As we move into the slowest month of the NFL offseason, we often take this time to truly reflect on a team, season, or player; both what has come before, and what may soon lie ahead.
In the case of the Buffalo Bills, last season saw the re-emergence of hope in the Queen City, as several relatively new names (Fitzpatrick, Dareus, Barnett, Jackson) tried, unsuccessfully, to cast off the demons of the last decade with an early sound and fury that resulted in nothing more than another losing season.
After a flurry of activity signing and re-signing and drafting in the new year, the Bills' roster has now started to look overfed with possibilities, both old and new.
Facing such a glut of options, there are going to have to be some cuts, likely to some of the more recognizable names on the squad. These are players who have been familiar in Buffalo (for several years in some cases), but are either underperforming below the team's (and fans) expectations, or are so consistently injured these days that their value isn't even measurable anymore.
The following article, then, is a brief (...I promise) look at five players currently entering the "put up or shut up" era of their time with the Bills. These are the guys that really need to show their worth (and health) in 2012, or else be cut loose to drift on the uncertain seas of free agency come 2013.
WR Donald Jones: Signed as an undrafted free agent in 2010, Jones caught his first TD against Cincinnatti November 21, 2010. His second came September 11, 2011, for a total of two in his career, with a grand total of 444 yards. Though he's made some noise in the offseason so far in his quest to be the No. 2 behind Steve Johnson, Jones really needs to show the Bills he's better than 19.3 yards per game and a single TD per season if he plans on being the No. 2 option in Buffalo.
Granted, he was injured to the tune of just eight healthy games in 2011, but that's no excuse this year, especially with Derek Hagan, Marcus Easley, and rookie T.J. Graham waiting in the wings. In order to secure his spot in Buffalo, Jones has got to at put up similar stats to the Bills' slot sensation David Nelson, who had 658 yds and 5 TDs last year, or else he may be house hunting before long.
RB C.J. Spiller: Another 2010 addition, Spiller was the ninth overall choice in the Draft that year after a remarkable run at Clemson (his #28, is actually retired there and he scored a TD in every game of 2009, combining with Jacoby Ford to score the most tandem TDs in NCAA history).
However, he looked lost his first year and a half in Buffalo, struggling to find a place in an offense that largely went through starting RB Fred Jackson, playing everywhere from receiver to returner (he set the FBS record with 7 career TDs returning in college).
That all changed with Jackson's broken leg Week 12 last year, giving Spiller the opportunity to break out to the tune of 446 rushing yards 3 TDs the rest of the way. That total was more than the entire 2010 season and the first 11 games of 2011 (a combined 398 yds) and included his first 100+ yard game (111 against Denver).
That upswing, though, won't be worth squat if C.J. doesn't continue that into the 2012 campaign, as he'll be called on to be more heavily involved in an offense that now has two potential 1000-yard backs. If Spiller doesn't get a combined grand rushing and receiving (he has 426 yds, 3 TDs in the passing game), as well as at least 5 TDs all told, he might be unloaded before 2013 and labeled the bust many thought he was becoming.
NT Terrell Troup: Though projected as a third to fourth-rounder, Troup was taken over Jimmy Claussen and Rob Gronkowski in, you guessed it, the 2010 Draft.
The No. 41 overall pick was projected to be a run stopping plug in the middle of the 3-4 defense, a nose tackle of mammoth proportions.
But he just never got his chance to truly perform, overshadowed by Kyle Williams in 2010, then falling to a back injury in 2011 (as well as being outshined by rookie Marcell Dareus).
The Bills, however, are still high on Troup, both in his potential as a 4-3 tackle and as a long-term star on the defense. Though not completely healthy yet, he has been participating in camp so far and has truly impressed in limited work, but needs to show he's worth hanging on to if he hopes to secure his roster spot beyond 2012.
Pushing the scales at well over 300 pounds, he's a massive presence in the middle and should earn a place on the team based on expectations alone, but if he can't stay healthy this season and give some proof of his talent, he'll just be another big man looking for a place to play.
CB Terrence McGee: A veteran cornerback entering his tenth season and one of the more familiar names to Bills fans, McGee was the key to the defense the last decade. 92 tackles, 3 INTs, 11 deflections, and 2 sacks in 2004. 72 tackles, 11 deflections, 4 INTs, and a TD the following year. 78 tackles, 21 deflections, 4 INTs in 2007.
He may have gotten some bumps and bruises throughout those early years, but he was largely on the field, terrorizing QBs and receivers alike, anchoring the Bills' defensive backfield with vicious tackles and great coverage skills.
Then the injury bug started to bite harder, with McGee playing in just 26 games the last three years, only about half of the 48 total. Sure, he's incredibly talented.. Or he was... I mean, it's hard to tell when you haven't seen the guy on the field lately.
Even Terrence has said he doesn't remember the last season he got to play injury-free (2004 was the only year he went all 16) and though he's taken a $5.1 million pay cut the final two years of his contract, the departure of fellow veteran Drayton Florence proved that the clock may be ticking on McGee's career with Buffalo.
If he can't find a fountain of youth in 2012 (as well as new, stronger knees), we could be seeing the newer, flashier models (Aaron Williams, Stephon Gilmore, Ron Brooks, etc) pushing the old man out the door.
Chan Gailey: The 15th head coach of the Buffalo Bills, he's a combined 10-22 in his two years in Western New York, including a 4-12 stinker in 2010 that started with eight straight losses, followed by a promising start in 2011 that quickly turned sour, as the Bills dropped eight of their last nine.
Chan's an offensive-minded guy, but he hasn't had the right pieces to make the work in the Queen City and has suffered too many lows to offset the occasional highs in his time with Buffalo.
However, entering his third year with a now solid, deep defense and a young, talented offense, coach Gailey could potentially get his first winning season since 1998's 10-6 year with Dallas.
He's added some great coaches in defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt and QB coach David Lee, has worked closely with GM Buddy Nix to patiently address all the roster problems of the last two years, and has managed to pull a together a group of unknown players to create something that has a whiff of success to it (maybe).
He's definitely succeeded in bringing some hope back to the cursed Buffalo fanbase and his attitude in the locker room has many believing this team of blue collar players can make some strides this year, but without a winning record in 2012, the fans might drive him out of town themselves.
Sure, you could also include names like Shawne Merriman and Eric Wood (both very talented, but too often injured to be safe bets), maybe even Leodis McKelvin, but the fact that the Bills can even consider parting with some of these names shows the depth their roster truly holds now. Lose a starter in 2011, the Bills start to stumble. Lose a starter in 2012 and Buffalo looks like they have some talent to fill those gaps, can maintain a winning run even if the injuries start in again.
I mean, they won't be able to overcome another walking wounded season like they had in 2011, but fans can take comfort in knowing that the Bills have options again, can even afford to trim some fat should players continue to underwhelm. It may not spell "Super Bowl" yet, but the Bills are improving... They just need to make sure the roster is, too.