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Senior Bowl notebook: Whaley gives good news on Aaron Williams: He’ll be back

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.”

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.

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.”

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The Bills want Percy Harvin back. Whaley repeated that much.

But the wide receiver’s health remains a concern and there’s no timetable set.

Was it his hip? His knee? Nothing has ever been clear on the subject, Whaley was told.

“I don’t know if he’s quite clear,” Whaley said. “I think it’s one of those things – from what I gather, I’m not going to put words in his mouth – he wants to be healthy before he gets out there and shows his wares on the football field. He is a proud guy. He’s used to performing at a certain standard. If he can’t perform at that standard, I think that’s where his indecision is: ‘Can I and do I want to be less than the Percy Harvin everybody has seen.’ ”

Harvin’s 2015 season started with a bang. He was Tyrod Taylor’s go-to guy before Sammy Watkins in catching 16 passes for 192 yards with one touchdown. He was rejuvenated in Buffalo and was finally putting it all together. He was originally put on the injury list with a hip injury, a chronic problem for the receiver, and then ended up on IR with a knee injury and had surgery.

Whaley said the Bills would not put a deadline on Harvin making a decision.

“We’ll talk to him, see where he is and hopefully he comes back,” Whaley said. “We want him back.”

Finances are a factor as well. He signed a three-year contract with Buffalo with two years voidable. If he’s healthy and able to return, both sides would need to find the right number.

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With the advent of juniors flooding the NFL Draft each year, there was a theory among some scouts that the Senior Bowl was losing some of its luster as a showcase for top prospects.

That has changed in recent years.

Under the leadership of executive director Phil Savage, the Senior Bowl has upped its game as far as attracting some of the top talent that player-personnel evaluators around the league want to see.

Savage worked in the NFL as a general manager, with the Cleveland Browns, and as a scout. He understands the needs of teams when it comes to assessing draft prospects and is far more selective about the players he invites.

They don’t all accept and the junior crop still overshadows many seniors, but this year, for instance, Savage believes he has the deepest talent in his four years in charge of the all-star game among the 110 players here this week.

None of the other college all-star games – the East-West Shrine Game and the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl among the more notable of them – can compare to the Senior Bowl’s magnitude or reputation for drawing players worthy of entry into the NFL.

In 2013, according to Senior Bowl officials, 94 players who participated in the game joined the NFL, including top overall choice Eric Fisher, a former Central Michigan offensive tackle selected by the Kansas City Chiefs.

The average number of Senior Bowl participants who land in the NFL each year hovers above 80. According to CBSSports.com draft analyst Rob Rang, that’s more than double all of the other college all-star games combined.

email: tdunne@byffnews.com and vcarucci@buffnews.com