With the 2011 season in the rearview mirror, it's time for NFL.com's annual "Exit Interviews," a chance to review the ups and downs of each team's past season and spin it forward.
2011 in a Nutshell: Buffalo teased us all by jumping out to a fast start, only to get ransacked by injuries and a lack of depth en route to a 1-8 record down the stretch to finish at 6-10 overall. No blow was more devastating than the season-ending broken leg running back Fred Jackson sustained in December. He got hurt two games into the Bills' second-half swoon, and his absence all but killed any shot at rallying in the AFC East. The Bills ended up finishing last -- again.
What Went Right: Just like Jeremy Lin's currently doing with the Knicks, Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick showed this past season that athletes from Harvard can play pro ball. The problem, however, was Fitzpatrick looked ordinary at best when injuries sidetracked some of his pass-catchers and protectors. That raised questions as to whether Buffalo jumped the gun in signing Fitzpatrick to a seven-year contract extension that could total up to $62.195 million.
Fitzpatrick threw for nearly 4,000 yards and 24 touchdowns, but he also threw 23 interceptions -- not a good ratio. The Bills are married to him, though, and head coach Chan Gailey should be able to find ways to fix things for 2012. Upgrading the talent would be a great start.
Before getting hurt, Jackson was among the best running backs in the NFL, averaging 5.5 yards per carry and totaling 1,376 yards rushing and receiving. His backup, C.J. Spiller, finally showed some of the flash the Bills expected when they selected him in the first round in 2010. Spiller had 830 total yards and six touchdowns in 2011.
Rookie defensive tackle Marcell Dareus was as good as advertised. The Alabama product was a consistently disruptive force and managed a team-high 5.5 sacks from his interior spot. He's definitely someone the Bills can build their defense around. Veteran linebacker Nick Barnett was a solid free agent pickup that provided some nice leadership as well as 130 tackles.
What Went Not So Right: Buffalo's collapse over the second half of the season showed that while it's nice to win with blue-collar players, talent and depth are needed to survive in the NFL. Buffalo got crushed by injuries, but so did several other teams that seemed far better prepared to handle attrition.
The defense was incredibly gracious, allowing 27.1 points per game. A good scoring defense can allow teams to survive allowing a ton of yards, but the Bills couldn't keep opponents out of the end zone. It doesn't help when the offense hands over 30 turnovers to shorten the field and force the defense to take far more snaps than it should. The defense did have four pick-sixes, though. Impressive. The run defense was porous at times.
2012's notable free agents
Though Brad Smith was a decent free-agent signing, the passing game also went nowhere when opponents took Stevie Johnson out of the game. Johnson said he played some of the season with groin and hand injuries.
Offseason Crystal Ball: Johnson is a free agent and it will be interesting if Buffalo lets its top receiver go. He is a very nice player, but his brashness -- Gailey benched him for an excessive celebration after scoring a touchdown -- doesn't seem to jibe with Gailey's old-school approach. A rich receiver free-agent market could keep Johnson's financial appeal marginal enough to where returning to Buffalo could be his best move.
Gailey and defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt said they'll be shifting from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defensive front, so they'll acquire players to fit the scheme. Barnett likely will move to weak-side linebacker, where he should really flourish.
Team Needs and Draft: Although Shawne Merriman will be back, the Bills have to invest in pass rushers to compete in the division. Drafting one, possibly in the first round, seems like a must. In shifting to a 4-3, acquiring an anchor-type end in free-agency -- even if it's a rotational player -- is a need.
Whether they re-sign Johnson or not, the Bills have to add more talent and depth at receiver on the perimeter and at tight end. Re-signing left tackle Demetrius Bell also is a priority. He played well at left tackle -- a position of instability for years.