Archive for February, 2012

Bills GM for a Day: Safety

February 24, 2012

Cornerback:

On the Roster: Aaron Williams, Drayton Florence, Terrence McGee, Reggie Corner, Leodis McKelvin, Justin Rogers

What we Know: Williams became a starter by the end of the season and progressed nicely throughout the year. He had some growing pains early on and got torched on a few plays but adjusted his game to become a reliable starter by the end of the year. He did battle some injuries and missed a few games but is the early favorite to start at one corner spot when the 2012 season kicks off. Florence seemed to have a flare for making big plays but also became a serious liability in games as the season wore on. He was consistently torched by Laurent Robinson in Dallas and costly penalties against the Jets in New York contributed to a crushing loss late in the year. He signed a 3 year $15 million contract before the season started so it’s likely that he’ll stick around in nickel and dime packages but he doesn’t appear to be the answer opposite of Williams.

As has been the tragic story of his career, McGee missed the majority of the season with multiple injuries. He appeared in only six games and although he was solid when healthy, his prolonged track record of injuries has made him completely unreliable. It was reported yesterday that he agreed to restructure his contract to create more flexibility for the Bills in the offseason but it’s not a guarantee that he’ll be back in 2012. McGee’s former starting counterpart McKelvin has as much talent and physical ability as anyone on the current roster. He’s rarely ever burned in coverage but his lack of awareness and ball skills are extremely frustrating to say the least. Take the game against Dallas as a primary example. With an opportunity to knock the ball away from Dez Bryant, he goes for the pick, and Bryant rips it out of his hands for a touchdown. His disturbing lack of understanding the system and coverage schemes relegated him to special teams duties for the majority of the season. As expected, he showed some game breaking abilities in the return game and actually became a standout on coverage units, but he wasn’t a first round draft pick because of special teams prowess. Entering the final year of his contract, McKelvin will likely be given one last chance to prove he’s worth a roster spot but needs to show serious improvement in mini-camps and training camp to stick for one more year.

Prognosis: This unit was able to make some big plays in 2011 but they were also susceptible to long passes. McGee’s inability to stay in the lineup and McKelvin’s ineffectiveness in coverage put a lot of pressure on younger players like Williams and Rogers. Florence seemed to take a huge step back after getting a big contract and shouldn’t be the favorite to start opposite Williams in 2012. Speaking of Rogers, the seventh round pick showed some flashes as a kick returner and didn’t look completely lost in coverage. He has an outside shot of seeing more time in nickel and dime packages next season. McGee and McKelvin are both mysteries and shouldn’t be counted on for 2012. With that being said the only lock as a start in 2012 seems to be Williams. There should be open competition for roster spots amongst the rest of the rabble but Nix and the front office need to add another legitimate starter in the offseason.

Offseason Solution: Sign a starter in Free Agency
Nix made it known that he plans to add another corner to the mix sometime in the offseason. He was aggressive in pursuing former Raider Stanford Routt for the past few weeks before he signed with Kansas City on Tuesday. Routt said his decision came down to the Bills, the Chiefs and the Bengals so it’s good to see the front office being aggressive in trying to lure free agents to Western New York. By no means should the search stop at Routt however. The free agent cornerback crop has the potential to be stacked this offseason.

With Routt off to Kansas City, Brandon Carr will likely test the free agent waters. Carr (26) is a number one-caliber corner. He had four interceptions, 15 passes defended, and allowed a 49.4 completion percentage against (per bleacher report) in 2011. Chiefs GM Scott Pioli said that the team still wants to bring Carr back but with the Routt signing and elite corner Brandon Flowers already on the roster it seems likely that he’ll hit the market. Carr is one of the premier corners available on the market however and will in turn garner a handsome salary. With Ralph Wilson’s apprehension to dulling out large sums of money to corners it seems unlikely that Carr will land in Buffalo but there’s no harm in speculating.

A more likely scenario would be a player like Tracey Porter or Terrell Thomas. Porter is a solid starting corner and although he had a bit of a down year in 2011, he’s only 26 years old and still has plenty of potential. He will forever be remembered for his Super Bowl heroics against Peyton Manning and is no stranger to big plays. He also won’t demand the type of contract that the upper echelon free agent corners like Carr, Cortland Finnegan, or Brett Grimes will likely receive.

Thomas was the best corner on the Giants roster heading into the 2011 season. He became a shutdown corner in 2010 and had all the potential to enter that elite class in 2011. A torn ACL ended his year in the preseason however and it’s an injury that’s surely a cause for concern for a corner. It’s questionable whether he’ll be able to regain his potential-elite status again but he is expected to be ready by training camp. His injury should drag down his price tag a bit and he’s definitely worth taking a shot on for the right price.

Safety

On the Roster: Jairus Byrd, George Wilson, Bryan Scott (FA), Da’Norris Searcy

What we Know: Although he hasn’t shown the same ball-hawking ability that made him a Pro Bowler in his rookie season in 2009, Byrd took a huge step forward in 2011. He was arguably the surest tackler on the team and made multiple big hits in the secondary. His three interceptions and three forced fumbles are nothing to overlook and he really demonstrated the ability to be a cornerstone for the defense for years to come. His starting counterpart in Wilson also had a breakthrough season in 2011. He could’ve even been considered a dark horse pick for defensive player of the year in the first half of the season. In his first year entering the season as the starter at strong safety Wilson did nothing but make plays in the first half. He had big interceptions in four consecutive weeks from week three against New England to week eight against Washington. An injury cost him three games in the middle of the season and, not surprisingly, occurred in the middle of the team’s seven game losing streak. His leadership qualities and play-making ability were sorely missed during the demoralizing skid.

Scott made some pretty big plays of his own during the season. It could be argued that his interception towards the end of the first half in the week three victory against the Patriots was the game’s turning point. Scott’s a sure tackler and although he’s somewhat of a liability in coverage, is important to the defenses success. He has the ability to line up at linebacker in obvious passing downs and is excellent in run support.

Searcy showed some promise in his rookie season but definitely had some growing pains as well. When he was forced into starting duties when Wilson went down, he was outmatched by superior tight ends and had some trouble staying with slot receivers. He proved to be adequate in run support but still needs some seasoning before he’s ready for a more significant role.

Prognosis: The combination of Byrd and Wilson is more than solid on the back end. They both are capable of making big plays in the passing game and are solid against the run. Byrd has the potential to be a perennial Pro Bowler and while Wilson is already 30, still has some solid years of production left. Scott and Searcy provide adequate depth behind the two starters. While Scott’s somewhat of a liability against the pass as a safety, he fills the tweener role of a coverage linebacker nicely. Searcy still has some room to grow and shouldn’t be counted on to be a consistent contributor for at least another year or so.

Offseason Solution: Re-sign Scott and draft a safety to provide depth
Scott plays a valuable role in the Bills’ defensive system and should be brought back to provide depth. He shouldn’t be in high demand in free agency and should be relatively easy to re-sign.

While the combination of the four current safeties on the roster is more than adequate, both Wilson and Scott will be 31 when the 2012 season starts. Searcy is the current favorite to be the eventual heir apparent at strong safety but it might be wise to use a late round draft pick for depth purposes. If Scott is not re-signed adding another safety will become more of a priority. Still, Nix and the Bills shouldn’t break the bank on a free agent option like Michael Griffin as an upgrade over Wilson. If Scott walks, adding a player like San Francisco’s Reggie Smith may be an option. He can provide depth at both safety spots and at 25 years old he has plenty of years of production left.

Darcy’s Inferno. Or: How I Stopped Worrying & Learned to Love Institutionalized Mediocrity.

February 22, 2012

If there’s one upside to living in a city that absolutely refuses to sync its traffic lights it’s that the surplus 15 or so minutes you spend on your morning commute eye balling assorted Jesus Fish & OBX window clings can be used to reflect on the critical issues of the day.  There is only so much thought I can give to the Port of Hormuz and the slow painful death of the Euro before my eyes glaze over into cynical hopelessness.  Naturally, I prefer to contemplate a less stark & bloody form of hopelessness- Buffalo hopelessness! (that’s actually not a bad angle…I wonder if the tourism board ever considered ‘Buffalo: We’re Not the Gaza Strip!’ before “Buffalo; For Real”).

In any event, this morning let me marinate on the adorable little run of results that kind of, sort of  resembles watchable hockey at the foot of Washington Street.  Over the past several seasons my contempt for the hockey department (and Regier in particular) has transformed from apoplectic “nuke the arena from orbit!  it’s the only way to be sure!” rage to grumbling and almost gleeful schadenfreude seeing Darcy’s golden boys fall at every serious hurdle and challenge placed in front of them.  As satisfying as it might be to be to jump up and down and scream “I TOLD YOU SO! HA HA HA” like a 6 year old while wearing a goat head Drury sweater, it evokes TONS of self loathing remembering you’re projecting this onto something you’re supposed to…you know… love.

But those red hot and logic clouding emotions are starting to break into a bit of sunnier objectivity as Monday’s deadline draws nearer (yes, even with the swirling twitter rumors of a pre-July Gaustad extension; ugh).  It’s easy to lose sight that even with his many, many, many past indiscretions and mis-steps, it’s simply not fair to definitively judge Pegula-era Darcy based off of one summer of free agency.  The Regher/Leino/Ehrhoff free agent class has certainly been a flash point of contention this year in the city based off of overly high summertime expectations.  However, I’m still of the mind that the deals are very shrewd long term and each player will end up contributing significantly if they aren’t already.

It feels strange and borderline dirty to give Darcy that sort of slack after a long, dark winter anchoring the East and almost half a decade (!) of wandering in the desert of post co-captain uncertainty.  But on this Pegula day, I suppose that’s a product of the type of foreign, long term optimism that hasn’t rattled around this burg since Bethlehem & Republic Steel cheerfully poured a centuries worth of toxic sludge into the lake.  Here I sit – self proclaimed sworn enemy of Darth Quinn’s timid little lapdog, openly advocating for a bit more patience. 

Of course, Monday could come and go, late round draft picks could be swapped, water could be tread and many whiner line teeth may be gnashed.  I may very well come back here and bemoan Darcy’s smug (I’d like to imagine at least) confidence in his boys, his way and his team.  I may shout from my virtual rooftop that the Orchard Park disease has meandered its way through South Buffalo, across the Outer Harbor and firmly planted itself in Black & Pegula’s frontal lobe.  That all may be, but I sit here and write this not only for your (I hope) entertainment but also as a sober and preemptive reminder to myself on Monday evening that barring some unforseen disaster, in the end everything is going to turn out OK - with our without Darcy.  Optimism makes for strange bedfellows.

Lavish me with praise or spit at my feet in contempt on Twitter: @rjandolina

Bills GM for a Day: Linebacker

February 22, 2012

Inside Linebacker:

On the Roster: Kelvin Sheppard, Nick Barnett, Kirk Morrison (FA), Chris White, Andra Davis, Scott McKillop

What we Know: Kelvin Sheppard has already been designated as the starter in the middle heading into the 2012 season. He had a solid rookie season, finishing fourth on the team with 70 tackles, but didn’t make many big plays. Barnett had a great year, leading the team with 130 tackles while finishing with three sacks, three picks, a forced fumble and an interception return for a touchdown against Tom Brady. He’s a great leader in the locker room and has had success playing in a 4-3 in Green Bay. If he doesn’t beat out Sheppard on the inside it’s almost certain that he will stick as the starter at one outside linebacker spot. He’s a solid tackler, can get after the quarterback and is great in coverage.

Morrison is an interesting story. He joined the Bills the week before the season started and only saw minimal time on the field with the exception of special teams. During his days with the Raiders he was constantly at the top of the league in tackles and has some playmaking ability (6 sacks, 7 INTs, 6 FFs in his career). Against the Redskins he saw a few snaps with the defense and sacked John Beck on his first snap of the game. Don’t be surprised if he’s brought back to provide depth and challenge for one of the starting OLB spots.

At 33 years old, Davis’ career as a starter appears to be over. He is a nightmare in coverage, is one of the slowest defensive players on the team and lost his starting job to Sheppard three games into the season. He likely won’t be back in 2012. White missed most of the season with an injury and McKillop, a once promising prospect in San Francisco, missed the entire 2010 season with a serious ACL injury and was cut by 9ers after camp this year. He likely won’t make a push for much playing time on defense but could be valuable on special teams.

Prognosis: The Bills are pretty loaded at middle linebacker and Sheppard will have plenty of competition to earn a starting job in 2012. He has plenty of talent and should thrive in the 4-3 but there may be some growing pains trying to get adjusted to a new system. Barnett is a lock to start at one of the outside linebacker positions if he doesn’t beat out Sheppard in camp. He hasn’t played outside before but with his athleticism and high motor the switch shouldn’t be too big of an issue. With Davis likely gone and Morrison a bit of a mystery, the depth behind Sheppard will likely be White and McKillop with Barnett moving over in the event of an injury. If Morrison is brought back he likely won’t challenge Sheppard in the middle but could push for a job at one of the outside linebacker spots.

Offseason Solution: Bring back Morrison.
With Sheppard and Barnett already on the roster it wouldn’t make much sense to bring in another starting caliber inside backer. However, you can never have too much depth in your linebacking corps and Morrison has the ability to provide depth at every position. He’s had some experience at outside linebacker in Jacksonville and is only 30 years old so he still has some solid years of production left. If you let Morrison go you’re left with two inexperienced players in White and McKillop as Sheppard’s primary backup which could be disastrous in the event of an injury.

Outside Linebacker:

On the Roster: Shawne Merriman, Danny Batten, Arthur Moats, Antonio Coleman, Robert Eddins

(more…)

Bills GM for a Day: DE and DT

February 21, 2012

Defensive End:

On the Roster: Alex Carrington, Lionel Dotson, Dwan Edwards, Kyle Moore, Chris Kelsay

What we Know: I’ve taken the liberty of projecting the defensive end position by those most suited to fit that description when the Bills switch back to a 4-3 defensive front in 2012. Of the rabble that remains, only Kelsay seems to be a lock to start. After a failed experiment at outside linebacker where he looked dreadful in coverage and only applied minimal pressure off the edge, Kelsay will return to a position where he’s much more comfortable and has seen success in the past.  Even with the transition back to end, the 32 year-old is anything but a difference maker, never coming close to double digit sacks in his nine year career and setting a career benchmark in 2006 with just 5.5.

Carrington has showed some promise in his two years, but only has two sacks to show for it. Edwards is a prototypical 3-4 defensive end and the transition to a four man front will likely mean Edwards moving inside to tackle. Another possibility would be Nix releasing Edwards with two years and $7.45 million left on his contract and a loaded defensive tackle corps already in place. Moore is a former fourth round pick and may be given a chance to make the roster out of camp but likely won’t be much of an impact, while Dotson showed some promise in the preseason but will also have to fight for a roster spot next season.

Prognosis: If the Bills go into camp with this stable of defensive ends, they will likely set new heights of futility. The decision to switch back to a four man front was by no means driven by the depth and talent at defensive end on the current roster. The five men listed above totaled 8.5 sacks in 2011 and of them the only one who is likely assured of an opening day roster spot is Kelsay. The defensive edges need a complete overhaul and infusion of talented pass rushers. When Gailey and Nix took the reins two years ago and decided to switch to a 3-4, they neglected to add any difference making pass rushers at outside linebacker. They can’t throw the last two years away as nothing more than a failed experiment. They need to learn from their mistakes and reload on the defensive front this offseason.

Offseason Solution: Break the bank on pass rushing help.
The name that’s been thrown around since the season ended has been former first overall pick Mario Williams. Williams is set to hit free agency on March 13th and even though they would like him back it’s unlikely that the Houston Texans will be willing to break the bank to keep him. Connor Barwin had a monster season and rookie Brooks Reed performed admirably after Williams went down early in the season. Although he seemed to be a decent fit at outside linebacker in Wade Phillips’ 3-4 front, Williams is a prototypical 4-3 end and likely won’t be missed much for the price tag that he will garner. Nix has made it known that the Bills will spend to the cap this offseason and they’ve already been linked to having interest in Williams. The problem will undoubtedly be trying to convince him to come to Buffalo. Ralph Wilson will no doubt have to open his pad-locked check book and pay an exorbitant amount of money for him to even consider Western New York.

With about 15 other teams likely to be in the running for Williams’ services, Nix will need a back-up plan. Luckily, this has the potential to be a very strong free agent class. Cliff Avril doesn’t offer much in run support but his 11 sacks last season and 30 total in his four year career speak volumes to his edge rushing ability. The Lions want to bring him back but he’s already said that he doesn’t plan on giving Detroit a hometown discount and has stated that he would likely hold out if given the franchise tag. After Avril it gets a bit interesting. Andre Carter revived his career in New England in 2011, amassing 10 sacks in 14 games but his age (33 in May) is a bit of a concern. Mark Anderson, Carter’s counterpart in NE, also totaled 10 sacks in the regular season and added 2.5 more in the playoffs. Anderson had been a complete anomaly prior to last season however. After getting to the QB 12 times in his rookie season in 2006, he totaled 13.5 in the five years leading up to the 2011 campaign. Some other veteran options include John Abraham (34) and Robert Mathis (31) but their respective ages will no doubt be some cause for concern. Dallas’s Anthony Spencer is another intriguing option but the Cowboys have made it known that they would consider using their franchise tag on him in lieu of trying to find a replacement in free agency or the draft. Spencer has played outside linebacker in Dallas’s 3-4 since entering the league in 2007 and tied a career high with six sacks last season. He is incredibly talented but disappears for long stretches. Some people believe that a transition back to end, where he played during his career at Purdue, would bring out his true talent and make him a more consistent performer.

The most likely scenario for the Bills will be finding a pass rusher(s) in the early rounds of the draft. The 2012 crop of defensive ends is loaded. The only two worthy of a top ten pick however are Quinton Coples from North Carolina and Melvin Ingram out of South Carolina. Both have their deficiencies but both have the greatest potential to be elite pass rushers at the next level. At 6’5” 281, Coples has the measurables that you dream about when looking for a rush end. His production in his senior season (7.5 sacks) isn’t ideal but he reaffirmed his elite prospect status with a dominant performance in Mobile during Senior Bowl week. His major knock is that he disappears for stretches and struggles against talented tackles. Ingram on the other hand, has an incredibly high motor and while he’s not on par with Coples in terms of size (6’2”, 276), he makes up for it with exceptional speed and strength. Because of his height, some experts have Ingram pegged as a hybrid 3-4 outside linebacker, 4-3 end, but his mixture of size and speed should more than overcome any worries about his size.

At the end of the day an optimal outcome would be Nix and the Bills front office adding a dangerous edge rusher in free agency and drafting another in the first three rounds to groom behind him.

Defensive Tackle:

On the Roster: Marcell Dareus, Kyle Williams, Spencer Johnson, Torell Troup, Kellen Heard

What we Know: A major reason the Bills made the decision to switch back to a four man front was because they are loaded at defensive tackle. Williams is a perennial Pro Bowler. It’s no surprise that when he went down, the defense just wasn’t the same. Dareus is a future All-Pro in the making and don’t kid yourself, his rookie campaign was nothing short of fantastic. Sure it wasn’t on level with Ndamukong Suh’s 10 sack rookie year but leading the team with 5.5 sacks while mostly playing nose tackle is exceptional. The combination of Dareus and Williams should terrify opposing offenses in the run game and they can both get after the quarterback. The combination should bring back fond memories of the dominance of Sam Adams and Pat Williams, with exponentially more athletic ability.

The depth at tackle is nothing to shake a stick at either. Spencer Johnson was athletic enough to line up at outside linebacker (even though it was a horrible idea) and he’s solid putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Troup is still pretty much an unknown but he definitely has potential. His injury history is a major cause for concern however and he barely saw the field in 2011. If he can get back to the form that made him a second round pick, he could push for serious playing time behind Williams and Dareus. Heard was a pleasant surprise in 2011. He made the team with an outstanding preseason, and put up some decent stats (21 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 FF) in limited playing time. His massive frame (6’6”, 346) makes him an ideal candidate to line up at the nose in short yardage situations and he’s no slouch athletically either. Add Dwan Edwards to the equation and you’re going to have some pretty tough decisions to make in September.

Prognosis: It’s been a long time since the Buffalo Bills had any position that opposing offenses or defenses had to game plan against but the middle of their defense in 2012 should break that trend. Williams and Dareus will form one of the most dynamic, imposing tackle combinations in the league. They should be a nightmare against the run and both are extremely athletic and can get after the quarterback. It’s not surprise that Williams and Dareus have led the team in sacks in 2010 and 2011 respectively. The combination of Johnson, Troup, and Heard form a solid corps behind the two stalwarts and should all be capable of making plays on their own.

Offseason Solution: Stand pat (No seriously)
With the exception of running back, this is the only area on the current roster that really doesn’t need improving. All five players are currently under contract and every one of them brings a different skill set to the team. We already know what we have in Williams and Dareus. Troup could be the X-Factor. He has enormous potential and is going back to the system he thrived under at Central Florida. I really can’t imagine a scenario where they add another tackle unless Troup suffers a major setback in his recovery.

Bills GM for a Day: Tackle, Guard, and Center

February 20, 2012

Offensive Tackle:

On the Roster: Demetrius Bell (FA), Chris Hairston, Erik Pears, Sam Young

What We Know: Bell looked fantastic in September and October, giving up only one sack in six games started. The only problem was those six games were the only significant time he saw all year. Knee injuries sidelined Bell for the majority of the season and his injury problems have become a significant concern. Hairston performed somewhat admirably in his stead but the drop off in production was evident with increased pressure on Fitzpatrick as the season wore on.

On the other side Pears, another 2010 late season edition, was a pleasant surprise. With the exception of a few poor performances as the season wore on, Pears was solid for the majority of the season. He has his flaws in pass protection but proved to be a more than adequate run blocker and with a new three year contract extension, looks to be the mainstay on the right side for the foreseeable future.

Prognosis: Bell is a free agent and unless he agrees to a reasonable contract offer, will most likely not be back. He has shown flashes of brilliance against the pass rush on the blindside but his extended injury history makes him a huge question mark and not worthy of a significant financial commitment. While Hairston showed some signs of being a capable lineman, he by no means should be considered the left tackle of the future. He has serious issues dealing with speed rushers and is only adequate in the run game. At the very least he provides solid depth on both sides of the line and gained valuable starting experience in his rookie season. Pears should be a solid starter on the right side going forward.

Offseason Solution: Don’t overpay Bell and finally use a high pick on a proper left tackle.
When he’s on the field Bell is a solid player but is far from a franchise left tackle. A weak free agent class at tackle may drive his price up by a club desperate for a blindside blocker and the Bills shouldn’t be intimidated into breaking the bank on a major injury risk. The team hasn’t drafted an offensive tackle in the first three rounds of the draft since Mike Williams in 2002. Obviously any team would be weary of spending such a high pick on a position after that catastrophic miss but it’s time for Buddy Nix to find a legitimate franchise left tackle. The elite prospects in USC’s Matt Kalil and Iowa’s Riley Reiff will likely be gone by the time the Bills select at 10 and while Stanford’s Jonathan Martin should be available, he’s a bit of a stretch that high. If the top two prospects are both in fact gone by the time the Bills chose at 10 it may be in Nix’s best interest to wait until the second round to select someone like Florida State’s Zebrie Sanders or Ohio State’s Mike Adams. If Nix and the front office again decide against using a high pick on a tackle, the only option in free agency is Jared Gaither. He was a name that popped up multiple times last offseason when he was still with the Ravens but wasn’t even brought in for a visit. Like Bell, Gaither is an injury risk and has struggled with back issues in the past. He jumped around a bit in 2011 and ended the season in San Diego when Marcus McNeill went down and was dominant down the stretch. If San Diego brings him back, McNeill might be released to clear room and he too would solidify Buffalo’s offensive left side.

Guard and Center:

On the Roster: Eric Wood (C), Andy Levitre, Chad Rinehart, Kraig Urbik, Colin Brown.

What We Know: The Bills interior offensive line was dominant at times in 2011. Eric Wood was a First-Team All Pro in the first half of the season and has all of the makings of an elite lineman in the middle of the team’s o-line for years to come. He’s a fantastic run blocker and it’s no surprise Jackson had the year he did when Wood was healthy. Wood is also very athletic and was the key reason the offense had so much success running screens plays in the first half of the season. Injuries are starting to become a concern for the 2009 first rounder however. For the second time in three years Wood suffered a serious leg injury and has another long rehab in front of him even though he is expected to be ready for training camp in July. A broken leg and torn ACL in a three year timespan is major cause for concern though.

Andy Levitre was Mr. Versatile in 2011, spending time at four of the five positions along the line during the season. When Bell went down with an injury, Levitre stepped in and performed well at left tackle. When Wood went down he stepped in and played center for the first time in his life and struggled mightily. He’s best when he’s at his natural position at left guard and proved to be a solid road grader and equally skilled pass blocker in the interior line. Wood and Levitre are the heart and soul of the Bills line and should solidify the interior of the line for years to come.

On the other side Kraig Urbik and Chad Rinehart split time at right guard and both proved to be adequate when given the opportunity. Urbik stepped in at center after the Levitre’s disastrous failed attempt and played satisfactory for a few games in Wood’s absence.  Colin Brown stepped in at center late in the year and didn’t show any glaring holes in his game but should probably be considered nothing more than a back-up.

Prognosis: The interior of the Bills line is solid. If Wood can come back healthy and Levitre doesn’t fall back into his lazy ways that almost cost him his job at the end of training camp, the left side of the interior could be dominant. Wood is entering elite status while Levitre could join that conversation with another consistent season. The combination of Urbik and Rinhart are more than sufficient for the time being. Perhaps the biggest advantage that the Bills interior line has is its youth and room for growth. Wood, Levitre, Rinehart and Urbik are all 26 years old and younger and still have plenty of room for improvement.

Offseason Solutions: Add a legitimate back-up center and possibly another guard for depth.
When Wood went down, the drop-off was extremely noticeable in the line. Nix needs to go out and sign and actual center for depth purposes and not use a patchwork offensive line that features a tackle/guard playing center who can’t snap the ball out of a shotgun set. Rinehart is the back-up at both guard positions but it wouldn’t be a bad idea to draft another guard for depth purposes. The Bills demonstrated that you can never have too many offensive linemen last season. A nice solution for depth at both positions would be a player like Indy’s Mike Pollak. He has experience at both guard and center and although he’s been somewhat inconsistent since being selected in the second round by the Colts in 2008, he has showed some flashes in his young career. He could also challenge for a starting job at right guard.

Bills GM for a Day: WR and TE

February 17, 2012

Wide Receiver:

On the Roster: Stevie Johnson (FA), David Nelson, Donald Jones, Derek Hagan, Marcus Easley, Ruvell Martin, Roscoe Parrish (FA), Naaman Roosevelt.

What We Know: It’s almost unfathomable to think that Johnson became the first receiver in team history to have back-to-back 1,000 yard receiving seasons with the rich history of receivers like Brooks, Reed, Lofton, and Moulds but it’s true. Johnson isn’t a game-breaking talent and his end zone antics and key drops are well documented, but he may be the best route-running receiver in the game. Even with a key drop that likely would’ve won the Bills the game in the Meadowlands, Johnson undressed the most dominant cornerback in recent history when he went up against Darrelle Revis in week 12. He knows how to get open and is a solid threat in the red zone.

Behind Johnson you have a slew of late round draft picks, undrafted free agents and castoffs that formed a pretty decent unit in 2011-2012. Nelson is built like a tight end and catches just about everything that’s thrown in his direction. Unfortunately he also runs like a tight end and sometimes has trouble creating separation. Nevertheless he’s a great possession receiver and a guy every team needs. Brad Smith saw a lot of time at receiver after Parrish and Jones went down and had a couple solid games in the process. Hagan turned out to be somewhat of a nice surprise, showing some separation and deep speed ability as the season wore on. Jones showed some ability getting deep during the season including an impressive performance in a week three win against the Patriots but he’s way too injury prone and drops far too many passes. Easley is still an anomaly. He showed some promise in the preseason but didn’t play a down in the regular season after it was found that he had a heart condition. He’s since been cleared by doctors but his window to prove he can be a contributor is closing fast.

Prognosis: Besides Nelson and Johnson (depending on his free agent status) no receiver should be considered a lock to make the opening day roster. Parrish won’t be back, Martin likely won’t be back and the rest depends on free agency and the draft. The team lacks a true deep threat and the majority of the receivers on the roster are nothing more than possession receivers. The corps depends heavily on Johnson’s production and he’s the only player that opposing teams have to gameplan for. Nelson is a key contributor on third downs and may have the most reliable hands on the roster. Beyond that the list is interchangeable and serious upgrades are needed in order to keep pace with the new demands of a pass-happy NFL.

Offseason Solution: RE-SIGN OR FRANCHISE STEVE JOHNSON!!!
For those of you out there who want to debate this point by saying “he drops the ball,” “he has character issues,” “his end zone celebrations hurt the team,” you need to have your head examined. Johnson has ZERO off the field issues, he mocked a man that shot himself in the fucking leg and was sent to prison for it, and his drops were down significantly in his second full season as a starter. To delve further into these so-called “character issues”, how about you ask Mark Armstrong from Clarence what kind of character Johnson has? Two weeks ago Johnson held a contest for his twitter followers with the ultimate prize being two tickets to Super Bowl XLVI. Johnson ended the contest one day early after he heard Armstrong’s story. Armstrong, a high school junior at Clarence, lost his father three days before the contest was over and once Johnson heard the story he immediately called the teen and gave the tickets to him. How’s that for morale fiber?

In addition to bringing Johnson back Nix and the Bills front office need to find a legitimate number two receiver to pair with him. The free agent market is loaded with names like Dwayne Bowe, Vincent Jackson, Reggie Wayne, Marques Colston, Wes Welker and Desean Jackson, none of which will likely target Buffalo as a landing spot. The second tier of receivers isn’t too shabby either however, with the likes of Robert Maecham, Pierre Garcon and Super Bowl hero Mario Manningham likely to hit the market. With the NFL becoming a passing-dominant league the Bills can’t afford to lose their number one receiver and need to add at least one more piece besides him as well. Look for the team to target one of the aforementioned deep threats to create a more consistent vertical passing game.

Tight End:

On the Roster: Scott Chandler (FA), Lee Smith, Mike Caussin

What We Know: Chandler had the most productive season of any Bills tight end since Jay Riemersma in the late ‘90s. He was a legitimate threat in the red zone and tied a record for receiving touchdowns by a Bills tight end. At 6’7”, 263 he is a matchup nightmare for linebackers and safeties and uses his frame to his advantage. He did have a costly fumble against the Titans in December and is by no means a game breaker in between the 20s.

Prognosis: Beyond Chandler, Smith and Caussin are both solid blockers but neither has much to offer in terms of receiving. Chandler pretty much fell into the Bills laps at the end of the 2010 season and he hasn’t disappointed. In a league that has seen a renaissance at the tight end position over the last couple years it’s imperative to have a big-bodied, somewhat athletic threat to stretch the field and provide a big target in the red zone. I don’t see either Caussin or Smith stepping into that role anytime soon.

Offseason Solution: Re-sign Chandler and sign another tight end in free agency or pick one up in the draft.
Chandler’s impending free agency is a great cause for concern for a team with very few options behind him. Losing him would create another large hole for the Bills. In free agency a couple of big names in Jermichael Finley and Fred Davis may hit the market although it is highly unlikely. A more suitable solution would be taking a chance on a Jacob Tamme or John Carlson if they are unable to bring back Chandler. A name to keep an eye even if Nix is able to lure back Chandler is Martellus Bennett from Dallas. Bennett had superstar potential coming out Texas A&M a few years back but has never been given much of an opportunity to produce behind stalwart Jason Witten. Chandler was stuck behind Witten in Dallas as well and Bennett is much more athletic than his former teammate. He’s also only 25 years old and has plenty left to prove. A combination of Chandler and Bennett could produce serious matchup problems for opposing defenses.

Bills GM for a Day: QBs and RBs

February 16, 2012

Super Bowl XLVI is in the books and with it the 2011-2012 NFL season. A season that started with a player’s union strike (remember that?) and ended with a Super Bowl rematch of Giants v. Patriots that again ended with Tom Brady as the goat. It certainly wasn’t the greatest season in recent memory with perhaps the game’s greatest QB sidelined for the entire year and the emergence of a lame-armed quarterback with the heart of a lion. In the volumes of Buffalo folklore 2011-2012 will go down as another promising season that ended in a cataclysmic mess.

An incredible 4-1 start that included the team’s first victory against the hated Patriots in eight years, ended with a disastrous 2-9 finish and a $59 million contract extension for Ryan Fitzpatrick. I can spend all day trying to rationalize where it all went wrong and what the root cause was, citing injuries, lack of gameplan adjustment, or other teams adjusting to them. In actuality what it comes down to is a lack of talent and depth. When the backbone of the team in Kyle Williams, Eric Wood and Fred Jackson all went down the real Bills were exposed as a team with some talent, few superstars and little quality depth. With the NFL offseason set to be in full force with the Combine, free agency and the Draft right around the corner, let’s take a look at how the current roster shapes up and what areas the Bills need to target.

Quarterback:

On the Roster: Ryan Fitzpatrick, Tyler Thigpen, Brad Smith

What We Know: Fitzpatrick is coming off a career year and for the first six games of the season looked like a viable candidate for league MVP. He ran the offense efficiently and effectively until the beginning of November when teams began adjusting to what the Bills were doing. After the home loss to the Jets, Fitzpatrick and the rest of the offense looked anemic. When Wood was lost for the season against the Cowboys and Jackson against the Dolphins, Fitzpatrick never seemed to recover. It’s recently come out that he suffered broken ribs in a win against Washington on October 30th and struggled with the injury for the rest of the season. Some of the blame for the team’s collapse could be attributed to their ailing QB but when it’s all said and done, Fitzpatrick seemed to lose his confidence down the stretch, began forcing passes and led the league in interceptions by the end of the season.

Prognosis: Fitzpatrick is a capable stopgap player for at least a season or two while Thigpen is a competent number two but by no means is the long term solution. Chan Gailey and the offensive staff need to find more ways to get Smith onto the field. They had success running him out of the wildcat and pistol early in the season but abandoned the gameplan almost entirely when injuries in the receiving corps started to pile up.

Offseason Solution: Draft a quarterback of the future.
Buddy Nix isn’t going to go after Matt Flynn or Peyton Manning in free agency or waste valuable draft picks in a trade. It’s highly unlikely the team will use a first rounder on a QB unless by some miracle Robert Griffin III falls to them at ten. The incoming quarterback class is top heavy but somewhat deep as well. Expect the Bills to take a good look at Ryan Tannehill out of Texas A&M, Brock Osweiler from Arizona State or Nick Foles from Arizona in the second round. Other possible solutions are Russell Wilson out of Wisconsin or Kirk Cousins from Michigan State in the third or fourth round. One thing’s for certain, the Bills can’t depend on Fitzpatrick as the quarterback of the future and need to seriously evaluate finding a quarterback to develop behind him.

Running Back:

On the Roster: Fred Jackson, CJ Spiller, Johnny White, Tashard Choice, Corey McIntyre (FB)

What We Know: Arguably the strongest and deepest position on the Bills roster. Jackson was the league MVP for the first half of the season. He was electrifying running the ball and catching it out of the backfield. He led the league with 934 rushing yards before breaking a bone in his leg against the Dolphins in week 11 and amassed 1,376 all-purpose yards in just nine and a half games. His emergence in the beginning of the year looked like it would all but seal former ninth overall pick Spiller’s fate in Buffalo, but his injury opened the door for the second year player. After a forgettable performance in his first start against the Jets, Spiller emerged as a viable consistent contributor while showing flashes of game-breaking ability the rest of the way. He finished the year averaging 5.2 yards a carry and began to deliver on the potential that made him a top ten pick.

Prognosis: The threat of having Jackson and Spiller in the same backfield is a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses if the Bills’ staff utilizes them correctly. Both Jackson and Spiller are dynamic threats in the passing game and can break long runs consistently. An optimal solution would be a similar strategy to that of the 2010 Kansas City Chiefs that capitalized on the power of Thomas Jones and the speed and game-breaking ability of Jamal Charles. The NFL may be trending to a passing and vertically-dominant league but the Bills need to focus more on their strengths in Spiller and Jackson.

Offseason Solution: Give Fred Jackson a three year contract extension.
Yes, he’s turning 31 in less than a week but this guy is coming off a historic season and doesn’t have the mileage of a normal 31 year-old back. He’s got several more years of production still ahead of him and is clearly vital to the team’s success. Beyond that the Bills should stand pat. Choice is more than capable as a number three runner and White wasn’t given much of a chance to do anything in his rookie season but made some nice plays on special teams coverage units.

2012 – A Rust Belt Odyssey

February 13, 2012

Sports and identity are things that have been intertwined ever since humans decided that kicking, throwing or carrying inflated pig blatters (or decapitated heads, whatever tickles your fancy) sounded like a fun idea.  Mayan tribal teams and Roman chariot racing hooligan gangs (seriously, look it up) were the precursors to cities like Buffalo investing so much of their civic identity into local professional outfits considering the fact that decapitation ball and Saturday afternoons at the Hippodrome were no longer viable entertainment options.

Over the past 50 years, Buffalo & WNY has built a unique culture that stands out amongst the blah sameness of post-industrial America – what we lose in population we’ve sustained in Olmstead parkways & architectural jewels such as the Darwin Martin house.  Despite years of stagnation, there are gradual rays of sun beginning to shine through the trauma and regional inferiority complexes.  While things aren’t one hundred percent hunky dory, the feeling of impending doom and irreversible decline don’t seem as pronounced as they did, say, a decade ago.

So what does that say for our two major league clubs?  What kind of reflection are we seeing in their mirrors?  For as long as the modern professional era has existed, the unifying flag of regional pride has been firmly planted at the corner of Southwestern & Abbott.   Buffalo’s three word summary for decades has been “snow, wings & football”.  But as we have morphed from industrial powerhouse to a more subtle (and sustainable) knowledge based economy, our two teams have become fitting symbols of the evolution that’s taking place right now.

The Bills are the old, parochial, outdated Buffalo uneasily co-existing with the clumsy, smaller but full of promise Sabres representing the Buffalo that needs to happen in order for us to be relevant moving into the meatier parts of the 21st century.  It’s the Woodlawn Stamping Plant vs. the Medical Campus.  Paladino v. the food trucks.  Shabby aging Cheektowaga ranch homes v. renovated Victorians on the West Side.   It’s not so much a zero sum game as it is watching this city reinvent itself given the new realities of an interconnected planet.  While the Bills have only just recently begun accepting credit cards at RWS concession stands, the Sabres recently finished wiring the arena with one of the best Cisco wireless networks (non-tax payer subsidized) money can buy.  You have the Bills criminalizing and passive aggressively shaming their most loyal 18-34 year old fans with the humiliating, galling and unnecessary “What Would Mom Say?” campaign.  Meanwhile, the Sabres are actively recruiting the region’s youth with steeply discounted student rush tickets and a much more robust social media program.  You think it’d be the Bills chasing Buffalo’s young people and not the other way around.  A great many of us can still vividly remember the Saturday Night Football calamity against Denver during Christmas ’05; freezing in the upper deck while our thoughts were firmly planted 7 miles to the Northwest as happy Buffalonians streamed out of another of the many thrilling Sabre overtime victories that built that memorable and wonderful year.

Even in physical terms, the Sabres exist squarely at the heart of the region; the Arena residing literally next door to the Erie Canal terminus, a revolutionary asset that shot Buffalo from sleepy lake village to thriving gateway to the American West.  Conversely, many times over the past decade of football nothingness I’ve marveled at how One Bills Drive exists almost in a bubble; a vast concrete bowl rising out of a field in a sprawling, affluent but disconnected suburb.  The symbolism is so thick you can cut it with a…erm…Sabre.

This all sounds like a lot of Bills bashing, and to be frank a majority of it is.  But it is not undeserved – for the remarkable loyalty and love this city has for its football team, the Bills have been loath to reciprocate.  Between the corporate welfare, thinly veiled threats of relocation if said corporate welfare was not provided, and most shamefully the outright theft of meaningful games to a foreign nation, it’s a wonder of the sporting world that the field house has not been burned to the ground by angry mobs yet.  But that’s the grip this team has on us – we know the score.  We know that we’re not big time anymore.  We know that our love of community and simply just the game is no match for the money worshipping leviathan that is the modern NFL ran by the Jones’ & the Snyders of this world.

That nasty little vision in the back of your mind of an abandoned and derelict Ralph Wilson Stadium is what keeps you renewing season tickets and buying new jerseys against every instinct of your rational self.  But that mental slavery is slowly melting – in one short year, current results notwithstanding, the Pegula regime has shown us that it can be better, it should be better, we deserve better and most importantly it will be better.  It’s foolish to cling to ghosts of the past and pine for the glory days to return.  Whether it’s Bethlehem Steel belching smoke or watching Kelly drive down the field on the bright green astroturf, the important thing we are slowly learning to accept as a community is that those days aren’t coming back.

The Buffalo of Jimmy Griffin & Irv Weinstein has been passed to the winds of history.  Whether we’re aware or not, this city is rebuilding itself into something better than just a post-industrial casualty limping along through the years and crying into its beer over what was and what might have been.  No, this city is becoming something better than that.  Maybe not as big or as bold as we used to be but definitely better than what we were on the road to becoming.  The Sabres get that, they embrace that and they are growing towards that.  The future is extending its hand to the Bills & Old Buffalo to come along for the ride; the question is whether or not they want to or even if they can.  It is my sincere hope that they do because there’s nothing more tragic in life than wasted potential.

Feedback, compliments, insults & threats can be directed to @rjandolina


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 541 other followers