The Bills did a good job targeting their holes this offseason and trying to fill them. Buffalo addressed weaknesses at receiver, tight end, pass rusher and the interior offensive line in either free agency or the draft.
And as training camp approaches, offensive tackle and safety appear to be the only two positions the Bills have major question marks at entering the 2009 season.
After dealing starting left tackle Jason Peters to the Philadelphia Eagles and not drafting a replacement, most outsiders view tackle as the Bills biggest hole but the team begs to differ. Dick Jauron and Buffalo’s coaching staff love Brad Butler and think he can be a future Pro Bowler at right tackle.
Butler is making the move from guard but he’s a very good run blocker. Traditionally NFL right tackles are known more for their run blocking than their pass protection.
The Bills are confident that Butler is going to make a smooth transition. Butler finished his college career starting 31 consecutive games at right tackle, so he does have experience playing the position.
Buffalo also believes they will be fine with veteran Langston Walker manning the left side. Walker has played both left and right tackle for the Bills and while he may not be a Pro Bowler at the position, the coaching staff feels he is a reliable veteran that will do an effective job at protecting quarterback Trent Edwards’ blindside.
There is also the possibility that the team could bring in nine-time Pro Bowl left tackle Levi Jones for the right price, assuming he’s healthy.
The Bengals released the veteran to save money under the salary cap and because Jones is coming off microfracture knee surgery. But if Jones checks out health wise, Buffalo could be a good fit for him, allowing Walker to be a valuable swing player at both guard and tackle.
So while the Bills offensive line will be reshuffled with two rookie guards (Eric Wood and Andy Levitre) and a new starting right tackle (Butler), the team really feels the unit is going to exceed expectations this year. Let’s hope so or it could be another long season for fans of offense in Buffalo.
The bigger weakness on the Bills roster may be at safety. Buffalo’s best player is Donte Whitner and while he’s solid, Whitner isn’t the playmaking safety the Bills thought they were getting when they drafted him with the eighth overall pick in the draft. In three seasons, Whitner has just one sack and two interceptions.
Still, Whitner is a good player and a leader in the locker room. The bigger problem is at free safety where Ko Simpson has been average at best. But there is a darkhorse who could help the Bills secondary force more turnovers, an area they need to improve in dramatically.
Buffalo used its 42nd overall selection on Oregon defensive back Jairus Byrd. He played cornerback in college but will move to free safety for the Bills.
Byrd is a real ballhawk and a playmaker, something the Buffalo secondary sorely lacked last season. He ranks second all-time in Oregon history with 17 career interceptions and most of his picks were of the game-changing variety (late in the game, when an opponent was about to score, etc).
Byrd and last year’s top pick, CB Leodis McKelvin, need to be on the field as much as possible. The Bills defensive backs have played much too passive in recent years and must start forcing more turnovers to help get the defense off the field.
Last year Whitner, Simpson – along with corners – McKelvin, Terrence McGee, Reggie Corner and Ashton Youboty – combined for just six interceptions. That just won’t get the job done. The Bills need more big plays out of their defensive backfield this season and the ball-snatching Byrd could be just what the doctor ordered.
Every team in the NFL enters the year with concerns and question marks. The Bills are no different. The team did a good a job this offseason to fill all the holes it could and put Buffalo in position to compete for its first playoff berth since 1999.
The play of the offensive tackles and safeties will go a long way in determining whether or not the Bills accomplish their goal and end the franchise’s long postseason drought.