Sorting Through Buffalo’s Crowded Defensive Line Situation

Can Danny Batten make it as a DE? (Mandatory Credit: Luc Leclerc-US PRESSWIRE)

After pulling off what I thought to be impossible (signing both star DE Mario Williams and very good pass rush specialist Mark Anderson), the Bills have improbably gone from having one of the weaker defensive lines in the NFL to perhaps one of the best.

It’s also one of the more crowded lines in the league.

The Bills have an incredible 17 players currently listed as defensive linemen on the updated roster. And this is before the draft! Obviously, the Bills will not be carrying 17 defensive linemen come September, so there’s going to be a fierce battle to make this team come training camp.

Bills GM Buddy Nix wouldn’t have it any other way:

“It just means they’ve got competition,” said Nix. ”That’s what we’re trying to do at every position. Chan’s philosophy and ours is put as many good players as we can at each position and let the best ones start and play.”

So how might it all shake out? Let’s take a (very early) look at the competition.

Guaranteed starters - Marcell Dareus, Kyle Williams, Mario Williams

No shocks there. These three will start barring injury.

Competing to start at RDE – Chris Kelsay, Mark Anderson

Yes, Kelsay-haters, your favorite player is going to still be on this team. Just deal with it. Anderson’s a very good pass rusher but is not terribly stout against the run. Despite Bills brass saying otherwise right now, they may keep him in the rotational role he was so effective in last season. If that happens, Kelsay will start.

The Versatility Guy – Spencer Johnson

If there’s a backup that’s probably safe, it’s Johnson. He’s pretty valuable in the 4-3, as he can play anywhere. He’s got the bulk to play tackle and is athletic enough to play end. I’d be shocked if he didn’t make the roster.

So with six guys pretty safely on the roster, that leaves a whopping 11 players battling it out for maybe three or at most four spots. Looking at them:

Young Backup Tackles – Kellen Heard, Torell Troup, Jarron Gilbert, Jay Ross

Heard and Troup both have a pretty good shot to make the roster. I like Heard. He’s huge and plays with a mean streak. He’s not an every down player by any stretch, but he has value on run downs. Troup really needs to make an impression in training camp this year if he wants to stick. The former second-round pick had a very pedestrian rookie year in 2010 and was then hurt all of last year. He has to show he can adjust and make plays in the 4-3. Gilbert and Ross are long shots. This whole group could be hurt by the fact that Spencer Johnson can play tackle, which could take a roster spot away.

3-4 OLBs Trying to Make it as Pass Rush Specialists – Shawne Merriman, Arthur Moats, Danny Batten, Robert Eddins

Here’s an interesting group. These are guys who are really left out in the wilderness with the Bills switching back to a 4-3 defense. I would have thought the Bills would have left a few of these guys at OLB, but all four are currently listed as DEs. The good news? The rest of the defensive line will be so good that there’s an opportunity to carve out a role as a speed rusher who beats single blockers while everyone else is double-teamed. It’s a role that (ugh) Aaron Maybin played to some success with the Jets last year. All four of these guys will get a shot at it, but there’s no way the Bills keep more than one or two of them. Honestly, this could be an ideal role for Merriman – playing 10 plays a game, all in pass situations, with just one goal: get the QB.

“Traditional” Backup DE – Kyle Moore

Poor Moore. Before the Bills signed M. Williams and Anderson he was a shoo-in for the roster and had a chance to start. Now? He’ll have to try to stick as a guy in the DE rotation. If he shows some ability to hold up against the run it will help his case tremendously.

The Wild Card- Alex Carrington

I have absolutely no idea where Carrington fits in all this. I don’t think the Bills are ready to give up on their 2010 third-round pick, who showed flashes of brilliance last season. But he’s a better fit for the 3-4. Currently the Bills have him listed as a DT, and it’s possible with his size and athleticism he becomes a valuable versatility guy like Spencer Johnson.

Probably Gone – Dwan Edwards, Lionel Dotson

These two are 3-4 DEs who really don’t fit a 4-3 really well. Edwards is almost certainly gone, and I would be surprised to see Dotson stick. Edwards never really lived up to the high hopes the team had for him, and he’s really doesn’t have a place right now.

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