Who could have seen last offseason that the 2011 NFL draft for the Bills hinges on a backup journeyman quarterback from Harvard?
Trent Edwards was named the starter after a three-quarterback race between himself, Fitzpatrick and Brian Brohm. Fans hoped that this would be his breakout year.
Yet here we are, scant weeks away from the 2011 NFL draft, and the third overall pick (and subsequently, the rest of the draft) will be determined by what the front office and coaching staff think of Ryan Fitzpatrick.
In my previous article about the Buffalo Bills' draft and the possible statements they could make at No. 3 overall, everything related to the quarterback position. So general manager Buddy Nix and head coach Chan Gailey, plus the rest of the scouting department and coaching staff, need to agree on what Fitzpatrick means to the Buffalo Bills.
At the very beginning of last season, Trent Edwards was the starting quarterback. That lasted all of two weeks. He did not look in command of the offense like he did during training camp, and it became very obvious that he was not the same on the football field when the games counted.
So Coach Gailey made a bold move. He benched Edwards, started Fitzpatrick, and the team never looked back. During the season, it was obvious that the offensive players responded much better to Fitzpatrick than to anyone else.
Wide receiver Stevie Johnson had a breakout year, with 82 receptions for 1,073 yards and 10 touchdowns. Fellow wideout Roscoe Parrish finally showed what he could do on offense until he was placed on injured reserve. Rookie receiver David Nelson emerged as a go-to guy with the ability to get open for first downs and touchdowns.
Even fellow rookie Donald Jones made key contributions over the season, including a big touchdown at the end of the first half against Cincinnati that kick-started an enormous comeback.
Fitzpatrick himself threw for over 3,000 yards in 13 games (he missed the final game of the season due to an injury). So everything boils down to one question that Nix, Gailey and the rest of their people need to answer:
Is Fitzpatrick the long-term answer at quarterback for the Bills?
He was never a long-term starter prior to the 2010 season for the Bills. He was drafted in the seventh round by the St. Louis Rams. He played for the Bengals, but they let him walk in free agency. Neither of those teams saw him as anything but a backup—and not an important one at that.
Could it be that Fitzpatrick needed a change of scenery and a coach who would work with his strengths? Coach Gailey has a reputation for getting the most out of his quarterbacks and tailoring an offense around their abilities.
Or was the 2010 season simply a fluke? Was Fitzpatrick simply in the right place at the right time and had a once-in-a-lifetime season? Will he return to Earth next year and the offense come out flat and show none of the passion and guts they collectively exhibited this past season?
So much rides on Fitzpatrick and the staff’s evaluation of him. If they bank on him being successful and draft accordingly to that thought process and he comes out flat and shows nothing, then they most likely wasted a year of offensive development.
Conversely, if they think he’s only a short-term solution to a long-term problem, draft a quarterback with the third overall pick and Fitzpatrick matches last year’s output or exceeds it, then did the staff hamper the development of the rest of the team by not adding a playmaker who could have come in and helped elsewhere?
If the Bills staff does not have much confidence in Fitzpatrick’s ability to duplicate or exceed last season’s success, they then have to decide if any of the quarterbacks in this year’s draft have the ability to be a franchise quarterback.
There are enough questions about both Cam Newton and Blaine Gabbert, who appear to be the top two quarterbacks in the draft, to cast doubt on whether either of them will be franchise quarterbacks.
If the Bills do believe that Fitzpatrick offers a better solution than drafting Newton or Gabbert, they are then faced with deciding how to best help the other parts of the team. The consensus among fans is that the defense needs to be addressed, and there are plenty of talented players that could be drafted by the Bills.
In order to narrow them down, the Bills must decide what Ryan Fitzpatrick means to this team. That is the key to the third overall pick and eventually, the entire draft.
Just another day to a starting quarterback in the NFL.