Buffalo Bills GM Buddy Nix is not an unpopular Buffalo sports figure at the moment. That doesn't mean he's not prone to a little criticism, and most Bills fans that have voiced displeasure with Nix's decisions to date have centered their arguments around the status quo at critical positions like quarterback, the offensive line and the pass rush.
If you didn't pick up today's edition of The Buffalo News, which features an incredibly comprehensive Bills season preview, you missed out. It's not too late - go check it out. The best piece, in your humble narrator's opinion, is Mark Gaughan's interview and profile of the aforementioned Mr. Nix. One quote in particular from Gaughan's piece stuck out, as it directly pertains to many of the lingering complaints Nix faces. (You know, aside from "showing us the baby.")
Many NFL general managers dodge questions pertaining to draft strategy, choosing not to reveal the thought process behind the most trivial of issues (such as why the team picked a particular player); canned answers are all too frequent. Nix was forthright with Gaughan, saying that upgrading the offensive line "was our main emphasis going into the draft."
Here's the Nix quote, as reported by Gaughan, in its entirety:
"We felt like we needed to upgrade our offensive line," Nix said of the assessment after he was hired. "We started out looking for that. That was our main emphasis going into the draft. But by the time we got through doing our work, there was one or two guys we felt really strongly about coming in and helping us. And neither one of them were there."
As Gaughan notes, it's fair to claim that those "one or two" players were offensive tackles Russell Okung and Trent Williams, who were both selected prior to the Bills' No. 9 overall pick.
Nix explained to Gaughan that once those two players were gone, the team didn't want to reach to fill a need at the expense of getting a good player. He's been very forthright about this philosophy of his since the moment he was named the team's GM, but we'll quote him again here just to hammer the point home.
"Here's the way I feel. Obviously you want to fill the need. That's obvious. If you can, you do. But you don't fill the need at the expense of making sure it's a good player. You fill a need with a guy who can play and you upgrade your football team. If you can't then you go to the one that can."
The Bills obviously took C.J. Spiller in lieu of an offensive linemen they weren't wholly comfortable with - Anthony Davis and Bryan Bulaga come to mind - and whether you're pleased with that decision philosophically or not, I don't think anyone can deny that Spiller has, in fact, upgraded this football team.
I put this into a post of its own duringweek, just a few days in advance of the season opener, for a very good reason - it's incredibly important information. Probably not timely information, but important nonetheless, particularly considering the future direction of the team.
First and foremost, it only strengthens the fact that Nix isn't going to be a needs-based drafter. Don't expect him to try to fill a need unless he sees a very strong prospect at acceptable value on the board (Torell Troup comes to mind). Good teams have been built well through multiple philosophies; we all should be fully aware at this point exactly how Nix approaches things.
The other point to note here, however, is that it can be fairly claimed that Nix's desire to fix the offensive line didn't evaporate when his two favorite line prospects didn't fall to him in April. True, the Bills return four 2009 opening-day starters along the front five, and the fifth - Cornell Green - seems to be merely a reactionary signing after the retirement of Brad Butler. But the Bills have completely re-tooled the back end of their depth chart, choosing to employ youngsters with upside. Jamon Meredith and Ed Wang have raw tools to work with at tackle; Cordaro Howard is an excellent athlete at guard; and Kraig Urbik has the potential to be an excellent run blocker.
Understand, also, that I'm not writing this to try to abate some of the criticism Nix is still getting. I'm certainly not trying to claim that Nix doesn't like the upside of the linemen he does have, either; that will obviously change if those linemen improve this year.
The only thing that ultimately matters about Nix past, present and future is the decisions he makes. He decided to take Spiller, and he decided not to address the offensive line in any meaningful way at the top of the depth chart. Going forward, however, this is useful information to have. We have an unusually good idea about how our favorite team's GM reasons out decisions, and we know that, barring a drastic increase in the level of play along Buffalo's offensive front, his assessment entering the 2010 NFL Draft isn't likely to change next April. Store this one in the back of your mind, folks - it's critical information for next March and April.