S Jones would give Bills deep secondary (Cleveland Plain-Dealer)
Most fans of the Buffalo Bills, at this point in the off-season game, have their eyes set on a free agent or two as well as a handful of NFL Draft prospects as their "favorites". Everyone has at least one guy that they'd love to see the team bring in.
Speaking solely from a free agency standpoint, I'd like to make the case for Browns safety Sean Jones topping your lists.
Before you go all "Buffalo needs a center!" or "Buffalo needs a defensive end!" or "Buffalo needs a linebacker!" on me, hear me out. Jones is a young, physical talent that offers one ability that the Bills lack severely on the defensive side of the ball: the ability to make big plays.
Jones' status in Cleveland
Our SB Nation sister (brother?) blog, Dawgs By Nature, is reporting today via the Cleveland Plain-Dealer that Jones - who will turn 27 this March - is unlikely to be franchised by the new regime in Cleveland. The reason? The team is expected to pay off a $5 million bonus due to QB Derek Anderson in an effort to make the veteran quarterback a more covetable trade commodity, limiting the money they can spend on someone with the franchise tag.
The 6'1", 220-pound Jones has enjoyed three straight productive years in Cleveland. A starter each season, Jones has recorded at least four interceptions each season, forced two fumbles, picked up a sack and amassed 263 tackles. Though he's played strong safety each season (and that's the position at which his skills are the best fit), it's believed that Jones has the range in coverage to play the free safety spot as well.
So let's add it up here: big, physical, durable (he's missed just four games, all last season), and a playmaker. If this guy isn't on Buffalo's radar already, the team would do well to put him there now.
Where he'd fit in Buffalo
Many Bills fans point to the fact that the team already has five safeties with distinct roles as reason that the team should, and likely won't, pursue a safety this off-season. It's hard to disagree with the evidence, but I'll certainly disagree with the theory. Many who frequent the site know my very public opinion on Donte Whitner: he's a good player and a good guy, but he has no true position and he's certainly not a playmaker. Then there's Ko "I Am Worth Millions!" Simpson, whose on-field impact is quite obviously more spectacular in his head than in ours. RFA George Wilson is nothing more than a spot contributor and excellent special teams ace; reserve John Wendling is everything Wilson is minus the "spot contributor".
Arguably the team's most consistent and productive safety, veteran Bryan Scott, hasn't started a full season at safety since 2005 and has just four career interceptions - all of which he picked up in Atlanta. The Bills have some players at safety, there's no doubt about it. But they don't have that game-changing playmaker to turn what is already a pretty talented secondary into an elite one. Jones is that guy.
Pursuing S over C, DE, LB, etc.
Many fans might argue that Buffalo's most dire needs (center, defensive end and strong-side linebacker in particular) are, as much higher priorities on the proverbial "needs list", positions that must be addressed before safety via free agency. I could not disagree with this sentiment more.
Clearly, if you can add a playmaker at your most desperate position of needs, you do what you need to do to make it happen. But centers are not playmakers. Centers are certainly important, but a good center does not a championship-worthy team make. I'm a believer that defensive end is as important to a defense as quarterback is to an offense, but there isn't an awful lot of impact to be found at the position this off-season. There are quality linebackers to be had - Seattle's Leroy Hill, Atlanta's Michael Boley and Miami's Channing Crowder lead the way (at least on my list) - but in Buffalo's scheme, how much value can even the best playmaking linebacker add?
Filling needs is nice, but finding impact players is a far better idea. In Buffalo's scheme, linebackers can't have the same playmaking impact on a game-by-game basis than a difference-making safety can. Also, if you're doubting the value of a safety, take a look at the four conference finalists this season as proof that good safeties are found on great teams (PIT - Troy Polamalu, BAL - Ed Reed, ARI - Adrian Wilson, PHI - Brian Dawkins). (Of course, the same argument can be applied to the linebacker position as well, but none of these teams run Buffalo's scheme, and safeties are far easier to plug into new schemes than linebackers are.)
Is Jones worth the investment?
Personally, Jones sits atop my free agent targets list. His physicality is something that Buffalo's secondary currently lacks, and obviously his ability to make plays on the ball is something that, in reality, the entire team lacks. To me, Jones appears to be the perfect complement to Whitner - his physicality complements Whitner's speed; his playmaking complements Whitner's versatility in matchups; his versatility allows the Bills to keep Whitner moving around. With Wilson and Scott as reserves surrounded by a young but talented cornerback group, signing Jones would give Buffalo one of the best young secondaries in the league. More importantly, it'd give the Bills a defender that can make things happen.
Please don't read this as me being averse to signing a center or a linebacker via free agency (I think we can safely rule out adding any true impact at defensive end or tight end). There are centers (Jason Brown and Matt Birk) and linebackers (Hill, Boley, Crowder) that would look fabulous in Bills uniforms. But ultimately, the Bills should be chasing impact this season, not hole-pluggers. Hole-pluggers don't take teams to the playoffs. Playmakers do. Jones is one of the best playmakers available via free agency this season at a position of relative weakness for Buffalo. His potential addition makes too much sense to pass off the position he plays as a "non-need".
You are, of course, welcome to debate this one with me, folks. Who sits atop your free agent lists?