Sweat rolled down the face of Buffalo Bills defensive end Shawne Merriman as he walked off the field Thursday.
He had just completed the Bills' 90-minute practice -- all 90 minutes. It was his first football workout since October, and it felt good to finally feel good.
"You know, it's the first day of practice, for me anyway, in a long time," Merriman said. "So I had a lot of time off and got a chance to go back out there with the guys and put on a helmet again. It felt pretty good, man."
Merriman, the biggest "former star" on the Bills' roster, has talked optimistically each of the previous two seasons in Buffalo. This time, he believes, it's different.
The Achilles tendon injury that has hindered him for almost three seasons was repaired in early November by renowned orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews of Birmingham, Ala. The Achilles in his right leg never actually ruptured, which can result in a 12-month rehabilitation.
"They had to go in and clean it up," Merriman said. "I had some small tears. I'm glad they went in and did it when they did. If they didn't, who knows? It could have been one of those things that would be much tougher to come back from."
The frayed tendon was removed from Merriman's heal, fixed and reattached.
Bills defensive tackle Kyle Williams had a similar procedure last November, although Williams' problem was caused by bone spurs in the heel that were impinging on the tendon.
"He called it a six-month injury," Merriman said of Andrews.
Now a full seven months removed from the operation, Merriman thinks his injury woes finally are behind him. Merriman had 39.5 sacks for San Diego over the first three years of his career. He has just six sacks the past four seasons. He said this offseason feels like a fresh start.
"It does because it was a hard three years when you're dealing with something like the Achilles and you don't know whether to go get something done," he said. "You're a game-time decision. You don't know if you can practice. You're in pain. You can't go out there and play the way you can play. I just felt that I was in a position that I couldn't go out and perform. I couldn't go out and do the things I do best. I couldn't explode. So what people have seen from the last three years wasn't Shawne Merriman. It was a guy going out and trying his best for what I had at the time."
Bills fans haven't seen much of No. 56. Claimed off waivers from San Diego in November 2010, he sat out the final eight games of that season in Buffalo to rest his Achilles. Merriman showed flashes of his old, dominant self in training camp last summer, but he only played 16 plays in preseason. Then he battled the sore Achilles through the first five regular-season games, making two sacks, before shutting it down and being placed on the injured-reserve list.
He's excited by the fact this is the first relatively normal offseason -- from the standpoint of being able to work out fully -- he has had in a long time.
"I've been here the whole entire offseason," Merriman said. "Every day, working with the guys, full on. Just doing everything my teammates are doing. That just made me happy, because these guys never got a chance to see me go out and really work. I came in the middle of the year [in 2010] then we had the lockout [in 2011]. This was the first offseason I got a chance to actually have a full offseason in three years. That's a long time not to be able to do everything for a full offseason."
Last year, the Bills' defense desperately needed a healthy Merriman. Without him, they had few pass-rush options. Buffalo finished with 29 sacks, tied for third fewest in the NFL. This year, a healthy Merriman would be a bonus for the Bills, because they have added Mario Williams and Mark Anderson to their pass-rush stable.
"We don't want it to be a huge year on paper," Merriman said. "We want to be able to go out and be able to show people it's going to be a huge year on game day."
Merriman said he has high expectations for himself.
"I want to go out and say I'm going to get this many sacks. I'm going to have this type of year. But I'm really ready to show, not really answer the questions on what kind of year I'm ready to have. The type of work I've put in this offseason, my body's ready to have that year."
The Bills added free agent cornerback Isaiah Green to the 90-man roster and released linebacker Garrick Williams. Green is an undrafted rookie who played 46 games in his college career at Fresno State.