The Buffalo Bills are 3-5, and as they enjoy their last weekend off until their 2009 season comes to a close - whenever that may be - it's time for us fans to stop reflecting on what they've done through the first half of the season and to start discussing what we might learn over the next eight weeks.
Clearly, the big questions in Buffalo remain the coaching situation - which is probably tied directly to the outcome of the season - and the quarterback position, which we've discussed very thoroughly over the last couple of days. But from a player personnel standpoint, there is still plenty of progress to be made for several young players. What follows is a breakdown of Bills players with the most to gain, most to lose, and those waiting for some developments to unfold.
Three Bills with the most to gain developmentally
Demetrius Bell. Buffalo's starting left tackle has had his share of struggles early in his career, particularly with consistency (which isn't a surprise) and mistakes (which are incredibly irritating). He's cleaned up his act in the latter department in recent weeks, and it's therefore not impossible to think he can work out some consistency issues over the next eight games, too. No one denies that Bell has solid talent. If he proves he can play left tackle in this league, that's one less major issue the Bills will need to address in the off-season.
Aaron Maybin. I've preached patience in regards to Maybin, and even though that argument is nearly universally accepted, fans still don't like the pick because Maybin's rookie contributions have been minimal. Depending on how the rest of the season goes, however, there's a strong chance Maybin's playing time could increase as the season progresses, particularly as he's already starting to see a few more snaps per game. Again - this is a player whose talent is undeniable. If he starts producing in the second half of the season, the minds of a large number of fans will be put at ease.
Jairus Byrd. Yes, he's been Buffalo's MVP through the first half of the season, thanks to his league-leading seven interceptions. He's a leading candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year. But he's not a complete, two-dimensional safety yet. If his groin injury doesn't hamper him over the next two months, Byrd has a chance to gain a ton of starting experience and develop his tackling skills. The more he plays, the closer he comes to becoming an all-around playmaker, and if that happens, he could be considered one of the elite defensive backs in the NFL.
Three Bills with the most to gain if they're on tape for a new coaching staff
Trent Edwards. That one's pretty obvious. He's a young player that has some talent, and he's shown (very occasional) flashes of competence at the game's most important position. If a new coaching staff is in Buffalo in 2010, that staff's most important decision will be centered around what to do at quarterback. A strong finish to this season could help Edwards survive a regime change. Of course, it could also help save his current coach's job, as well.
Paul Posluszny. The completely unbiased view of Posluszny outside of Buffalo right now is as follows: perfect teammate, tremendous competitor with leadership skills and smarts, limited playmaker and an injury risk. He might be playing out of position as well, and is this kid's ceiling as high as originally thought? Like Edwards, Poz isn't going to be leaving Buffalo any time soon, but if he wants to remain this team's starting middle linebacker through next off-season, he needs to close this season well.
Donte Whitner. He's missed at least one game in each of his four pro seasons, including four of the Bills' first eight games this season. Prior to his departure from the lineup, Whitner was playing at the highest level of his career - but as he's missed time, Byrd has established himself as one of the elite young defensive backs in the NFL. Whitner has been a team captain, but he's not anymore. His production remains an issue, even if his versatility remains a tremendous asset to this team. Again - he won't be going anywhere any time soon, but he's got a lot to prove if he's to remain a key part of Buffalo's defense through a regime change.
Three Bills playing out the string
Roscoe Parrish. He's been relegated to third quarterback duties, and there's a chance he could be released when the team activates James Hardy from the PUP list. One of the elite punt returners in NFL history, Parrish has worn out his welcome in Buffalo thanks to a mistake-prone 2009 season and his inability to learn the Bills' offense.
Chris Ellis. A third-round pick in 2008, Ellis had a quiet rookie season and, thanks to the presence of three veterans and Maybin, hasn't had much opportunity this year, either - he's been active just once. He barely hung on to a roster spot as it was, and did so only after a strong pre-season. Unless a veteran or two leaves and the coaching staff remains intact, Ellis is unlikely to get his career started in Buffalo.
John McCargo. He's been hurt, ineffective, traded, and returned to the Bills over the past couple of seasons. He is the only Bills defensive tackle that doesn't have a contract that expires in the 2013 season - and the Bills could use additional beef at that position. Add it all up, and McCargo is probably done in Buffalo after this season ends.
Three Bills pondering future roles with the club
Brad Butler. He started the season off relatively well at right tackle, but now he's on IR, and Buffalo's offensive line is a mess. A new regime would almost certainly address the O-Line, and particularly each tackle position, but Butler also has a contract that expires in 2013. He'll be in Buffalo for a while - the question is simply where he'll be playing, and whether or not he'll be starting.
Eric Wood. Again, Wood's not going anywhere soon - the only Bills locked up as far into the future as Wood is are WR Lee Evans, DE Aaron Schobel and Maybin. But most NFL personnel executives saw Wood as a pure center prospect entering the 2009 NFL Draft. Obviously, he's playing guard in Buffalo. I, for one, would support the move, but Wood needs to put good tape together so a new regime - or even the current regime - wises up and puts him at center.
Leodis McKelvin. He had a so-so rookie campaign, and to say the start of his 2009 season was disastrous would be a monumental understatement. Now he, too, is on IR, and Buffalo's secondary is getting along swimmingly without him. CB Drayton Florence has filled in admirably in his stead; his play has been so good, in fact, that if it continues, McKelvin may not regain his starting role in 2010.
Three Bills free agents waiting on tenterhooks
Terrell Owens. T.O. is in a tricky position. His numbers are so far down that it seems unlikely that many teams will be interested in him as a UFA in 2010, even if he's been on his best behavior as a Bill. Then again, he's unlikely to stay in Buffalo beyond this season if Dick Jauron is let go. Owens has eight more games in Buffalo, and then it's anyone's guess what happens from there.
Ryan Denney. People tend to grossly underestimate just how valuable Denney is to this team. He gives the Bills quality reps as a rotational defensive lineman - at both tackle and end, by the way - and he's been one of Bobby April's key special teams players throughout his career. He's scheduled for free agency after the season, however, and the Bills have serious investments in Schobel, Maybin and even DE Chris Kelsay. Particularly if Jauron leaves, but even if he doesn't, he could be looking for a new home.
Keith Ellison. He's currently fourth in the NFL with 68 tackles, and he's clearly having his best season as a pro. He's been an incredibly valuable commodity to Perry Fewell, as he has played all three linebacker spots - strong, middle, weak - as the Bills have dealt with ridiculous injuries and shake-ups at the position. But he also has his limitations, and while the Bills have been able to scheme around them, a new regime might not view Ellison in quite the same light. He'll be a UFA as well (though if there's no new CBA, he'll be an RFA), and like many players, Ellison's Bills fate may be tied directly to his play the rest of the season as well as the fate of the coaching staff.