MOBILE, Ala. --- No, the Buffalo Bills will not be making a cannonball dive into free agency this year. But they do expect to get multiple starters back who missed time in 2015.
And you can count on Aaron Williams returning.
The safety who suffered a scary neck injury last year against the New England Patriots in Week 2, returned at Tennessee and then was shelved for the season will be back, General Manager Doug Whaley said Tuesday. That's as great of a free agent-like signing the Bills will make all offseason.
"Everything we heard, if we would’ve made the playoffs today, they would’ve put him in there and activated," Whaley said. "So he’s ready to go. So we’re excited about that.”
And not only this Williams. Whaley said defensive tackle Kyle Williams (knee) is also "on track." While he's likely to miss offseason activities, the GM expects him to be ready for training camp. He missed 10 games last season.
Add it all up and Whaley does not see the need to find three, four, five new starters on defense. All signs point to Buffalo tweaking its personnel on that side of the ball — where the NFL's No. 4-ranked unit fell to No. 19 under Rex Ryan — instead of taking a sledgehammer to it.
Whaley does not need to go big-game hunting for Ryan this offseason, pointing to certain players' success in Mike Pettine's 3-4 back in 2013.
"Just talking to (Ryan)," Whaley said, "I don’t think we’re going to need to find that many starters. I think once we get Aaron Williams back. Hopefully we can sign Nigel Bradham back. Those are the guys who’ll be there who worked for us in a 3-4. When Pettine was here, those guys worked and played well. I don’t think we need a major overhaul like we did last year with the offense. I think we just need to add some depth and guys who can contribute right away.”
True, Aaron Williams' return would be a major boost to a secondary plagued by communication breakdowns. Many times, players cited communication as an issue in 2015. The Bills allowed 54 pass plays of 20-plus yards, tied for the fourth most in the NFL. And before suffering the neck injury, the confident Williams was so often the soul of Buffalo's defense through his 47 starts.
When the safety tried to return in a 14-13 win at Tennessee, he was injured on his first tackle of the game yet returned and played 60 of 69 snaps. He later said he felt "tingling" and a "numbness." While he returned to practice late in the season, his future remained uncertain.
“It’s just the fight in me," Williams said later in the season. "You never know if it’s going to be your last game or not. I’m not really thinking of my health in the future. I was thinking in the moment. I told myself, ‘suck it up. You’ve been hurt before. You’ve played hurt before, so give everything you have.’ ”
Apparently, he has passed all required medical checks and could've resumed playing in the postseason if needed.
Whaley admitted the difficulty of grasping Ryan's scheme had players saying "Hey, let me learn my position," instead of thinking of the defense as a whole. This year, he expects everyone to take the next step and learn the full scheme.
They're banking on Williams helping with such synergy, too.
"With his defense and what he said, that communication is a big part and you’ve got guys who aren’t sure because they’re still trying to learn it, it puts a strain on how to be successful consistently," Whaley said. "Because there’s games where we looked pretty good. It’s just the consistency factor."
And, you know, there's a certain twin brother in town, too. Buffalo did make two additions to the defense: Rob Ryan (assistant head coach/defense) and Ed Reed (assistant defensive backs). The former was a puzzling hire to many considering Rob Ryan's defenses have finished on average 22nd overall, 21st in opposing passer rating and were historically bad in New Orleans.
When Rob Ryan was fired after 10 games in 2015, his group was allowing 424.7 yards per game, which would've been the second-most in NFL history. The year prior, the Saints' D finished 31st in the NFL through a 7-9 season and was reportedly plagued by assignment errors... forcing head coach Sean Payton to step in and have Ryan simplify the playbook.
They didn't improve, so here he is in Buffalo.
Whaley believes bringing the Ryans together will be a positive.
“If you look at it, Rob and Rex, they’ve had some troubles," Whaley said. "Their name is kind of like, ‘Hey, they’re the Ryans, what happened to their defense?’ So why not bring in your brother and try to reclaim that name? That’s the way I look at it. And who’s going to have your back more than your brother? I think it’s a positive. I know it’s a positive. Everybody in the building feels it’s a positive. It’s a positive for Rex, too. It can help him expand his horizons as the head coach and get into some other things.”