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At 28, Shawne Merriman at peace with backup role

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."

Taxpayers might get a break in Bills lease deal

By Tim Graham

There's been a reasonable assumption taxpayers would carry the burden for improvements the Buffalo Bills want made to Ralph Wilson Stadium as part of their lease extension.

I've interviewed Erie County Executives Mark Poloncarz, predecessors Chris Collins and Joel Giambra and Bills CEO Russ Brandon for various stories on the stadium lease. Poloncarz and Collins told me the state would have to pick up all the renovation costs for any deal to work.

Nobody ever whispered the Bills and the NFL could pick up a chunk. The refrain was that the state would pay for the fixes, just like it did last time.

But maybe taxpayers will get some relief after all.

Buffalo News reporters Gene Warner and Denise Jewell Gee have a story in today's paper that says the Bills and the NFL could combine to pay for at least $50 million of a tab that could be somewhere between $200 million and $220 million.

The NFL offers what it calls a G-4 loan program for stadium construction and sizable renovation costs.

From the story:

Those close to the current lease negotiations among the Bills, Erie County and New York State say that the G-4 funding is considered key to helping pay for the renovations needed in any new lease agreement. The Bills' current stadium lease runs out July 31, 2013.

Here's how the program would work:

Let's say that state, county and Bills negotiators agree to $200 million in stadium improvements. Under the G-4 program, if the Bills agreed to pay $25 million of that total -- that's hypothetical -- the NFL could match that amount with another $25 million.

NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy told The News clubs must pay a minimum of $25 million before the league will match a G-4 loan.

So how about that? The public not fully funding a major sports team to play in a building only that major sports team can use.

Also in today's Buffalo News, beat reporter Mark Gaughan has a minicamp wrap story that focuses on the Bills' defensive line, the No. 2 receiver battle, the quarterback depth chart and other observations.

Video: Wrap-up report from Bills minicamp

Buffalo News reporters Tim Graham, Mark Gaughan and Jay Skurski recap Bills minicamp:

Defense finishes minicamp strong

By Mark Gaughan

There were not a lot of big offensive highlights on the final day of minicamp practices for the Buffalo Bills. The Bills' defense looked solid throughout the 13th and final on-field workout behind the Bills Fieldhouse.

The team now is off until the start of training camp on July 26.

Defensive end Mario Williams made life difficult for right tackle Chris Hairston, as he has throughout the spring workouts, and the defense did not give up many pass plays downfield in 11-on-11 or 7-on-7 work.

Bills back Fred Jackson had a good run on the second play of 11-on-11 work, with the offense deep in its own territory. Then Stevie Johnson caught an on-time short pass in front of Stephon Gilmore from Ryan Fitzpatrick for a first down. But Gilmore came back on the next play and broke up a hitch for Marcus Easley. Then pressure in the backfield forced an incompletion for C.J. Spiller.

Tyler Thigpen took second-team snaps at quarterback. Pressure from Shawne Merriman around rookie Zebrie Sanders helped foil a screen pass play. Gilmore had tight coverage downfield on Derek Hagan on an incompletion from Vince Young. Then Kyle Williams got in the backfield to blow up a play. Young did hit Donald Jones deep downfiled with a fine throw near the sideline.

When the starters on offense got their next chance, rookie NIgel Bradham broke through for a sack. Jackson had a good run wide left but then Leodis McKelvin had a breakup of a sideline throw for Jones. On the second-team offense's next chance, Bradham showed good containment on the edge to ruin a wide run by Tashard Choice. ... The Bills were rotating linebackers a lot throughout the workouts.

In situational two-minute work, Jackson had a big catch up the middle to put the offense in scoring position.

The defense generally got the better of 7-on-7 work, with Gilmore and Jairus Byrd playing tight coverage to force incompletions on back-to-back plays. Then Bryan Scott caught an interception on a pass that deflected off Spiller's hands. George Wilson later caught an easy pickoff on what looked like an offensive miscommunication, and then Byrd anticipated a throw over the middle for Johnson and broke up the pass.

Coach Chan Gailey on the physical style Gilmore showed this spring: "It is something that I think is very natural for him. Some guys have to learn how to feel a receiver. I think he has instincts in that regard of understanding what great receivers (do). Probably playing against great receivers in college has really helped that."

Vince Young still trying to catch up with offense

By Tim Graham

Buffalo Bills head coach Chan Gailey expressed satisfaction in how quarterback Vince Young has looked so far, but conceded Young is having trouble picking up nuances of the offense.

Since Gailey joined the Bills two seasons ago, he continually has added elements to the offense as quickly as starting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and his teammates have been able to absorb them.

Fitzpatrick, running backs Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller and receivers Stevie Johnson, David Nelson and Donald Jones all have been with the Bills since Gailey arrived.

Young is trying to catch up.

"He has done a very good job, considering the circumstances," Gailey said of Young's performances. The Bills wrapped up minicamp today and will be off until they report to St. John Fisher College for training camp in late July. "He had to come in and try to learn all of that stuff. It is very difficult.

"It would not have been as hard two years ago, but we are in so much more of an advanced stage now than we were two years ago. He is trying to learn what the base concepts are and how we have advanced to where we are today without the benefit of going through the baby steps."

Gailey admitted that gives Tyler Thigpen a bit of an edge in the backup quarterback battle. This is Thigpen's second season with the Bills. Gailey also was Thigpen's offensive coordinator with the Kansas City Chiefs.

Thigpen's edge, though, might not be enough to overcome Young's obvious strengths as an athlete.

"It has been tough on [Young], but he has got a natural feel for playing the position," Gailey said. "That is going to be another good battle in camp."

Despite hype, reasons to be wary about 2012 Bills

By Tim Graham

Expectations have soared for the Buffalo Bills. That makes sense for Western New Yorkers, but should the national media buy into the buzz?

Pro Football Weekly writer Kevin Fishbain examines how the Bills ought to be viewed in light of their remarkable offseason.

Fishbain writes:

"This isn't your normal 'everyone jump on the bandwagon and pick Team X to make the playoffs' like we saw last preseason with the Texans and Lions. There are reasons to believe that even though the Bills will be improved, the drought [of not making the playoffs] will continue."

Fishbain emphasizes widespread skepticism over quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, rookie tackle Cordy Glenn protecting Fitzpatrick's blind side, the absence of a clear-cut receiving target other than Stevie Johnson and a shoddy pass defense that will rely on unproven young talent in Stephon Gilmore and Aaron Williams.

Fishbain also reveals Pro Football Weekly has predicted in its 2012 preview magazine that the Bills will finish second to the New England Patriots in the AFC East. He also points out PFW's preview magazines have predicted the Bills would finish with a winning record only once since 1999.

Aaron Williams says knee healthy, as is trash talk

By Jay Skurski

One of the voices heard most often during the Bills' first two days of minicamp has been that of cornerback Aaron Williams.

The second-year pro from Texas isn't shy about expressing himself, after good plays or bad.

"The first year you want to listen more than you talk. When you get used to everybody’s personality and the chemistry of this team, the trash talk starts coming out," he said. "Especially in minicamp and training camp, too. It is all just competing, grinding each other and getting each other better. The trash talking is just trying to keep my confidence up. Even if it is a bad play I am not going to let you know that you had me on that one play. I am going to keep going."

Williams has been a full participant in the team's first two minicamp practices this week, saying the knee injury that held him out last week is "fine, no major injuries or anything."

That's a relief for the Bills, since Williams will be counted on heavily this year. He played in just nine games as a rookie.

"One thing I learned in the league is to make plays you have to stay on the field. Being in the training room and getting with the nutritionist or strength and conditioning coach helps a lot," he said.

Williams has also benefited from the spring practice schedule -- something he was robbed of last year because of the lockout.

"Last year I got thrown into the fire trying to learn the playbook as fast as possible before the first preseason game. Now I have had a chance to go to OTAs and minicamp. We had a great attendance at OTAs — pretty much everybody came. As long as I am with George (Wilson), he is one of the smartest guys I know that understands the game. He calls the plays out before they ever happen," Williams said. "As long as I am with him studying in the film room and the classroom, and with Jairus (Byrd) and the veterans I should be fine." 

Williams, Anderson sack battle could be fun

By Tim Graham

It sure seems like Buffalo Bills defensive ends Mario Williams and Mark Anderson thoroughly enjoy trying to outdo each other.

Anderson indicated their competitiveness should carry over to the regular season and the race to be Buffalo's sacks king.

"When it's all said and done, it's going to be a fun competition," Anderson said Wednesday afternoon. "We're both competitive guys. We're just going to feed off each other. The best man will shine at the end."

And it sounds like there will be plenty of trash talk between them along the way.

Williams on Tuesday called Anderson "a little dude" who weighs "only 210 pounds." Wilson also said they had an understanding that when Anderson signed with the Bills that he must finish second to Williams in the sacks department.

"We've talked about it," Williams said. "We've discussed. He knows he's going to be behind me no matter. It really doesn't matter. He knew that coming into this thing. ... He understands. He's fine with it."

Anderson rolled his eyes about that Wednesday afternoon. He claimed Williams was sore because he lost an argument over who had the better vertical jump at the 2006 NFL combine.

Anderson's 42-inch leap tied tight end Vernon Davis for the highest of any player at the combine, including wide receivers, running backs and defensive backs. Williams was second among defensive ends at 40.5 inches.

"He owes me some money," Anderson said. "We had a little side bet and he's just mad that I beat him. Now he's trying to blast me, trying to talk that I'm a little guy."

The badge of honor didn't translate for Anderson at the draft. The Chicago Bears took him in the fifth round. Williams was the first overall selection.

Williams and Anderson played much of the 2010 season together with the Houston Texans. Anderson signed with the New England Patriots last year and had 10 sacks. The dozen sacks he recorded as a rookie with the Bears are his career high.

The Bills' leader each of the past two seasons has notched a modest 5.5 sacks (Kyle Williams, Marcell Dareus).

Donald Jones: 'In my eyes I am the No. 2 receiver'

By Jay Skurski

Perhaps you've read the Buffalo Bills could use an upgrade at the No. 2 receiver position.

Donald Jones has, too.

And it hasn't sat well with the third-year pro.

"You start to see things like, 'They need to draft a receiver.' You see all of those things," Jones said after practice Tuesday. "As a man, as a competitor, I'm out to prove everybody wrong. It definitely fuels me."

It's easy to forget Jones won the No. 2 job last year opposite Stevie Johnson. He had a big impact in Buffalo's memorable Week Three win against New England, with a five-catch, 101-yard game.

That was the highlight of Jones' season, though. A left high ankle sprain, an injury he actually suffered twice, basically ruined his year. The Bills never could find a suitable replacement, trying C.J. Spiller, Brad Smith and Derek Hagan at times.

Jones is healthy now -- and determined to get his spot back.

"I feel like I have something to prove every season, but definitely this year," he said. "... In my eyes I am the No. 2 receiver. I'll conduct myself in that manner."

You can read more about Jones in Thursday's Buffalo News.

Video: Wednesday's report from Bills minicamp

Buffalo News reporters Tim Graham, Mark Gaughan and Jay Skurski discuss the Bills' backup quarterback situation and more from outside Ralph Wilson Stadium:

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About Press Coverage

Tim Graham

Tim Graham

Tim Graham returned to The Buffalo News in 2011 after covering the NFL for three years at ESPN and for one year at the Palm Beach Post. Before that, the Cleveland native spent seven seasons on the Buffalo Sabres beat for The News and was president of the Boxing Writers Association of America.

@ByTimGraham | [email protected]


Mark Gaughan

Mark Gaughan

Buffalo native Mark Gaughan started working at The News in 1980 and has been covering the Bills exclusively since 1992. He is a former president of the Pro Football Writers of America, and he is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee.

@gggaughan | [email protected]


Jay Skurski

Jay Skurski

Jay Skurski joined The News in January 2009. The Lewiston native attended St. Francis High School before graduating from the University of South Florida. He writes a weekly Fantasy column in addition to his beat writing duties.

@JaySkurski | [email protected]

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