Ever see comedian Brian Regan’s bit about roaming the juice aisle at the supermarket? (Check out the three-minute mark on the link.) Following his doctor’s orders to “lay off dairy,” Regan notices the dairy customers jubilant with party hats on, while he’s in the juice aisle “slumped over with juice people.”
As a Bills fan, I feel like the lonely juice man watching all the fans of playoff teams enjoying the postseason festivities.
The NFL playoffs are like the dairy parties that Regan envies so dearly. The juice aisle is where all the non-contenders go to watch.
But the time is coming, fellow Bills fans. We’ll be back on the dairy train soon enough.
The seemingly elusive question, though, is how to get there.
With the arrival of GM Buddy Nix and head coach Chan Gailey, the Bills have been making strides. Yes, they’ve been small. But they appear to be strides that will stick, rather than short-term patchwork used to hide deeper wounds.
In other words, the Bills are trying to fix the root of their problems. And they're doing so by building through the draft.
As the Bills prepare for yet another offseason a month earlier than the NFL’s best, here are the top five needs they must address if they want to get the heck out of the crowded juice aisle.
The Buffalo Bills are starving for pass-rushers.
A year ago, the front office made a desperate attempt to start fixing the problem by reaching out to the once electrifying but now dinged up Shawne Merriman. It was a low-risk, high-reward signing.
But Merriman’s nickname, Lights Out, has taken on a whole new ironic meaning in recent years, as many have questioned whether or not the young player’s career is already over.
Though his presence on the field did help some early on this year, Merriman suffered yet another injury that cut his 2011 season short.
Meanwhile, Marcell Dareus proved to be a stellar pickup in last year’s draft, and his presence—along with a healthy Kyle Williams—is a good one to build around up front. As the Bills' defensive line begins to solidify, the hope is that they’ve begun to patch up the porous run defense that has plagued them in recent years.
Now, the Bills have to figure out a way to get to the opposing team’s quarterback.
As Buffalo continues to transition from a true 4-3 base defense to a hybrid 3-4, the front office has continued to work toward putting together the right personnel to create a cohesive defensive unit. GM Buddy Nix and head coach Chan Gailey appear to have the team moving in the right direction, and the promotion of Dave Wannstedt to defensive coordinator should help next year.
They just have to keep acquiring talent.
Sitting at No. 10 in the first round of the 2012 NFL draft, Buffalo is almost certain to target an edge rusher, whether that comes in the form of a defensive end or a linebacker. Early names worth considering are LB Courtney Upshaw (Alabama), DE Quinton Coples (North Carolina), DE Melvin Ingram (South Carolina) and DE Nick Perry (USC).
If the Bills want to contend in the AFC East, they have to figure out a way to pressure Tom Brady. A pass-rusher at No. 10 seems like a logical move.
Buddy Nix mentioned that a team can never have too many offensive tackles, since tackles generally have an easier time converting to other positions on the offensive line if necessary.
In his end-of-the-year press conference, Nix stated that free agent Demetrius Bell has all the tools to be a successful LT for the Buffalo Bills, aside from the fact that he is injury prone.
And there lies the concern.
Bell missed nine games in 2011, which isn't exactly how the Bills hoped their starting LT would fare following his first full season as a starter.
A former seventh-round draft choice, Bell has routinely battled injuries throughout his career and has recovered from them at a slow pace. When healthy, though, Bell has proven to be a pretty dependable blind-side blocker.
Buffalo has the luxury of having current rookie LT Chris Hairston under contract, who stepped up in Bell's absence this season and played well in his first NFL game action. Nix described Hairston as a "smart guy" in his press conference, someone who can be "serviceable" if called upon.
But "serviceable" isn't good enough for a team trying to build an identity and rediscover a winning culture.
A team that hasn't made the playoffs since 1999.
While I'm excited about Hairston as a prospect, I think the Bills would be safe to re-sign Demetrius Bell. Additionally, Buffalo may have an opportunity to draft a top prospect at No. 10 overall in the draft this year, including players such as Riley Reiff (Iowa) or Jonathan Martin (Stanford).
Hairston is versatile and can play both sides of the line, and the only depth behind starting RT Erik Pears is Sam Young, who hasn't proven anything yet after being acquired mid-season in 2011.
I expect the Bills to go after an offensive tackle early in the draft, something they haven’t done since selecting big Mike Williams from Texas fourth overall in 2002.
But, I also think they would be wise to re-sign Bell regardless, to establish depth and insurance for a very thin offensive line.
No. 1 wide receiver Steve Johnson is up for free agency, but there is a strong likelihood that he will be back with the Bills for 2012 and beyond. If not, the need at this position becomes even more glaring.
But even if Johnson returns, Nix has gone on record saying that he would like to get another big playmaker opposite No. 13.
The Bills are young at wideout. Last season, they traded former No. 1 WR Lee Evans, which showed their confidence in young talents like Donald Jones and Marcus Easley. A seemingly deep position suddenly got thin, however, as Jones, Easley and speedster Roscoe Parrish all suffered injuries early in the year. (Parrish, too, is a free agent, and it’s less likely that he will be back next year.)
According to William S. Paxton, a staff writer at ctpost.com, Easley is apparently “eager to show [the] Bills what he can do.” Easley is an intriguing player with above-average size (6’2”, 220 lbs) and underrated speed. Fully healthy now, he seems just as excited as Bills fans to finally prove what he can do.
But as intriguing as Easley is as a potential No. 2 wide receiver, he is still unproven.
I’m sure the Bills are closely monitoring what happens with free agents such as Marques Colston, Vincent Jackson, Dwayne Bowe and DeSean Jackson this offseason. Of the four, Jackson and Bowe are the most realistic possibilities; Bills GM Buddy Nix has ties to San Diego, and head coach Chan Gailey worked with Bowe in Kansas City.
In any case, there are some quality wide receivers available via free agency this year. I expect Buffalo to target one of these proven veterans rather than rely upon a potential draft pick.
Unless, of course, that draft pick is Justin Blackmon.
There is little doubt that the NFL is gradually evolving into a passing, quarterback-driven league. Offenses are exploding for huge yardage and point totals more than we’ve ever seen in the history of the game. For this reason, the Bills will be sure to add depth to the cornerback position this offseason.
And they’ll probably add more than one player.
Both Nix and Gailey have expressed on numerous occasions that a team can never have too many corners. Complex offenses and ultra-athletic receivers make the position a crucial one in today’s league.
And the more versatile a defensive back can be, the more valuable he is to a defense trying to out-maneuver nifty offensive packages.
Bills’ veteran Terrence McGee has been injury prone in recent seasons, and former first-round pick Leodis McKelvin has struggled with consistency. Rookie Aaron Williams had a strong 2011 campaign, but he too struggled to stay healthy for a full season.
Buffalo will almost certainly address the cornerback position come draft time, and it may even take one earlier than most expect.
While Buddy Nix noted that addressing the left tackle position will be a priority this offseason, one thing is undeniable: The Bills desperately missed starting center Eric Wood this year.
Wood’s midseason injury exposed the clear lack of depth behind the third-year starter. A hard-nosed workhorse, Wood is a nasty, tenacious player. After his devastating leg injury in 2009, he came back to play an impressive full season in 2010 at less than 100 percent.
Finally healthy, Wood was moved to center in 2011 and was poised to have a Pro Bowl-caliber year. But the Bills’ offense sputtered down the stretch after he suffered a torn ACL in Week 10.
The point here is that both Levitre and Urbik were moved out of their starting guard positions to man the middle in Wood’s absence. Meanwhile, LT Demetrius Bell was also injured, making the offensive line an utter mess toward the end of the year.
Having a capable backup center is an obvious need for Buffalo this offseason, whether the Bills acquire it through the draft or free agency.