A Defense of the Bills Off-season so-far
Hi, all. I'm THE Bills orangutan. I like writing about the Bills and I'd like to make diaries here a regular thing. I'm a little bit dry on ideas right now, so I'm going to use a couple of things that I wrote and posted elsewhere for my first couple entries. I hope you like them.
So this isn't exactly new info, but it's something I wrote a couple weeks back that's getting a new audience. This isn't written for the intended audience of a Bills fan, so some of the stuff said might seem obvious, but I think that there are some interesting nuggets of opinion in there, too.
The 2007 off-season has been a memorable one for the Buffalo Bills, to say the least. The Bills have let go many well-known veteran performers, while making no marquee free-agent pickups. Critics and fans around the league are openly questioning the Bills' ability to compete next year and perhaps even the sanity of the Bills' brain trust, but upon further inspection, the Bills' offseason moves have been carefully calculated to provide the Bills with the best chance to compete in the future. But there's no guarantee that they will pay off.
The Bills entered the off-season coming off a 7-9 season in the first year of GM Marv Levy and Coach Dick Jauron's stewardship. While such a record is not overly impressive, the Bills progress under the new regime, a regime that included completely new offensive and defensive schemes, was encouraging. Now, the Bills faced a daunting offseason challenge. Several prominent free agents would become unrestricted free agents and the Bills would be forced to make careful decisions about how to spend limited free agent money.
The free agent money was specifically limited by the Bills' "cash to the cap" philosophy. The Bills vowed to only spend as much cash (first year salaries and signing bonuses) as they had cap room. The front office explained this decision as a conservative measure to prevent the Bills from being mired in cap troubles. Critics lambasted it as foolish self-imposed spending limit that would prevent the Bills from spending the necessary money to be competitive. Perhaps also factoring into the decision was the Bills status as a small market, low revenue team. However, critics had a response to this point, too, claiming that owner Ralph Wilson has deeper pockets than he lets on and does indeed have the money to shell out big signing bonuses.
Despite all the arguments, one thing was clear; "cash to the cap" was a reality of the Bills offseason situation. Ralph Wilson, for whatever reason, felt that this was the best way to go forward with his team. It would seem illogical to condemn Mr. Wilson as one of those owners that sports is plagued with who lines his own pockets, while remaining unconcerned with the on-field product. The Bills four Super Bowl losses haunt Mr. Wilson as much as any other Bills' fan. At their advanced ages, it stands to reason that Marv Levy and Ralph Wilson are each feeling the pressure to turn the Bills into a contender. To say that "cash to the cap" is a strategy to increase Mr. Wilson's personal riches, seems blatantly false.
So it was that the Bills entered the offseason with significant cap room but hampered somewhat by a self-imposed spending limit. Nate Clements, London Fletcher, and Chris Kelsay, all starters, were set to hit the market, but the Bills, unwilling to lose all three players, took action just days before the free agent period began and moved to sign Chris Kelsay to a new contract. It is a contract that is quite lucrative given that Kelsay is not all that accomplished of a player. However, the Bills were quite aware that in a shallow free agent pool Kelsay would be one of the top available ends, and shelled out the cash necessary to get a new deal done. Kelsay is emblematic of exactly the kind of players that the Bills, under GM Marv Levy, desire. He is a starter on the defensive line, and the Bills have clearly turned their attention in the last two years to improving both the offensive and defensive lines. Also he is a high-motor, blue collar, lunch pail type player who, perhaps most importantly, wanted to come back to Buffalo.
With Kelsay given a fat new contract and brought back in to the fold, it seemed rather unlikely that either MLB London Fletcher or CB Nate Clements would be returning, and it already seemed quite unlikely before hand. Indeed, both moved quickly to join new teams.
Fletcher, for his part, signed on with the Washington Redskins for $25M over 5 years to become their new MLB. In the process he secured the big free agent payday that he understandably desired (and deserved) and reunited with former Bills Head Coach Gregg Williams. Experts roundly criticized the Bills for not re-signing, or at least not attempting to, the productive MLB. Undoubtedly, as proved by the Kelsay signings (and other Bills signings to come) the Bills had the money to match the Redskins offer. However, the Bills were unwilling to commit a significant portion of their free-agent budget to an undersized veteran MLB, who some felt was not attacking enough for Defensive Coodinator Perry Fewell's aggressive Cover 2 scheme.
If Fletcher would have eaten up a significant portion of the Bills free agent money, re-signing Nate Clements, who the Bills had agreed not to franchise again before the 2006 season so that he would not hold out, would have taken up just about all of it. The Bills undoubtedly would have liked to keep him. Though he can, at times, be inconsistent, there is little doubt that Clements is a bona fide top quality #1 NFL CB when motivated. Such motivation was displayed in the 2006 season, when, after something of an off year in 2005, he returned to his top form and secured a huge free agent payday. And his payday was indeed huge. At $80M over 10 years, it represented the largest contract ever given to an NFL defensive player. While the 49ers were able to sign Clements and make several other significant additions, the Bills "cash to the cap" strategy would have meant that a Clements signing would be the Bills' only signing. The Bills obviously decided that Clements was not good enough to warrant such extreme treatment and passed.
The Fletcher and Clements situations illuminate an important point about the Bills' offseason. The Bills certainly could have made a greater effort to keep their own free agents and may have, if they desired, been able to keep Clements or Fletcher in addition to retaining Kelsay. However, such a decision, would have meant that the Bills used free agency only to prevent losses not to improve the team. Retaining one's own free agents and counting on the draft for gains may be a worthwhile strategy to a perennial playoff contender like the Patriots (and even they chose to eschew it), but it hardly seems to be viable for a team like the Bills, who have been mired in mediocrity or worse for far too long. After all, even with Fletcher and Clements, the Bills were strictly mediocre. Re-signing them would have hardly led to a playoff run.
Instead of re-signing either Clements or Fletcher, the Bills chose to forge ahead on a different course. With few offensive free agents, the Bills could, if they so chose, have stood just about pat on offense. However, given that Bills were rather putrid on offense last year, ranking 22nd in scoring offense and only 30th in yardage, standing pat did not seem like a good idea. Instead, the Bills chose to bolster an area of the team that had long suffered, the offensive line. Offensive line guru and local favorite Jim McNally, has long been accustomed to coaching up late round draft picks into starters. To wit, last year the Bills at times started former 4th round pick Duke Preston at Right Guard, rookie 7th round pick Terrance Pennington at Right Tackle, and former undrafted free agent Jason Peters at Left Tackle. Having long coached inferior talent up to the level of mediocrity, the Bills finally set about acquiring some more impressive athletes for McNally to work with.
To that end, the Bills wasted little time. On the first day of free agency, the Bills brought to Buffalo and signed three offensive linemen: G Jason Whittle, G/T Langston Walker, and G Derrick Dockery. While Whittle was strictly signed for depth, and because McNally had worked with him while they were both with the Giants, Dockery and Walker were acquired to be starters. Walker struggled at times last year in Oakland on a terrible offensive line, but he is a mountain of a man, and he has a lot of potential. The Bills are hoping that being removed from the train wreck that was the 2006 Oakland Raiders will cause Walker to perform better. Walker will be in the mix for both the RG and the RT spots, with RT being somewhat more likely. Only if he fails abjectly in training camp, will he be relegated to the bench. Meanwhile, Dockery was penned in at LG as soon as he inked a contract. It is the position he played with his former team, the Washington Redskins, and the position he would be most useful at for the Bills. The Bills plan to pair him with LT Jason Peters to create a powerful duo on the left side of the line. Peters, a college TE, has become a very good LT, and is truly one of the league's best kept secrets. The Bills imagine Peters and Dockery as their version of the old Walter Jones-Steve Hutchinson tandem of past Seahawks teams. While Peters and Dockery obviously can't compare to Jones and Hutchinson (neither player has earned a pro bowl nod), both are young and are tremendous physical specimens. They should be able to improve over the next few years.
The $49 M, seven year contract the Bills gave to Dockery, along with Kelsay and Walker's decent sized contracts, signaled the end of any major additions the Bills would make in free agency, but the Bills feel it was money well spent. In Dockery and Walker the Bills feel that they have acquired two players who have yet to reach the ceilings of their considerable potential. Locked up to long-term deals, the Bills feel that they will be anchors of the offensive line for years to come. Moreover, they will help provide more time for young QB J.P Losman, who improved significantly in his third year despite dealing with frequent pressure from opposing defenses. Future Bills RBs will also benefit from the holes the open in the running game, as running room was often scarce for Willis McGahee and Anthony Thomas last year.
On the subject of McGahee and the running game, McGahee became the Bills' next off season focus after making their major decisions regarding free agency. McGahee, a draft pick of the Tom Donahoe era, probably never was what Bills fans might call a "Marv guy," as he was always somewhat aloof, choosing to spend his off-seasons with fellow University of Miami graduates rather than participate in optional team workouts. The fissure between the Bills administration and McGahee widened last season. Stories about out-of-wedlock children didn't reflect positively on his character and he didn't earn himself many fans in Buffalo with a controversial interview that he did with Penthouse magazine. In the interview, he made comments to the effect that he would be happy if the Bills moved to Toronto, as he professed that he liked the Canadian city. Bills fans, as one might imagine, did not take this very well, and one can only imagine how his teammates took his comments.
In addition to off-field concerns, the Bills had other, more directly football-related concerns about McGahee. Though Bills executives would never admit it, rumors abound that McGahee often was guilty of not knowing his blocking assignments due to a failure to study the playbook. As one could imagine, this may have significantly hurt his pass blocking, and has to be considered totally unacceptable. Besides, with but one year left on his contract, Willis and shark-like agent Drew Rosenhaus would desire a fat new contract next season. Buffalo likely wouldn't be high on his list of potential places to sign and the Bills probably wouldn't want him back either. Feeling that McGahee's relatively modest production could be matched by other backs, and wanting to get value for McGahee before his exit in 2008, the Bills resolved to trade McGahee. Eventually, a deal was done with the Baltimore Ravens who sent the Bills their 2007 3rd round pick and their 2008 3rd round pick. Baltimore picked up a starting RB to replace new Browns RB Jamal Lewis and the Bills gained some more valuable draft picks. It seems the decision to deal Willis was a wise one, too. Upon arriving in Baltimore, he thanked God for allowing him to get 990 rushing yards last season, intimating that he was held back in Buffalo by what he felt was a subpar supporting cast. If that's the way he feels, then he would have probably been a source of locker room disunity if he had stayed around.
Having dealt one veteran, the Bills sought to trade another, LB Takeo Spikes. Spikes had been perhaps the best free agent acquisition of the Tom Donahoe era. Signed in 2003, the appropriately named Mr. Spikes (Takeo means "great warrior" in Japanese) brought his intense style to the Buffalo defense and immediately proved a force to be reckoned with. He earned Pro Bowl nods in both 2003 and 2004. Unfortunately, he suffered a season-ending Achilles tear in week 2 of the 2005 season and missed early games in 2006 while still recuperating. He would appear in 12 games for the Bills in 2006 but did not appear to be the dynamic playmaker he once was. Spikes never was an ideal fit for the Bills Cover 2 scheme, which prefers LBs that are a little bit smaller than the muscular Spikes. Also, the Cover 2 requires speedy LBs, and it seemed that after his injury Spikes lost a step. These factors combined with the fact that Achilles injuries are notoriously hard to fully recover from and Spikes' not insignificant salary cap number persuaded the Bills to deal Spikes.
The Bills dealt Spikes and backup QB Kelly Holcomb to the Philadelphia Eagles for DT Darwin Walker and a conditional 2008 seventh round draft pick. Neither the draft pick nor Holcomb represents much value in this trade. Holcomb, once a solid backup for the Bills, seemed to fall off greatly in 2006. Not only did he fail to win the starting job in training camp, he performed miserably in the preseason against vanilla defenses. Eventually, it became clear that the Bills preferred Craig Nall at backup QB and Holcomb was rendered expendable. If he had not been traded, it is likely that he would have been cut. The trade thus reduced to a simple player for player trade, each team got something of value. Spikes, even a step slow, is still very productive and Eagles Defensive Coordinator Jim Johnson's defense is in all honesty a better scheme for him than Perry Fewell's was. He should represent an upgrade at SLB for the Eagles The Eagles will also appreciate Takeo's intensity and his locker room presence, each of which are tremendous. The Bills receive in Walker a much needed veteran at UT. The Bills struggled at both NT and UT last year. Rookie 5th round choice Kyle Williams provided a pleasant surprise and immediately penetrated the starting lineup at NT. Unfortunately, 1st round pick John McCargo didn't fare so well. After coming out of college from North Carolina State as a Junior, he struggled somewhat adjusting to the NFL in the season's early weeks before suffering a foot injury that put him on Injured Reserve. One time 3rd round pick Tim Anderson, offered little with his generally dismal play, and free agent acquisition Larry Tripplett likewise failed to impress an was something of a disappointment. Walker, while a world beater by no means, is a veteran pass rusher who is well-suited to playing UT in the Bills' Cover 2 scheme. It is generally agreed that he is best used in the sort of rotational scheme that the Bills have used and will use in 2007. Walker, then, gives the Bills increased pass rush presence from the interior defensive line, which should relieve some of the pressure of the Bills' DEs.
With the dust settled from this flurry of big moves, it is now possible to evaluate who the Bills may select in the upcoming NFL draft. In order to do so, it is first necessary to pinpoint the Bills' weaknesses. Minor spots of need for the Bills include S, WR, and FB. The Bills are satisfied with incumbent starters FS Ko Simpson and SS Donte Whitner, 4th and 1st round selections in last year's draft respectively, but depth is a concern. Coy Wire played S last year for Buffalo but will move to OLB, the same position he played in college at Stanford. That will leave the Bills lacking quality depth, although Wire could conceivably play S, if necessary. At WR, the Bills have a #1 WR in young star Lee Evans and a couple of solid slot receivers in Josh Reed and the speedy Roscoe Parrish but lack a true #2 WR to play opposite of Evans. Peerless Price filled this spot last year, but minus a few clutch catches was mostly underwhelming. At FB, veteran Daimon Shelton has departed leaving that spot open.
CB and DT rate as greater weaknesses. The departure of Nate Clements will be a painful one for Buffalo, as they will have to find a new #1 CB. The Bills front office feels that Ashton Youboty may just be the man for the job, but he is unproven. Youboty was rated as a first round talent last year by some draftniks but slipped to the third round before Buffalo chose him. After missing significant time in training camp to due family issues, Youboty struggled to catch up and did not dress on game days most weeks. Making the leap from not dressing to starting is a tall order, but Youboty may just have the physical ability to do it and become the latest in a line of successful Ohio State defensive backs to play for Buffalo (Antoine Winfield, Clements, Whitner). Kiwaukee Thomas, who played nickel back for the Bills last year also figures to challenge for the job opposite incumbent #2 CB Terrence McGee who at just 5'9" is too small to cover most teams' top wideouts.
The addition of Darwin Walker lessens the need for a DT, but the position still remains a concern. With Walker, McCargo, Williams, Tripplett, and Anderson the Bills have five DTs under contract, but Anderson is not a sure bet to make the team next year and the Bills will likely draft a DT at some point in this year's draft.
The Bills biggest weaknesses, and correspondingly their biggest draft needs are at LB and RB. While moving RB Willis McGahee seems to have been the right move considering his recent comments about his former teammates, it does have the disadvantage of leaving a gaping hole in the Buffalo backfield. After McGahee was traded, the Bills moved quickly to bring back veteran free agent Anthony "A-Train" Thomas. Thomas was a steady player for the Bills last year in a backup role and performed reasonably well when he saw the field. However, he is not a feature back and the Bills will have to add a rookie to fill that role. Not just any rookie will do, though. The Bills will want a player who has a history of being productive in college, so that he can step in immediately for the Bills. Also, the Bills will desire a versatile RB in the mold of Marshall Faulk who had great success in the Rams' offense that Offensive Coordinator Steve Fairchild brought to Buffalo.
Three first-day prospects at RB seem to fit what the Bills are looking for. Marshawn Lynch of California is a sure first rounder who put up impressive numbers in college. He topped 1,200 yards and 6 ypc. in both his Sophmore and Junior years and is a versatile back who is capable of catching and blocking well. The knock on Lynch is that he has never carried the full load and can be injury prone, but the Bills would spell him with Thomas to keep him fresh. He also had some character concerns, as a woman had accused Lynch of domestic violence, but nothing came of the accusations because the woman's story did not add up and contradicted witness statements. Thus, it appears as if Lynch is in the clear, character wise. Antonio Pittman of Ohio State and Kenny Irons of Auburn are two more runners from big time programs that fit the Bills' paradigm. Irons ran for over 2,100 yards in his last two seasons at Auburn and also has very good natural hands. Durability is a concern with Irons, too, but once again he will have the advantage of being in a two-back system. Pittman went over 1,200 yards and 5 ypc. in each of his last two seasons with the Buckeyes and is an explosive runner with home-run speed. Though not an experienced receiver, Pittman does have good hands. He is somewhat more durable than both Lynch and Irons. The Bills will also pray to Zeus that Adrian Peterson falls to them, but that is likely too much to hope for. If he falls out of the top five, the Bills may try to swing a deal to move up for him, though.
LB is probably the position where the Bills are most needy. The departures of London Fletcher and Takeo Spikes mean that the Bills will have to replace two starting LBs. One of those two spots will be filled by 2006 6th round choice Keith Ellison. Ellison proved a true late round gem for Buffalo last year, and he saw significant game time in place of Crowell and Spikes, during their respective absences due to injury. The Bills are high on Ellison and he is the odds-on favorite to be the Bills' starting WLB next year. The other two positions are a bit murkier. Angelo Crowell will fill either the SLB or MLB spot depending on what kind of personnel the Bills add through the draft. Crowell can play all three LB positions and will be counted on to replace portions of both the production and leadership that Spikes and Fletcher brought to the table. Quality depth is also a concern, as the Bills' other LBs, especially Josh Stamer and Mario Haggan, are known primarily as strong special teamers, not defenders. Look for the Bills to grab either a first or second round pick to start at LB and another LB on day two of the draft for depth.
Two college LBs in particular look like strong candidates to be drafted by the Bills. Patrick Willis is far and away the best MLB available in the draft. A high-character guy, Willis overcame a tumultuous family situation to excel at Ole Miss. At age 16, the state of Tennessee removed him and his siblings from his father's custody. His brother Detris drowned last July. Despite it all, Willis became a star at Mississippi, where his team was frequently outmatched by more powerful SEC squads. He also displayed great toughness, as he played through a variety of injuries in his career. Blessed with great speed, Willis has excellent range and can go sideline to sideline to make tackles. The 49ers may select him at #11, but if they don't Willis would be a perfect fit in Buffalo as he has the skills to start at MLB from day one.
Paul Pozluszny of Penn State (hereafter referred to as Poz) also seems like a logical choice for Buffalo. Poz, like Willis, is the type of high character player that Jauron and Levy covets. He also has tremendous football intelligence and is the type of player who knows where he is supposed to be at all times. A captain in both his Junior and Senior years with the Nittany Lions, Poz would also help replace the leadership that left with Spikes and Fletcher. Though he doesn't have the greatest measurables, (although he did perform well at the combine) Poz has been consistently productive against top competition, even during his Senior year when he was playing outside of his natural position and with a knee brace on. Poz would likely play SLB for the Bills, allowing Crowell to man the middle. #12 might be a little bit high to take him, but the Bills showed a willingness to defy convention last year when they took Donte Whitner and John McCargo long before experts thought those players would come off the board.
The Bills' list of off-season departures reads to most NFL fans like a who's who of their best players. Fletcher, Spikes, Clements, McGahee. To some it may seem that the Bills' front office has gone crazy and blown up the team, but actually, when examined closely, there is a clear logic behind all of these moves. The Bills want to get younger and faster. Fletcher and Spikes are casualties of this initiative. The Bills want high character players who will work hard and promote a harmonious atmosphere. As such, Willis McGahee is gone. The Bills, a low-revenue team, can't afford to compete with the NFL's biggest spenders for talent. That eliminates Clements at his $80M price tag. Also conveniently ignored by many are the significant upgrades to the offensive line represented by Walker and Dockery. Those signings should make the Buffalo offense better nearly immediately.
The Bills, in following their principles of promoting youth and character and conserving as much money as possible, have created a strong nucleus of young, hungry, athletic players. But there is no guarantee that this strategy will pay off. The Bills will need to overcome inexperience and a possible lack of leadership in order to be successful next year. General Manager Marv Levy has gambled that his players can do this, and in doing so he has placed a huge amount of pressure on himself and on his administration's draft picks. Donte Whitner and Ko Simpson will be counted on to improve their run defense and continue their solid play against the pass. Ashton Youboty will need to pick up the slack following Nate Clements' departure. Kyle Williams and John McCargo's improvement will be crucial to the improvement of the interior defensive line. Keith Ellison will be called upon to start full time. Brad Butler and Terrence Pennington will be depended upon to challenge for starting offensive line jobs and provide depth. In addition to last year's draft choices, this year's draft class will also be integral to the future success of the Bills. The Bills need to cull a starting LB and a feature RB from the draft while also securing quality players at CB, DT, WR, FB, and S. If the Bills have a strong draft this year and last year's choices continue to fulfill the considerable promise they showed last season, then the Bills may surprise. If not, they may meet the demise most of the media are foretelling. Marv Levy and the front office have made some bold, risky moves this off-season now they will need a little luck and whole lot of skill to successfully navigate the rest of the off-season. The pressure's on. Can the men at One Bills Drive handle it?