252 points - less than 16 per game. 20 offensive touchdowns. Held without an offensive touchdown in a whopping five games - nearly a third of the team's schedule. In 2007, the Buffalo Bills' historically anemic offense achieved all of this, despite playing behind a vastly improved offensive line that only gave up 26 sacks. It's been discussed nearly to death this off-season, but remains an issue for the Bills: the team still lacks playmakers at the offensive skill positions.
We know that there are building blocks. There just aren't enough of them. Running back Marshawn Lynch, last year just a rookie, was easily Buffalo's most consistent performer (from anywhere on the roster) last season, rushing for 1,115 yards and accounting for eight scores, or 40% of the team's touchdown production. We can still count WR Lee Evans as well, even if his 2007 production of 55 receptions and five scores was mediocre compared to seasons past. That's it. Two building blocks. Two players that opposing defensive coordinators actually have to think about when game-planning for Buffalo's offense.
We can talk about Buffalo's defensive upgrades all we want - and we should, because they're exciting and will make the team better. But until the Bills can find more weapons offensively, this team will not compete with the New England Patriots. That still has to be goal number one.
An Alarming Lack of Depth
The scariest aspect of Buffalo's offense is that outside of the team's top two threats, Lynch and Evans, there isn't one player that can make an impact on a consistent basis. Receivers Josh Reed and Roscoe Parrish have had their moments, but they're role players at best. Robert Royal has a game or two each year where he's a factor in the passing game. Backup running back Fred Jackson had an impact late last season and deserves more touches, but it remains to be seen how he can hold up during a full season's worth of third down work.
That's five more names of role players that the Bills have - players who can have big games any given week, but who will never command the attention of opposing defenses. No game-changers. The team has been entertaining players such as WR Bryant Johnson and TE Ben Troupe on the free agent market, but until proven otherwise, they're not game-changers either. They would boost depth and take some pressure off of Lynch and Evans. Both players would help this team immensely, as they have skills that the Bills' skill players don't currently possess. But they're not enough.
What Great Offenses Have
Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Laurence Maroney. Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark and Joseph Addai. LaDainian Tomlinson, Antonio Gates and Chris Chambers. Marion Barber III, Terrell Owens and Jason Witten. Heck, you can even include Ryan Grant, Donald Driver and Greg Jennings in that group if you'd like. The best NFL offenses have at least three playmakers. A triumvirate of players that can beat defenders in multiple ways at any point on the field. Having that type of playmaking has made great quarterbacks greater (see: P. Manning, T. Brady, B. Favre) and young quarterbacks mature quickly (see: P. Rivers).
Buffalo is two-thirds there. Lynch and Evans are two such players. What's missing is that elusive third piece - and it may take the Bills a while to find it.
Where to Find the Missing Piece?
I'll say it again: Bryant Johnson and Ben Troupe would be steps in the right direction, but they don't solve the problem entirely. The cold reality is that Johnson and Troupe are the best of the rest in this year's free agent class, and it's unlikely that a rookie wideout can have the same impact at his position as Lynch did last season. Bottom line: this offense is still at least a year away from having the look of functioning well on its own. There's still a possibility that it can be forced into a playoff-ready mode by the time training camp breaks, but challenge the Patriots? Not yet.
What does all of this mean? Personally, I'm now fully endorsing the Bills drafting Oklahoma wideout Malcolm Kelly in the first round this April. I was never a huge fan of drafting a receiver in the first round, but when push comes to shove, the Bills need to find a difference-making receiver as quickly as possible. Kelly has the look of a player who can hurt defenses at any point on the field, and while it's unlikely that he'd be a big factor in his rookie season, he'd look great coming out of the slot in his rookie season. There would be a place for him in this offense immediately, and there'd be plenty of room for him to grow. Whether it's Kelly or another player, the Bills must find their third difference-maker, likely via the draft, and do it as soon as possible.
Keep all of this in mind as we progress through the rest of the off-season and approach draft day. Keep in mind, also, that one name was (purposely) not mentioned: Trent Edwards. When you're leaving your second year starting quarterback out of an analysis such as this, one begins to see exactly how far we have to go.