Despite playing the NFL's toughest schedule last season, the young Bills were competitive – they lost five games by three points or fewer. A strong finish and a 7-9 record raised hope that better days were ahead.
But we have seen this movie before. The Bills have lived a roller-coaster existence since 2002, with one season of promise followed by one of disappointment and despair. There is as much uncertainty about 2007 as there was heading into 2006.
There is young talent on the roster. Wide receiver Lee Evans is coming off a breakout season, quarterback J.P. Losman has made strides and strong safety Donte Whitner headed last season's strong rookie class.
But the Bills lost a huge part of their veteran core in the offseason. Cornerback Nate Clements and middle linebacker London Fletcher-Baker left as free agents, and the club traded running back Willis McGahee and strong-side linebacker Takeo Spikes.
Offense: Coordinator Steve Fairchild worked under Mike Martz in St. Louis and has the same love of the downfield passing game. The Bills use a number of multiple-receiver formations to make opponents defend the entire field. Fairchild is hopeful that better pass protection by the line this season will free the tight ends to attack the seams more often. He also will use rookie running back Marshawn Lynch's receiving ability. Fairchild is a big believer in running the ball to control the clock. He doesn't utilize the fullback much, choosing instead to go with two-tight end sets. This unit was woefully inconsistent last season and ranked 30th in total offense.
Defense: The Bills have a smallish front seven that relies on speed instead of size. That's fine as long as the four down linemen can occupy blockers enough so the linebackers can attack the line of scrimmage and disrupt the running game. Coordinator Perry Fewell played a lot of Cover 2 last season, with both safeties deep to prevent big plays. Look for more of the same because the team lacks a lockdown cornerback now that Clements is gone.
QB J.P. Losman: As his 10 completions of 40-plus yards last season attest, Losman can make every throw with his tremendously strong right arm. He is a marvelous athlete who avoids the pass rush, throws accurately on the move and scrambles for yardage. He has made marked improvement in his footwork and technique and is developing into a respected leader. Still, Losman is a work in progress. He needs to better recognize coverages and not lock on to one receiver. He rushes through his progressions at times and forces passes into coverage. He also must improve on short passes after completing 5-of-24 attempts last year on third-and-3 or less.
RB Marshawn Lynch: The Bills haven't ranked in the top half in rushing since 2002. That could change with the addition of Lynch, a home run hitter with size (5-foot-11, 215 pounds), speed and power. Lynch has good vision through the hole, he rarely goes down on first contact, and he is elusive in the open field. He is more versatile than McGahee because he can split outside as a receiver and is good in pass protection. Lynch will share carries with veteran Anthony Thomas, who was productive last year when he got significant playing time.
DT Larry Tripplett: Because the Bills lack size inside, they struggle to stop power runs. They hope a deeper rotation will remedy the problem. Tripplett was the best of the group last season; he is a prototype 3-technique tackle who uses good quickness and hands to shed blocks.
OLB Paul Posluszny: The linebacker corps is weaker without Fletcher-Baker and Spikes. The coaches hope Posluszny, a '07 second-round pick, will soften the blow. Posluszny is ideal for the Bills' scheme because he is quick, athletic and smart. He attacks the line of scrimmage as a run stuffer, and he has the range to make plays all over the field. Posluszny's coverage skills will be tested – the Bills require the middle 'backer to drop into the deep middle in their Cover 2. With Posluszny on board, Angelo Crowell, last year's weak-side backer, will replace Spikes on the strong side.
VINNIE IYER'S TAKE
Although Losman will take another step forward even without McGahee, the defense will take a few steps back without Clements, Spikes and Fletcher-Baker.
Prediction: 5-11 (third in the AFC East).
The Bills have failed to make the playoffs seven consecutive years, and it will be difficult for them to end that streak in 2007. If Losman continues to improve, Lynch is the real deal and the line gets better, the offense could be explosive. At the least, it will need to be more productive to take pressure off a defense that has gotten younger but not necessarily better.
The team has some building blocks for the future, but the young players need more time to mature. This looks like a team that will be no better than 8-8.
Allen Wilson covers the Bills for the Buffalo News and Sporting News.