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Pitoniak: Optimism & Questions Abound

Nick Barnett grinned ear-to-ear. His eyes became bigger than footballs.

"I don't see any way we don't make the playoffs," the Bills linebacker boasted. "The ingredients are all there."
 
I like that attitude. And it's good that it is shared by many of his teammates and famished Bills fans. But after being burned following torrid starts last season and in 2008, I'm going to take a wait-and-see attitude before I jump aboard Buffalo's playoff bandwagon.

It would seem, entering training camp, that the Bills indeed have a roster equipped to end their 12-year playoff famine. They certainly had a whale of an off-season, lassoing premium free agent defensive linemen Super Mario Williams and Mark Anderson, extending the contracts of productive veterans Stevie Johnson and Fred Jackson, and drafting two potential rookie starters in Stephon Gilmore and Cordy Glenn. Throw in the return to health of Jackson and Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kyle Williams, the addition of quarterback guru David Lee to work with Ryan Fitzpatrick and the naming of Dave Wannstedt as defensive coordinator and you have plenty of reasons to Bill-lieve.

That said, questions remain. Here are some of them I'd like to see answered during the next month at St. John Fisher College:

Who will replace departed free agent Demetrius Bell at left tackle?
The job is Glenn's to lose heading into camp. The Bills are high on the massive (6-foot-5, 343-pound), second-round pick out of Georgia, but some NFL scouts wonder if Glenn is a true left tackle. He is expected to start, but don't be surprised if there are some growing pains and if Chris Hairston, who started seven games at the position last season, splits time with him early on.

How will Chan Gailey utilize running backs Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller?
Having two explosive backs is a nice problem - not to mention part of a winning formula in today's NFL, where featured backs are becoming a thing of the past. Jackson, who was having an MVP season (934 yards rushing; 443 receiving) before breaking his leg in game 10, still is the number one guy, as he should be. But his workload is expected to be somewhat diminished so that Spiller can receive more touches. The ninth overall pick from two years ago finally showed the burst he displayed at Clemson after Jackson went down, rushing for 446 yards, and scoring five touchdowns in the Bill final six games. Don't be surprised if the creative Gailey has both backs on the field at times.

Will Fitz become more accurate with his throws?
There's reason to believe he will. Part of the reason for his second-half slump was injury. It's not easy breathing, let alone throwing a football with cracked ribs. But flawed mechanics also contributed to Fitz's swoon, and the addition of Lee as quarterbacks coach already appears to be paying dividends as Fitzpatrick seemed more on target during OTAs.

Who will emerge as the number 2 receiver behind Stevie?
Donald Jones is the top candidate, but his lead is paper-thin. Marcus Easley (if he can ever stay healthy) could push him for the job, as could David Clowney, Roosevelt Naaman and Derek Hagan. And look for rookie T.F. Graham, the rookie speedster out of North Carolina State, to get a long look. David Nelson has the slot position locked up, but it's important that a few of these other candidates emerge to stretch the field a bit.

Will the transition from a 3-4 to 4-3 defensive alignment go smoothly?
No reason why it shouldn't. With Super Mario and Anderson putting a pressure from the edges and Williams and second--year load Marcell Dareus clogging up the middle, the Bill should see a significant improvement in their pass rush, run-stops, and forced turnovers. The linebacking corps and secondary will be big beneficiaries because the Bills have enough talent up front to get the job done without blitzing. That's huge. Huge, too, is Wannstedt's play-calling and game-planning. He flamed out in his head coaching jobs, but he has always been one of the game's sharper defensive minds.

Can Super Mario handle the pressure of being the highest paid defensive player in NFL history?
I don't see why not. He may not necessarily put up eye-popping sack numbers, but he will make everybody around better by attracting double-teams and creating opportunities for others to make plays.

Are the Bills young cornerbacks up to the task?
With the rookie Gilmore and the second-year defensive back Aaron Williams as potential starters, there could be occasional problems. But both of them are superb, phsyical cover guys and they'll be aided by experienced safeties George Wilson and Jairus Byrd as well as the pass-rushing pressure brought to bear by Williams & Co.

Will Vince Young beat out Tyler Thigpen for the backup QB spot?
He better, or else his NFL career might be coming a premature end. He clearly is physically superior to Thigpen and, like Fitz, should benefit from working with Lee and Gailey. He knows his opportunities are running out, so motivation should not be a problem.

Can the Bills stay healthy?
Who knows? But they need to in order to have any chance to make good on Barnett's prediction. Season-ending injuries to center Eric Wood, Williams and Jackson were a major reason for the Bills late-season collapse that saw them lose eight of their last nine. Buffalo has been among the league leaders in players on injured reserve in recent years. That trend has to stop in order for the trend of losing seasons to come to a halt.
 
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