Appearances to the contrary, the Buffalo Bills are indeed moving in the right direction.
And if they played in a division that didn't include the Patriots and the Jets, they might have something to show for it.
Buffalo's offseason was anything but encouraging, which has left them near the bottom of many AFC East forecasts.
That said, the end to the 2006 campaign provided some hope, and Buffalo's homegrown talent looks promising. But for every one thing the Bills have going for them, there's something just important holding them back.
On the one hand, J.P. Losman is not a complete waste, and has shown signs that he may indeed be the franchise quarterback the Bills need.
Losman improved greatly toward the end of 2006, leading his team to four wins—including victories over the Jets and Jaguars—in a five-game stretch. His accuracy in that span improved from a paltry 49 percent to a solid 63 percent, his passer rating jumped a full 20 points, and he averaged more yards per game than he ever had.
If Losman keeps improving, he may be a Pro Bowler in the not-so-distant future.
The Bills' problem, though, is that they can't get any of their stars to stay home.
Nearly every big name on the Buffalo roster skipped town this offseason. RB Willis McGahee was dealt to the Ravens. LB Takeo Spikes was shipped to the Eagles. CB Nate Clements signed with the 49ers. LB London Fletcher left for the Redskins.
When the dust settled, the Bills found themselves needing to fill holes at several key positions.
Not so much.
On the bright side, the organization did show a willingness to pay big bucks to build the offensive line. The Bills splurged for T Langston Walker and G Derrick Dockery this winter—neither of them a Pro Bowl performer, but both solid contributors capable of making the team better.
At the same time, unfortunately, the Bills' defensive front seven is fairly depressing.
DE Aaron Schobel can play, and DE Chris Kelsay is serviceable—but DTs Larry Tripplett and Kyle Williams are none too impressive. At linebacker, the Bills will feel the departures of Fletcher and Spikes. Drafting LB Paul Posluszny was a good start, but slating Angelo Crowell and Keith Ellison for significant playing time is no way to make the playoffs.
The good news is that the team can compensate with a quick-strike offense.
Losman showed off an exciting arm last season, hooking up with breakout wide receiver Lee Evans on a number of deep balls. Evans caught 82 passes and scored eight touchdowns, proving himself to be a more than capable number-one receiver.
Fellow wideout Roscoe Parrish, meanwhile, is a threat on punt returns and can turn a short throw into a long gain. RB Marshawn Lynch, drafted to replace McGahee, has an enviable blend of agility and quickness.
The bad news, alas, is that opposing offenses will be quick-strike too.
The Bills secondary features a Pro Bowl kick returner, a corner whose name rhymes with Milwaukee, and two second-year safeties. One of those safeties, Donte Whitner, showed last year that he has a chance to be a future star. His cohorts, however, are average at best.
Losing Clements will prove to be very costly.
The hill Buffalo has to climb is daunting. The Patriots are the class of the division, if not the NFL. The Jets showed in 2006 that they have what it takes to contend for the next several years. Sure, the Bills can beat up on Miami a couple of times each season, but a 2-4 division record isn't going to earn them any playoff berths.
As long as they continue to draft smartly, develop solid players, and stay patient, the Bills will be better...eventually.
Until then, Losman and the gang will need to toil in anonymity a bit longer.
Projected finish: 6-10, 3rd AFC East
Keep your eyes on: Special teams—The Bills have the best unit in the league.
Take your eyes off: DT Larry Tripplett—Oversized and overmatched.