A vast majority of people would say that the Buffalo Bills 2012 offseason has been a stunning success. The team has managed to sign two of the best pass rushers in free agency and experts are handing out high draft grades nearly universally. The team has managed to retain major players from last season like Stevie Johnson, Craig Urbik and Chad Rinehart. However, going into as season where fans expect the team to break the 13 year playoff drought, almost more important is going to be next offseason.
The Buffalo Bills face a number of roster crises at the end of this season. None may be more important than the impending waterfall of key free agents.
Probably the most important player on this list is LG Andy Levitre. Levitre is arguably the best piece of the teams current offensive line and shaping up to be one of the NFLs better lineman. He is hands down the best and most consistent blocker. Hes also a player that has managed to stay healthy making him the most durable current lineman. And to top it off hes the most versatile lineman, being able to play any of the 5 positions(though after the Miami game, he might need work at C). Levitre should be priority #1 going into camp this season.
On the opposite side of the ball is FS Jairus Byrd. As a rookie he quickly proved that he was a true ballhawk racking up 9 interceptions. Ever since he has been one of the most consistant players in the league at his position. His ability has been likened to Ed Reed. In a league where saftys are increasingly hard to find, Buffalo has managed to find one of the top tandems around in Byrd and fellow safty George Wilson.
I suppose that at this point I should probably oblige fans undying need for HB Fred Jackson. Jackson has been a quiet contributor on the roster for years, outlasting and outplaying two first round draft choices. And his breakout 2011 season secured his position as a starter and one of the top players in the league. However for all that hes accomplishing and the level that hes playing, he is still a 30 year old running back. Through the history of the league, there have been many 30 year old running backs. However they almost entirely have one thing in common. A complete cliff in production. The fact is that by age 32, most HBs are either contemplating retirement or buried on a depth chart as a 3rd down back. Jamal Lewis, Ladanian Tomlinson and even Jerome Bettis met this fate. Jackson will get a contract, but dont expect anything beyond a mid money 2 year contract.
However we are forgetting the smaller pieces that are just as vital to the future success of the team. I give you David Nelson. Despite what anyone might think, Nelson is something special in the slot. He is a WR that has TE size, excellent hands and fantastic route running. Every slot receiver gets compared to Wes Welker, but for Nelson its wrong. Nelson is a completely different beast...but while were here lets compare him to Welker. Welker didnt start producing as a receiver until his 4th or 5th season in the league. Nelson is starting to produce after just two and hes maintaining a similar average yards per catch. Similar is the production of underrated Guards Craig Urbik and Chad Rinehart. Both have proven themselves to be versatile and capable players on a line last season that allowed the leagues fewest sacks. Keeping one or both of them will be critical for success.
Other less pressing free agents include Shawne Merriman, Brian Moorman, Cory Mcintyre and Donald Jones. In total there are 28 players on the roster without contracts next season not including the new batch of rookies.
On one final note, next years draft is critical. There are players like Eric Wood who might not be the answer because of injury issues. And others like Nick Barnett who will need players behind them because of age. But one issue that will need addressing is a developmental QB. Fitzpatrick can win, and he can make it to the playoffs. But if we want to be a perennial contender, we need a young franchise QB. Next seasons draft class look to be deep at the position. Grabbing a QB that can learn behind Fitz for a few seasons is critical to future success. Buffalo is at a tipping point. The results of the 2013 offseason will determine the level of play of this team for the next decade. So long as the world doesnt end on a certain date before then.