The first season for head coach Chan Gailey and Buddy Nix was a forgetable one in Buffalo. They took over a complete mess of a roster and ushered in a new era with a first round draft choice of RB C.J. Spiller. From that moment on, dark and difficult times awaited the Bills. Buffalo began the season 0-8. Draft bust Trent Edwards was released. Spiller’s impact never came about, with the Bills finishing 4-12 and of their four wins not one was against a team with a winning record. But as bad as things were, it wasn’t all 16 weeks of dark clouds and dreary days.
Ryan Fitzpatrick was a stabilizing figure at quarterback, throwing for 23 touchdowns and 3,000 yards. Steve Johnson emerged as 1,000-yard receiver and Kyle Williams established himself as the Bills’ best defensive threat along the line. Now the question remains, how do the Bills take the next step? They largely still have a roster void of top caliber talent and they’re still in a division with Tom Brady’s New England Patriots and the Super Bowl threatening New York Jets.
So we know the Bills will use the draft and free agency (whenever it happens) to continue to improve. Let’s take a look at what areas the Bills must address in order to make 2011 a success.
1. Defensive line. The run defense is brutal and that’s keeping if PG out there since we are a family environment here. Buffalo was the league’s worst-ranked run defense in 2010, allowing nearly 170 yards per game on the ground. Needless to say their transition from the 4-3 to the 3-4 defense experienced plenty of growing pains. Kyle Williams turned in a Pro Bowl season and he’s bloomed into a tenacious threat on the defensive line. That’s the good news. Bad news is the Bills essentially have nothing else around him in the form of production. Buffalo is hoping to see increased development from Torrell Troup and Alex Carrington. Still, the Bills must find players capable of stopping the run and getting to opposing quarterbacks.
2. Quarterback. It’s been a tough, hard journey for the Bills replacing Jim Kelly. Buffalo has yet to find a franchise quarterback to replace Kelly, which leads to a direct correlation between their struggles and playoff drought. Ryan Fitzpatrick exceeding expectations last year. At times he played extremely well and other times he barely looked average. That’s what you get from a career backup quarterback. Gailey has expressed his trust in Fitzpatrick moving forwards as the starter, but he isn’t the franchise or long term answer. But, with many other problem ares that need fixing, Buffalo might be comfortable living with Fitzpatrick for another year. From the look of things at this point, every indication points to Fitzpatrick being the starter when the season opens in 2011. One of the big storylines on draft night will be what the Bills do if Cam Newton falls in their lap at No.3 or whether or not they’ll pass on Blaine Gabbert should Newton be off the board.
3. Left & Right Tackle. These two spots come as a package deal, considering the Bills are sorely missing two NFL quality tackles. In recent drafts, the Bills have passed on Michael Oher and Bryan Bulaga. They traded away their only worthwhile tackle, Jason Peters, a few years ago. Factor in those mistakes and the Bills have paid for it with suspect run blocking and bad pass protection. Cornell Green proved to be worse than Langston Walker and Mansfield Wrotto wasn’t a much better at right tackle either. Now it seems the Bills are going to give Erik Pears a chance to win the right tackle job. Demetrius Bell was serviceable, but beyond that he was a marginal player at left tackle in 2010. So the Bills could enter 2011 with Bell and Pears as their starting tackles? I don’t know about anyone else but that scares the hell out of me and if so, it’s likely the Bills could be picking in the top again in the 2012 NFL draft. Whether it be a trade, through the draft or via free agency, Buffalo has to find a way to acquire a top tier tackle.
4. Outside linebacker. Buffalo gave Chris Kelsay a big juicy extension for being the best of a bad bunch. Shawne Merriman remains a true wild card and it’s a gigantic gamble what, if anything, the Bills will get out of him. And then there’s perhaps one of the worst draft selections ever – Aaron Maybin. He was inactive for much of the season and it’s hard to fathom that on a bad team with a bad defense he wasn’t able to generate any playing time. Buffalo desperately needs a pass rush. They tallied only 27 sacks last year, good for fifth lowest in the NFL.
5. Tight end. Shawn Nelson has been a tremendous disappointment, and so has the Bills’ neglect for the tight end position. How is it that the New England Patriots found not one, but two tight ends in last year’s draft and the Bills haven’t had a capable tight end threat in years? In the NFL, tight ends have increasingly become threats in the passing game. Sadly that’s not the case for Buffalo. The Bills lack a tight end capable of being a vertical threat and capable of being the quarterback’s best friend. How much longer can the Bills shoot blanks with tight ends?
6. Inside linebacker. Andra Davis is 32 and coming off a season ending injury. GM Buddy Nix said he wants to get bigger and stronger at linebacker. Hopefully he means it. Buffalo can use all the strength and help they can get at the linebacker position.
7. Cornerback. A perceived strength of this team, that might be a smokescreen. Yes the Bills ranked third on defense against the pass in 2010 but that was mainly because their run defense was so awful. Buffalo’s secondary totaled only 11 interceptions. Terrence McGee is 30 and missed seven games in 2010 and didn’t have a pick. He’s appeared in 20 games in two years and has only one interception during that span. Drayton Florence was the most consistent corner, collecting three interceptions for the first time since 2006. However, Florence is a free agent and it’s too early to tell if he’ll be back in Buffalo. Former first rounder Leodis McKelvin has underwhelmed with just four interceptions in three seasons with the Bills. Buffalo lacks an elite shut down corner, a game changer like Darrelle Revis. Playing Tom Brady twice a year, it sure would go a long way if the Bills were able to land a top flight corner.
8. Wide receiver. Steve Johnson’s star rose while Lee Evans’ star fell. Johnson emerged as Fitzpatrick’s go-to-guy with 10 TD’s and over 1.000 yards receiving. Evans had the fewest receptions and receiving yards of his career. Other than Johnson no other receiver had more than 40 receptions or more than four touchdowns. Evans is due almost $8.5 million dollars in 2011 and it’s a fair to question to beg whether or not he’ll remain or Buffalo or become a cap casualty. Buffalo has some nice pieces in youngsters David Nelson and Donald Jones, but if they’re going to part ways with Evans they’ll need to fill his void with a dynamic, No.2 threat opposite Johnson.