Yesterday, we started taking an in-depth look at the Buffalo Bills' roster on a position-by-position basis. That series, entitled "State of the Bills Roster," continues today, as we continue to truck through the offensive side of the ball.
Buddy Nix likes running backs. Or, at least, the team he last worked for before he came to Buffalo (San Diego) really likes running backs. During Nix's tenure out west, the Chargers drafted running backs particularly well. That's not to say that they drafted a lot of running backs; they nabbed just three in the eight years that Nix spent there. You might recognize those three names, however: LaDainian Tomlinson, Michael Turner and Darren Sproles were all scouted by Nix.
Chan Gailey likes running backs, too. He's worked with some of the greatest in league history, including Emmitt Smith and Jerome Bettis. Most recently, Gailey was part of a Kansas City organization that spent a third-round pick on Jamaal Charles, who exploded onto the scene with a 1,417-yard, 8-TD season in 2009 (albeit in Todd Haley's offense, and not Gailey's).
Buffalo has a rich history at running back as well, and they've got some good players on the roster at that position already. Don't be surprised, however, if Nix and Gailey try to diversify the Bills' talent at the position.
What the new regime might be looking for
This is really difficult to take a stab at, because let's face it: the glaring holes at other key positions and the presence of two quality backs really doesn't make this position much of a priority. Gailey will work with what he has, and right now, he has a lot more at running back than he does at other positions.
One thing this personnel group lacks, however, is a true home run threat. There's not a guy with the break-away speed to turn any touch into a touchdown of any length, and if you look around the league right now, those quick home-run-threat backs are all the rage (think Chris Johnson, Felix Jones and Charles, among others). Buffalo has talent here, but Nix and Gailey may look to expand the team's talent resume at this position - particularly if a speedy, talented back falls into their laps on draft day. Just a hunch.
The Bills currently employ four running backs, and a fullback who likes to carry the ball and run into players on special teams.
Fred Jackson. If you're looking for the poster child of Buffalo Bills optimism right now, Jackson's your go-to guy. We know the story, and we know the type of production he's enjoyed over the last two seasons. He's a heck of a player. He'll remain a centerpiece of Buffalo's offense next season for three reasons: reliability, consistency, and an ability to make plays despite not-so-great blocking in front of him. If Gailey can find ways to get Jackson into the end zone, Fred could emerge as one of the more statistically dominant backs in the game.
Contract status: 3 years remaining. Owed $4.65M in base salaries and $250K in non-prorated bonuses.
Marshawn Lynch. Right now, Lynch is the polar opposite of Jackson - he's this fan base's favorite whipping boy after an incredibly disappointing 2009 season. For fan trade theorists, Lynch's name is most frequently brought up in conversations. His off-field troubles are disconcerting, obviously, and his enigmatic personality, while not destructive to the team, does throw into question how well he'll be received by Gailey, a guy that values high character. I, personally, don't think Lynch is going anywhere - honestly, what of quality could the team fetch via trade at this point? - but it wouldn't shock me, either. There's no question Lynch still has untapped potential.
Contract status: 2 years remaining. Owed $2.025M in base salaries. 2012 is a voidable year ($1.14M).
Corey McIntyre. McIntyre is a guy that will bounce around the league for a while simply because he's a very good special teams player. He's very average as a lead blocker, but he's a high-character guy that could literally be a role player on any team in the league. Nowhere near a lock to be here next year, but don't count him out, either.
Contract status: 1 year remaining. Salary undisclosed.
Bruce Hall. Spent most of the past two seasons on the practice squad. Very much in "also-ran" territory.
Contract status: Unknown. Not listed as a free agent by BuffaloBills.com.
Justise Hairston. Spent 2009 on Injured Reserve. See: Hall, Bruce.
Contract status: Exclusive Rights Free Agent
Who stays? Who goes?
I sincerely doubt Hall and Hairston will be on the field for training camp this summer. Obviously, Jackson will be there, and McIntyre very likely will be as well. That leaves Lynch, and I'll re-iterate: I don't think he's going anywhere. It's very difficult to trade running backs in this league barring injury issues elsewhere, and with the amount of talent at that position league-wide, it complicates the idea. Lynch will be on a short leash under the new regime of Nix and Gailey, but I anticipate that he'll be battling with Jackson for the starter's job next July.
If I were a betting man (and no, I'm not)...
... Jackson is penciled in as the starter for now, and at the absolute minimum, he'll be in line for 15-20 touches in conjunction with either Lynch or a speed back import.
I've been on the "get a speed back" bandwagon for a few years now. As much as I like the idea that Lynch and Jackson have similar skill sets which makes transitioning them in and out of the huddle easy, it limits what the team can do from the position. I'm fully aware that finding a speed back should not be a top priority, but I'm also a proponent of drafting best player available on draft day. If that player just happens to be a home run threat at running back, so be it - that would do tremendous things for this offense, which hasn't had many home run threats lately. If that speed back can return kicks and/or punts? Even better.
Names to keep an eye on
The Bills have bigger fish to fry in free agency than running back, so I anticipate zero heat there during the month of March. I also believe that the Bills will try to steer clear of RB in the early rounds of the draft to try to address bigger needs (though if the value difference is too big, I wouldn't be surprised to see any non-need position addressed). There are plenty of small scat-back types with big-play potential available this year, but I've put my favorite mid-round prospect that fits that mold below.
Previous installments of the State of the Bills Roster series: QB.