It's fair to say that Buffalo Bills running back Marshawn Lynch had a terrible 2009. That's not 2009 season - it's 2009 the full calendar year. He was arrested; he was suspended by the NFL for three games; most importantly to his future, he rushed for only 450 yards at 3.8 yards per carry, missed out on rushing for 1,000 yards for the first time in his NFL career, and lost his starting job to Fred Jackson.
Thanks to that down season, Jackson's emergence, and the constant fear that Lynch is one off-field slip-up from both punching his ticket out of the NFL for a considerable amount of time and out of Buffalo, Lynch's name is by far the most popular amongst Bills fans when discussing possible trade opportunities. Given the fickle state of the running back position league-wide - who ever thought we'd see LaDainian Tomlinson and Brian Westbrook released on consecutive days? - there's a very strong chance the Lynch trade predictions have a high degree of accuracy, even if a deal never materializes.
There's a point to make here, though, that is rarely made. Buffalo doesn't have to trade Lynch. Believe it or not, the man still has plenty of value to this organization moving into 2010 and beyond.
Lynch, a little over a year removed from his first Pro Bowl appearance, doesn't hold as much trade value to the Bills as he probably should. Given his character risks and low '09 production, any dreams of dealing Lynch for multiple picks with significant value should be squashed immediately. It's just not going to happen. Buffalo, if they choose to deal Lynch, will probably receive a single pick in return, and they'd be lucky if it was a third-rounder. They got two third-rounders and a seventh-rounder for Willis McGahee prior to the 2007 season, but I seriously doubt that that's a deal that other NFL teams will look to replicate.
You know what? I'll take Lynch in a reduced-starter's role over a third round pick, thank you very much. That's not derogatory to third-round picks at all; I'm not so delusional as to think a third-rounder wouldn't help this team. It just seems to me that folks don't think Lynch can help Buffalo next season.
It's fairly clear that Jackson will be the starter going forward. He's high-character, high-production, consistent and dependable on Sundays. Everything the man does, he does well. You give those types of players the ball as often as possible. But Jackson also celebrated his 29th birthday this past Saturday, and for all the value he brings to your team on the field, the man only has five rushing touchdowns on 425 career carries.
If Lynch is here to supplement Jackson next year, it'll be near the goal line. Horribly obvious statement forthcoming: you can't win in the NFL unless you score points. Jackson is capable of racking up huge yardage totals, but that five-touchdown total is concerning. Consider: Lynch ran for as many touchdowns as Jackson did last season despite logging three fewer games and 117 fewer rushes. Even as a backup, Lynch and his 17 career touchdowns (which by no means an impressive total) has a clear role to play.
Oh, and yes - insert your generic "all good NFL teams have two good runners" argument here.
The usual caveats
All of this is not to say that Lynch is untradeable. I'd be hard-pressed to name three such Bills, and none of them are Lynch. It remains possible that Lynch could be part of a deal for a veteran player; if the Bills attempt to swing a deal for a quarterback, for example, Lynch would be nice bait. If the team is looking at veteran players at need positions, then sure, toss Lynch's name around in those situations and see what materializes. And yeah, if a team offers a second-round pick, or even a third and another conditional pick, those are deals the team would probably have to accept as well.
This is not a "keep Marshawn Lynch at all costs" argument. It's simply the antithesis to the "get whatever we can for Marshawn Lynch" argument. So for anyone out there plotting to introduce their foreheads to brick, relax.
There are a few arguments that I anticipate will dominate the comments section on this post, so I'll try to address those here:
* Reduced role: For those of you squeamish about the idea that the No. 12 overall pick in the 2007 NFL Draft will spend his fourth season as a goal line back and backup while toeing the discipline line, I hear you. Clearly, that's not ideal. Neither is flipping your No. 12 overall pick in the 2007 NFL Draft for a 2010 third-rounder. Don't let the fall from grace Lynch has taken deteriorate the fact that the man can still carve out a serious role for himself this season.
* Risk: Yes, I'm perfectly aware that keeping Lynch is a risk. It's very possible that the team could choose to keep Lynch, he gets in trouble again, and then the team has to let him go without getting any value in return. That would suck. Again, I believe the value of keeping him outweighs the risk. I realize that's completely subjective, and I'm sure many folks will disagree. Have at it.
* The importance of 2010: This argument kind of goes hand-in-hand with the "running backs are a dime a dozen" argument; Buffalo is re-building, and therefore shouldn't feel pressured to keep two good backs when finding a cheaper, more reliable backup option isn't exactly difficult to do. That part of the argument is fine. When it develops into "2010 is a throwaway year," that's where I have a problem. It's not. Not even close. If Chan Gailey's Bills go 2-14 this season, we won't be talking about Year 2 of the Nix/Gailey re-build a year from now, we'll be scouting future coaching candidates. Gailey needs to get off to a good start. Nix needs to get off to a good start. They won't trade away a player simply because they're in a re-building year. The value has to be there. I have little doubt that Gailey believes he can get plenty of good contributions out of Lynch next season if he's with the team - and he'll need it.
To add to that argument, it is absolutely imperative - as in mandatory, must-have, a necessity, and all those other synonyms - that the Bills have two viable rushing threats next year. The team will have a completely re-structured offensive line. They'll be starting either a battered veteran, a young rookie or Trent Edwards at quarterback. Gailey's not an idiot; he'll go with what works offensively. The chances are tremendous that Buffalo will develop a run-first, physical identity offensively next year.
The bottom line here is that treating a Lynch trade as a foregone conclusion is a mistake. It completely ignores the fact that Lynch still has a role to play as it stands now. It ignores the fact that Buffalo won't trade away good players just to clean house. That's not how it works. I'm not saying here that Lynch won't be traded. As I said, there are absolutely circumstances in which dealing Lynch would be a great idea for this team. All I'm saying is, let's not condemn it as a front office failure if Marshawn Lynch is toting the rock at St. John Fisher College this July. That wouldn't be a bad thing for this team, folks.