Red-zone Royal could bust out
By Tyler Dunne
Someone entering their seventh season in the NFL shouldn't even be in this discussion.
At that point, the gavel's already been slammed. The verdict's out. No secrets. You'r, who you'r. The truth is out. Game over.
But maybe not here. Robert Royal was the resident scapegoat for all-things-gone-wrong with Buffalo's putrid red-zone offense and 30th ranked third-down last season. Not athletic. Can't get those feet down.
That was then. This is now, where Trent Edwards loves his tight ends. Poised, pocket-friendly quarterbacks tend to lean on tight ends between the hash marks. Royal, a fairly mobile target, has never had this luxury. Mark Brunell and J.P. Losman aren't the type to stick in the pocket that extra second for the tight-end dump-down.
Edwards is. He hooked up with Royal for a pair of scores against Miami last year, and another two touchdowns against Pittsburgh this preseason.
Derek Schouman, Derek Fine nor Courtney Anderson will overtake Royal, who appears to have shaken off his nagging knee problems from last year. He didn't practice through the spring, seemingly slipping out of touch with Turk Schonert's offense.
Now back, he's almost the perfect fit for the offense. For Schonert's downfield dreams to become reality, a consistent receiver must deliver on third downs. Both of Royal's touchdowns in Toronto came in such situations. He doesn't need to be Antonio Gates, but Royal is in an ideal role to bust out late in his career. For the first time he'll start for a quarterback that's just waiting to slam that "Easy" button and hit him on a seven-yard curl.
Forty catches and seven touchdowns aren't out of the question for Royal, who could buck the trend with a late-career breakthrough.
Whitner on the cusp
By Patrick Moran
Donte Whitner irrefutably has become the off-field leader of the Buffalo Bills. That's fine and dandy and all, but the problem is after two seasons he's been rather mundane on the field. I expect that to change going into year three of his career as he matures into one of the better safeties in the AFC.
Whitner has assumed the leadership role on a team badly in need of one. He's mentored young defensive backs Leodis McKelvin and Reggie Corner and helped nurture rookie James Hardy's transition into the NFL. He's also shown definitive confidence in his teammates, guaranteeing to the Sporting News that the Bills would make the post season in 2008.
Now it's time to take those leadership qualities that made him the eighth overall pick in 2006 and convert it onto the field. Whitner's had 105 and 89 tackles respectively in his first two years but with precious few game-changing plays. He has only two interceptions and one forced fumble in 30 career starts.
I anticipate those numbers escalating as the defense in front of him is improved. When Whitner's at his best, he's in the mode of a Bob Sanders. Going into this year he's accustomed enough with the NFL to have a bigger impact on game day. If the Bills are too make good on his playoff promise, by and large it will be because Whitner had his breakout season.
Ko Ready to Go
By Marc Heintzman
The Bills' secondary will look to dramatically improve this season when all of its starters return to the defensive backfield, hopefully all 100 percent healthy. One player who has struggled with staying healthy is third year free safety Ko Simpson, who will want to prove that he was worth the fourth-round pick the Bills used on him in 2006.
During his rookie campaign, Simpson paired up with Donte Whitner to form the only rookie safety tandem in the league and Bills fans were hoping they would become a dominant, ball-hawking duo. Instead, they combined for only three interceptions and made progress slowly. The progress did come, for Whitner last season, and for Simpson this season.
After sitting out nearly all of last season, Simpson will be looking forward to getting back on the field and to his pre-injury form. He is primed to have a great season, with a re-furbished Bills defense to aid in the endeavor. A solidified defensive line, and the return of several starters to the lineup will give Simpson and Whitner more, and better opportunities than they had in 2006. Whitner's experience alone will help Ko, who only has one solid season under his belt. Whitner is known to help out his teammates prepare and train to improve, and there's no doubt he gave his counterpart some help in getting back to form.
What is unique about Ko and Donte, is that they both can be interchangeable in the free safety and strong safety positions. There was talk last season about switching Whitner into the FS position and have Ko play SS. Both are very talented in coverage, and still have the ability to come up and help on run defense as well. They are two very athletic safeties who, with time, could become the unstoppable duo Bills fans hoped they would.
Although he has been quiet in the three preseason games so far, Simpson had a solid training camp and turned out some quality practices. In the second preseason game against Pittsburgh, Simpson tipped a pass, which was then intercepted by Whitner. Team trainers have been careful with Simpson because of an injury sustained in camp on the ankle that he injured last season.
Despite the small injury, Simpson was able to regain his presence on the field and fans should look for him to really breakthrough this season. He's got the improved talent around him, he's got a solid counterpart in Whitner, and, hopefully, he'll have his health. This should be a very productive year not only for Ko, but the entire young Bills defense.