As we continue to wait for news to break regarding the Buffalo Bills' search for a new head coach, we thought it'd be prudent to break away from the repetitive coverage and start talking about the shell of a football team that's on the verge of getting re-molded.
One of the key sticking points that's often bandied about when talking about top coaching candidates' unwillingness to come to Buffalo is their overall lack of talent. This is a valid concern, even if it's hyperbolized in Buffalo to an extent. Let's face it - Seattle isn't exactly brimming with untapped potential, either. While it's true that Buffalo does lack young, potentially elite talent in key positions, namely quarterback, there are young players on this team with the ability to turn into star players at their respective positions.
On the day he was introduced as Buffalo's new General Manager, Buddy Nix spoke briefly about his belief that the Bills' 2009 draft class has the potential to be a great one. He's right; there is a ton of talent to work with, and some of those players will be key in the re-building effort that Nix and his choice for head coach are about to spearhead. There aren't many names on this list, and I'm guessing that there are other players that you'll try to convince me belong on this list. As I see it, there are six players currently on Buffalo's roster that should be centerpieces of the initial re-building effort, that are locks to be on the 2010 roster regardless of who the coach is, and have the talent to become elite players at their positions.
Shawn Nelson (24). Whenever you're talking about a skill position player, offensive line play and quarterback play are necessary ingredients to good seasons. Buffalo didn't have good, consistent play in either area this season, which is why Bills receivers, from the big names straight on down to Nelson, had poor seasons statistically. Nelson has some hurdles to overcome from a durability standpoint; he struggled with head, shoulder and ankle issues this season, and missed three games in total. But the 6'5", 240-pound tight end also proved this year that he's an excellent athlete capable of making difficult receptions in the middle of the field; that's something Buffalo hasn't had in quite some time. When you look at the success of a player like Jermichael Finley (55 catches, 676 yards, 5 TD in his second season), you see the type of potential that Nelson has. They're very similar player types. It will take better quarterback and line play, along with full health from Nelson and sensible offensive play-calling, but Nelson has the type of talent to play a heavy role in an offense, very similar to the one Finley plays in Green Bay already.
Andy Levitre (23). Say what you want about Buffalo's offensive line play this past season - believe me, it's warranted - but one wonders how different that unit might have looked had the original starting five been able to play together even the majority of the season, let alone all of it. Levitre did play the whole season, the vast majority of the time at left guard, and the fact that he made any strides at all playing next to a revolving door at left tackle speaks volumes to his intelligence and mental fortitude. Levitre isn't the type to overwhelm anyone physically, but he's nimble, plays with power and grit, and is technically sound to the point where he can surprise people. He looks like a perfectly natural fit at left guard, and he should probably be the only player considered to be a lock as a starter on the 2010 offensive line. He could develop into one of the more underrated interior linemen in the league in short order.
Eric Wood (23). Obviously, Wood's case is somewhat unique, given that he's currently beginning to work back from a devastating and gruesome leg injury suffered in mid-November. No one is even sure yet that he'll be ready for training camp or the regular season next year, though I believe that concerns over whether or not he'll play again are a bit over the top. That said, he was making strides at right guard - a position he probably shouldn't keep playing - and has the type of on-field demeanor that turns young linemen into unit leaders. Wood has a Nick Mangold quality about him in that he's a tough SOB that plays hard, smart, and with a "follow me" gravitational pull. He should be the anchor of the unit, as his mentality is the type that teams strive to replicate up front. Linemen will follow his lead. If he's ready to go next season - and again, that's a big 'if' - I suggest putting Wood at center and letting him grow alongside Levitre and whoever else ends up on the unit next year.
Aaron Maybin (21). Yes. Everyone's favorite 2009 whipping boy is on this list, and no matter how much you whine, he's staying here. Maybin had a terrible rookie season in which he logged 18 tackles, one forced fumble and very little playing time. There is absolutely no question that he has serious - I cannot emphasize the word "serious" enough here - strides to make in his game. It's also not clear precisely where he belongs on an NFL field - he struggled at the point of attack as a down lineman in 2009, but he also looked mighty uncomfortable on the rare occasion that he stood up. Maybin is very much a "project player" at this point. That said, there are reasons he was drafted No. 11 overall, even if you deem those reasons as poor rationale for the selection - he's got a great work ethic, a tremendous first step, and oodles of potential. He's very boom-or-bust; no one is denying that. But he's going to be here whether you like the guy or not, and it's absolutely critical that Buffalo's next defensive coordinator and position coaches find a way to tap into Maybin's immense talent.
Leodis McKelvin (24). As the only non-2009 draftee on this list, McKelvin is an intriguing case to ponder. He had a so-so rookie season in 2008 (32 tackles, 2 INT, 2 total touchdowns), but ended the '09 season with a bum ankle and a vandalized lawn. At this point, he might not even be a favorite to land a starting job next season; he won't have the support of the coaching staff that drafted him, and the Bills have two veteran cornerbacks more than capable of playing consistent, solid football on the outside. McKelvin did not make big strides from Year 1 to Year 2, as he struggled with his footwork and mechanics at the outset of this past season. Many question whether or not he's got the type of instincts that top-flight corners possess as well. But McKelvin remains one of the best pure athletes on the team, and while he may never be considered a shut-down cornerback, he still has the talent level to be very, very good. This is another boom-or-bust player whose future is highly dependent on the quality of Buffalo's next coaching staff.
Jairus Byrd (23). Here's the only guy that, to a fan, will universally appear on this type of list. He's Buffalo's lone Pro Bowl representative this year after a phenomenal rookie season in which he tied for the league lead in interceptions (9). Byrd, too, has some durability concerns, as he spent the entirety of the season, including training camp, battling with a groin injury and, later, a hip injury. He's not the biggest or most athletic guy in the world, which fuels those durability concerns. Many question whether or not he's enough of a physical presence to become a dominant two-dimensional safety, capable of making plays against the run as well as the pass. What he's proven to be already, however, is an elite playmaker in the secondary with absolutely tremendous ball skills. He's a positive factor for the team simply by being on the field, as teams must constantly be aware of where Byrd is. He might not grow much further beyond the player that he already is, but he's already a pretty excellent player.
I feel certain that some of you have names you'd like me to consider for this type of list. I also feel certain that some of you will have your own lists to submit. Feel free to do so in the comments section.