With the 2008 NFL Draft taking place less than two weeks from today, draft chatter is taking place at a more frequent pace than ever. In the case of the Buffalo Bills, we have already ironed out the team's biggest needs heading into the draft. But this time of year is more than about building a winning team - it's about planning for the future, as well. When an NFL player hits age 30, no matter how productive they are, it is a smart business move to start thinking about grooming their eventual replacement. Unless we're talking about Brett Favre or something.
Fortunately, the Bills are one of the youngest teams in the NFL. Even after adding a few veteran pieces to the roster to provide the team a nice balance between veteran and youth, the team still only employs seven players who will be over 30 by the start of the regular season.
Buffalo's Over-Thirty Crowd
Two of Buffalo's over-thirty crowd are kicker Rian Lindell (31 this past January) and punter Brian Moorman (32 this past February). They're still young guys. If they catch Jeff Feagles syndrome, they'll be Bills for the next decade. Rock on, guys.
Tight end Robert Royal will turn 30 this May. Newly acquired defensive tackle Marcus Stroud will join him in late June. Both of these players compete at positions that have a nice mix of veteran experience and youth (I didn't say good veteran experience and youth in the case of the tight ends), so it's not imperative that we plan to replace either of these players. Clearly, the team could and should target a tight end to start over Royal, but that's a topic for a different, non-age-related thread. Royal can still be a valuable #2 TE in this league.
The real problems arise at defensive end and the interior offensive line - two of the more important positions in football. Recently re-signed reserve guard Jason Whittle turned 33 this past March, and he's the only backup offensive lineman (other than tackle Kirk Chambers, 29 himself) that doesn't make one queasy to watch in spot duty. (And that's because most of us haven't actually seen him play after he missed most of 2006 on IR.) Depth is old and thin, therefore, at that position. The same can be said for defensive end, where the final two 30+ Bills - Aaron Schobel (31 this coming September) and Ryan Denney (31 this coming June) - reside. Add in the fact that the team's only other viable defensive end, Chris Kelsay, will turn 29 this coming season as well (on Halloween, if you're interested), and you begin to see how desperate an influx of youth is at defensive end.
A Quick Disclaimer
Many of you may have been reading this with this thought - or some form of it - running through your head: "Thirty? Thirty isn't so old. A lot of players play very good football into their late thirties!"
I certainly hope that's true - and in the case of Moorman, Lindell, Stroud, Schobel and perhaps even Whittle, I believe it's the case. It had better be the case for Schobel, who will play out a seven-year deal he signed last August, which will last him until age 37. It had better be the case for Stroud, this off-season's key acquisition that is being hyped as the addition that will put this defense over the top.
But to deny that planning ahead for the 30+ veterans on your roster, no matter how productive they are, is a good idea would be a mistake. This team is still by and large young, especially at the quarterback position, so planning for the future is still more imperative than employing a "win now" attitude. Yes, there are other factors to consider (roster numbers and contract status chief among them), but age must be considered as well.
Buffalo's biggest age rub comes at defensive end, where two of the team's three viable players are nearing the back stretch of their careers. The third viable end will turn 29 soon as well. Without even factoring in that trio's lack of consistent production and injury issues last year - a topic well covered in these parts - adding youth to this position is a must.
Tight end will be addressed, but that falls outside of the Robert Royal-is-30 issue. Moorman and Lindell are fine, and the Bills have enough youth at defensive tackle (John McCargo, Kyle Williams) that preparing for Stroud's eventual downfall isn't a pressing concern at this point, either. So to defensive end, we'll add one position: interior offensive line. The 33-year-old Whittle is joined there by the "youthful" (but plays like he's 80) Duke Preston, but concerns abound.
When it comes to age concerns for the Bills, they're not as pressing here as they are in other NFL cities. But the team hasn't totally escaped the age issue, either. Look for the team to add young talent at defensive end and backup guard or center in this year's draft. The veterans on this roster could use a rook to groom up in those positions.