By John Wawrow
The time for talking is over as far as Buffalo Bills running back Fred Jackson is concerned.
With training camp set to open in suburban Rochester on Thursday, Jackson said it's time the Bills start showing they're capable of playing to the high expectations that followed a productive offseason.
"You want to be respected, but at the same time, it's just talk until we get out there on the football field," Jackson said Wednesday after the team held a voluntary conditioning session. "So we've got to go out there and make it worth it."
For a team that hasn't made the playoffs in 12 seasons, there's a big buzz of belief that these Bills could be in store for a breakthrough. It began with Buffalo re-signing receiver Stevie Johnson in early March, and was followed by the even bigger splash that came with signing defensive end Mario Williams three days into free agency.
The addition of a pass-rushing specialist such as Williams — at a whopping $100 million price tag — was part of a major overhaul of a defense that ranked among the NFL's worst last year.
On offense, the Ryan Fitzpatrick-led unit returns mostly intact after showing flashes of production last year. Despite a late-season swoon, the unit still produced 5,624 yards, Buffalo's most since 1992, and finished 14th in the NFL in yards, the best ranking since Drew Bledsoe's first season in 2002.
Add it up, and that makes the start of camp this year as one of the most highly anticipated in Buffalo since Bledsoe's arrival in 2002. Though they failed to make the playoffs during Bledsoe's three-year tenure, the Bills did enjoy a 9-7 finish in 2004 — the last time Buffalo had a winning season.
"We have work to do, and we are all optimistic and excited to be here," veteran defensive end Chris Kelsay said. "If we can stay healthy with the guys we have, we will be making a push and we will be contending."
Even general manager Buddy Nix isn't couching his expectations.
"I believe losing and not being in contention throughout the year will be a huge disappointment for all of us," Nix said a day earlier. "It's time to close it out and win some games. And until we do, it is not complete."
The Bills are coming off a 6-10 season in which injuries and inexperience led to the team losing eight of its last nine games.
That was a switch from Nix and head coach Chan Gailey's first year together in 2010, when the Bills lost their first eight en route to a 4-12 finish.
Now, Gailey would like to see his team put it together for an entire season.
"The majority of our team has been through a fast start and a slow start, so I think we are mentally capable of handling whichever happens," Gailey said.
There's cause for optimism because the Bills believe they've significantly addressed their needs on defense while also adding experienced depth at most positions.
That should lead to several intriguing competitions for roster spots at several positions.
At receiver, the competition for the No. 2 job opposite Stevie Johnson is expected to involve Donald Jones, Marcus Easley and rookie third-round pick T.J. Graham.
At left tackle, rookie second-round pick Cordy Glenn and second-year player Chris Hairston will vie to replace free-agent loss Demetress Bell. And the Bills have a logjam at defensive tackle, leaving third-year players Torrell Troup and Alex Carrington competing for one of the last backup jobs.
Though Fitzpatrick returns as the starting quarterback, there's a battle for the No. 2 job between free-agent addition Vince Young and returning backup Tyler Thigpen.
Nix hasn't ruled out the possibility of adding a safety to improve the team's depth at that position.
The Bills are also healthy. Jackson, center Eric Wood, linebacker Shawne Merriman, defensive tackle Kyle Williams and cornerback Terrence McGee have all been cleared for practice after overcoming season-ending injuries last year.
"I think our mindset is where it needs to be," Gailey said. "But you can have mindset, you can have attitude changes, you can have culture changes, but until you do it on the field on Sundays it doesn't count."