When the Buffalo Bills hired Buddy Nix on December 31st 2009 as their General Manager many people knew of the daunting task that was laid in front of him. The team had no head coach, no front office direction, almost no talented players on the team and no face of the franchise. To say the Bills were in a terrible situation would be an understatement. The Bills were in one of the worst positions that any team could find themselves in.
Usually you inherit a team that has a few solid players to build around. The Bills had some guys it could look to (Evans, Jackson, Byrd,) but certainly no players that had been phenomenal players year in and year out - guys that put up huge numbers regardless of circumstance - the best of the best. The Bills literally had zero players that were the face of the franchise (unless Moorman punting out of the end zone for season ticket commercials counts). One could argue Evans or Jackson - but i'm not buying it.
So there Buddy Nix stood - looked at his terrible roster and no coaches and started his mission. That started with Chan Gailey and then the hiring of George Edwards. Then they filled their coaching tree as they could - nothing ground breaking - nothing terrible - typical coaching hires. Positional coaches get hired and fired every year so often that it's almost not even worth keeping track of these guys. Heck there are only a handful of offensive and defensive coordinators that are with their teams for more than a couple of years - so you get the guys that you're familiar with and just move along. Unless their name is Dick Lebeau etc... are any of those guys heads and tails better than the other since they all get canned and hired so frequently? Maybe - maybe not - in my mind not enough to spend a whole lot of time on it - so... moving along...
Part of hiring the coaches was knowing what schemes the Bills wanted to run. The offensive part was a little easier with Chan because he's so versatile that it makes it easier. He's suppose to be a coach that teaches and puts his players in a position to succeed. Obviously there were other candidates but offensively that's pretty much what you want - a guy that can get the most out of their players. I'm not sure if when finding offensive coaches that GM's look for specific offensive schemes - so i'll defer on this one.
Defense is a different story - usually you run either a 4-3 or 3-4 base. There are other variations but typically your base is one of those 2 schemes. So in hiring a defensive coordinator you need to select a guy with good experience in the scheme that you want to run. I almost 100% sure (but can be swayed) that Nix decided from the get go that he wanted to run a 3-4 and almost painted Gailey into a corner with that one. I'm not sure how that went over in the hiring process but it seems to me that Nix wanted to run that scheme and told the prospective head coaches that was what was going to happen.
Here are the reasons I think the decision to run the 3-4 was made:
1) Nix had experience scouting for a 3-4 from 2004 on with the Chargers.
n 2004, three players Nix drafted were selected to the 2005 Pro Bowl. In 2005, six players Nix drafted were selected to the 2006 Pro Bowl. In 2006, eleven players Nix drafted were selected to the 2007 Pro Bowl. In 2007, eight players Nix drafted were selected to the2008 Pro Bowl.
2) The Bills had almost nobody that was worth keeping for the 4-3. Think about the roster at the time - specifically the defensive front 7: Kelsay, Stroud, Williams, Schobel, Mitchell, Ellison, Poz. Stroud and Schobel are/were in the twilight of their careers leaving Williams, Kelsay, Poz, Mitchell and Ellison. Would any of those players at the time warrant keeping the scheme a 4-3? One could argue Williams but i'd like to hear arguments to not switch at that time just because of him.
3) The league is a dynamic league and the 3-4 is gaining popularity again. Personally, I don't care if we run the 4-3 or the 3-4, I think we should stick with a scheme and just go forward. If the Nix thought the 3-4 was the better scheme then it was a good time as any to change to it considering the complete overhaul of the franchise at the time. I think it's a good philosophy because you can practice against it every day since all the teams in our division run a 3-4 but other other teams in the division know how to attack it as well. So it's a double edged sword. At the end of the day - pick a scheme and stick with it. As long as the Bills maintain and continue to draft as a 3-4 then there isn't an issue.
So the Bills have just installed a coaching staff, switched to a 3-4 and have minimal talent on the roster. There are some players like Jackson, Evans, Poz, Byrd, McGee, Florence, Levitre and Wood that are players certainly worth keeping around - but none of them are really beasts in the NFL at this point in time. Evans the only true blue chip talent, maybe Poz but that's debatable because of injuries - same goes for Wood.
Heading into the first off season I think it's safe to say that these positions were an area of need: DE, DE, NT, OLB, OLB, ILB for defense and LT, RT, C, WR#2, WR#3, TE and QB for offense.
Byrd, Whitner, McKelvin, McGee and Florence are good enough starters to get you buy so secondary wasn't a pressing need. Considering the amount of resources that the inner circle poured into that position it's not surprising although better depth would have been nice but the secondary was in decent shape.
Evans, Jackson, Levitre, Wood are what consisted of your solid if unspectacular offensive "star power" with Evans and Jackson leading the way.
Basically when you look at the roster heading into the 2010 off season it was really, really pathetic.
Drafting, Free Agency, Development
There are many ways to build a roster - well maybe not many ways but many ways one can look at. One of the most over looked ways at building a roster is player development. Young guys that haven't had a chance to showcase themselves in the NFL. Whether it be youth, inexperience, or a better starter in front of you it can be hard to make it as a starter in the NFL. I think too many times we discount player development because it doesn't happen fast enough for us fans. Nix, however, didn't do that.
He received a lot of criticism in the first year for not doing enough as it was put. He, like many of us, was unsure of the talent that the Bills had in the young investments. Guys like Byrd, Wood, Levitre, Poz, McKelvin, Bell, Johnson could have been cut or replaced in an effort to change the culture or "bring in guys that they like". They took that first year and turned it into an evaluation year because the Bills didn't really have anybody but had guys that they wanted to find out about. So they played them all to see what they could become. Lots of those guys that I just mentioned stepped it up big time. Johnson, Wood and Bell stand out specifically either because of dealing with injuries or just becoming great football players.
I think some GM's would have come in and blow the whole roster apart regardless - some would not have granted - but there is something to be said for being patient and sticking with your plan.
So the Bills have just transformed to the 3-4 and hired a new offensive coach - have some guys that they know they like - Jackson, Evans, Poz, Williams, Florence and some guys they still need to find out about but like - Wood, Levitre, Byrd, Bell, Nelson and are set on their quest to build a competitive roster.
Nix said from the beginning that they were going to build through the draft - not really a revelation because every team tries to build through the draft - but inside of that statement is a little more information than meets the eye (yes). In building through the draft you dont' spend big in free agency - this much is obvious. That way your not eating valuable dollars on one or 2 players that probably won't do enough to turn your team into a competitor (especially thinking about our roster) and short handing your teams ability to sign your own free agents (Kelsey extension? :-)) or guys that can really help your team when your really close to contending.
The other piece in building through the draft is drafting guys that you believe in. Guys that you know have the work ethic and dedication to be successful in the NFL. The NFL is a tough place to be successful in - it's littered with crazy talented players that fail time and time again. I think you find more success with players that are "all in" with football. Guys that are gym rats - live and die football than phenomenal talents because they have the work ethic to succeed. In a league where the talent level is so close - you need that extra drive that extra work ethic in order to be successful. I think that piece gets lost some times and it's probably more important than measurables in a league where everyone is so close. (while I was reading this Spiller, Troup, Carrington, Dareus, Sheppard and Searcy all sprung into thought - but you probably already knew that)
Going into this season we finally have a decent handle on our roster and i'm betting OBD has a much, much better grasp on our roster and knows where the weaknesses lie.
Going into our 1st season with the rebuild we had these positions as needs - IMO:
DE, DE, NT, OLB, OLB, ILB, RT, LT, C, TE, WR#2, WR#3, QB.
Going into our 2nd season as a rebuild I had these positions as needs - IMO:
OLB, OLB, ILB, RT, TE, QB
That's 12 positions knocked down to 6. Half of the holes were filled by players in development or from FA. Edwards (FA), Williams/Troup, Bell, Wood, Johnson, Roscoe all stepped up or filled those roles nicely. Troup (and Carrington) fall into that work ethic - immeasurable category in which I feel in a year or 2 are going to become great assets to our team.
What's the most concerning part about needs heading into the 2nd off season? They are your most important positions more or less.
QB - I know of Fitzs short coming's - he's got his issues. However, was Gabbert, Locker or Ponder an upgrade over Fitz? I'm not sure - but if the Bills think one of them could have been and didn't take him at 3 then fail. I have to believe that they didn't - although they did consider Gabbert at 3 so we'll have to wait and see.
This will be Fitzpatrick's first season as the unquestioned starter though - getting all off season reps, TC and pre season to get on the path to success - so still - they really don't even know what they have in him either. They knew he did some good things and some bad things. He's certainly gained respect in the locker room (pretty big IMO) and he hasn't reached his potential yet - regardless of what anyone says.
LOLB has depth and competition - Merriman, Moats, Batten, Maybin are all stacked and ready to compete. All of them have question marks - some huge - but make no mistake that stacking talent on talent has occurred here and there is some potential for a really good player here. (Ask the Patriots how hard that LOLB spot is to fill).
ROLB still needs depth and a starter - didn't address adequately
RT - Hairston or Pears: The Bills invested a 4th round pick on a 3 year LT starter for Clemson in the ACC. He's played a critical position for the Tigers the last 3 years going up against solid competition. Having him over at RT battling Pears for the starting gig is not a terrible plan.
TE - is a mess - didn't address adequately
ILB - Sheppard is a good prospect - but much remains to be seen because Ayodele isn't getting the job done there. He does have the your work ethic, dedicated football mind though - those immeasurables that you look for in players.
I'd like to touch on Spiller a bit because of one of the articles that Brian wrote about defenses having to account for him. RB was not on my list above going into last off season as a position of need was it? Nope - I just scrolled up and checked. However, Spiller is an amazing talent - that really cannot be understated. He had a terrible rookie season for pretty much every ones expectations but the fact remains that he most likely will be a match-up nightmare for opposing defenses and is going to create room for himself and other players to do their things. You may not like the position and still maybe iffy on the player - but other teams clearly know what he's capable of and once he gets past his rookie wall I think most of us will be more than happy with the selection.
I'd also like to throw a little snippet about Bell in here too:
said Bills offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris
Injury came about for him. Demetrius (Bell) we knew his situation coming into the season. It was rehab, rehab, rehab and no strength training in his lower body because of trying to get on the field from the injury he had the year before.”
For Bell to stay healthy last season was remarkable - for him to get better and better while not being able to strength train says a lot of about his character and work ethic (immeasurables). I think we're all going to like what we have in him going forward. He might not light up pro bowl birth after pro bowl birth but he's going to fill that position well enough for us to build in other areas. Depth is a major concern at LT - but Bell has shown that he can stay healthy while going through rehab and not building his strength.
So - what have the Bills done? Basically they've filled a lot of their holes with good to great players through player development and patience. It's easy to get nit picky at their first off season because they didn't fill enough holes but almost the whole roster was a hole - so where do you start? Most teams try to get 2/3 starters out of a draft - 4 is doing good. Spiller, Troup, Carrington and Easley are all role players right now but all have the attributes to succeed in the NFL (immeasurables, work ethic, dedication). I think it's easy to look at D.Nelson, D.Jones and say the Bills had a good UDFA list but we've still just seen the surface of what these guys can do too. However it is far too early to say those guys were bad picks when we really haven't seen enough out of them.
Most NFL players need 2 to 3 years to have an impact. So why don't we afford our team the same luxury? Because of our past and we shouldn't have to sit through this crap any more? Probably.
I do have concerns about QB, RT and OLB at this point but we have guys there that could get the job done - much like your Johnson, Wood, Levitre, Bell etc... last year. So while these guys have not done it - there's nothing to say that they won't get it done.
You all know that i'm an optimist and feel that we're headed in the right direction - I just wish that some would look through the same Rosy Colored Glasses that I wear and tell me if you see the same things. Do you see the competition and potential of the 4 guys at LOLB? Do you see how it's possible that Fitz goes above average for us? Do you see how Hairston or Pears could solidify our RT position?
I'm not all Rosy Colored Glasses here - I still feel that TE, ILB, SOLB are major, major weaknesses of this team. However the other positions have guys that have the capability and drive to get the jobs done. It's Buddy's job to let them see if they can accomplish their goals as starting NFL players. Then going into the next off season we'll have our new list of needs at positions - which i'm betting will get smaller and smaller as players develop and come into their own. Time will tell - but i'm betting on our roster getting more improved as time goes on. Not a nice fast quick fixer upper but a proper rebuild. One that will hopefully bring a parade to down town Buffalo.