In trekking through the NFL calendar, March and April are months dedicated to talking about team needs and how best to fill holes. We've been doing a lot of that here at Buffalo Rumblings, examining the Buffalo Bills' many need areas and identifying quarterback, left tackle, nose tackle and rush linebacker as the team's most critical positional needs.
That's an easy enough process to do on the surface, but the Bills are a special case. They're one of only two NFL teams - the venerable Detroit Lions being the other - that have not made the playoffs in a decade. Buffalo's needs extend far beyond simple positions on a football field. Take the already-established list of needs with you into draft weekend, but understand that Buffalo's real needs list is as follows:
1. Franchise Quarterback. As if you didn't see this coming. Doug Flutie and Drew Bledsoe moonlighted for single seasons as top-ten rated passers in the NFL, but Buffalo hasn't had a quarterback rated in the top ten in consecutive seasons since Jim Kelly's four-season run in that category from 1989 through 1992. That's pushing two decades, folks. Buffalo not only needs consistency and stability at the quarterback position, but they also need a guy that consistently rates in the upper echelon of the league's quarterbacks. Finding that guy is the hardest thing to do in sport, but it's got to happen sometime. Buffalo is due.
2. Physicality on the offensive line. Playing in Buffalo, where winters are supposed to create a home-field advantage, you'd think it'd be advantageous for the Bills to field a solid rushing offense with a line capable of handling out-of-towners not acclimated to the cold with ease. Yet Buffalo hasn't fielded a Top 10 rushing offense since 1999, when household name Jonathan Linton was the Bills' leading rusher. Buffalo has had good backs that have had good years since, but never have the Bills been considered one of the league's best rushing teams. Over the long haul, that needs to change, particularly since ticking off the first item on this list is so difficult to do. It starts up front, and the Bills need to address their offensive trenches heavily.
3. Size to defend the run. "Run and stop the run" is an old football cliche that still exists because, well, it typically works. We've already been over Buffalo's inability to complete the first half of that adage, and unfortunately, they haven't been proficient at stopping the run, either. Buffalo's run defense has finished in the top half of the league just three times in the last ten years, with 2004 being the most recent occurrence. Transitioning away from a Tampa 2 scheme that required lighter, quicker defenders, Buffalo needs to work hard to add size and physicality to its defense front seven; that process has already begun thanks to the free agent signings of DE Dwan Edwards and ILB Andra Davis. Many more reinforcements are needed.
4. Some semblance of a pass rush. Aaron Schobel has kept Buffalo respectable in this department, which is a mark of just how truly excellent he's been throughout his career. Buffalo's 40 sacks as a team in 2006 ranked amongst the league's highest totals, but since then, the team has averaged around 25 per season as Schobel has aged and dealt with injury, and the team hasn't given him much help. The team is moving to the 3-4, which requires more athleticism than ever from its rushers, and even a healthy Schobel doesn't provide much of that. Aaron Maybin's plate is full, and the Bills need to add serious competition and depth to this position if they hope to effectively fluster opposing quarterbacks any time soon. Then there's that little notion that Schobel may retire... yeah, you get the point.
5. Speed at the offensive skill positions. Back in the glory years of the 1990s, Buffalo's offense was very much a finesse offense - which doesn't fit with the Buffalo profile, per se, but was certainly effective in the winter months. That team featured speed players nearly across the board, including Thurman Thomas and Kenneth Davis at running back, with Andre Reed, James Lofton and Don Beebe at receiver. Discounting Roscoe Parrish, whom I don't even consider a part of Buffalo's offensive arsenal anymore, the Bills have a severe lack of speed across the board. Fred Jackson and Marshawn Lynch are not home run threats on the ground, and aside from Lee Evans, the Bills don't have much speed at receiver; the best bet might be 2006 draft bust Chad Jackson. The NFL is trending toward speed players having the biggest impact on offenses (see: Chris Johnson, RB and DeSean Jackson, WR), and the Bills could use a lot more of it quickly.
6. Guys to turn the ball over defensively. Creating turnovers had been a huge issue for this franchise up until a year ago, when thanks to some solid talent in the defensive back seven and some very generous opposing quarterbacks, Buffalo's defense picked off 28 passes, good for the second-highest total in the league. That total will dwindle if two things don't happen: the Bills don't address their pass rushing issue, and if the Bills don't find another guy that specializes in taking the ball away to complement Jairus Byrd. He can't and won't do it all by himself; whether the Bills find a playmaker at corner, safety or even linebacker, it needs to be done. Creating more fumble recovery opportunities would be nice, as well.
7. Production from the tight end. Maybe you'll view this one as slightly picky, but we've already discussed the fact that tight ends are returning to prominence in passing attacks league-wide. We've also discussed the fact that the Bills haven't had a tight end catch more than 50 passes in a season since Jay Riemersma did it for a terrible 2001 outfit. A year ago, Buffalo's leading receiver at tight end was rookie Shawn Nelson (17 receptions). Reed, Lofton, Beebe and Thomas got all the glory, but in Buffalo's four Super Bowl seasons of the early '90s, Keith McKeller (78 receptions in '90 and '91) and Pete Metzelaars (98 receptions in '92 and '93) were critical components to Buffalo's aerial attack. In fact, no Bill caught more passes than Metzelaars' 68 in 1993. This is a position that is trending upward, and given the fact that the team is likely to be grooming a young quarterback very soon, the team could use an athletic safety valve TE capable of moving the chains - or more. Perhaps Nelson is that guy, perhaps he isn't. Either way, this position needs to return to prominence in Buffalo.