Bills need to be hole-pluggers starting Friday

We're less than 48 hours away from the start of the 2010 NFL free agent signing period, if you'll believe it. When the league begins its new season at midnight early Friday morning, the Buffalo Bills - led by the new-look decision-making hierarchy of GM Buddy Nix, Assistant GM Doug Whaley and head coach Chan Gailey - will begin re-tooling their beleaguered team. Again.

We recently took a look at 41 unrestricted free agents that could be of interest to the Bills as the team starts knocking positions off its mountainous needs list. With restricted free agent tenders due by tomorrow (Thursday), players that are no longer of interest to their current teams may become unrestricted free agents, which could alter the UFA landscape, if only slightly. Still, the next two days bear watching, as some solid players might become available as unrestricted free agents or with low-round restricted tenders.

What follows after the jump is a potential plan of attack the team could employ. The players listed are only examples of the type of player the team could target; some might be actual targets of the team, but we won't know that until we know, as they say. You're free, of course, to discuss the merits of your own free agent strategies in the comments section.

A quick 2009 recap
You might not find this particularly relevant - it's not, because Nix, Whaley and Gailey weren't making these decisions - but the Bills have been very active early in free agency in the past. Last season, the Bills decided that they needed to address three positions primarily via free agency - backup quarterback, center and wide receiver. The team immediately scheduled free agent visits with Ryan Fitzpatrick, Geoff Hangartner and Laveranues Coles. Fitzpatrick was signed on the opening day of free agency, and Hangartner put his John Hancock on the dotted line a day later. When Coles left Buffalo to sign with Cincinnati, the team turned its sights to the one and only Terrell Owens.

The team also plugged holes. When Jabari Greer let a deadline pass on a contract offer from the Bills, the team turned its sights to Drayton Florence and signed him to a two-year deal. The next day, Greer signed with New Orleans. The team also signed low-tier depth players such as linebacker Pat Thomas and guard/center Seth McKinney.

In short, the team identified a handful of need positions and got guys they wanted at those positions. They remained flexible with their own players and their situations, and they made some depth signings as well. There's no reason to not expect a similar tactic this season, even with Nix running the show.

A possible 2010 tactic
Buffalo has a myriad of different needs this off-season - just about every position on a football field is included on that list - but based on the talent available in free agency, only a few positions are worth addressing via the free agent pool. We've got four such positions for you.

Offensive Tackle - There isn't much top-end talent available here, as you might expect, but there are players capable of starting at either tackle spot or swinging inside if need be. Versatility will likely be a key asset here. Buffalo is, as you're well aware, hurting badly at tackle, so the Bills could add one or even two veterans to the roster.

Defensive Line - You won't find any wide-bodied nose tackles out there, but there are some quality 3-4 defensive linemen that would fit in well with the personnel the Bills currently have (which, unfortunately, includes virtually nothing in the way of depth). There are a lot of players worth discussing here, and adding even one 3-4 end would really help Buffalo's defensive line rotation.

Inside linebacker - The starting spots appear set, but Buffalo has nothing in the way of depth. If there's any one position that will be addressed more than the rest this off-season, it's linebacker; the Bills need as much depth as they can get. Big, physical, downhill players are the name of the game here. I wouldn't be surprised to see anywhere between one and three players signed at this position.

Wide receiver - With Owens on his way out of town alongside Josh Reed, Buffalo is suddenly very young at this position. James Hardy and Steve Johnson are young guys worth working with, to be sure, but a little veteran competition would go a long way toward keeping coverage away from Lee Evans. (So would help from the tight end position, Shawn Nelson.)

There are five players that, were I Buddy Nix, would target at 12:01 AM Friday morning: Vikings tackle Artis Hicks, Steelers end Nick Eason, Jets linebacker Ryan Fowler, 49ers linebacker Matt Wilhelm and Chiefs receiver Bobby Wade. Hicks is capable of playing guard, but I'd look at him as a potential starting (short-term) tackle on either side. Eason could start at end to platoon with Kyle Williams, Spencer Johnson and sure-fire starter Marcus Stroud. Fowler and Wilhelm are bruisers that would really help the team's ILB depth, as well as Bruce DeHaven's special teams units. Wade is a savvy veteran that could push Hardy and Johnson and be a really nice slot option in multi-WR sets.

There are backup plans that the team could pursue at all of those positions. That's why those positions make the list - they're deep enough where the Bills can afford to be aggressive; if they strike out, they can move on to a Plan B quickly.

Should the Bills address those four positions, they'd cut their critical needs list down significantly. Yes, they'd still need line help on both sides of the ball; nose tackle is still an issue, as is offensive tackle. They'd need a quarterback. But their depth would be significantly improved in other areas, and those signings would allow the team to focus on their most critical needs via the draft.

A wild card
I don't anticipate any of Buffalo's departing unrestricted free agents affecting the team's acquisition strategy, but there is one position that will be on the back of Nix's mind - and that position is, of course, quarterback. There's only one veteran option worth pursuing to my mind, and that's Chad Pennington.

Right now, Pennington's something of an enigma. Not on the field - he's a proven commodity there, and what he's accomplished on the field is what makes him worth discussing in the first place - but rather in his future prospects. Reports have circled that Pennington would like to continue playing, but isn't sure whether he wants to pursue a starting opportunity or work as a backup. If I know Pennington, his competitive nature will get the best of him and he'll listen to starting offers, but it's not a given.

So yes. I'd set up free agent visits with the five names I mentioned above as soon as the signing period started. I'd also get on the horn with Pennington's representatives as quickly as I possibly could. There is no more critical need in Buffalo than the quarterback position, and Pennington would buy the team some time to find "the future" at that position, while giving the team a chance to install a system and, heck, maybe win a game or two. If Pennington isn't interested, then he isn't interested, and we go look for our young quarterback anyway. If he is, see if you can't get him to sign a one or two-year deal so you can breathe a little easier at the NFL's most important position.

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