March. Mid-March. Is there anything more depressing to the NFL fanatic than this time of year? Free agency started weeks ago and it seems as if the Bills have made most of the moves they are going to make in the near future. The draft is still over a month away, so the talk of Bills Nation strays to thousands of hypothetical player trade and acquisition scenarios if the conversation is even about football at all.
Since I last sat down at my keyboard to write about the Bills there has been some activity to report, so I thought I would take some time to give my $.02 about the events of the past few weeks. Realizing that I’m not a football expert (nor do I play one on TV), I feel that subjecting you, the reader, to a single opinion of a single fan would cheat you of a fulfilling bit of commentary. Face it – you deserve better than to hear the musings of a single nobody fan such as myself. No, if you’re going to take 10 minutes out of your hectic schedule to read this piece you want to hear someone much more knowledgeable about football than myself.
Enter Wally the Bills fan.
You may remember Wally from a few months back when he debuted in my offseason forecast article. Wally was very popular – I was told that he had some really solid ideas and people generally wanted to hear more from him because they agreed with him. As my editors at Bills Daily say, give the people what they want.
Here then is my point-counterpoint review of the past few weeks with Wally:
The Loss of Antoine Winfield:
Me: The loss of Antoine Winfield at cornerback hurts but was not completely unexpected. Winfield was a solid if unspectacular corner known for his tackling ability and coverage skills but seemed to lack the ability for the big play. The Bills first round pick in 1999 was said to be undersized by many at 5’9” and had only 6 interceptions in his 5 year career for the Bills (none for touchdowns). Given the salary Winfield would have commanded, the Bills front office felt that they could do more with their money and I don’t disagree. Winfield was good, but not great and you could likely get similar production from someone without his pedigree and price tag. My problem with the situation is lack of options at the position – if Winfield isn’t here, who starts? Unfortunately, the Bills are not deep at the position so finding a replacement from the current roster is risky – neither Terrence McGee nor Kevin Thomas should be a starting corner in the NFL at this point. Few veterans are in the market and the only guy the Bills have brought in for an audition is Troy Vincent. Vincent would be a nice addition, but his price may be too high – the Bills won’t want to pay him more than Winfield given that he’s not a huge upgrade. Drafting a corner could be a top priority if no replacement is found, but the position is not deep in the draft this season. Picking a cornerback at #13 this year might be too early and you’d have a rookie starting at the position – it doesn’t give me the warm fuzzies. As they days go by Vincent’s price seems to be out of reach and I fear that the Bills will have to bring in someone of a lesser caliber or burn a high pick for a rookie. This is our biggest open issue at this point – I’m not sure what a good option is at this point.
Wally: Quit complaining about our need at cornerback – we have a GREAT option! Just this morning the Boston Globe reported that Ty Law’s days as a Patriot are over. Welcome to Buffalo, Ty! Lawyer says the water’s nice so jump right in! If Donahoe knows what’s good for him he’ll sign him right away. Ralph Wilson will pony up the money for a guy like Law. We sign him to a cap friendly deal and we end up with the best corner in the league – take that, Patsie scum! If he’s difficult to get under our cap we start cutting some dead wood to make him fit – cutting old statue Drew Bledsoe will save us millions – if it’s between Drew or Ty, I’ll take Ty any day!
A New Quarterback
Me: I’ll start by saying that I still have faith in Drew Bledsoe. If that make me a Drew Bledsoe apologist, so be it. I have a hard time believing that he went from the Pro Bowl to the trash heap in a single season, particularly if you blame everything on the signal caller and discount or ignore all the other significant contributing factors. I think the Bills agree with me and everyone from the owner on down has expressed confidence in the man from Washington State. He’ll clearly be the starter in 2004 and if he plays well this season (I think there’s a good chance he will) he may be under center even longer. That said, it is time the Bills start to groom a new guy. The question really revolves around how quickly the new guy will need to step in. If there’s a chance Bledsoe’s replacement is the starter in 2005 the Bills need to select someone they really feel is near-NFL starter material right now or someone who will be at that level after only one season on the bench. This makes it likely that the Bills will select a quarterback on day one of the draft next month. If the Bills gamble or choose to deal with the quarterback situation later they may wait to take a signal caller after round 3 with the understanding that he would be a project and likely to not be ready in 2005. Passing on Drew Henson was a good move – you can’t break the bank and/or kill the salary cap taking a shot on a guy who’s been out of football for some time (see also, Hutchinson, Chad). Billy Volek might be a good person to groom, but he’ll want more than the Bills will pay and he also wants to start now, not sit on the bench for another year. I’d be happy to see the Bills draft a quarterback in round 2 or later this year – there are bigger needs for our first round pick and there is no hard and fast rule that the Bledsoe era is in its final year.
Wally: You mean the Bledsoe era may go on even longer? That’s it – I’m going to root for the Redskins – I’ll leave the Bills for good if that statue plays longer than this season as our quarterback! How many times do I have o tell you – Drew Bledsoe is Satan! We need a quarterback and we need him now. We already lost out on Henson and that was a huge mistake – Parcells loves him so that means he’ll be great. I really wanted to have a quarterback named Drew I could route for – guess it’s not going to happen. I think the Bills not only need to draft a quarterback in the first round, they need to trade into a better position to get the guy if necessary. I think the Bills take Phillip Rivers at #13, but if there’s any doubt he’ll be there or they want a shot at a guy like Ben Rolesghfedsjkberger they should move up. We lost Ruben as trade bait, but trading McGahee would get us there if a 4th round pick in 2010 doesn’t get us there. Of course we should also go after Volek aggressively and if we land him he starts in 2004, Drew gets cut and we use our first round pick on a tight end. It’s so clear to me what needs to happen here!
Changing of the Guard and the Offensive Line
Me: Ruben Brown is a Bill no more. It’s always sad to see a familiar face go, but the writing was on the wall. Ruben was a good player, but certainly a bigger name than a talent. He was not the perennial Pro Bowl player he appeared to be and I agree that the Bills needed to make a change and bring in someone with more upside and less of a price tag. To his credit, Brown went out with class and I wish him well – he was a good guy off the field and in the community – I wonder who will do the new PSA for the United Way. I believe the addition of Chris Villarrial was a good move – he’s a solid guard with good run blocking abilities and should at least play up to the level of Brown. While it would be nice to see improvement on the offensive line, few options in free agency seem to be left. Damien Woody signed with Detroit for more money than the Bills would have given him and Chris Bober is now in Kansas City as a tackle. The biggest improvement to the unit has already been made – the hiring of Jim McNally as offensive line coach. I believe this unit can improve in 2004 so I’m not convinced the Bills needed to sign a big name, big price tag guy in free agency. Likewise, I don’t think the Bills need to draft offensive line positions in the first round of the draft (even if they do, how many offensive linemen are very effective in their rookie seasons?). The Bills will pick up offensive linement in the middle rounds for depth but I believe the starters are essentially set – Jennings, Tucker, Teague, Villarrial, Williams. I’m OK with this lineup – it’s decent but not fantastic.If I’m wrong the Bills are in for another very long season.Wally: Are you kidding me? How can you be OK with that line? We should have made a strong push for Woody and we blew it. Orlando Pace was available and I think without a doubt he is worth the two first round picks it would have taken to sign him – he’s a franchise tackle, you know. Now we let Bober sign without so much as a visit and it looks like Teague will get a $2 million bonus on Monday – that’s just throwing money away! I’m really ticked at how the Bills bungled the offensive line situation. I like the Villarrial pickup, but how do we not get a trade for an 8-time Pro Bowl player? This line is going to be terrible and won’t be able to protect a statue like Bledsoe. If you don’t have an all-star offensive line to protect that lead-footed excuse of a quarterback you’re toast. They didn’t improve the line, so it’s even more of an argument to get rid of the statue. Cut him now and go get a real quarterback!
Me: It seems that all of the major free agent names being thrown around with the Bills have played out to their logical conclusions (with the exception of Troy Vincent and his new home), so the draft becomes a bit clearer. As of today, the Bills need a cornerback, a defensive end, a wide receiver, a young quarterback to groom, depth at offensive line and possibly even depth at tight end. My crystal ball shows that the Bills will go defensive end in the first round if they can obtain Will Smith or Kenechi Udeze – that seems to be a solid pick without reaching and it fills a need to improve the turnovers created on defense by really being able to pressure the quarterback. Depending on how the cornerback situation plays out, the Bills could also select a rookie in round one – Chris Gamble might be there and the Bills love corners from Ohio State. I don’t see the Bills taking a wide receiver or a quarterback at #13. Wide receiver is a deep position and Josh Reed may actually surprise people in the third season, meaning the Bills may be willing to wait to select at this position. Rivers might be an option at #13, but that might be a bit of a reach and I really don’t think the Bills are convinced that they absolutely need a Bledsoe replacement in 2005 and that the replacement must come right now at the cost of other needs. As they say, anything can happen and usually does – much of it will depend on who slips to the Bills at 13 and/or if the Bills decide to trade their spot.
Wally: The Bills will go with a quarterback or a receiver in the first round – I’ll bet my double-wide trailer on it! Other than running back where we are already stacked, is there anything more exciting than drafting a quarterback or receiver? These are both positions of immediate need. We need a stud quarterback for next season who will take us straight to the Super Bowl. Trade down and get Eli or Ben, but at least get Rivers if you don’t. If there’s a great deal on a super stud receiver like Larry Fitzgerald, Mike Williams or Roy Williams we should jump on it – even if we need to trade up a few spots. Kellen Winslow would also be a great pick – jump on him if we can. My ultimate pick would be Robert Gallery the big offensive tackle – if we can get him I might be able to stomach another season with the statue. Defensive end can wait – we are pretty set on defense. Schoebel is solid and if he steps it up could be a Pro Bowl guy. If someone like Kelsay can pick it up we might have Smith-Hansen II. We need a big name in round one or I’ll be really ticked at how poorly Donahoe has done his job – is this guy allergic to making big and important move all of a sudden?