The Buffalo Bills can't do anything contractually with their existing personnel until the NFL lockout ends, in whatever fashion that happens. When they can, the first person they should approach about a new deal is starting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick.
Yes, the team has pressing matters to address with players that are actually free agents - Paul Posluszny, Drayton Florence and Donte Whitner chief among them. But as we discussed yesterday, things are particularly desperate at quarterback, where depth is non-existent and long-term direction isn't to be found. It's absolutely imperative that the team lock down the only signal-caller it trusts beyond the 2011 season.
Fitzpatrick signed a three-year contract as an unrestricted free agent prior to the start of the 2009 season. Now entering the final year of his deal, he has started 21 games for the Bills, completing 58.2 percent of his passes for 4,300 yards, 31 touchdowns and 23 interceptions in those games. The Bills are 8-13 in games he's started, and 2-9 otherwise, during that time frame.
Admittedly, striking a new deal with Fitzpatrick may be easier said than done. He'll be 29 this November, and another strong year could land him his final deal before retirement; at the very least, it could make him loath to the idea of signing a shorter-term deal. If Fitzpatrick's representation has any sense whatsoever, they'll understand that a strong 2011 campaign could make their client a very attractive commodity - whether that's in Buffalo or on the open market. Fitzpatrick's camp may be comfortable playing the 2011 season in a contract year, then capitalizing on his new-found experience and production next spring.
Then again, it's also possible that Fitzpatrick's value won't be any higher than it is now, what with him coming off a career year in which he threw for 3,000 yards and 23 touchdowns in 13 starts. Fitzpatrick already has an idea that the team doesn't view him as the long-term answer at the position, what with head coach Chan Gailey telling him prior to the lockout that the team would take a franchise quarterback in the 2011 NFL Draft if it could get one. It didn't, and this may be Fitzpatrick's best opportunity to cement himself financially as, at minimum, the Bills' quarterback of the foreseeable future.
But the opinion here is whether or not the Bills should extend Fitzpatrick, not the other way around - and I believe the answer is obvious. Even after the Bills add a quarterback or two via free agency to round out their 2011 depth chart, Fitzpatrick will be the only player at the position with a legitimate chance to be here beyond 2011. The search for that franchise quarterback continues, and when they do stumble across "their guy," that guy will almost certainly be a rookie, and that would be a year from now at the earliest. Unless the Bills are willing to let Fitzpatrick walk and hand their starting job over to an as-yet-to-be-signed vet off the scrap heap or that franchise rookie, they'd better make sure Fitzpatrick's here for more than just one more year.
Fitzpatrick is a very endearing player - to his coaches, to his teammates and even to fans. He's not perfect, but it's crystal clear that, in a perfect world to the team, he plays the part of a bridge for the next two seasons. The Bills must make sure that he's here for that second season - and perhaps even a bit longer.