More familiarity. More competition. More talent.
Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator George Edwards feels a lot better about his defense today than he did a year ago, when he was installing a new defensive scheme to a new cast of players.
"I think it's been good," Edwards said about the offseason changes to his defensive cast. "We've got a lot of competition at each position, which is always good. They know they have to come out here every day to compete, which is a good situation for us. I think we've made progress in the short time we've been here, but we realize we've got a ways to go in preseason."
Edwards isn't making any bold statements about his defense, which is understandable considering it ranked 32nd in the NFL against the run last season.
But his recognition of improved competition for playing time already is easy to see after four training camp practices at St. John Fisher College.
On the defensive line, the addition of first-round pick Marcell Dareus gives the defensive coaches more flexibility. Dareus will line up at left defensive end in the 3-4 scheme, but will slide inside to defensive tackle in a four-man line and could take snaps at nose tackle if needed.
"There's no doubt about it, he has a lot of ability," Edwards said. "We're looking to get the most out of it. The big thing right now is to get it implemented with him. Calls, alignments, assignments, make sure he's up to speed. He seems to have a pretty good grasp of it thus far. But we have to see consistency."
Count on Dareus playing about 75 percent of the defensive snaps. The other starting end, Dwan Edwards, played 79 percent of the snaps the first half of last season (according to News figures) before going down with a season-ending quadriceps injury. The Bills would like to see Alex Carrington, last year's third-round pick, push for more snaps at end. He wound up playing 19 percent of the snaps last year, but most of those came after Edwards went down. Backup end Spencer Johnson played 44 percent of last year's snaps. Barring injuries, that's sure to go down this season.
At defensive tackle, the Bills are high on second-year man Torell Troup, a 326-pounder who was a second-round pick last year. He backs up starter Kyle Williams.
"He really came in in good shape," George Edwards said. "He's really mobile with the size he is. We're looking for that consistency as we move through training camp. We're pleased with where he is right now and we look to see him keep improving. He really worked hard this offseason and it shows out on the field."
Troup played 18 snaps a game last year, or 27 percent. Besides spelling Williams, Troup could line up next to Williams in a four-man line or next to Dareus, forming a mountainous inside duo. Williams played 81 percent of the snaps last year. The Bills could have the luxury of keeping him a bit fresher this year.
At linebacker, the Bills added veterans Shawne Merriman outside and Nick Barnett inside, along with drafting rookies Kelvin Sheppard and Chris White inside.
Edwards on Merriman: "I'll tell you he really has a physical presence to set the edge in the run game, and he gives us good push in the pocket as far as pass rush."
Edwards on Barnett: "We know he's a mentally and physically tough player who does a good job pressuring the quarterback when he's blitzing. He's good in pass coverage. He has a number of interceptions over the course of his career. He's a good player against the run."
Sheppard figures to push the other inside starter, Andra Davis, for playing time at some point in the regular season. The Bills now have plenty of depth inside. Second-year man Arthur Moats and eight-year veteran Reggie Torbor also are working there, but either could shift outside.
Merriman and fellow outside linebacker Chris Kelsay don't face any experienced competition outside. The battle behind them is wide open and includes Antonio Coleman, Aaron Maybin and Danny Batten.
The Bills have the most intense competition for playing time at cornerback, where Drayton Florence, Terrence McGee and Leodis McKelvin are battling for two starting jobs. The Bills have been trying McGee in slot coverage early in camp, something he did early in his career. Big Aaron Williams, the second-round pick from Texas, offers a more physical option outside.
"He's another guy that has played inside in the slot, and he's played outside on the corner," Edwards said of Aaron Williams. "The more he can do, the more things we can get him trained at, the better we can use his talents."
Fourth-year veteran Reggie Corner played about 40 percent of the defensive snaps as a coverage man in passing situations last year. That figures to go down. Seventh-round pick Justin Rogers offers more depth at cornerback.
In terms of understanding the defense, the Bills are way ahead of last year's training camp, when they were trying to teach everyone the new 3-4 scheme.
"There is no doubt there," Edwards said. "But we're just not taking anything for granted."