By Tim Graham
Welcome to the first Press Coverage installment of "Speed Dial," a recurring post I introduced at my old ESPN.com blog.
I call up three folks from my Rolodex and get their opinions on a particular topic that's on my mind.
Today's question: Where does the Buffalo Bills' revamped defensive line rank league-wide?
Keith Sims, three-time Pro Bowl guard for the Miami Dolphins in the 1990s:
"I definitely would agree that on paper its top five. I would put them in the conversation with the New York Giants, Baltimore Ravens, Pittsburgh Steelers and San Francisco 49ers in what they bring to the table. It's going to be a scary proposition to have those monsters at defensive tackle, and Mario Williams is a one-man wrecking show. As a former offensive lineman, that would keep me awake at night having to face the Bills twice a year.
"You look at the formula that a lot of teams try to follow is what Giants have done. If you can put together a menacing defensive line and get consistent pressure from your front four on a quarterback in such a passing league, it puts you in every game. The Giants went 9-7 and got to the Super Bowl, where they played a great offensive team. But that defensive line was able to put constant pressure on Tom Brady. When you can do that, you'll be on the right side of wins more times than not.
"Shawne Merriman is the candle on top of the cake. If you can get anything out of him, I see him as similar to the role Jason Taylor had with the Dolphins and Jets the last couple years. You don't need him to play every down, but if you can get him to seven, eight, nine sacks in a situational role and he come in to spell the starters, that's a tremendous help.
"When I played against the Bills, the one uncovered guy on our line, his No.1 priority was to help on Bruce Smith. When you're looking at that line you're facing on Buffalo now, who are you going to help with? And then, if Shawne Merriman can recapture half of what he was, that's unbelievable.
"I think they're going to be scary. I don't think they'll catch New England, but I think Buffalo could be a playoff team this year."
Seth Payne, Olean resident (for now) and 10-year defensive lineman for the Jacksonville Jaguars and Houston Texans:
"I don't think it's a reach that they may end up being in the top five. They've got some great individual players, but they've never all played together. The big question is whether the whole is greater or equal to the sum of all the parts.
"I just reviewed Mario Williams' game against the Dolphins last year, and he had just about as textbook of a hump move as you'll see. That was Reggie White's move. [Williams] used it on Jake Long, which a couple of Bills fans should be thankful about. Mario was poised probably to have his best season ever last year before he got hurt. I thought those few games before he got injured he was improving every game. He's such a big guy that when he can get a couple steps in space he's tough to stop. It's just a matter of physics. When you get a body that big moving that fast it's tough to redirect him.
"They got a nice, complete package of guys that can rush the passer and get off the ball quickly. It's a great group of starters. The one thing I'm interested in watching as the season progresses is Stephon Gilmore because it's not fair to expect him to be a shutdown corner in the league right away, but he's certainly shown the ability to be that. If Stephon Gilmore develops, then it'll get to the point he's helping that front line out and that will get them even more pressure as he's able to handle one-on-one coverage more. It has the makings of a really exciting unit."
Damien Woody, former New England Patriots, Detroit Lions and New York Jets offensive lineman:
"I'm really, really high on Bufalo's D-line. That's one of the main reasons I think they'll make the playoffs. They're going to cause havoc. Their Achilles heel has been the defense. But the problem was they couldn't generate pressure on the quarterback. Now they can generate pressure just from their front four. You're going to have to double-team somebody, Mario Williams probably. But Kyle Williams is a stud. Mark Anderson had 10 sacks last year, and Marcell Dareus is only going to get better.
"That's a top five defensive line, no question. I would definitely put them in the same sentence as the New York Giants. Potentially, they can be better. The difference is at defensive tackle. I don't think the Giants have a defensive tackle as good as Kyle Williams. I played against that guy, and he was a problem every time. He's just now starting to get his due because he was in Buffalo. But I've known for years he was gooooood. You ask people around the league, and they know who Kyle Williams is.
"I'm picking the Bills to beat out the Jets for a playoff spot. The Bills are 'that team' this year. They're going to be a sexy pick. The key is Fred Jackson staying healthy and the offensive line staying healthy and having continuity. The Bills can be a scary team."