The Buffalo Bills aren't devoid of talent. They won six games in 2009 while giving several good teams a run for their money. The Bills beat both teams that faced off in the AFC Championship game, the Jets and Colts (albeit against the AFC Champion's backups). They also hung with the Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints for 50 minutes, and almost upset the New England Patriots opening night.
The Bills aren't missing talent; they're missing top end talent. They're missing the face of their franchise. They're missing centerpiece players.
When discussing centerpiece players, it's important to clearly define what that type of player represents. We're talking about players that great teams are built around. They are not always the most talented player their squad (though they can be), but they have the skill, youth, and leadership ability to take over a huddle and a locker room now and in the future. Oh, and offensive linemen, while important, need not apply.
Yesterday, GM Buddy Nix spoke for the first time on the Bills' QB position in 2010, saying the team's first priority "is to make one (a quarterback) out of the three we've got." If we're to take Nix at his word, the Bills are looking to plug a player from the previous failed regime in at the team's foremost position.
In recent drafts, several teams have added centerpiece quarterbacks to build around, hopefully for the long term. The Lions, Falcons, Ravens, Buccaneers, and Jets have all placed their eggs in the basket of a first-round QB. The Falcons, Ravens, and Jets have all been rewarded with playoff appearances, and seem primed for future success as they get to add pieces around their new signal-callers. The Lions and Buccaneers, while not yet making the playoffs, know that adding the necessary pieces will take time, but they have a face of the franchise and a guy they can build around.
The other skill position player on Buffalo's offense don't fit the mold, either. Fred Jackson is a very good player, but is 29 years old and never been a starter for a full year. Marshawn Lynch may have been a candidate at one point, but derailed it with varying degrees of mischief. At wide receiver, Lee Evans never stepped into that superstar role, and Terrell Owens is a 36-year-old unrestricted free agent.
ESPN's Tim Graham mentioned the importance and relative difficulty in finding a true nose tackle, which he dubs the "keystone" of the 3-4 defense. Nix also spoke of this position as passable with a player from the old regime, suggesting Kyle Williams, a player I love as a 4-3 DT, saying, "He's a playmaker. He'll make plays at nose for us." As a player, Williams is solid, but a centerpiece he is not. You can say the same thing about every young player in the Bills' defensive front seven, unless you want to reserve judgment on Aaron Maybin for the time being.
Ask yourself: who is the Bills' defensive centerpiece? Who is the guy the Bills' defense is going to be built around? The answer many will surely come up with is Jairus Byrd, whose injury-plagued rookie season ended with a league-leading nine interceptions. If he's going to be the centerpiece of the defense, he needs to improve his play against the run. Paul Posluszny and Leodis McKelvin may also get mention in the comments section. Posluszny is like Williams, a solid player but not a centerpiece. McKelvin has nine career starts and hasn't exactly been a shutdown corner.
The lack of great playmaking talent on the Buffalo Bills' roster is alarming, but the addition of a centerpiece goes deeper than that. Assuming the Bills don't re-sign Owens, the team doesn't have a player that represents them to the community and the rest of the NFL. Trent Edwards was that guy for a brief while following the team's hot start in 2008. He appeared on national media outlets and was listed on early-season MVP watches, but fell further than the U.S. housing market in 2009.
The Bills players seen in television and radio ads around Buffalo and Rochester are few and far between. Marcus Stroud, Chris Kelsay, Rian Lindell, and Brian Moorman all have their names attached to products locally, but lack the youth - and in one case, the talent - for the team to build around long term. Last year, the Bills wisely banked on their 50th Anniversary celebration as their main marketing tactic. This year, the Bills are going to bank on hope and change once again, no doubt, with a new GM and head coach in place. But the NFL is about the players. Specifically, the NFL is about the very best players.
Centerpiece players can be found at virtually every skill position. Adrian Peterson, Antonio Gates, and Larry Fitzgerald all fit into this category. On defense, Patrick Willis, Darrelle Revis, Troy Polamalu, and Mario Williams make the case. Regardless of what position the Bills' new centerpiece plays, they need one. The last guy the Bills successfully built around as a centerpiece may have been Jim Kelly.