|Don Heupel / Associated Press|
|Once a dominant force for the Chargers, Shawne Merriman has yet to appear in a game for the Bills.|
That's what scouts around the league are saying about linebacker Shawne Merriman after watching injuries rob the three-time Pro Bowler of the skills that once made him one of the most dominant pass rushers in the game.
Yet, the Buffalo Bills are not only willing to gamble that he will regain his all-star form, they are banking on him becoming the anchor of a rebuilt defense that will lead the franchise out of the doldrums in 2011.
Yes. In fact, the team is so committed to the idea of Merriman returning as a full force it signed him to a two-year, incentive-based deal that could average $9.25 million annually, with $2.5 million guaranteed in the first year of the deal.
That's a lot of coin for a player who has suited up for only 18 games over the past three seasons due to an assortment of knee, ankle and calf injuries. The nature of his injuries would concern many teams, but the Bills have extensive knowledge of Merriman's situation due to general manager Buddy Nix's previous stint as the assistant general manager for the San Diego Chargers.
Nix was part of the staff that drafted Merriman 12th overall in 2005, and the former Maryland star responded by posting 39 sacks over a three-year period. During that span, he was arguably the game's best pass rusher and opponents had little answers for dealing with his combination of strength, power and athleticism off the edge.
As the designated rusher in the Chargers' 3-4 base defense, Merriman was often isolated on offensive tackles, tight ends or running backs and had little difficulty overwhelming them with his sheer strength and power. His bull-rush maneuver was his go-to move, and it wasn't uncommon to see him run over opponents on the way to the quarterback.
He utilized his athleticism and strength to also become a dominant defender against the run. He routinely held the point without losing leverage, and also flashed the quickness to run ball carriers down from the backside. He complemented his natural skill set with a non-stop motor that fueled his desire to relentlessly chase runners all over the field. Those hustle plays often led to pivotal stops or game-changing turnovers.
Since the injuries have taken a toll, however, Merriman has not been the same dominant force off the edge. He has amassed only four sacks over the past three seasons, and he looks nothing like an impact player off the edge. He struggles winning against big men on the perimeter and he appears to have lost a step when he pursues. The burst and acceleration that often led to teeth-rattling collisions hasn't been there when he has played in recent years.
That's why it is such a huge risk for the Bills to pin their hopes on the return of the old Merriman. While he might get some of those skills back due to the extended rest and rehabilitation that he has undergone over the past year or so, it has been over three years since he has performed at an all-star level.
He also steps into a lineup that doesn't feature a complementary rusher capable of alleviating some of the pressure he might face if he shows some of the pass rushing prowess that once made him a feared defender.
The Buffalo Bills are desperate to rebuild their defense into a credible unit that allows them to compete with the heavyweights in their division, but pinning their hopes on a star with a flickering flame might not be enough to lead the charge back to respectability.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.