By Tim Graham
Not that long ago, maybe even less than a year, "backup" would have been a dirty word for Buffalo Bills defensive end Shawne Merriman.
But habitual injuries and the addition of two coveted pass-rushers this spring helped put Merriman's role in honest perspective.
Merriman was entrenched on Buffalo's second-team defense throughout minicamp and the voluntary workouts that were open to the media.
Big-ticket free agents Mario Williams and Mark Anderson have the right of way. That puts Merriman, who amassed 39.5 sacks in his first three NFL seasons, in the clichéd situation of "being ready when my name's called," perhaps not in a significant role until a starter gets hurt.
Merriman seems OK with that, yet not in a complacent way.
"It's not about accepting it," Merriman told me Thursday afternoon at One Bills Drive. "I'll never accept anything. My biggest thing is being ready and whenever my name is called to know mentally what I'm doing and physically being able to do it.
"It's a physical game, a violent game. Certain guys go down. Something can happen, and the next guy has to be ready. That's how I'm gauging it right now."
Bills coach Chan Gailey has been impressed with Merriman. Last week, Gailey said he was "excited" about Merriman's recovery from Achilles tendon surgery and called Merriman's mind-set "outstanding."
"What I think we're going to see is the old Shawne Merriman this year," Gailey said.
But Merriman won't be used in ways with which fans are familiar. The most obvious switch is that Merriman will play 4-3 defensive end after a career at 3-4 outside linebacker.
The other change is that Merriman won't be the star. "Lights Out" will be used in a rotation and in certain pass-rushing situations.
"One thing you've got to learn about this league is there's a bunch of talent," Merriman said. "Look at the Giants and the big rotation they got. Any one of those guys can start on any team in the National Football League. It's about what the coaches need you to do. Whatever that role is, I'll be ready for it."
Merriman is entering his third season with the Bills, but this is the first fully healthy offseason he has had here. The three-time Pro Bowler played five games last season before landing on injured reserve again.
Merriman, 28, claimed to be a much more nuanced player because he was forced to compensate for his physical limitations over the past three years.
"I'm not looking to go out and say 'I'm just OK with being OK,' " Merriman said. "Not only do I want to get back to where I was completely, but I'm a much smarter player, much more technical now, know a lot more about the game. When you don't have those physical [skills] to deal with over the last three years of being able to blow by a guy or great pass-rush ability, you start to learn more about the game.
"Now my body's ready to take that on again and along with the knowledge I've picked up over the last three years, it's going to be good."