As the Buffalo Bills wrap up a relatively disappointing season, one has a chance to reflect on what has changed since August. I predicted the team would go 6-10, but not like this at all.
The team added some talent defensively, and I felt the unit could be Top 12 if they played up to their talent level. With a pathetic offensive line, the offense would sputter, but the defense and special teams would keep us in games.
As Happy Gilmore once said to one-handed golf icon Chubbs Peterson in reference to his mother refusing to sign the permission slip to play a dangerous sport like football, "Good call."
The team decided to allow my defensive dreams to manifest themselves further.
In a preseason tilt in Chicago, OLB Shawne Merriman played lights-out football along with the rest of the swarming defensive front. The defense did appear to be headed for a "shock-the-league" season. However, once the games started, that would clearly not be the case.
The team was still unable to manufacture a pass-rush for most of the season. Minus a nine-sack performance against a beat-up Washington club, the team's sack numbers are dismal at best.
Whether or not that was talent, defensive coordinator George Edwards or some combination of the two is up for a depressing debate.
For a few reasons we'll delve into later, the back-end was not so spectacular either.
That all being said, we were the Buffalo Kleptomaniacs for the first half of the season. The team was getting gashed in terms of yards, but they kept taking away the football. Once the defense ran out of luck and stopped being so opportunistic, it just became bad football.
Offensively, head coach Chan Gailey's scheme put some cover-up on very noticeable roster blemishes. Suddenly, a team with little talent on paper was putting up major points and tied for tops in the league in terms of sacks allowed.
It should be noted that the number is a misrepresentation of the unit. When the QB is dropping back to pass with four or five wide and quick reads, the line doesn't consistently have to hold up for very long.
There are some patterns that take longer to develop, but let's focus on the staples of the offense for now. Wide receivers also benefit from the spread, having man-to-man across the board in some cases. Someone (if not a few) will get locked into a mismatch that can be taken advantage of.
Before injuries did them in, the line was opening up gaping holes for RB Fred Jackson, though. He had a lot of room to work with the first few weeks of the season. The front five were simply beating up physical opponents like the Raiders.
Injuries, scheme, depth and overall talent level across the board finally caught up with the team after its scorching 5-2 start.
Where do we go from here?
Ryan Fitzpatrick is a streaky, rhythm passer that would be an ideal bridge QB until the long-term answer is developed.
At the start of the season, teams were afraid of getting exposed and wouldn't blitz us that often. However, after the first Jets game, teams began realizing that if you pressure him into making mistakes, he'll force throws. The zone blitz has been a nightmare for him this season.
Fitzpatrick is probably too inconsistent to win you a Super Bowl without a really strong supporting cast. The long-term deal is not as bad as it appeared when it was first announced, though. There are ways out of it, which is what the Bills need to do.
Tyler Thigpen is a poor backup and needs to be replaced this offseason.
While I'm biased because of my undying support for Levi Brown, the dollars-and-cents view would still come into effect for those that don't believe in Brown like I do.
Thigpen eats up way too much cap space for a less-than-mediocre backup. Again, I feel Brown is talented, but even those who don't could probably agree with me that he is at least as good as Thigpen, but could be had for much less.
The minimum salary for a third-year player will be $615,000 for Brown, while Thigpen just signed a three-year, $11 million deal with the team last offseason.
If Baylor QB Robert Griffin III is on the board come April, he could be lethal in our current offense as well as any future head coach's offense—not tying us to Chan long-term if it doesn't work out. (For example, Landry Jones would—if he chooses to make himself eligible—because his best chance of being successful would be in an offense like Chan's. Personally, I feel he is overrated and will struggle in the NFL, but that is an argument for another day.)
It is a foregone conclusion that Stanford's Andrew Luck will be the first overall pick, but I'm not so sure he would be a great fit in Gailey's spread attack if he were available to us.
Let's establish that he's a talented player with mobility, and he could probably play well in any scheme. However, Luck is a QB that is comfortable (and has been successful) with a short-to-intermediate attack that works off a balanced running game.
By bringing him into a predominantly shotgun, spread offense, you'd be asking him to do something he hasn't done. There's definitely some risk there, especially if you have to trade the farm to get him.
I view Luck as a Phil Simms-type (elite game manager) rather than a throw-the-air-out-of-the-ball QB (still a very good QB, but just a different style and skill set).
You would like to think if that were the case, the coach would tailor his scheme to best fit his QB. However, Gailey has shown that his philosophy is to mold players into an offensive scheme and not vice versa.
Fred Jackson had a great season, but he will be 31 when the 2012 season kicks off. He might not have been in the NFL for long, but his tires were still getting worn down in other leagues. Who knows when he'll hit that wall?
Jackson is deserving of a new contract, but I'm not sure we should be the place to give him one. People confuse that argument with not liking F-Jax. I'm most certainly a fan of his, but it's just the business side of the game.
He's under contract for another season, but probably won't play until he gets his deal reworked.
Despite his ultra production, most teams will be just as concerned for the same reasons I am. The Bills would be lucky to get a second-round pick out of him, but it's a trade that should be made.
The C.J. Spiller situation is a whole topic in itself. Gailey (in theory) signed off on taking him ninth overall in 2010. Even though I preferred Iowa's OT Bryan Bulaga, I was OK with this because of Spiller's talent level, Fred's age and my guy "Beastmode" needing a change of scenery soon.
Almost two seasons later, he's averaging 5.3 yards per carry, but still not getting the full gamut of touches. While he recorded his first 100-yard game against Denver, he should have had two more against Miami and Tennessee had Chan not sat him down in favor of Tashard Choice in so many critical situations.
My conspiracy theory is that he may have escalators in his contract that the team is trying to avoid. That way, they can still comfortably keep both Spiller and Jackson on the roster next season, buying the front office time to make a decision.
According to Gailey, he doesn't want to wear him out, citing that he doesn't believe he can carry the ball 25-30 times a game. While I believe Spiller can still be a 30-touch (20-22-carry) guy, the question is why Gailey would agree to taking a back in the Top 10 that he feels can only play a complementary role on the team.
Spiller has the skill set for this offense, but there may be a disconnect between Nix and Gailey here because something doesn't seem right.
Rookie Johnny White does have some value as a possible third-down back/contributor, but the team could stand to add a complementary back, assuming they side with Spiller and trade Jackson.
A cheap (and effective) solution would be swiping RB Allen Bradford from the Seahawks' practice squad now or just waiting until after the new league year and trading them a sixth- or seventh-round pick. He's an underrated player that just needs a little time to develop.
A draft option would be Boise State RB Doug Martin. He's a bit undersized, but a physical runner with solid hands. I've seen him projected to go anywhere from Rounds 3-5, but he would be a very good pickup for the Bills (especially if we part with Jackson). He's a complete back that has the upside to start.
The team does have a No. 1 already on the roster in Stevie Johnson.
While I don't feel he'll ever be an elite receiver, everything is relative. He could be a Top-12-15 guy in the league with his route-running, which has so vastly improved from his rookie training camp that I'm still shocked by it.
He currently has 964 yards, which puts him 36 short of becoming the first receiver in Bills history to have back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. This is where it gets sticky, though.
The team has offered him a contract, but talks were cut off, and it sounds as if Johnson feels he was low-balled. I feel he's worth somewhere in the $6-6.5 million range annually, but it would be purely speculative to guess how much he's asking for.
I do have the philosophy—when it comes to retaining and bringing in players (to a team that hasn't won recently)—that sometimes you have to overpay a bit if it means not taking a step back.
The best way to get players to want to be here is winning, and you won't be able to bring a new guy in with that $2 million you're trying to save off the cap if you lose your No. 1 receiver and end up losing more games. We have little depth and can't afford to lose him. If that means giving him $8 million per season, so be it.
I believe there is a misconception where some confuse having talent and expressing confidence with having an attitude problem. We have a good player that wants to be in Buffalo, and he sounds like he's losing patience with the fans and the Buffalo media.
The Bills don't really have a true No. 2.
Donald Jones has some speed and is a solid blocker, but he has inconsistent hands.
David Nelson is essentially our tight end, creating mismatches with his big frame. However, he isn't overly elusive or dynamic.
Roscoe Parrish has shown flashes of being reborn in the right role, but I'm not sure he'll be brought back. His value is completely up in the air right now, given his inability to stay healthy.
Brad Smith has good hands and long arms, but he's more of an expensive gadget than a weapon.
Naaman Roosevelt also has good hands, but he lacks the speed to get vertical. He's more of a No. 4 or 5 WR.
Marcus Easley is a complete question mark right now. He's shown some ability, but also some inconsistency, catching the football. That's just the football side. Medically, his condition is rumored to be career-threatening.
It's definitely a position that could be addressed, but Gailey's scheme can make use out of the guys he already has. Should we really invest more resources into it?
If we choose the free agency route, there are few different tiers depending on what we need. As of now, a lot of talented receivers may be available.
If we allow Johnson to walk, it could be Nix trying to save the money to go get current Charger Vincent Jackson—a man who was drafted while Nix was assistant GM in San Diego—to be the new No.1.
Obviously, it would be awesome to bring in another top-notch receiver, but that doesn't make much sense salary cap-wise. Therefore, a more realistic option for our No. 2, provided we re-sign Stevie, would be Robert Meachem.
Meachem is a young guy that has shown the ability to be a vertical threat. I wouldn't call him a complete receiver, but we're looking for a quicker complementary player at this point, and he's shown flashes of big-play ability. However, it has to be at the right price.
In the draft, the team may target the ultra-talented Justin Blackmon with their top choice (if still available), but it would be more likely that the Bills go after Oklahoma WR Ryan Broyles. He's coming off a major injury and will have to check out medically, but he has the ability to be a steal in the second round.
For the first time in a long time, I wouldn't call the position a need.
Scott Chandler has shown enough to be a solid starter for the club for the foreseeable future, with Lee Smith providing the blocking as a specialist.
Mike Caussin looks like a solid developmental prospect for the practice squad.
As I said, the unit gets hidden a bit by the scheme, but let's not completely take away from what the guys have been doing all year up front.
At left tackle, Demetrius Bell exceeded my expectations, but will most likely not be retained given his injury history and how much he would receive in the open market. If he's available for four years at $16-20 million, that would be my range. As long as we don't have to overpay too bad, he should be retained.
His fill-in would most likely be Chris Hairston, last year's fourth-round pick out of Clemson. He's more of a right tackle and an even better fit inside at right guard, but he held up alright in spot duty.
At left guard, Andy LeVitre has played very well overall, in both run blocking and pass protection.
Center Eric Wood has played well when healthy, which has not been often.
Even Chad Rinehart has proven to be a valuable fill-in for the club.
RG Kraig Urbik and RT Erik Pears would probably not be starting on any other team, but could probably continue to start for the time being while we have this gimmick...er...spread offense.
Thus, we're in the market for as much help as we can get even if we can get by for the time being.
For the monster-contract category of free agency, I would be ecstatic if the Bills could land stud guard Carl Nicks from the Saints, but I'm not even sure the contract would be worth it, considering what the guys we currently have can do for the scheme.
From the value bin, Bengals RG Bobbie Williams would be a nice pickup.
In terms of the offensive line, the real key for the Bills this offseason is acquiring depth and, possibly, a long-term answer at left tackle—like Stanford's Jonathan Martin—in the first round.
Despite my love for the 3-4 as a scheme, this team already has the core talent to become a very good 4-3 team in the near future, including a good 4-3 defensive coordinator already on the staff in Dave Wannstedt. For that reason, I'd like to see a switch and will dissect the positions as if one will be made.
The team has a solid front, but if they'd like to fully utilize the talents of their players, it should be in a 4-3 scheme.
The Bills currently have two nose tackles on the roster in 2011 third-overall pick Marcell Dareus and Pro Bowler Kyle Williams.
While Marcell played the 5-technique (3-4 defensive end) at Alabama, he bulked up to 340 pounds by Bills training camp this season. That is the weight of a nose tackle, not an end.
Amazingly, he didn't lose much explosiveness despite the jump in weight. Dareus is built to be a classic, 2-gap nose in the 34, plugging up double-teams and being a space-eater.
Meanwhile, Kyle Williams is a hybrid NT, where he made the Pro Bowl as a penetrating 1-gap lineman that shot through into the backfield. Marcell can play end, but Kyle doesn't have the height for it.
They would be best utilized in a 4-3 lined up next to each other in the middle. Dareus could play the 2-technique, and Williams could play the 3-technique, where he was so successful in the past for Buffalo.
Dwan Edwards hasn't been overly impressive this season, but he could join a sterling tackle rotation.
I like Spencer Johnson as a rotation guy, but I doubt he'll be on the roster with his $3 million salary.
Arthur Moats could put his hand in the grass and play his more natural position of defensive end as opposed to outside linebacker.
Chris Kelsay is still a poor pass-rusher, but he has been a stellar run-defender the past two seasons.
Alex Carrington has the size and athleticism to rotate in as a heavy end and as a defensive tackle in passing situations.
Danny Batten could also rotate in at end for now.
At this point, I'd still welcome Shawne Merriman back as a defensive end, but we'd most likely have to release him first and re-sign him at a much more friendly number.
Rather than have one stud pass-rusher, the Bills can be successful by throwing wave after wave at offenses.
A situational pass-rushing option would be West Virginia's DE Bruce Irvin in the third round. I'd like the team to focus on defense early if the value is there, so we'll have to see which juniors make themselves eligible if the Bills are to address the position even earlier.
Colts DE Robert Mathis would be available, but he's probably looking for one last big contract.
If we remain a 3-4 team, we need to find a rush-backer or situational pass-rusher somewhere.
My sleeper I wanted the Bills to add at the trade deadline is Browns DE/OLB Marcus Benard, who had not been making much of an impact at end. He's not an every-down player, but he could provide some pass-rushing ability and was productive in the 3-4 under Eric Mangini.
Benard tallied 11 sacks his first two seasons in the league (for my shameless plug of a past article, http://bleacherreport.com/articles/889128-2011-buffalo-bills-trade-deadline-time-to-target-deolb-marcus-benard).
49ers OLB Ahmad Brooks would be my choice for a more complete outside linebacker, though it was rumored he turned down a long-term contract offer from the club. He might be more expensive than I hoped.
The talent is there for the Bills to shift to a 4-3 as well.
Nick Barnett could stay inside at the Mike, or middle linebacker spot, but I would move him to the Will (weak side).
I would retain Kirk Morrison on a two-year deal to play the middle and move the bigger and stronger run-defender in Kelvin Sheppard to the Sam (strong side).
Unfortunately, that would probably spell the end for one of my favorites, Andra Davis. However, his leadership and run-defending ability might allow for him to stick as a backup strong-side linebacker.
Bryan Scott, who was effective in the box safety in the past, looked good this season in coverage and could provide good depth in passing situations.
Unless we remain a 3-4 team, I wouldn't necessarily want to address any issues in free agency, though I'd welcome Colts WLB Ernie Sims as depth to Barnett.
As far as the draft is concerned, I'd like to target Arizona State's ILB Vontaze Burfict. He's gotten mixed reviews from evaluators, fans, players and coaches, but I view him as a competitive, passionate player that wants to win.
He's physical,violent and can be a playmaker inside. Not everyone on the roster can be a boy scout, which I'm fine with because I want him to play the Mike, not run for Congress.
Buffalo needs some reinforcements in the secondary.
Drayton Florence was building off his good finish to the 2010 season at the start of the year, but trailed off once teams started catching him taking chances. There were a handful of plays during the season's second half in which Drayton could be caught peeking into the backfield without any safety help.
Leodis McKelvin has improved, but that's not saying a whole lot. The one thing you can't say about "Fly Guy Futuristic Swag McKelvin" is that he's lost his confidence—a very important attribute for a corner. With his return ability, I wouldn't cut the depth, but it's so disappointing seeing a player with his his physical ability completely unable to take that next step mentally.
Terrence McGee just looked so old this season when he was able to take the field. He's lost a step, and even though his tackling is better than ever, he's a liability out there. Once again, the business side of the game is tough, but it's time to let McGee loose.
Justin Rogers is still a project at corner, but the Richmond product has looked very good returning kicks.
Aaron Williams, the second-round pick out of Texas, has played very well for a rookie cornerback this season.
My book on him coming out of college was that he trusted his athletic ability too much and could get beat over the top. He also showed great hands and made some athletic grabs, but didn't take away too many passes in college.
While some teams did pick on him deep, where he struggled, he was aggressive in run support and brought a youthful enthusiasm this team needed. He also hung around with some top route-runners like Santonio Holmes.
He's had his ups and downs like most rookie corners, but he may have a bright future here in Buffalo. I feel that, at the very least, he should become a very good nickel back for the Bills, which is still valuable in today's NFL.
My free-agent target would be the Falcons' Brent Grimes, though I'd be shocked if he somehow made it out the door. Lucky (or possibly lucky) for the Bills, Atlanta already has a lot invested in Dunta Robinson and may not be able to afford both.
You can pay top dollar for your top cover-corner, which Grimes would instantly be in Buffalo. I would hope for a six-year, $36-40 million contract range for Grimes, but as I mentioned in my receiver portion, I would overpay for a top guy like him if necessary (and to an extent).
There's almost no chance, but if LSU CB Morris Claiborne is available, the Bills should jump on it. An underrated option would be Virginia Tech's Jayron Hosley, who I really like if he decides to make himself eligible. I've seen him projected to go in the second or third round.
Jairus Byrd is a smart, hard-working player that has a nose for the football. The problem is he lacks top-end speed. His best fit is when he doesn't have to cover sideline to sideline and can play in two-deep coverage.
If you have him play single-high, unless you don't move him like Tim Tebow didn't on Sunday, he struggles, at times, for no reason other than his speed. I wouldn't replace him by any means, but I feel for him in the sense that he would most likely be a perennial Pro Bowler in Chicago or Minnesota.
At any rate, that's the reason he's not around the football as much as he was as a rookie, though the very good instincts are still intact.
George Wilson is great for the locker room and has shown some playmaking ability, but can get caught making gaffes in coverage the farther he gets from the line of scrimmage.
Therefore, if we continue to move these two around, we can have a solid tandem back there. But, it depends on the scheme.
If we switch to a 4-3, but not necessarily a predominantly cover-2 scheme, we should be good on the back-end. In a heavy cover-2, Byrd would be put in a better position to make plays, but Wilson would be exposed more often. Of course, sometimes the best situation is almost a safety by committee, rotating players in and out depending on the situation and what their strengths are.
We could definitely add depth to the position.
Searcy seems to be more of an in-the-box defender, and the coaching staff appears higher on him than I am.
I don't feel addressing the position early in free agency or the draft is really necessary. Just some valuable contributors, like a James Sanders or Steve Gregory, should be added.
I really, really miss kicker Rian Lindell right now. It's amazing how much I appreciate him now that I've seen what life would be like without him.
At punter, Brian Moorman has had a bounce-back campaign after a below-average 2010.
It may be time to look into younger options at both positions, but in my opinion, no move is necessary at this point.