This offseason has re-invigorated the fanbase, and despite a slow start in the pre-season, there's hope that the team will end the longest active playoff drought in the NFL this year. The Bills have also gone through a bit of a Pro Bowl drought, as the team had only one Pro Bowler in the past two years, when defensive tackle Kyle Williams represented Buffalo in the 2011 game. Buffalo has Pro Bowl talent on both sides of the ball, so I'm breaking down those players on both sides of the ball.
LB Nick Barnett
Barnett was in the thick of the Pro Bowl mix in 2011 as the Bills got off to a 5-2 start. Barnett's production didn't really dwindle in the second half of the season, but the defense (and team in general) really struggled in the second half of the season. Barnett's biggest bugaboo the past four season has been injuries, as he missed 19 games from 2008-2010. Barnett is also sliding to the outside in new defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt's 4-3 defense, but has the requisite athleticism and coverage ability to do so. If he's able to stay healthy and the team can play better, Barnett will again put up solid statistics, but could have a harder time cracking the Pro Bowl while having to contend with the barrage of 3-4 pass rushers in the AFC.
Odds: Fairly Low
FS Jarius Byrd
Byrd made the Pro Bowl and earned All-Pro honors after he recorded nine interceptions in 15 games as a rookie in 2009. While he hasn't approached his interception total from that season since, Byrd has become a much more complete safety, as he's drastically improved his tackling since then. Byrd put up solid numbers in 2011, but like the rest of the defensive players in Buffalo, the team's poor performance on both defense and win/loss the second half of the season had him on the outside looking in. At 25, Byrd is entering his prime, as well as the final year of his contract, so I expect a pretty big season from him in 2012.
Odds: Fairly High
DT Marcel Dareus
Dareus had a solid rookie debut last season, posting 5.5 sacks for a Bills team that was downright terrible in that category in 2012. With the team's switch to a 4-3 defense, as well as the return of former Pro Bowl Kyle Williams, defensive tackle is now arguably the teams' strongest position, and should immediately improve the porous run defense that plagued Buffalo in recent seasons. Whether Dareus is able to usurp Williams as the teams' marquee player on the interior line remains to be seen, but they combination will cause major matchup problems for opposing offensive lines.
CB Stephon Gilmore
The rookie has showed very well in training camp, drawing rave reviews from head coach Chan Gailey and defensive coordinator Dave Wannstedt. The 10th overall pick is very strong against the run and plays solid press coverage, but will likely still go through some growing pains. If this were an article about career odds for a Pro Bowl, then Gilmore would be as close to a lock as I could find on this team. As it is, he could put up solid numbers, but it will likely take some time to gain the notoriety necessary to garner a spot in the game.
DT Kyle Williams
Williams has already been a Pro Bowler, and has a non-stop motor. If Williams is fully healed from his Lisfranc injury that limited him to just five games in 2011, then I fully expect a return to form. The addition of pass-rushers Mario Williams and Mark Anderson should make Buffalo's defensive line one of the best units in the league, and perhaps nobody on the line benefits more than Williams.
DE Mario Williams
The Bills made "Super Mario" the NFL's highest paid defensive player in NFL history this offseason with a $100 million deal. Williams will be expected to provide the Bills with the pass rush they've sorely lacked in recent seasons. Like Kyle Williams, Mario missed the final eleven games of the season, as a torn pectoral caused Williams to miss out on the first ever playoff game for the Texans. From 2008 to 2011, Williams totaled 48.5 sacks in 66 games, and could post similar per-game numbers this season.
SS George Wilson
Who would have thought an undrafted free agent wide receiver could eventually turn into a Pro Bowl caliber strong safety? That's exactly the transition that George Wilson has made in his six seasons with the Bills. He was deserving of a nod last season, as he posted 106 tackles and four interceptions for Buffalo in 2011, and is one of the best safeties in the league, even if most casual NFL fans don't know about him. I really like Wilson's chances to make the Pro Bowl this season, as the defense is primed for significant improvement.
Odds: Very Good
Part two will be posted in the coming days, highlighting the Bills' offensive players that could reach the Pro Bowl in 2012.