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2012 training camp preview: Buffalo Bills

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Training camp goals

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Mario Williams (R4) runs a drill with Kyle Moore during a Bills offseason workout. (AP)

1. Iron out kinks in the 4-3 defense. Coach Chan Gailey has turned to old friend and coaching peer Dave Wannstedt to fix a broken defense. Wannstedt's first move was to commit to the 4-3 scheme he has run with great effectiveness in places like Dallas, Chicago and Miami. After allowing a team-record 5,938 yards, 434 points and giving up a 63.3 completion percentage to opposing quarterbacks, Buffalo's defensive unit has a lot of work to get done. Wannstedt's main goal will be to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The Bills had just 29 sacks and nine came in one game. The front office handed him free agents Mario Williams and Mark Anderson (88.5 combined career sacks) to get the job done with.

2. Come away healthy. The Bills welcome back seven starters who were lost last year with season-ending injuries and getting everyone back into the lineup is an absolute necessity if the team is going to take a step forward and snap its 12-year playoff drought. The players include running back Fred Jackson (leg), center Eric Wood (ACL), wide receiver Donald Jones (ankle), nose tackle Kyle Williams (foot), defensive end Shawn Merriman (Achilles), cornerback Terrence McGee (knee) and kicker Rian Lindell (shoulder). The progress of Wood and Williams will be watched closely. The young leaders anchor their respective lines and depth isn't good enough to replace them without a noticeable drop-off. Merriman, 28, is still hopeful as are the Bills that he can regain his All-Pro form from San Diego coming off even more surgery. How No. 1 wide receiver Stevie Johnson bounces back from offseason groin surgery also bears watching.

Player to watch

Defensive end Mario Williams. He was the top free agent on the market and he landed in Buffalo for a cool $100 million, most ever for a defensive player in NFL history. The Bills are betting heavily on Super Mario elevating their puny pass rush to elite status and make everybody around him better. That's a lot to ask of one player but it's a lot of money, too. Williams, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2006 draft, does indeed have the ability to make others around him better. Buffalo hasn't had that kind of impact player on defense since Bruce Smith. And it's not just the pass rush that needs help. Buffalo gave up 139.0 yards rushing per game and at one point allowed 400 total yards in five consecutive games. Welcome to Buffalo, Mario.

On the hot seat

Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. His game unraveled almost instantly after earning a fat contract extension last October as the Bills dropped eight of their last nine games and he led the NFL in interceptions with 23. The Bills signed veteran Vince Young to compete for the backup job with Tyler Thigpen. In reality, he's here to push Fitzpatrick. In an effort to help his starter, Gailey hired respected quarterback guru David Lee, who spent the offseason working on Fitzpatrick's mechanics. The goal is to elevate Fitzpatrick to a level of player deserving of elite money. But after two non-playoff years in his first two seasons in Buffalo, Gailey's under pressure, too, and he can't afford to wait forever for Fitzpatrick to develop the kind of consistency needed at the quarterback position. If Fitzpatrick falters, look for Young to replace him sooner than later.

Strategy and personnel

With Buffalo's receiving corps still settling itself out in terms of the depth chart, the return of undisputed No. 1 Stevie Johnson was a welcome sight for coaches during a three-day mandatory minicamp that concluded June 21. Johnson eased himself back into live work, but was sounding very confident after his offseason groin surgery to repair an ailment that bothered him much of last year.

"Still a lot of work to do. Mentally I feel [OK], everything else I think I am pretty good. My groin felt good. I still have to get over the mental aspect of it," Johnson said. "I feel like I am about high 90s. I cannot say 100 percent because I am not feeling all the way but I am feeling about 90 percent. I am good."

[Around the NFL: 2012 training camp schedules, fantasy advice and more]

Gaining confidence in cutting hard on his left leg is the next hurdle for Johnson. "Cutting in and coming to the right it felt like it was heavy. It is just a mental thing. I did not feel any sharp pain like I did all last year," he said.

Johnson still managed a team-leading 76 catches for 1,004 yards and seven touchdowns, earning himself a new five-year, $36.25 million contract as a free agent.

Medical watch

– CB Aaron Williams, who missed some OTA time with irritation on a knee, was able to participate fully in minicamp. He's expected to be fine for training camp in July.

– DE Spencer Johnson has been dealing with a knee issue but did return to action during minicamp.

– DT Kellen Heard missed a good portion of the offseason with a bad ankle. He hopes to be 100 percent by training camp.

Full Bills team report

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