Here we are once again Bills fans: For the 12th-straight time, the football calendars skip from December to April.
What was disbelief for having beaten the Patriots now turns to the litany of mock drafts that are slowly trickling out. Once again we have to endure insufferable Patriots fans, more abuse at the water cooler and this time we don't even have the Lions to share the misery.
However, unlike in previous years, the 5-2 start is a glimpse at something better on the horizon. The offense showed it could be dynamic when healthy, averaging 30 points per game, and even the defense—porous as it was—finished second in the AFC (tied for 5th in NFL) in takeaways. I'm not suggesting a coup of the Patriots in 2012, but the pieces of the NFL playoff puzzle are there.
If Buddy Nix wants to build on the bright spots from this year, he's going to need these make these five moves this offseason.
In a move that shocked nobody who watched any Bills football this season, George Edwards was relieved of his duties immediately after the season, replaced by inside linebacker/assistant head coach and "Miami Vice" extra, Dave Wannstedt.
The last time Wannstedt was a defensive coordinator was 1999 for Jimmy Johnson's Dolphins. With Chan Gailey at the helm, and now Wannstedt taking over on defense, I wonder if Ted Marchibroda is available?
Under Edwards' tutelage, the Bills "couldn't stop a nose bleed." Switching from a base 4-3 to a 3-4 defense under Edwards didn't succeed largely because of personnel problems. If Wannstedt has any ideas of switching back to a 4-3, Bills fans can expect more of the same.
I understand Nix doesn't have a say in the schemes and play calling—but he does have to go get the players to make them work. If Nix and the Bills coaching staff don't make up their minds, Bills fans are in for at least one more season in flux.
Following up a head-scratching 2010 draft with arguably the Bills' most prosperous showing last year, Buddy Nix and his scouting department need to replicate last year's success. I know the draft is a crap-shoot, but having an experienced scout in Nix leading the draft, instead of a business-oriented figurehead like Russ Brandon, has paid immediate dividends.
From the 2011 class, six of nine selections started at least one game, and all but Chris White finished on the active roster. Marcel Dareus produced as advertised. Aaron Williams should be an aggressive playmaker alongside Justin Rogers, who looks to be every bit the steal the coaching staff indicated before the season.
While I'm not going to go into specifics about who the Bills should select just yet (stay tuned), I will say the Bills have too many needs to fill before they draft a QB or—dare I say—linebacker.
Jackson notched 170 carries, 934 yards and six touchdowns.
On top of these, he also caught 39 passes for 442 yards (11.3 yard average). Did I mention he did it in 10 games? I haven't heard this many 'imagine ifs' floating around Lake Erie since the early 90's. Jackson is flat out electric, and is getting better at a time in his career when most running backs' production begins to taper off.
Jackson has played in the NIFL/UIFL, NFL Europe, and tried out for the Bears, Broncos and Packers before sticking with Buffalo. If the Bills want to build on the first seven games of 2011, Buddy NIx needs to make sure Orchard Park is his last destination.
Going into 2011, the Bills were about $36 million under the salary cap, and coming out the number hasn't changed much. Even after extending Ryan Fitzpatrick and Erik Pears, there is still enough money left to back up the Brinks truck for Jackson.
Let me preface this by saying, I like Stevie Johnson.
He brings personality to a team and city that needs it. However, he has developed a knack for dropping key passes (2010 versus Pittsburgh, 2011 at Cincinnati and NYJ), takes stupid celebration penalties and consistently doesn't show the awareness to extend routes to get first downs.
Reports are that he is seeking roughly $7.5 million base salary for his new contract, putting him fifth amongst receivers, between Santonio Holmes and Sidney Rice. Stevie is a good player, but if re-signing free agents comes down to Fred Jackson or Stevie—then Buddy Nix and company can find somebody else to run three-yard slants.
The other major free agent casualty has to be Demetrius Bell. I have watched every snap of Bell's NFL career, and I still can't figure out what two staffs have seen in him. In four seasons, Bell has appeared in 31 games (starting 30) and has shown that he can't finish a season. An inability to stop speed rushers off Ryan Fitzpatrick's blind side doesn't help either. Time to cut bait and let Bell go.
With Buddy Nix having signed the highly underrated Nick Barnett—and having been connected to Kevin Burnett and Tyson Clabo last year—at least Buffalo is seemingly making a better effort than during the Brandon/Modrak years.
The lack of a game-breaking receiver, the seemingly growing size of the ones on the roster (David Nelson, Ruvell Martin, Derek Hagan), and Nix's familiarity with Vincent Jackson makes me believe there is a real shot he ends up in Buffalo.
Jackson's productivity has dropped in recent years, and at 28 he's not getting any younger—but his 1,106 yards (18.4 average per catch) receiving and nine touchdowns is more productive than Stevie Johnson, and provides a bigger target for Ryan Fitzpatrick
The return of AJ Smith/Norv Turner, and a pass oriented spread offense in Buffalo, may just be enough to sway Jackson to find a change of scenery. I've heard rumors Dwayne Bowe wants to play for Chan Gailey again—but I'll take Jackson's size, physicality and playmaking ability over this every day.