Might Bills pursue Houshmandzadeh? (US Presswire)
With the 2009 NFL Scouting Combine wrapping up today in Indianapolis, all eyes will be on the free agency spending spree that's about to commence. Black Friday isn't just the day after Thanksgiving, folks - there's another high-stakes shopping day to pay attention to, and it's coming up quickly.
The Buffalo Bills are in a tight spot. With a coaching staff sitting upon blazing thrones that make the term "hot seat" seem downright chilly, the Bills are in a win-now mode and are expected to be aggressive in finding players that can make an impact immediately. However, considering the current state of the economy, there is also a prevailing theory that the Bills will consider scaling back spending on veterans. It's a Catch 22, but for the staff and 90-year-old owner Ralph Wilson, winning is expected to trump penny-pinching.
Unfortunately for Buffalo, this year's free agent class is devoid of many difference makers. Considering the amount of statistical impact and leadership necessary for the Bills to make a serious playoff push in 2009, there's really only one logical way to go about attacking free agency. In terms of a plan for midnight Friday morning, here's how I think Buffalo's strategy could play out...
Step One: Make a run at offensive weapons
Outside of Tennessee DT Albert Haynesworth and Ravens LB Ray Lewis (both unlikely to be pursued by Buffalo), there aren't any defensive playmakers worth pursuing heavily out of the gate. There are good players, but none that will command the immediate attention of a Haynesworth or a Lewis. Offensively, however, there is one big name that the Bills very well could sniff around, and that's Bengals free agent WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh. Though he'll be 32 in September, Houshmandzadeh is currently on a three-season streak of at least 90 receptions and has 25 touchdowns in that time frame. By far the best receiver on the market, Houshmandzadeh is expected to garner interest from serious contenders like the Giants and Titans, but that won't stop the Bills from kicking the proverbial tires.
Beyond Houshmandzadeh, the pickings are slim. One productive name that has already been linked to the Bills is tight end Owen Daniels, a restricted free agent in Houston. In just three seasons, Daniels has quickly established himself as a bona fide receiving threat and is coming off of his first Pro Bowl invitation. Depending on the type of compensation necessary to acquire him, the Bills will seriously pursue adding Daniels to the roster. Buffalo is also expected to be players if Cardinals WR Anquan Boldin becomes available via trade. Regardless of the likelihood of these acquisitions, pursuing these names is smart - if the chips fall the right way, these players will be more beneficial to Buffalo's potential next season than any other player.
Step Two: Fortify two of four critical needs
When this community put together the team's extensive needs list, four positions received a grade of 'critical' - tight end, center, defensive end and linebacker.
At tight end, obviously the addition of Daniels would kill two birds with one stone. Beyond him, there are only project players (like Arizona's Leonard Pope, as an example) or lumbering vets available on the market. If the Bills miss on Daniels and aren't thrilled with the idea of a veteran project, this need will undoubtedly be addressed in the draft. Luckily for Buffalo, the draft is loaded with quality tight ends this year.
At center, there are several quality veterans that would instantly solidify a solid (on paper) offensive front in Buffalo. Baltimore's Jason Brown is the cream of the crop, and he's closely followed by veterans like Minnesota's Matt Birk (who may re-sign with the Vikings before Friday), Indianapolis' Jeff Saturday and Jacksonville's Brad Meester. Another option would be signing an unheralded reserve, such as Carolina's Geoff Hangartner, to start at center. However, considering the depth of this year's center class in the draft, it's not absolutely imperative that a center be added.
At defensive end, there's little impact to be found in the veteran pool. Kalimba Edwards has played under Dick Jauron before, but isn't exactly a spring chicken at age 29. Bertrand Berry is even older, though he's still considered a solid edge rusher. Defensive coordinator Perry Fewell has already made plain his desire for a speed rusher; if the decision-makers listen, that player will likely be a draft pick.
At linebacker, Buffalo is expected to pursue a veteran to start on the strong side - and it's not expected to be Angelo Crowell. Players such as Channing Crowder, Michael Boley and Morlon Greenwood are most often mentioned, but Indianapolis' Tyjuan Hagler should garner consideration as well. However, bringing in a veteran isn't a done deal, as the team also left the door open on potentially moving middle linebacker Paul Posluszny outside and adding a middle linebacker as well.
Ultimately, the Bills have options at each position, but they should look to address at least two of these areas via free agency. Leaving any more than two unchecked for the draft is extremely risky, as it's unlikely the Bills will be able to fill three or more critical needs with impact players in the draft unless they can find a way to trade down.
Step Three: Find a backup quarterback
Five-year veteran J.P. Losman's Bills career is finally (and mercifully) at an end. With starting quarterback Trent Edwards still developing and still frail, the Bills will look to add a veteran backup. Rex Grossman is likely on his way out of Chicago and has ties to Jauron, but he himself is an injury risk as well. Kyle Boller is believed to be a strong candidate. Other veterans like Jon Kitna (who is expected to be released by Detroit) are possibilities, and younger guys like Ryan Fitzpatrick and possibly Dan Orlovsky will be considered as well. There aren't many appealing options, but names like Boller, Grossman and Kitna have experience and can win games in a pinch. That's all we need out of this position.
Step Four: Add some spot contributors/depth players
These needs aren't critical, but the Bills should look to address them if they can.
Running back: Marshawn Lynch is facing a league suspension, and the Bills are in a tight spot and will likely address the running back position in some capacity. Fred Taylor is visiting the Bills today, but it's unclear how Taylor would fit into a rotation that includes Fred Jackson as well.
Wide Receiver: If the team misses on Houshmandzadeh, it's still highly likely that a receiver will be added simply because of James Hardy's knee injury. Luckily, there are several solid receiving depth options available this year, with Amani Toomer probably the most coveted. Possible releases such as Torry Holt will be intriguing as well, but this player is expected to be a veteran, not a rookie.
Offensive Line: Pending the re-signing of tackle Kirk Chambers, Buffalo's tackle depth is solid. The interior is another story. The team may wait until the draft to address this area, but a veteran like Adrian Jones might be appealing as well.
Defensive tackle: John McCargo can't be relied on as the fourth member of the rotation, so the Bills would be smart to look for an active player that competes well against the run. I've heard Mike Wright's name mentioned so many times it's ridiculous - the Patriot is an underrated name. This might be addressed via the draft as well.
Buffalo needs to be as flexible as possible with this plan, because having a rigid attack to free agency often leads to breakdowns and missing out on targets. There are a lot of players available, and there are a lot of under-the-radar talents that would really bolster Buffalo's depth. Ultimately, however, this strategy is the best way to go about adding true impact to the roster. Beyond that, Buffalo's main goal should be paring down its critical needs in such a fashion that they can enter draft preparations with only one or two major need areas. That will make their goal of drafting the best player available much more feasible.