Bills Offseason: Fixing the Defense

While many would argue that the defense is not in need of any "fixing" or correcting and while I might tend to agree given their fifth ranked scoring defense and second ranked yardage defense, there is nothing wrong with doing what can be done to improve it even further. In fact, the difference in scoring defense from this season's squad to that of last year over the last ten games was only an improvement of 1.9 points-per-game.

When we consider that the ‘02 season's schedule featured far more teams amongst top ten in scoring and yardage offenses, the differences become even less pronounced.

As well, the Bills are in the midst of several key personnel decisions this offseason and how the Bills handle those could very well determine what improvements to the team are made otherwise. Generally speaking the Bills secondary is fine and requires only some tweaking with existing talent. The secondary, in spite of its inability to generate takeaways, has been the strength of the defensive unit for two seasons now. The same situation exists at linebacker. The real needs on defense are the exact same needs that existed last season. Left defensive end and defensive tackles for depth as well as to start or rotate in.

Defensive Line (6 out of 10):

On the Defensive line, Aaron Schobel has more than proven his value to the team in the three seasons that he has been in Buffalo and can be expected to start in his right defensive end position for as long as he is with the team. The same goes for Pat Williams as the strength of the interior defensive line and a gameday madman who gives 100% on every single play. Sam Adams has a tendency to "pick and choose" which games he shows up for and relies heavily on his name as a former marquee player. He also gets pushed around by undistinguished players often. Bringing this grade down is clearly the play from the perennial issue LDE spot where a chain reaction triggers the team's largest defensive woes.

Yet, his level of play currently for the Bills is clearly no longer "marquee play." In fact, one can count three or four good games that he has played this season with very mediocre to extremely mediocre games otherwise. His better efforts, other than vs. New England in week one in a bizarre scenario, were against the lesser offensive opponents. He put up most of his significant statistics in the New England and Giants games. At the "other defensive end position" the Bills simply have no viable options with second-year player Ryan Denney showing that he is nothing more than a depth player at best and certainly not worth the trade-up to acquire him. No other player playing that position has indicated even slightly that they would be capable of serving as consistent and productive starter there. Hopes are now pinned on Kelsay who showed even less than Denney and gave no indication at all that he can be the solution there.

Therefore, the Bills' biggest need on defense this offseason will be just what it was last season, chiefly a defensive end capable of applying any pressure in order to generate a balanced pass rush and increase the pass-rushing effectiveness out of the tackles. The Bills will almost certainly possess one of the most dominant defenses in the league if this can be achieved and assuming that the other elements of the defense continue to play as well as they did last season and not begin to taper off.

As to depth, whether the Bills and fans like it or not, Adams will be 31 and Williams will be 32 this upcoming season. While Adams has clearly slowed, there are no signs that Williams' production is going to drop off significantly this next season although there appears to have been an almost unnoticeable slowing of Williams' play as well which would be perfectly understandable given that he plays like a madman for 60 minutes. Nevertheless, the team will want to begin to acquire a couple of depth-players that will eventually be capable of replacing them and Adams perhaps sooner than later.

Linebackers (7 out of 10):

Preventing this rating from having been better is poor coverage over the middle by the LBs as well as the play out of Posey. At linebacker, their play as a unit this year was certainly very good but also far from perfect or stellar. While Spikes and Fletcher's play was at the top tackle wise, the starting trio of Spikes/Fletcher/Posey logged only 9.5 sacks and 2 interceptions on the season. London Fletcher has as a significant weakness an inability to effectively cover receivers in the defensive backfield whether they are tight ends or running backs notwithstanding.

Posey possesses speed but just like an inexperienced rookie, his tendency to overpursue often plays right into the hands of opposing offenses on plays designed to take him to the outside. He removes himself from the play due to his own overagressiveness and untempered vigor thereby leaving an additional blocker for opponents downfield on screens and runs. He is also perhaps a bit too tall and lanky for how the Bills attempted to utilize him.

Takeo has taken some heat this year from the media for not matching salary expectations, but do not count me in among those who have brought about such criticism. I have no doubt that Spikes will earn every penny of that salary and dollar for output of performance he ranks at the top of the highly paid Bills' players list! In fact, my top recommendation in an effort to improve the Bills' defense this offseason would be to move Spikes over to MLB replacing Fletcher there while sliding Fletcher over to the strong-side spot. Fletcher would be far more effective than Posey there and more effective than he was in the middle.

In spite of how One Bills Drive pumps him up, Fletcher is somewhat average or only slightly better at that position and his inability to effectively cover defenders hurts the team. Spikes is a much more solid cover linebacker with at least the same ability to play the run if not greater abilities there, and he plays with more intensity as well. He clearly possesses better speed and range also. The Jaguars successfully did the same thing with Mike Peterson after acquiring him from the Colts last season. Peterson is 6'1"/230 while Spikes is 6'2"/242. Spikes is faster, bigger, and can cover tight ends and running backs better than Fletcher. Such a move makes all the sense in the world.

Then move Fletcher over to the weakside where his size, strength, and agility in small spaces would optimize his talents far more than in the middle where he now plays. By making such a move the Bills would improve play at both spots while improving the individual play of both players as well making everyone happy.

I can easily see Spikes becoming a Ray Lewis type of dominating MLB whereas the best that Fletcher will be at that position is just what he has been for 6 seasons now, very average, never much more in spite of tackle stats. His inabilities in pass coverage hinder his worth and utility there as well as the performance of the defense for the Bills in general.

Angelo Crowell should be capable of more than adequately playing the WLB spot. If he is to be a viable third rounder from last season's draft, then he will need to be worked into the lineup. He was an ILB at Virginia in a program said to have been built around him. As such, he should have no trouble picking up the WLB duties where Spikes played. The Bills have some depth at the linebacker position with Josh Stamer showing something this past season. Some additional depth at linebacker certainly would not hurt but is not a priority.

Defensive Backs (7.5 out of 10):

The secondary is where it gets really interesting. Milloy played well but was overpaid for his contributions. Wire played well but sparingly. Pierson Prioleau played better than he got credit for and better than Reese to be sure yet was also used sparingly in spite of that. Reese played below average at safety. Winfield was his traditional "madman" self in run support however struggled at times and had significant lapses not infrequently in pass coverage. Clements is the best defensive back on the unit. As a group they played well with Clements lifting this rating, Winfield and Milloy maintaining it, and with Reese bringing it down.

Antoine Winfield will test the free agency market and the smart money says he will not be a Bill next season. He is a fan favorite and a media favorite as well. Unfortunately he is the type of player that will end up getting more than he is worth due to his being well known and being good on top of that. My guess is that Winfield will command a contract worth approximately in the $4-5 million range. The problem is that while Winfield is excellent at stopping the run, he is only average or perhaps slightly better than average in coverage. Considering that the primary function of a cornerback is man-to-man coverage, it is my assessment that if the Bills can retain Winfield for in the neighborhood of $2.5-3 million per year, then he should be resigned, otherwise he should be allowed to get more elsewhere. It seems highly unlikely that he can be had for as little. If the Bills are willing to pay more than that, then they should consider paying that more for another cornerback with better coverage skills.

The current word is that Winfield will test the market without burning any bridges. Anytime a starter of Winfield's caliber is lost there will be a necessary adjustment and some chemistry alterations. However, with rookie Terrence McGee showing some outstanding promise and with third year man Kevin Thomas also showing that he's a worthwhile cover man option at least to evaluate as a potential starter, the Bills can best use this money elsewhere if they cannot resign Winfield at terms favorable to the team.

McGee is the same height as Winfield yet is a mighty 15 pounds stockier and has shown the same physical style of play that Winfield has made a living off of yet seems to possess equal if not better cover skills than Winfield, even as a rookie. It would almost be a shame to see such talent wasted on the bench playing only nickel back. So perhaps it is even in the team's best interests to allow Winfield to walk if he will not accept cap-friendly terms from the front office. Fans and media will be keeping a close eye on this situation.

At the safety spots, Milloy is a guaranteed fixture at one of the safety spots for at least two more seasons due to the nature of his contract. He is solid although time will tell if he is overpaid which now seems to be the case. Pierson Prioleau played well and was not respected as much as he should have been by fans and media. Izell Reese was extremely average to be polite. Coy Wire played well while in at safety but simply was not given many opportunities due to Milloy's signing.

The Bills should tinker with Wire and Milloy as the safeties, one strong, one free. Which will be better in which role is left to be determined. Presumably Milloy at free safety would be the more viable option. However, Wire and Milloy are the two best safeties on the team and therefore should both be on the field as starters if possible. Whether or not one can play free safety remains to be seen. Again, this situation is yet another reason why the Milloy signing was somewhat of a headscratcher. Either way, the secondary needs no major upgrades, especially with Wire in the mix as well. Some depth via some inexpensive free agency options and/or late round draft signings are all that are required here. Pierson Prioleau should also get another look at free safety.

So in review, the Bills should focus their defensive attention in the first four rounds of the draft on defensive ends and a defensive tackle only. They will need players capable of contributing immediately barring a free agent signing. Another tackle acquired in free agency would also be wise and a good move. Linebacker depth can easily be found in free agency or picked up in rounds five through seven. The Bills need no new defensive backs. The most important thing that the Bills can do to improve may simply involve swapping the positions of current players vice signing all kinds of new ones. Hopefully the coaching staff will realize this and try Spikes in the middle and Wire/Milloy as the safety tandem.

E-mail: mweiler.billsreport@cox.net

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