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Bills special teams ranked 11th

It was a good year for the Buffalo Bills' special teams in 2011. The Bills ranked 11th overall on special teams, according to the annual Dallas Morning News survey, which is considered the standard for bomb-squad units in the NFL. Given the fact the Bills put 17 players on injured reserve during the season, it's a particularly impressive ranking.

Highlighting the Bills' special teams efforts for the season was the kickoff coverage unit, which ranked No. 1 in the league, holding opponents to an average of 20.4 yards per return. The Bills scored once on returns, thanks to Leodis McKelvin's 80-yard punt return for a touchdown in the win against Denver. Buffalo had no giveaways on punt or kickoff returns. Coach Bruce DeHaven's units also had only 11 penalties on kicking plays, tied for the fourth fewest in the league. The ranking takes into account 22 categories of special teams production. Buffalo has ranked No. 1 in the league four times since the survey began in 1990. DeHaven's units were No. 1 in 1996. Former Bills aide Bobby April's units were No. 1 in 2004, 2005 and 2008.

The Bills ranked fourth in punt return average and 23rd in kickoff return average. Buffalo got to return only 37 kickoffs, tied for sixth fewest in the league. Punter Brian Moorman ranked fourth in gross average. The Bills were 22nd in net punting average. The Bills allowed one blocked punt, at Miami. The Bills blocked three kicks themselves, two field goals and an extra point. The Bills probably would have been in the top 10 in the ranking if place-kicker Rian Lindell hadn't gone down for the year with a shoulder injury while making a tackle on a kickoff in the eighth game of the year. Replacement Dave Rayner was 10 of 15 on field-goal tries (66.7 percent), and the Bills ranked only 31st on field-goal accuracy percentage.

The San Francisco 49ers won the season title for special teams. Niners special teams coach Brad Seely has had the top ranked unit with three different teams, including Cleveland in 2009 and Indianapolis in 1992. The Niners were No. 1 in kickoff returns, net punting and field goals made. Ironically, the Niners' season ended in the NFC title game on two muffed returns. Miami was second, Chicago third, Tennessee fourth and New England fifth. The bottom three were Carolina (32), Detroit (31) and Kansas City (30).

---Mark Gaughan

The 'other' QBs at combine

Stanford's Andrew Luck and Baylor's Robert Griffin III are likley to go 1-2 in the NFL Draft. Texas A&M's Ryan Tannehill may go in the first round, too, if he has a good workout season Luck and Griffin did not throw at the NFL Scouting Combine. Neither did Tannehill due to the fact he's recovering from a broken foot. The big two are overshadowing all the other QBs in the draft. Michigan State's Kirk Cousins and Arizona State's Brock Osweiler (who did not throw at the combine) could be second-to-fourth rounders. Oklahoma State's Brandon Weeden, age 28, could be a third or fourth rounder, as could Arizona's Nick Foles.

Here's a wrapup of how the quarterbacks threw at the combine drills on Sunday. It's from former NFL QB Jim Miller, an analyst for Sirius XM NFL Radio.

Said Miller: "I thought Kirk Cousins had the best morning. I am familiar with him, and full disclosure: I called Michigan State radio. He comes from a pro-sytle offense. Mechanically he threw the best out there. I thought the second-best passer of the football was Jacory Harris, from The U. I thought he was very impressive. Just looking at the overall measureables, they look the part. They have the big arm. They can make all the throws. They look good in the 3-, 5- and 7-step drops when some other guys struggled. I thought Aaron Corp from Richmond has really quick feet. But he didn’t get depth on his drop. The arm strength isn’t there. No the prototypical size. Guys like Case Keenum, Kellen Moore, even Russell Wilson, these guys are not physically quite what you’re looking for, so you have to factor that all in. Brandon Weeden from Oklahoma State looks the part. Big. Strong. Physical. Strong arm. Teams will have to decide on his age. But as far as today, he looked good. He looks the part."

Here was the pool report on Weeden from Jeff Legwold of the Denver Post: Looked fairly comfortable with his footwork in his drops as he went through the three-, five- and seven-step combinations.
Consistently planted back foot, got front foot pointed to target. Squared his shoulders and kept a consistent release point. He said coming into the combine that he had "spent a ton – a ton – of time" on those after spending his career at Oklahoma State in the shotgun. Was for more comfortable throwing to his left Sunday, keeping the ball in frame for most of the routes with breaks at seven, 12 and 15 yards. When he did miss he was slightly behind the receiver in those sets. Looking right he wasn’t quite as accurate, missing high when he didn’t connect. Like most of the quarterbacks who threw in the session, struggled some with the slant-and-go to close things out, connecting on 1-of-4.

Here was the pool report on Foles from's Mike Sando: Foles struggled with his throws, particularly on post-corner routes. Coaches appeared to advise him on his deep-ball trajectory after Foles overthrew Arizona teammate Juron Criner on an early deep pass. Foles put too much air under subsequent deep passes. He did not hit receivers in stride on those balls. Foles did elicit a "good throw" commendation from one coach after connecting with Michigan's Kenneth Hemingway on a 10-yard out route. North Carolina State's Trevor Graham dropped pass from Foles on a short comeback."

Harris entered the combine viewed as a late-round or free-agent prospect. Boise State's Moore holds the all-time college victory record for a starting quarterback, at 50-3. But he's on the small side, at 6-foot and 197 pounds and does not have a big arm.

---Mark Gaughan






Billick on Manning & Miami

INDIANAPOLIS -- There has been a lot of speculation about landing spots for Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning, and that includes concern among Bills fans about whether he could wind up with the Miami Dolphins.

NFL Network analyst Brian Billick, the former Ravens head coach, thinks it would not be simple for the Dolphins to committ to Manning, given the fact they are starting fresh with new coach Joe Philbin. Philbin worked with Green Bay backup Matt Flynn, and there is plenty of speculation as well that Miami will pursue Flynn in free agency. Here's Billick assessing the pros and cons of a Manning move to Miami.

Said Billick: "For coach Philbin, obviously, he’s coming in with a very specific mindset in terms of the offense he’s going to want to run. You know when you bring in Peyton Manning, it’s 'OK, Peyton bring me your playbook because that’s what we’re going to put in.' Why would you not put Peyton Manning in an environment that he's most comfortable? So you’re going to wrap your entire offense around what he wants to do. And then for whatever time you’ve rented him – whether it's two years or three years, hopefully very productive – you then have to go back and start over. Because believe me, what Peyton Manning does is unique to Peyton Manning. I’m not talking about what he does on the field. If anybody’s watched Peyton Manning practice, he runs that entire practice. He’ll be in the offensive line drills, telling Jeff Saturday and the line coach. Now if you make that call, then I’m going to do this. No I’m going to verbalize it that way. He’s in the running backs drills saying, no you’ve got to take this approach. No, be sitting down here. Once I’ve gone into my check over here, I'm going to come back there. So you’ve got to buy into that hook line and sinker. And if he’s physically OK, great, you’ve got a great upside. But it would be hard for me to imagine for coach Philbin, who has a very specific idea of what he wants to begin with and how he wants to progress in his offense, to kind of put that on the back burner. Can’t say it won’t happen and obviously you do what your players do best. It would be interesting to hear what those conversations are like."

So you think there would be some downside because it’s whose team at that point, Philbin’s or Manning’s?

"Exactly right. And there’s nothing wrong with that, believe me. Who makes more? OK. At the end of the day that’s whos in charge. And when you bring in a Peyton Manning, why would you bring him in and not do what he does best? That’s what a good coach will do. But that has to be an organizational decision. It’s not just Miami. It's all the other teams considering him. That has to be part of the process. And where Miami is particularly with a new head coach, yeah, there’s a huge upside, but there’s got to be a part of you that says you’re anxious to get on with what it is you want to do and the structure you want to put together."

Continued Billick: "First off, when you bring him in, if it doesn't work, it’s not Peyton’s fault. There’s going to be somebody’s butt in somebody’s brief case at the end of the day, and it’s not going to be Peyton’s, OK? Because that guy’s got a Super Bowl, he’s walking into the Hall of Fame. So yeah, there is a little bit of pressure that it's not going to be Peyton’s fault if it doesn’t work. So how do I orchestrate that? But still you’re talking about one of the great players of all time. So let’s just say; it’s silly to say, but let’s put the physical aspects aside. Let’s say he is OK. Keep in mind when Joe Montana -- that seems to be the bell cow now when we go to for the analogy -- he took his own coordinator (from San Francisco to Kansas City). He ran what he ran in San Francisco in Kansas City and it was successful. A litltle different. And I give (ex-Chiefs coach) Marty Schottenheimer a great deal of credit. That wasn’t Martyball now. OK? That was Joe Montana’s offense and they had some success. Ultimately it wasn’t the ultimate success, but they made the playoffs. They did a nice job. But then they had to transition. And then what did they transition to when you look at Marty’s progression in Kanssas City? What happened after Joe Montana left? It set back the progression that I imagine Marty – and you’d have to ask Marty – but I can’t imagine that wasn’t a bit of a detour as to what Marty wanted to put together. And then ultimately he ended up leaving Kansas City. So I think there are some analogies to draw from there."

---Mark Gaughan

Mularkey on 2nd shot

INDIANAPOLIS -- New Jacksonville Jaguars coach Mike Mularkey talked at the NFL Scouting Combine about how his second shot as a head coach is different from his first, which came in Buffalo in 2004 and 2005. Mularkey is the last Bills head coach to have a winning record (9-7 in '04).

"There’s some things that I did that were right and that worked, and there were some things that I probably started even in the interview process that I probably did a better job of this time," Mularkey said. "Some of the things that needed to get done. It was really a great process with Gene [Smith, GM] and Shad [Khan, owner], actually, in the discussion because a lot of things that occurred in Buffalo came
up and they appreciated my honesty with it. I think any job you’re at, whatever it is, position or coordinator or head coaching job, you’re always going to find things you could have done better based on what you’ve done or based on what you’ve seen others do, right or wrong. I’m not going to get into specifics, but it’s been much more of an easy transition going into this one in Jacksonville.”

“I’m more familiar with the whole process," Mularkey said. "The hiring process. I think the staff that I’ve been able to put together, I’m very happy with the staff."

Mularkey inherited some of Gregg Williams' staff when he took over in Buffalo, and it didn't work out well. In Jacksonville, he decided to retain defensive coordinator Mel Tucker, linebackers coach Mark Duffner and offensive line coach Andy Heck.

"You really want guys that want to be there," Mularkey said. "I made that a point when I interviewed these guys. Some of them, including Mel Tucker, Mark Duffner, Andy Heck, previous guys that were on the staff that had opportunities to go other places and maybe even advance in their position. I asked them to go. I thought, first of all, this is very rewarding that you’re being recognized and wanted so much around the league by multiple teams that I think you should go. I’m not going to drive you to the interview. But I want you to go because I know if you are committed to coming back here then I know you are here as a Jaguar and there will be no what ifs. … I really have a good feeling about these guys.”

---Mark Gaughan

DE Curry proves NCAA wrong

INDIANAPOLIS - Marshall defensive end Vinny Curry is a player the Buffalo Bills could target in the second round of the NFL Draft.

Curry, 6-foot-3 and 266 pounds, had 23 sacks the past two seasons – 11 as a senior and 12 as a junior. He also was pretty good against the run. He was the NFL active leader this year in tackles for loss, with 48.

The fact Curry is not quite elite from a size, speed and athleticism standpoint is why he’s not regarded as a first-round player. The Bills like Curry, who did pretty well at the Senior Bowl. Bills blocking tight end Lee Smith played with Curry at Marshall.

Curry had to sit out his first year at Marshall in 2007 because he was ruled academically ineligible. Curry arguably got a raw deal from the NCAA, but he’s not bitter about it.

“Coming out of high school I was a non-qualifier, so I went to Cincinnati, Ohio, Harmony Prep, for a semester and a half, played the whole football season there,” Curry said. “I took some ACT classes and it helped prepare me. The first time I took the ACT, I scored a 21. The NCAA said that was too high on the first try, comparing the test to the SAT. So when I got to Marshall I still got red-flagged and was a Prop 48 there.”

The national average for the ACT test is 21. Curry had scored low on his SAT the year before.

“They said some things just didn’t add up,” Curry said. “I got letters of recommendation from counselors, city councils, the high school; still no good.”

What did that teach him?

“The dream’s not over,” Curry said. “It taught me a lot of discipline. I disciplined myself to prove to the NCAA that I could be a college student on a high level. I’m graduated this past December. So everything just worked out for the best. That right there just taught me an honorable lesson that school is very, very important. And from that day on I was determined to get my degree. A lot of you guys know I could have come out last year as a junior. But I wanted to get that degree just in case anything happened, my Plan B.”

Curry majored in general studies, and he had two minors - criminal justice and sociology.

---Mark Gaughan

Bills, Stevie make progress

INDIANAPOLIS -- The Buffalo Bills made some progress today with the agent for receiver Stevie Johnson in their effort to reach an agreement on a new contract.

"We had a very productive meeting," said Johnson's representative, C.J. LaBoy. "I'm very optimistic. I'm looking forward to continue talking."

Johnson, who posted his second straight 1,000-yard receiving season in 2011, is due to hit the free-agent market on March 13. The BIlls have been in negotiations for months in an effort to keep him in the fold. LaBoy met with Jim Overdorf, Bills senior vice president of football administration, during the NFL Scouting Combine, which is being held at Lucas Oil Stadium.

---Mark Gaughan

Audio: Bills GM Nix at NFL Combine

INDIANAPOLIS -- Here are a few brief audio clips from Bills General Manager Buddy Nix.

--Mark Gaughan

On positions of strength in the draft:

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On the receiver position:

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Attitude toward free agency this offseason:

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Nix: Don't force a need in draft

INDIANAPOLIS -- Bills General Manager Buddy Nix stressed he will stick to his draft board and not reach to address a need in the 2012 NFL Draft.

"We need pass rushers, a guy who can set the edge as a defensive end," Nix said. "I want to make this clear – we can’t reach for a defensive end because we need him. ... We'll absolutely stick with the board.

Nix has demonstrated that philosophy the past two years. Running back C.J. Spiller was a need pick but not a giant need in the 2010 draft. Cornerback Aaron Williams, taken 34th last year, did not fill a desperate need.

"No matter what position," Nix said, stressing his desire to take the best player. "The one thing we’ve been missing is playmakers. A guy that can make the difference in the game. We’ve got good players. We don’t have many of those guys."

---Mark Gaughan

Bills have budget target on Stevie

INDIANAPOLIS -- It seems obvious the Buffalo Bills have a clear salary figure for receiver Stevie Johnson that they intend to hold firm on.

Bills General Manager Buddy Nix today reiterated his desire to retain Johnson. But he also said he does not expect a major breakthrough when the team meets with Johnson's agent later today.

“We’ll try to get the gap a little closer and keep working on it," Nix said. "I doubt very seriously we’ll see a change much after today’s meeting. ... We’re meeting with his agent but we’re doing the same thing with 20 some agents, as we always do."

Just how close the Bills will be willing to get to an $8 million a year figure for Johnson remains to be seen. That's the figure that would equal last year's "roughly comparable" free-agent signee, Sidney Rice of Seattle. Obviously the BIlls have not been willing to get there so far.

Nix also talked about longer-term negotiating implications. Among the Bills entering the final years of their contracts are guard Andy Levitre and safety Jairus Byrd. Center Eric Wood is up in 2013.

"The thing the fans don’t understand is I’ve got to decide what’s it going to do to us if we pay this much. If we overpay this guy, does it mean now we can’t sign Eric Wood, or whoever," Nix said. "That’s the hard part."

Nix would not rule out using the franchise tag. "It’s always an option. It’s not something you’d like to do but it is an option," he said.

However, a franchise tag, which would guarantee Johnson about $9.5 million in 2012, still is not expected to be used by the Bills.

---Mark Gaughan


Nix: We'll be aggressive

INDIANAPOLIS -- Buffalo Bills General Manager Buddy Nix stressed today the team needs to fill a few holes in free agency.

“I’ve said since Day One and it’s a philosophy that I think is one that works, that you build through the draft," Nix said after attending the weigh-ins of players at Lucas Oil Stadium this morning. "But you also gotta be alert if you’ve got a couple of holes you think you need to fill. And if they’re available in free agency, I think you go get ‘em. That’s going to be our approach. We’ll be aggressive."

How aggressive? Nix did not get more specific. But don't jump to the conclusion aggressive means the Bills will drop $100 million on Houston free-agent defensive end Mario Williams, the top potential free agent in the market. Nothing in the Bills' 52-year history suggests that's happening. My read is the Bills will have a couple of specific players targeted at a good but not giant cost who they will try to sign quickly.

"We need to take a big step," Nix said. "It was very disappointing to have a seven-game losing streak. You’ve got to stop that skid somewhere. There were a lot of reasons for it but none of ‘em are good. They’re not excuses, they’re reasons. But you’ve got to get better than that. You’ve got to be competitive toward the end."

"I think if we can fill a couple of spots in free agency and then have another good draft, get our injured guys back," Nix said. "Now that’s a lot of ifs, but really  those things should happen. All of our (injured) guys are on schedule or even ahead of schedule as far as rehab goes."

"We’ve got to have a good draft. I think the key is can we plug a hole or two in free agency. And I’ll add this: We need to keep our own, too. We need to do that. We can’t do that at the expense of costing us in other areas, but we’ve got to make every attempt to keep ‘em."

---Mark Gaughan


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