By John Wawrow
The Associated Press
Defensive end Mario Williams was happy to finally begin putting faces to the names of his new Buffalo Bills teammates. Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick had no complaints trading in his golf clubs and 100-degree temperatures back home in Arizona for a 30-degree day in Buffalo.
And Shawne Merriman was so upbeat over reporting for the first day of the Bills' voluntary conditioning program Monday that not even a freak snowstorm could put a chill into his mood.
"I'm so excited, I'm going to go out and make snow angels," Merriman said.
That Merriman can even kid about making snow angels is encouraging news. After injuries limited him to playing eight games over the past two seasons, the "Lights Out" linebacker said his rehab from surgery to repair a nagging right Achilles tendon injury has him on track to be ready for training camp.
"Absolutely, that's everyone's target, including mine," Merriman said. "I'm excited seeing the guys, and how excited everybody is to get back here and start working."
The Bills are back in town together for the first time since cleaning out their lockers in early January following a disappointing 6-10 season in which they lost eight of their last nine games to miss the playoffs for a 12th straight season.
Yet, the mood was distinctly upbeat. The players are buoyed by an eventful offseason in which the front-office raised expectations by delivering on its vow to retain talent — receiver Stevie Johnson and tight end Scott Chandler were both re-signed — and add to it by signing Williams and fellow defensive end Mark Anderson in free agency last month.
"There's a lot of excitement in this building right now," Fitzpatrick said. "That's the message I think that's clearly gotten across to the players through some of the stuff we've done this offseason."
The buzz is not limited to just the Bills facility, either.
"Talking to a bunch of fans around town, they let us know how excited they are about things," running back Fred Jackson said. "We feel the exact same way. We feel the organization has done some things to give us a great opportunity to go out and win football games. So we're putting a lot of expectations on ourselves."
The spark was provided by Williams, the pass-rushing specialist who became the NFL's highest-paid defensive player upon signing a six-year $100 million contract three days into free agency was the key move.
Williams made sure to be on hand for the first day of workouts, well aware of what his presence means to improving both a patchwork defense and the Bills overall fortunes. And he was reminded of that a few days earlier, when he was shopping at a local store and greeted by a nervous fan.
"He was shaking, and he was like, 'Mario, I just want you to know we're on your back,'" Williams said. "I told him, 'Thank you. I'm here to win.'"
And it's not lost on Williams that he might have something to prove, too. He was limited to playing just five games last season with Houston due to a torn chest muscle, and also missed three games in 2010 after having surgery to repair a sports hernia.
"I've been away from football for a while, too," he said. "I'm extremely anxious to get out there."
The conditioning program will continue through next month, before the Bills open a series of voluntary minicamps starting on May 29. Buffalo then closes its spring sessions with a three-day mandatory camp that opens June 19.
Defensive tackle Marcell Dareus couldn't wait to attend the workout program. Aside from meeting his new defensive linemates, last year's rookie first-round pick missed the benefit of any offseason workouts last spring because they were wiped out as a result of the NFL lockout.
"I'm just so excited about so many things this year that I'm at a loss for words," Dareus said, noting he's spent the past three-plus months in his native Alabama dropping weight and adding muscle.
"I think we can be pretty good," Dareus said, assessing the potential of Buffalo's new-look defense. "I know I'm going to have a ball this season. I can't wait."