There's no doubt Buffalo needs to improve in some key areas this offseason, and I'm going to look at the incumbent starters at each position on both sides of the ball, put them into three categories:
- Locked - Locked in as a starter going into 2010, does not need to be upgraded or have competition brought in.
- Compete - Will likely be the starter going into camp, but needs to have competition brought in to raise their level of play or be replaced.
- Upgrade - Not a quality starting-caliber player, needs to be replaced either through free agency or the draft.
I'll analyze the incumbents at each position, and for players listed under either Compete or Upgrade , I'll also list possible players who could be brought in at the same position either in free agency or the draft, as well as my recommendation for each.
The pool of free agents will consist only of those players who will be unrestricted free agents assuming that no new CBA is reached prior to the 2010 season.
Let the assessment begin.
Note: A * denotes an incumbent who enters the offseason an unrestricted free agent
Incumbent: Ryan Fitzpatrick
Analysis: Upgrade. Fitzpatrick is no more than a backup in this league, and has proven to be fairly unreliable even in that role. Trent Edwards entered the season and was benched because he was ineffective as well.
Brian Brohm, in his one start, was far from inspiring and is not the future of the Bills at the position. This is a situation where a starter needs to be brought in through the draft, someone Buffalo's new head coach can build a team around.
Possible Additions: Jimmy Clausen (Draft: Notre Dame), Sam Bradford (Draft: Oklahoma), Tim Tebow (Draft: Florida), Jevan Snead (Draft: Ole Miss), Tony Pike (Draft: Cincinnati)
Recommended Addition: Jimmy Clausen if he is available, Jevan Snead if not. Bradford and Pike both don't have the arm to throw in the Buffalo weather, and I'm one of those people who doesn't believe Tebow can play QB at the next level. However, I don't know if Buddy Nix agrees with me.
Incumbent: Fred Jackson
Analysis: Locked. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Jackson was far and away the Bills most effective back this season, and will be in a feature role going into 2010 with Marshawn Lynch's continued off-field troubles possibly spelling his way out of Buffalo. Jackson is a quality runner and will be a staple of the Bills offense next season.
Incumbent: Corey McIntyre
Analysis: Compete. Last year, the fullback played an extremely limited role in Buffalo's offense. With a new offensive coordinator, that may change. Buffalo could look to either free agency or the late rounds of the draft to bring in someone to compete with McIntyre in 2010 training camp.
Recommended Addition: Manase Tonga . He is an effective short-yardage back and receiver out of the backfield, as is evidenced by his 85 catches over his four seasons at BYU. A late-round prospect, he wouldn't be an expensive investment and could give McIntyre a run for his money at the fullback spot.
Wide Receiver 1
Incumbent: Lee Evans
Analysis: Locked. Evans is a solid go-to receiver, and simply needs a competent quarterback to get him the ball and someone across from him to break consistent double-coverage. No competition needed here.
Wide Receiver 2
Incumbent: Terrell Owens*
Analysis: Upgrade. Owens still has some left in the tank, but he won't be back in Buffalo next year. With that in mind, looking at Buffalo's roster doesn't exactly instill confidence in Bills fans that there is a competent replacement lined up. With Josh Reed also hitting free agency, the receivers on the roster besides Evans include James Hardy, Justin Jenkins, Roscoe Parrish, and Steve Johnson. It's an area of concern.
Possible Additions: Kevin Walter (FA: Texans), Dez Bryant (Draft: Oklahoma State), Damian Williams (Draft: USC), Brandon LaFell (Draft: LSU), Arrelious Benn (Draft: Illinois)
Recommended Addition: Kevin Walter. This is a position I feel Buffalo should turn to free agency to address, since the other holes they need to fill are better served by building through the draft. Walter is a big body (6 foot 3 inches, 218 pounds), young (28) and a quality number two receiver who would be a welcome addition to Buffalo's corps.
Incumbent: Shawn Nelson
Analysis: Locked. The Bills don't need to address this position. They have spent draft picks each of the past three years on tight ends (Derek Schouman in '07, Derek Fine in '08, Shawn Nelson in '09). They need to slow down on stockpiling these players and actually let one develop to see if they have found their answer. I believe Nelson will be that answer.
Incumbent: Demetrius Bell
Analysis: Compete. Bell is a project, and whether the new coach wants to continue with that project remains to be seen. He has talent, but was a liability this year, drawing 10 penalties and giving up five sacks in eight starts.
Bell may be better suited for a reserve swing tackle role. With the importance of the position and a weak free agent class, Buffalo's best bet is to look to the draft to find a franchise left tackle they can count on to protect their new franchise signal caller for the next decade. This year's tackle class is filled with talent.
Possible Additions (assuming QB is taken with first-round pick): Trent Williams (Draft: Oklahoma), Charles Brown (Draft: USC), Jason Fox (Draft: Miami), Ciron Black (Draft: LSU), Sam Young (Draft: Notre Dame)
Recommended Addition: You really can't go wrong with these guys, but Charles Brown would be my top choice. In addition to his athletic ability, Brown also locked down the blindside for a true freshman with Matt Barkley this year, the collegiate equivalent of blocking for a rookie at the pro level.
He knows that first-year starters are tougher to protect, and he did a great job of it for the Trojans.
Incumbent: Andy LeVitre
Analysis: Locked. LeVitre, a second-round pick of Buffalo in 2009, performed admirably in his first year, starting all 16 games and even playing some left tackle due to injuries along the offensive line. LeVitre is going to be a staple of the Bills line for a long, long time.
Incumbent: Geoff Hangartner
Analysis: Locked. Hangartner plays in the toughest division in the NFL for centers, with the AFC East boasting top-notch nose tackles in New York, Miami, and New England, and he held his ground against them all season. He gave up only three sacks on the year and was effective as a run blocker. Hangartner is proving to be a solid free agent pickup.
Incumbent: Eric Wood
Analysis: Locked. Wood, a first-round pick in last year's draft, saw his season cut short by a broken tibia and fibula. Prior to his injury, Wood was playing very well and should be back in a starting role to begin 2010, provided he is healthy for Week One.
Incumbent: Brad Butler
Analysis: Locked. Butler, like Wood, saw his season cut short with a knee injury in Week 2. Butler is the Bills best run-blocking offensive lineman, and should be back ready to go next year. Butler was Buffalo's only returning starter along the offensive line to open the 2009 season, but should help build some continuity with the team's new left tackle and the rest of the line, which is set in place.
That concludes my breakdown of the Buffalo Bills offense going into this upcoming offseason. Tomorrow, I'll take a look at the defensive side of the ball.