Fans of successful football teams don't talk about the off-season much during the season. For years, the off-season became the in-season story for Buffalo Bills fans. During the 2010 season, the thoughts of Bills fans drifted to free agency and the draft during the bye week, if not before. In 2011, Buffalo comes out of the bye at 4-2 and without much off-season talk. Let's take some time to visit the current state of the Bills with the off-season in mind.
Edge Rushers. This is the greatest area of need for the Bills. Chris Kelsay is a complementary wave rusher, Shawne Merriman has been somewhat effective when healthy, and Arthur Moats has been effective but is shorter than the prototype GM Buddy Nix wants at outside linebacker.
Free agency is a laundry list of try-hard types aside from Anthony Spencer, who has played on the strong side for Dallas, was a college defensive end, and has the bulk to play Buffalo's hybrid end-linebacker position. Trevor Scott, Jarret Johnson, Chris Gocong, Rob Ninkovich, Bryan Thomas, Quentin Groves and Ahmad Brooks may also be available, but they are all complementary rushers and not the dynamic edge rusher that Buffalo needs. Robert Mathis is also in a contract year, and could be left unprotected. A change of position and playing outdoors probably puts Buffalo low on Mathis' list.
Pickings aren't as slim in the draft, though there is a lack of taller edge rushers with quick first steps. Bruce Irvin of West Virginia is quick off the ball but undersized, as is Brandon Jenkins of Florida State. Both struggle to set the edge. Donte Paige-Moss of North Carolina has good size, but is a half-count slow off the ball and is mostly a power rusher. The same can be said about Vinny Curry of Marshall, who is the most physical end in the class, but may struggle if asked to play 3-4 outside linebacker. Courtney Upshaw of Alabama is dynamic, but short. If Nix can overlook his height, Upshaw could be the game-changer Buffalo needs in the LaMarr Woodley mold. Andre Branch of Clemson is not explosive, and doesn't always hustle. Devin Taylor of South Carolina is tall and lanky, and gets after the quarterback with a good first step - but he may have trouble anchoring. The best of the group may turn out to be Cameron Johnson of Virginia. Johnson may have the best first step of the group, has played end and 3-4 outside linebacker for the Cavaliers, and can get after the quarterback. Johnson has two sacks this season, but has been hurt. Even so, Johnson is the closest fit to what Buffalo needs.
Boundary Corners. The current Bills roster has only one healthy, natural outside corner: Drayton Florence. Terrence McGee hasn't been able to stay healthy, and Aaron Williams is hurt. Williams has ball skills similar to Jeff Burris, the size to press, and the hips to turn and run. Leodis McKelvin is a natural Cover 2 corner who is better in the slot. Justin Rogers has potential, but hasn't shown enough so far to convince anyone that he could be a future starter.
The free agent market for starting boundary corners is bare. Cortland Finnegan may not make it out of Tennessee, and would be outside Nix's comfort range for paying a free agent. Orlando Scandrick is effective for Dallas, but is also a bit immature and may not be a good addition to the locker room.
The draft has more to offer. Morris Claiborne of LSU, Chase Minnifield of Virginia, and Janoris Jenkins of North Alabama won't make it to Buffalo's pick. Cliff Harris of Oregon has off-field issues that negate fantastic skills. Despite good size, Dre Kirkpatrick of Alabama is more of a press and run corner that struggles to locate the football. Coryell Judie of Texas A&M has average size and speed, but a good closing burst. Jayron Hosley of Virginia Tech is nearly identical in skill set. Alfonzo Dennard of Nebraska has great skills for the outside position, but his lack of height may be a liability against the current set of tall NFL receivers. Keep an eye on Trumaine Johnson of Montana. Johnson is tall with good speed and ball skills.
Outside Wide Receivers. Defenses have compressed Buffalo's passing game inside ten yards in the past few games. Buffalo needs a receiver to stretch the field and allow its good but unheralded group of slot receivers - David Nelson, (possibly) Roscoe Parrish, Brad Smith, and potentially Donald Jones - to find room. Buffalo cannot count on Marcus Easley coming back from a heart condition. Keep in mind that Nix prefers taller receivers, and this list is filtered accordingly.
Vincent Jackson could be available, and is familiar from Nix's time in San Diego. Robert Meachem of New Orleans has been somewhat underused, and could break out on a team where he isn't the fourth option. Dwayne Bowe won't make it out of Kansas City.
The best three receivers in the class - Justin Blackmon of Oklahoma State, Alshon Jeffery of South Carolina and Michael Floyd of Notre Dame - won't be around when Buffalo selects. The cupboard is loaded though. Jeff Fuller of Texas A&M is tall but hasn't shown good deep speed. Juron Criner of Arizona has the size and hands, along with good speed. Same for Greg Childs of Arkansas and Mohamed Sanu of Rutgers. Nick Toon of Wisconsin is more of a short-zone possession receiver. The best two in the class could be Dwight Jones of North Carolina and Derek Moye of Penn State. Both are very tall with long arms and have gotten deep consistently in their college careers.
The Triplets. Buffalo workman triplets - Ryan Fitzpatrick, Fred Jackson, and Steve Johnson - have ignited Buffalo's offense over the first six games. The key now isn't finding replacements. Nix needs to re-sign all three. A case can be made that Fitzpatrick will always be a step below a true franchise quarterback, and Johnson isn't as talented as the elite number one receivers in the league. That shouldn't deter the Bills. The triplets are the foundation of the roster right now, filling important positions that allow Nix to find talent in other areas. Letting any of them leave, especially Fitzpatrick, would set the Bills back significantly.
Right Tackle. Erik Pears has played well, but Nix could upgrade at this position. I don't think that Chris Hairston is a right tackle. He has right tackle size, and while Hairston's a good run blocker for a left tackle, he doesn't have the power to play on the right side.
Buffalo could acquire a decent right tackle in free agency. Levi Brown played better for Arizona on the right side. Indianapolis could be in position to draft Ryan Kalil of USC, moving Anthony Castonzo to the right side and making Ryan Diem expendable. Right tackles can be found later in the draft. If Nix wants one higher, which he's never shown a desire for, Levy Adcock of Oklahoma State could be the pick.
Quarterback. Buffalo won't be in a position to draft Andrew Luck of Stanford (obviously), Landry Jones of Oklahoma or Robert Griffin III of Baylor. With that out of the way, Buffalo truly needs a quarterback that can follow the Aaron Rodgers program. Fitzpatrick affords Buffalo the ability to sit a young quarterback for a few years, if needed.
Free agency is thin, but has some potential. The Denver situation is worth watching. Brady Quinn is a free agent and showed signs of life. Tim Tebow could be moved if Denver finishes poor enough to acquire Luck or Jones, and Tebow isn't the preference of John Elway or John Fox at quarterback. Tebow sitting behind Fitzpatrick and learning from Chan Gailey could have a Steve Young-type of effect on his career. Chad Henne is a free agent and played well at times for the Dolphins. He's the prototype for a pro-style quarterback. A few years behind Fitzpatrick, clearing his head and listening to Gailey, could do him some good.
If Nix goes with a quarterback in the first round, Matt Barkley of USC could be an ideal fit in Buffalo. Barkley needs to measure in at 6'2", the same height as Christian Ponder, who Buffalo reportedly wanted. Barkley has great accuracy, a good enough arm to make all the required throws, and has run a pro-style offense his entire college career. He's experienced, has won a great deal at the college level, and has shown tremendous leadership. Barkley represents Buffalo's best chance at replicating the Rodgers situation if he falls to Buffalo's pick.
The rest of the college quarterbacks have good, sometimes great, skills but also have significant flaws. Ryan Tannehill of Texas A&M is the best of the remaining quarterbacks, with all the skills necessary to succeed. He will only start for over a year and appears to miss on deep throws. Nick Foles is the ideal-looking quarterback, but needs to work on pocket awareness, looking very uncomfortable in the pocket at Arizona. Kirk Cousins has won for Michigan State, but has accuracy problems and a thin build. Brandon Weeden of Oklahoma State is a classic college rhythm passer that needs significant time to transition his game to the professional level. Ryan Lindley has all the skills with a big-time arm, but the San Diego State quarterback has significant accuracy issues. Kellen Moore of Boise State has the best football IQ and ability to play the position of any quarterback in the class. His lack of even average arm strength and below 6'0" height make him a similar prospect to Ty Detmer at the pro level. Player to watch: Mike Glennon of North Carolina State - and I'm not just trying to make the San Diego blueprint argument, given that Nix selected another NC State product, Philip Rivers, out west. Glennon has ideal size, a great arm, and runs a pro offense for Tom O'Brien. Nix would have to evaluate Glennon's lack of college playing time closely, as this is his first year as the starter.
Bills fans won't have the same level of excitement in the draft after having a Top 10 pick for the past two years, and a Top 15 pick for the better part of a decade. The excitement can still be there, as Nix attempts to add to a good team. Sometimes fans get too close to the team, leading to a view of the team that is far too critical. The Bills have more good areas than problem areas, a testament to Nix's efforts. Even in the bad category, Buffalo has good cornerbacks and receivers, just not enough of the right kind. That's a dramatic shift.
The real issue are the questions. Will Nix re-sign the triplets? Does Nix acquire an understudy to Fitzpatrick? Will Nix continue to rely almost entirely on the draft, or go after a big-name free agent? Will Nix continue to draft taller receivers? Will Nix break his mold and draft a right tackle on the first two days of the draft? Which area will Nix address in the first round? It'll be excitement through intrigue this off-season for the Bills.