The Buffalo Bills' new-look defense passed the eyeball test in its first day on the football field Tuesday.
Star defensive end Mario Williams, sporting his new No. 94 jersey, looked imposing rushing off left defensive end. Mark Anderson, signed away from the New England Patriots, looked like a bona fide speed rusher off the right end spot. First-round draft pick Stephon Gilmore wasn't yielding much separation at cornerback.
Now all the Bills have to do is turn their potential into production, a fact of which they are well aware.
"I think defensively on paper it looks really good," said defensive tackle Kyle Williams. "But, that doesn't mean anything. I think we've talked about that in our room today, that everything looks great on paper but we haven't done anything yet. Nobody has made a play, nobody has done anything -- no matter what you've done in the past years. There's a lot of work and a foundation has to be laid. That's what we're doing now. That's what we're going to do in training camp so hopefully we hit the ground running in September. But our goal is to be a great defense."
Great defense would be a dramatic turnaround in Buffalo. The Bills ranked 26th in yards allowed last season and 30th -- third from the bottom -- in points allowed. They have ranked among the bottom 11 in rushing yards allowed seven straight seasons.
So eyes were focused on the rebuilt defense during the Bills' first organized-team activity workout inside the Bills' Fieldhouse in Orchard Park. It was the first of 13 on-field practices the team will hold this spring in preparation for training camp in late July.
"A lot of energy, a lot of quickness," said Bills coach Chan Gailey in reaction to the first practice. "We felt bigger on the field, and it felt bigger on the field. It felt quick on the field. We've got a lot of work to do, but initial observations were good."
"Those guys look big and mean," said quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. "I'll tell you that -- especially that front four flying around. There's a difference."
The difference, of course, is in scheme as well as personnel, with the Bills running a 4-3 front under new coordinator Dave Wannstedt instead of the 3-4 under former defensive chief George Edwards.
Starting weak-side linebacker Nick Barnett said it should be a relatively smooth adjustment, because Wannstedt was on the staff last season, knows the personnel and did not change the defensive terminology.
"Guys can definitely relate to him," Barnett said. "It's an easy transition. He knows how guys play. He has a different mindset, obviously with the 4-3, it's different. I think it's not a hard defense to learn. It's just different. Different calls on different plays. So we have to work at it."
Here's how the Bills lined up along the defensive line on the first day: Mario Williams was at left defensive end and incumbent starter Chris Kelsay was at right end. Marcell Dareus teamed at tackle with Dwan Edwards, who was substituting for Kyle Williams, who is recovering from injury and did not participate in 11-on-11 drills. On the second team, it was: Spencer Johnson at left end, Kellen Heard and Alex Carrington at defensive tackle, and Anderson at right end.
That's nine players and does not include defensive end and potential pass-rush demon Shawne Merriman or big defensive tackle Torell Troup, a former second-round pick. Both were sitting out due to injury. Most 4-3 teams keep nine defensive linemen on the roster.
At linebacker the Bills had Barnett at weak side, Kirk Morrison at strong side and Kelvin Sheppard in the middle.
In the secondary, Gilmore, Leodis McKelvin and Aaron Williams rotated with the starting unit at cornerback. Prospective starter Terrence McGee sat out 11-on-11 drills because he's rehabilitating a knee injury. Second-year man Justin Rogers saw plenty of action in the nickel defense and with the second team and looked good.
"We want to be in the top five, the top 10 at the minimum," Barnett said. "I think we have all the capable tools. We had a lot of guys hurt who we expected to be there last year. We got put on our heels. This year I think we have enough depth. If guys do get hurt, I think we have enough to step up and play. We've got to continue to keep grinding. It's day one of OTAs. You can't really make judgments. But the young guys look good out there."