Over the past several weeks, we've been meticulously examining each and every position on the Buffalo Bills' roster in a series we called State of the Bills Roster. With proper apologies to the team's specialists - Brian Moorman, Rian Lindell and Garrison Sanborn are all excellent pros and aren't going anywhere - we're going to wrap that series up this morning by putting together the Bills' official (at least in these parts) needs list.
We've also spoken several times about the lack of top-end talent available via free agency this season. With rule changes on the horizon, teams will be scrambling to find quality players over the next few months. It's not a good time for our Bills to begin a re-building process, folks, but those are the breaks. What's done is done, and Buffalo's needs won't be fixed by 20/20 hindsight.
After the jump, we'll talk about 10 positional groups - yeah, that's how starved for talent this team is - in need of reinforcements. Our guess is that exactly zero of these listings will surprise you; it's not exactly a secret where Buffalo is hurting most for talent. The type of talent available at those positions will determine Buffalo's off-season strategy, so we'll talk about that angle of the situation as well.
1. Quarterback: Bet you didn't see this one coming! We won't beat the dead horse, because really, we don't need to. Buffalo needs a franchise quarterback in a bad, bad way. Ideally, an NFL team can find a young guy to build around at the top of the draft, which is why you're bound to hear names like Sam Bradford and Jimmy Clausen plenty over the next few months. (Heck, you'll hear Tim Tebow's name a lot, too.) Neither is a lock to be available when the Bills choose at No. 9 overall, however, so Buffalo may take the veteran stop-gap route here, with Chad Pennington being the most desirable available option in that vein. This decision, whenever it's made, is by leaps and bounds the most critical decision that Buddy Nix will make this off-season.
2. Offensive tackle: After the retirement of fourth-year right tackle Brad Butler, the Bills are in dire straits at this position. Demetrius Bell, last year's starting left tackle, is on the mend, and shouldn't be handed anything in the way of a starting spot. Jonathan Scott (a restricted free agent), Jamon Meredith and venerable names such as Andre Ramsey, Jason Watkins and Nick Hennessey make up the rest of the depth here. Yeah - the Bills need help at OT, and a lot of it. They'd be smart to address the position via both the veteran and rookie routes; Artis Hicks and Tony Pashos are viable starting options, and rookies such as Russell Okung, , Bryan Bulaga and Trent Williams look NFL-ready as well. Not only do the Bills need to find two starters here, but they could really stand to upgrade their depth, as well.
3. Nose tackle: Buffalo's switch to the 3-4 defense has left the team with a massive need (quite literally) at the nose tackle spot. The trouble is, there are a bunch of other, more established 3-4 teams in the same boat. Ideally, you'd like a veteran anchor here in the first year of the scheme transition, but the most realistic options available - names like Bryan Robinson and Jimmy Kennedy - are rather underwhelming. Dan Williams and Terrence Cody are two highly-touted rookies capable of manning the two-gap nose tackle spot.
NON-CRITICAL DEPTH NEEDS
4. Pass rusher: These guys play OLB in the 3-4, and the Bills weren't exactly loaded with pass rushing specialists when they ran the 4-3. Aaron Schobel may retire, and the jury is still out on 2009 first-round pick Aaron Maybin. There's no depth to speak of behind those two guys, as the options either lack the athletic prowess (Chris Kelsay) or any prowess whatsoever (Chris Ellis) to get onto the field. Pass rushers are virtually impossible to find via free agency, so expect to see a name or two here added in April. You can never have enough of these guys when you run a 3-4.
5. Defensive end: Buffalo, at least, has some options here. Marcus Stroud is a lock to start at one of the end positions, and Spencer Johnson and Kyle Williams are capable of taking reps there as well. But the 3-4 is built from the line back, and the Bills could stand to bring in guys much better equipped to play defensive line in this scheme. This is one area where the Bills have a lot of options, including unheralded vets (Justin Bannan, Nick Eason, Travis Kirschke) or solid rookie prospects (Jared Odrick, Arthur Jones, Tyson Alualu).
6. Inside linebacker: Again, the Bills have options here, as Paul Posluszny and Kawika Mitchell will be penciled in as starters, at least initially. But the lack of depth behind those two players is alarming, and Mitchell might still end up moonlighting as an outside linebacker on passing downs. You can always find a mid-round thumper in the draft, but the Bills actually have a lot of cheap options here via free agency, as well, with Larry Foote, Ryan Fowler and Matt Wilhelm the most coveted choices.
7. Guard/Center: Andy Levitre and Geoff Hangartner are locks to start, and if Eric Wood can't make it back from his gruesome leg break in time to lock down a starting job, likely restricted free agent tender Richie Incognito can hold down the fort. Depth is a big concern, so expect bodies, but not necessarily big names. The team simply has bigger fish to fry.
8. Tight end: Last week's release of Derek Fine left Buffalo with just one tight end under contract - second-year man Shawn Nelson. Derek Schouman, a restricted free agent, will probably be retained (as could exclusive rights free agent Jonathan Stupar), but Buffalo could look to get bigger and more physical behind Nelson as the team bulks up its rushing attack. This is a spot where a veteran blocking option such as Brandon Manumaleuna, Casey FitzSimmons, Sean Ryan or Ben Hartsock makes a ton of sense.
9. Running back: Quiz - how many running backs are currently on Buffalo's roster? The answer there would be "two," and given Marshawn Lynch's possible status shift under the new regime, that number could dwindle. Buffalo would do well to find a speed back capable of complementing the skills of Lynch and starter Fred Jackson, but the pickings are slim. Having a third running back not named Corey McIntyre would still be nice.
10. Wide receiver: Terrell Owens and Josh Reed are unrestricted free agents, and the team's most proven option opposite Lee Evans that's currently under contract is Roscoe Parrish. Yikes. Sure, James Hardy or Steve Johnson might decide that year three is their break-out season, but the team would be wise not to count on that. A cheap veteran to compete for playing time would be a smart signing - unless, of course, they can get Owens to swallow his pride and be part of the re-building project.