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As Free Agency Begins, Bills Face Limited Options

Bills GM Buddy Nix and his staff have their collective work cut out for them.  We know not all of the Bills’ problems can be solved in one year of free agency and one year in the draft.  They’re just not that team that you can look at and say, “okay, they’re about a couple players away from really being formidable”.  Now I don’t expect the Bills to just sit on their hands and do nothing during free agency.  My guess is they’ll target some players and try to plug some of their holes before the draft.  Who those players are is a  complete rubix cube mystery.

This free agent year promises to be duller than dishwater or an Andy Reid press conference.  Not that there’s much a difference between either.  The big fish in an otherwise dried-out pond is defensive end Julius Peppers.  No question the Bills could use defensive end help, but Peppers is likely to carry an elephant sized pricetag, somewhere between $12-15 million per season.  Too deep for the Bills’ pockets.

Quick recap so we’re all on the same page regarding free agency: NFL owners and players have not agreed on a new collective bargaining agreement, so the 2010 season will be played without a salary cap.  Since an agreement wasn’t reached, now we have a rule that affects free agency. Under normal circumstances, veterans with four or five seasons of experience become unrestricted free agents. This year, however, those same players will need six years to become an unrestricted free agent, which means many NFL players become restricted free agents instead.

So as the 2010 NFL free agency period began at 12:01 a.m. on Friday morning, the sidelines will be littered with prominent talent: Miles Austin, Elvis Dumervil, DeMeco Ryans, Owen Daniels, Brandon Marshall, Braylon Edwards, Vincent Jackson and Shawn Merriman. 

As the new Bills’ regime begins taking their first steps towards bringing in “their guys”, we know where the Bills have holes.  Brad Butler retired and unless you have unwavering faith in Demetrius Bell and Jamon Meredith, the Bills are in desperate need for help at both left and right tackle.  Sadly, the Bills won’t find help from San Diego’s Marcus McNeil or Baltimore’s Jared Gaither.  McNeil, who has a rapport with Nix while he was with San Diego, was slapped with a first and a third-round tender by San Diego.  The Ravens hit Gaither with a first-round tender of their own.

Linebacker help doesn’t rank far behind offensive line help.  Paul Posluszny had suffered injuries in two of his first three seasons, while both Kawika Mitchell & Keith Ellison endured season ending injuries in 2009.  Buffalo will be looking at add some depth at linebacker they were badly missing last season.  Chargers linebacker Shawn Merriman could’ve been a solid, centerpiece to the Bills’ new 3-4 linebacking unit, but he too has been tendered.

The departures of wide receivers Terrell Owens and Josh Reed leaves the Bills both young and inexperienced at wideout.  James Hardy and Steve Johnson have a combined four starts between them, while playing in a combined three games in 2009.  Buffalo should be looking to add some veteran help at wide receiver to alleviate pressure and attention from Lee Evans.  Both Vincent Jackson and Malcom Floyd have also been tendered by the Chargers.  Jackson has develop into a top flight, go-to-guy while Floyd is blossoming into a promising, dependable target.  Floyd had better receptions and receiving yards than Evans in 2009.

Now here’s where the fun really begins.   The quarterback position is yet another area of need for the Bills, however they’re more likely to stick with the Edwards-Fitzpatrick-Brohm trio in 2010 than they are likely to find quarterback help in free agency.  It’s not a group that will have teams drooling, nor will they command a bidding frenzy but any options the Bills may have had in mind are likely gone by the wayside now. 

Chad Pennington is returning to the Miami Dolphins.  Kyle Orton, Jason Campbell, Matt Moore, Tarvaris Jackson and Bruce Gradkowski have all been retained by their respective teams.  Now that Carolina has cut ties with Jake Delhomme, Moore could end being starting for the Panthers and Carolina tendered Moore for first and third-rounds picks.  Both Orton and Campbell were tendered at a first-round level.  Gradkowski was tendered by Oakland at the second-round level.  Jackson was tendered by Minnesota at a third-round level.

Finally, there’s that pesky situation of trying to find the centerpiece of a 3-4 defense: a space eating, small-Volkswagon like nose tackle.  These guys are like pitching in baseball and goaltending in hockey: if you have  them, by no means are you parting with them.  Finding could prove to be Nix’s most daunting task. Vince Wilfork of the Patriots was the highest-profile potential free agent in what could have been a stellar year for nose tackles in free agency, but New England wisely slapped Wilfork with a franchise tag.  He’s scheduled to make $7 million and it would be a steep cost  two first-round picks to anyone who signs Wilfork.. Also franchised were San Fransisco NT Aubrayo Franklin and Packers NT Ryan Pickett. The Pittsburgh Steelers avoided  hitting nose tackle Casey Hampton with the franchise tag and signed Hampton to a three-year extension last week.

Just because these players mentioned have either been tendered or franchise tagged doesn’t mean that teams won’t go after them, but teams will suffer heavy consequences should they decide to go that route.  You would have to sign a player to a free agent offer sheet AND give up significant compensation to the player’s current team.

Building through the draft just took on a whole new meaning.

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