Is there any longer time of the year for football fans than the period between the Super Bowl and the NFL draft? Letís face it, unless youíre into hockey, basketball or curling, thereís nothing to really get excited about - particularly in Buffalo.
Itís been a tough offseason for the Bills and their fans. Optimists will say that they are excited about the changes in team management and the folks responsible for the upcoming draft. Curmudgeons like me see more of the same and no end in site to mediocrity.
How much of an optimist you are is easily identifiable based on your take of the Bills offseason player personnel activity (or lack thereof). There are some people who steadfastly believe the Bills are taking the right approach by not bringing in big free agent names and focusing on building depth by signing guys like Andra Davis and Dwan Edwards. These same folks will just as assuredly tell you that division rivals like The Dolphins and Jets are wasting money by bringing in players past their prime or known for causing problems Ė guys like LaDanian Tomlinson, Santonio Holmes and Brandon Marshall Ė they seem happy that Buffalo apparently values their money and team character enough to forgo such moves. On the other end of the spectrum are the fans convinced the sky is falling because Buffalo has been so subdued in personnel acquisitions while the rest of the division seems hell bent on improving and being a contender now.
While I am not in Chicken Little category Iíd be lying if I told you my views of this team were anything more than pessimistic. As Iíve written previously, Iím not convinced that Buddy Nix and Chan Gailey represent real change and can cure what ails the Bills (although I certainly hope they are). Letís not forget that Tom Modrak still heads up the scouting department that has produced so little in past years and that alone makes me feel like the Bills lag behind Dominos Pizza in understanding how bad theyíve been and doing something to make it better. Iím of the opinion that the Bills have now sunk to an organizational low and canít even compete to bring in the talent they so desperately need unless that talent comes through the draft. I believe Buffalo is pretty much irrelevant in the NFL. Players coming to Buffalo are either trying to return to better days gone by (Dwan Edwards) or have a place to stop before retiring (Terrell Owens). You donít come to Buffalo Ė you end up there.
In the new landscape of the NFL Buffalo seems content to play out its lot as a second tier team. I donít see any urgency to shake things up, make a splash and let the league know that they are serious about being a championship organization. They seem reserved to fielding a product that is just successful enough to entice fans who feel that better days are just around the corner without breaking the bank. For a small market team that may not be such a bad business move Ė look at how teams like the Pittsburgh Pirates and Kansas City Royals are run compared with the likes of the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. The Pirates have a nice park and fans who come to games but arenít contenders unless they somehow catch lightning in a bottle. By contrast the Yankees and the Red Sox have enormous payrolls and expect to be in championship contention in return, but the Pirates still run as a good business because their business model is not built on winning. If the NFL salary cap with both its minimum and maximum payrolls goes the way of the dodo the NFL could look a lot more like Major League Baseball in the future and Buffalo already has its slot.
I know many of you will disagree with the sentiments I just expressed. Iíll get plenty of feedback telling me that the Bills arenít that far away from the playoffs, the Bills do want to win now and that not being very active in free agency shouldnít be construed as not wanting to get back to better days. Theyíll point out that Buffalo doesnít want guys like Holmes or Marshall because they want a team with character. Honestly, at this point I donít care whether we have anyone clamoring to be the United Way spokesperson and neither should the Bills Ė just get some winners on the field (itís not like the current roster is a bunch of choirboys anyway) Ė character is not the biggest problem.
Optimists will also point to the fact that the Bills tried to bring in a coach like Mike Shanahan or Bill Cowher and that when Donovan McNabb, a Pro Bowl quarterback, became available the Bills evidently tried hard to get him. I understand that and Iím happy that the Bills are trying, but if they were truly serious about winning I believe the organization has had a tremendous problem trying to convince players and coaches that they are serious about being a championship contender Ė serious enough that Iím not sure they believe it themselves. Itís almost impossible to get out of the hole youíre in if you canít convince people youíre relevant and serious about getting to the top, especially if you donít truly believe it yourself.
In any event, Iíll say that I remain hopeful for the Bills, just not someone who expects it. Iíll still cheer like hell for the team, be excited about the wins and suffer through Mondays after losses just like the rest of the fans Ė itís in my blood.
Optimist or pessimist, I believe both sides agree that the Bills can take strides in strengthening the team through the upcoming draft, so Iíll turn my thoughts to the various options the Bills might have in the first round.
The Bills are a team with a multitude of needs Ė quarterback, offensive line, linebacker, defensive line being chief amongst them. With the number 9 pick in a draft that is considered well stocked with talent the Bills have an opportunity to get their hands on a very solid player. The question is who will that player be and what position will he play?
The easiest thing for Buffalo to do will be to take one of their top rated players at a position of need when they are on the clock, and the Bills certainly have plenty of needs. Unfortunately, thatís only part of the equation Ė the other part is whether or not that player is worthy of being a top 10 pick. This second part of the equation significantly complicates things for Buffalo. Can you draft a player who projects to be a right tackle at #9? What if the top four tackles in the draft are gone when it comes time to pick Ė is the fifth best tackle in the draft really worth a top 10 pick? Is there a quarterback worthy of pick #9?
In his pre draft luncheon Buddy Nix said something that got to me Ė if Buffalo didnít find someone at #9 who could make an impact at position of need they may just draft the best player available. Reading between the lines I also took away that Buffalo believes only 2 offensive tackle may be worth the #9 spot.
I see this as being a tough draft for Buffalo. Despite having so many needs, Iím not sure an impact player at one of the identified positions of need is actually there when they pick, let alone a player who would be worthy of such a high draft spot. By the time the Bills pick the best 2 offensive tackles, the top quarterback and the top defensive tackle will all be gone (unless Buffaloís ranking differ significantly from other teams, something that in itself would worry me). The next 2 offensive tackles, 2 quarterbacks and top linebackers may be available, but Iím not sure whether these would warrant a top 10 pick and whether Buffalo couldnít find similar players if they were to trade down a bit in the first round.
My sense is that Buffalo is just a bit out of where they would really like to be to get an impact player at a position of need, something weíve certainly seen before. Given the amount of rebuilding the team needs to do, I donít see them trading up and giving up picks to move up in the round. On the contrary, I think Buffalo would love to move down in the draft if they can find a partner and there isnít a slam dunk player available at #9.
Tackles Bryan Bulaga and Anthony Davis could be available when the Bills pick. The problem is that Bulaga is probably better suited to a right tackle, not a left tackle Ė can you justify a top 10 pick and the money that goes with it on a guy who will not be protecting the quarterbackís blind side? Davis is rumored to have some issues with work ethic and motivation Ė do the Bills want to risk another Mike Williams with their pick?
Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen could be available to Buffalo when they pick, but opinions vary widely on whether he would represent good value at that pick. I also question how Buffalo is going to develop any sort of young quarterback with an offensive line that is missing so much at this point and could only provide a mentor like Ryan Fitzpatrick Ė if things start out poorly for the Bills (and they well could), how do you resist the pressure to put a rookie quarterback on the field behind a ragtag offensive line? How does that hurt his development? A lot of questions stand in the way of making this a slam dunk pick for the Bills.
If the draft goes as many expect, the Bills stay at #9 and the words of Buddy Nix ring true I could see the team drafting Clemson running back C.J. Spiller with their first selection Ė the fans and the media draft pundits would hate it, as would I. Spiller is certainly talented, but to me the acquisition of a running back is merely a luxury at this point. Such a move would be like trying to make your old broken down car better by putting new tires on it Ė sure, it could use better tires, but so many other repairs are needed that are more necessary. My guess is the Bills may back off their stated best player available philosophy a bit and not select Spiller when they realize just how little this buys the team and also forces their hand on dumping Marshawn Lynch whose trade value is already greatly depressed.
In the end, I believe the Bills may trade out of the #9 spot if they can. If they canít they may draft Dan Williams, the defensive tackle who projects to be a natural nose tackle in the NFL. I could also see them taking Sergio Kindle, the Texas linebacker who would be a good fit to play outside in Buffalo. Of course with this being the Bills I canít entirely rule out the Bills calling the name of someone who makes almost everyone say, ďwho?Ē when it is their selection Ė another Donte Whitner type pick. I think the Bills are also very likely to trade back into the latter part of the first round if they feel that a player they want (quarterbacks Clausen and Tebow) is still available but will be gone by the time they pick next at #41. Hopefully this doesnít end up like previous moves for Buffalo or the Bills could end up with another J.P. Losman or John McCargo and losing at least a third round pick for the privilege (yikes!).
In any event, this draft is critical for the Bills. I know Ė that sounds clichť, and honestly, isnít every draft critical for a team like Buffalo? Well, the 2010 draft is especially critical to start the massive rebuilding effort. It will tell us whether the team is moving in the right direction with capable people who can evaluate talent accurately or whether more substantial change is needed there. It will tell us whether the Bills stand any chance of building this team back to relevancy through the draft or whether they will continually be mired at the bottom of the league for lack of talent. In short, it will tell us whether the organization can move in the right direction or if it is more of the same old same old in Buffalo Ė as a hopeful pessimist I canít wait to find out.