restores some of that speed and size to neutralize the opponents' top receiver, but he'll need time to learn the pro game. Manning the other corner is six-year vet McGee. He rebounded nicely from an off year in '07 with 86 tackles, four interceptions and 23 pass breakups last season. The safeties are 2006 draft gems Donte Whitner and Ko Simpson. The hard-hitting Whitner is on the cusp of a Pro Bowl and Simpson looks to rebound from a broken ankle. Greer, who contributed two picks and 17 pass breakups in 13 emergency starts, will challenge for a starting job but in the least will man the nickel spot with free agent William James also in the mix.
SPECIAL TEAMS: P Brian Moorman, PK Rian Lindell, PR Roscoe Parrish, KR Terrence McGee.
The Bills have ranked among the best special teams units in the NFL the past four seasons under coach Bobby April and this year won't be any different. In fact, the team's return games could be even stronger with McKelvin in the mix. Lindell (84.17 percent) is Buffalo's all-time most accurate kicker, Moorman (43.07) the all-time punting average leader and McGee (5,358) the all-time kickoff return leader. Parrish (16.3 yards), meanwhile, led the NFL in punt return average and Wendling led the team in coverage tackles with 24.