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Roster depth translates to stronger special teams

By Tim Graham

The Buffalo Bills have depth up and down their roster like they haven't had in many years -- certainly since Chan Gailey became head coach.

While chatting with Gailey last week in the Bills' field house, his eyes bulged when I asked him to consider the team's position-for-position depth this summer compared to when he arrived two years ago.

The player who wins a starting job will have earned it at every position. Not that long ago, the Bills were forced to use some players because they had nobody else.

Where this increased depth should make a serious impact is on special teams.

It's not sexy to talk about special teams, especially when there are attention-grabbers like Mario Williams, Mark Anderson and Vince Young to discuss. Folks wonder about the No. 2 receiver or the starting cornerbacks -- not the punt protector or the gunners.

But general roster depth always improves special-teams play, and the Bills won't mind it.

Under assistant head coach and special teams coordinator Bobby April, the Bills always had some specialists who couldn't play a regular down if they had to. There aren't any John Wendlings, Justin Jenkinses, Josh Stamers or Jon Cortos on the roster anymore.

The absence of those kinds of players certainly was noticed right after April departed because the Bills still were building up their depth, and that takes time.

A fuller roster means special teams coordinator Bruce DeHaven, brought back when the Bills fired April in 2010, will have more talent to stock his units. They might not be as specialized as Wendling, but they'll have better football pedigrees.

On the opening kickoff last season, eight of the 11 Bills on the field were making their NFL debuts. Rookie linebacker Chris White caused a fumble. Rookie linebacker Kelvin Sheppard recovered it. Five plays later, the Bills scored their first touchdown en route to a 41-7 victory.

The Bills' top special-teams tacklers last year -- fullback Corey McIntyre, linebacker Arthur Moats, receiver Ruvell Martin and Sheppard -- all contributed on regular downs.

Middle-round picks such as safety Da'Norris Searcy, linebacker Nigel Bradham and cornerback Ron Brooks are expected to be important special-teams performers in 2012.

The Bills had the stingiest kickoff coverage unit last year at 20.4 yards a return, but their touchback percentage was third-worst in the NFL at 24.1 percent. So they drafted Western Michigan kickoff specialist John Potter and will need to decide whether they want to use a roster spot on him (totally counterintuitive to the premise of this article, I know).

The Bills ranked 23rd in kickoff returns because they took a while to discover Justin Rogers was darn good at it. Rogers' 28.7-yard average was fifth among anybody with at least nine attempts.

Brian Moorman's 47.6-yard gross punting average ranked fourth, but his net average of 38.1 yards was 22nd.

On punt returns, the Bills ranked third with a gaudy 12.7-yard average, inflated by Leodis McKelvin's 80-yard touchdown. But they had only 26 punt returns, fewest in the NFL. They tied for 10th with 21 fair catches.

Special teams often are an afterthought, but they're an important facet that should benefit from the Bills' competitive roster.

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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 |

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 |

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 |