Bills Shopping List

This offseason promises to be extremely interesting for Bills fans. It will quite likely be even more interesting than last season's was. It is certainly far more pivotal given the circumstances that have brought the Bills to the point where they currently are. As usual, the Bills along with every other team will begin the zero-sum optimization exercise in attempting to fit a competitive team under NFL salary cap constraints.

Last season the Bills tended to overpay for "brand names" in apparent efforts to 'one-up' division rival New England and presumably to sell tickets. The effort fell flat however as the Bills actually regressed from 8-8 the season prior to 6-10.

This season the Bills will need to avoid being as cavalier with their precious cap dollars as they were last season. Barring additional cuts, the Bills are reported to be approximately $8 million under the cap. This is not much at all given all the needs that the Bills have. Whether or not team GM Tom Donahoe views it that way and what he will do this season remain to be seen. He has given fans plenty of reason to doubt however due to his past decisions which in hindsight, particularly the biggest decisions, have turned out for the worst or been far less than optimal to be sure.

For $8 million, the Bills will be fortunate to be able to address their two most pressing needs, interior offensive line and left defensive end, with much more than adequate player acquisitions. Two "premier" solutions at those two spots would likely consume most of that and leave precious little budget left to address other needs adequately. The viability of this offseason may very well hinge upon the ability of the Bills to sign role players at minimal or only marginally more than minimal contracts. This is an exercise at which the Bills have not exactly fine-tuned their prowess for recently. The Bills can ill afford to allocate most of their cap to a single marquee player while ignoring other need areas.

Obviously the Bills will figure out where they are and assess current players for cap-space cuts. Reuben Brown has been released which will save an additional $1.8 million as of March 3rd, yet has created another need that needs to be filled on an already sketchy offensive line. Releasing Bledsoe outright would free up nearly all of the $6 million that he is scheduled to make and should be done. Incoming head coach Mike Mularkey has already more or less indicated that the team will hold onto Bledsoe and attempt to 'fix him' however.

Nevertheless, in staffing the team with player talent the Bills will need to assess three things:

First, what they can do with the talent currently on the roster.

Second, which players, if any, can and/or need to be cut due to cap savings in conjunction with their earning more than they are contributing. I.e., taking more than they are giving in return on the field.

Third, given those two things, determine where the priority holes are and what to do to address those holes. While addressing all three of those items the Bills will also need to keep in mind what replacement talent at those spots will cost as well.

As such, positional analyses will be discussed followed by proposed solutions to address those need areas optimally. The salary cap will dictate the degree to which the Bills are capable of making relevant changes or be able to acquire free agents. Supply/demand will set market prices for the varying talent at given positions. Numerous analyses will surface from now until draft day.

QB: Current players on the team: Drew Bledsoe, Alex Van Pelt, Travis Brown.

The issue here is a simple matter of optimization. Bledsoe is scheduled to make $6 million this upcoming season. Clearly his level of play while in Buffalo does not justify that. In fact his career long knock of not being able to consistently beat teams above .500 makes retaining him questionable under any circumstances. Talk of restructuring or reworking his contract to more palatable outlays has arisen. This will only make sense if it is restructured in a way so as to not strap the Bills with a sizeable cap hit should they decide to release him following the ?04 season which is where the smart money will get lain.

Tom Donahoe can save some face here via a "failed" request for restructuring or renegotiation resulting in a Bledsoe release "in spite of the front office's best efforts." It seems clear however that Tom Donahoe truly believes that Bledsoe is more than what he is, namely a bottom tier expendable quarterback in this league. Alex Van Pelt provides little hope for the team in relief, so his retention prevents the development/bringing in of another QB and therefore should be looked at as well in spite of the fact that from a purely financial perspective it makes little sense.

My solution: Bledsoe, in 75% or 24 of his 32 games with the Bills as well as the most important ones including in 10 of 11 games vs. playoff teams has put up the following totals: 15 touchdowns, 28 interceptions, and 39 total turnovers. This includes many games in the ?02 season where Drew was rumored to have played much better. Need any more be said! Sure, this was also Gilbride's fault, but being realistic, under the exact same circumstances would any other QB in the league have fared any worse. Likely not.

Cut Bledsoe and save $6 million, which can be used elsewhere such as the offensive line. If Bledsoe is on the roster come November, the Bills will be on the hook for at least $2 million more even if they decide to release him next offseason. This money would be unquestionably better spent on other fixes. Convince Van Pelt to retire and put him on the coaching staff in some capacity. The Bills have an entirely new offensive regime coming in so there will be little chemistry to be salvaged.

Now is the optimal time for several reasons, to release Bledsoe and move on. However, Drew's media hype from season's past precedes him so to expect his release prior to the season is likely a pipe dream. Nevertheless, my solution is to retain Travis Brown to preserve an element of chemistry, sign Billy Volek or a released veteran QB such as Jon Kitna to challenge for the starting role, and draft a quarterback in round 2 thru 4. That would leave the team with two veteran QBs and an investment in the future.

Some will challenge the Brown retention, however, the same folks will likely argue that Drew failed due to Gilbride and the offensive line. Should not the same benefit of the doubt be provided to Brown given the same set of circumstances and youth and inexperience to boot? Indeed it should if fans and media are to be consistent. Besides, if the Bills ground game next season approaches fans? best hopes and expectations, Brown would benefit immensely and the Bills will likely not need a top tier QB rather a "Delhomme" type. Hello Billy Volek! Either way, the Bills would have two somewhat experienced young QBs on the team in Brown and Volek or Kitna and a promising rookie to boot, likely all for under what Bledsoe will count against the cap this season. With outstanding rushing and solid line play they would be at least adequate and at least what Bledsoe was or will be. Without those two components, solid line play and good coaching, Bledsoe likely would not fare any better regardless.

RB: Henry returns and is signed through '05. McGahee will hit the field next season hopefully without issue. There is no need for another running back to be brought to the Bills. The Bills only need is for a blocking fullback. This can be easily remedied inexpensively by resigning Gash, who extended his career by a season due to non-use as a result of questionable game planning. Sam Gash is the Bills biggest concerns regarding players who will become unrestricted free agents. Dan Kreider is rumored to be in the Bills' sights and would likely be a superb and much younger pickup in the absence of Gash and may in fact be the better option due to his youth. The Bills would likely have an advantage in bringing him to Buffalo due to Mularkey's recent ties and familiarities with Kreider.

My solution: Resign Gash to a cap friendly contract or look for another free agent fullback, Dan Kreider would be an excellent alternative.

WR: I know many fans want a Darrell Jackson type of signing here, but if we are going to be honest, with a backfield of Henry/McGahee and an excellent pass-catching and sure-handed Campbell as a receiving option, there is no immediate or priority need for wide receivers. Moulds, Reed, and Campbell or Shaw should easily be able to fit the bill particularly if given a quarterback who is capable of hitting them in the numbers instead of putting the ball in the dirt, at their knees, behind and under them otherwise.

My solution: Perhaps look at inexpensive WR options if money is left over after addressing line needs or consider drafting a WR in round five, six, or seven. Keep the existing caste and hope that the new coaching staff realizes that if the Bills are to be a running oriented team featuring what hopes to be the best RB tandem in the league, then an all-star cast of receiving talent is not necessary. With a team that may actually be, instead of purely on paper, a rushing team next season with Henry/McGahee, there will not be enough balls to go around anyway even if signing a top WR were to occur. No priority or significant moves should be made here barring an exceptional deal for a veteran player in an extremely cap-friendly low-end contract.

TE: Again, this past season's game plan and execution rarely included much emphasis on the tight ends. This could quickly alter itself with former tight ends coach and tight end himself, Mike Mularkey being the head coach in Buffalo now. The Bills? biggest issue here had almost entirely to do with coaching, not talent in the least. So the maximum benefit here will hopefully be gained by simply having the current new coaching staff.

Talent is abundant with the newly extended Campbell having been the Bills? biggest positive surprise this past season. Campbell has already proven himself to be one of the better all-around TEs in the league if one is to look past simply media headlines. He has great hands, runs routes well, and can block to boot. Moore is quite a capable and similar yet aging backup and should easily serve the Bills needs as a second TE. Neufeld has proven to be a viable 3rd stringer if nothing else.

Rumors are that Dave Moore may be released. He is quite capable of stepping in should Campbell go down. Releasing Moore would be risky in the event of a Campbell injury. The overall savings there after signing a replacement tight end would likely only be a maximum of a few hundred thousand dollars and if his replacement were signed for much less than he is scheduled to earn, then it is likely that his replacement would not be as good. Mark Bruener, another Steeler tie, is rumored to be an option. However, Bruener would bring with him only a mediocre record of performance, a history of nagging injuries, and his age of 32 this season.

My solution: Again, this was not a talent issue, it was a coaching issue. Retain the current caste and rely on former tight end now head coach Mularkey and offensive coordinator Clements to create an offense that will utilize the TEs. Signing Erron Kinney would be one of the few steps up in replacement of Moore.

OL: With Reuben Brown now released, the talent at interior offensive line is tentative at best. Personally I applaud Brown for standing up at the end of last season in this case and in the shameful devoid and utter lack of leadership on the part of the coaching staff/management elsewhere. He exhibited something that no other parts of the Bills? coaching staff at that time or front office had, namely some chutzpah and gumption! It was high time for someone to take a leadership role and it is ironic and unfortunate that it was Brown since it should have come from elsewhere in the organization and from other key players on offense and defense. Brown's reward is apparently his release.

Offensive linemen that should be retained include Mike Williams, Marques Sullivan, Mike Pucillo who's play improved as the season went on, Jonas Jennings, Marcus Price, and Ben Sobieski. Those linemen have shown something or in Sobieski's case are too early to release since they are unknowns from last year's draft. Under any circumstances, that is seven linemen leaving room for two more. Teague will be retained because his contract does not warrant his release although his play is not commensurate with his contract value. Tucker was re-signed to a more than minimal contract in yet another surprise and questionable move as well. The Bills will need to bolster their interior offensive line however regardless of who the quarterback is. Brown's release leaves Pucillo, Sobieski, Sullivan, Teague, and Tucker as the sole interior linemen currently.

My solution: Retain Williams, Jennings, Price, Teague, Pucillo, and Sullivan. My option would have been to allow Tucker to walk. Make a move for, Chris Bober (Giants), Cosey Coleman (Bucs), Damian Woody (Pats), or Bobbie Williams (Eagles). Draft a good rookie prospect in rounds 1 thru 4. Williams is a guard who was an injury replacement who played well as a first time starter. With McNally on board, this could be a top value pick that would fill needs without breaking the bank. Bober is a two-year starter who is just entering the front of his prime and will be 27 through most of the season. As well, Cosey Coleman might be a viable and economical alternative as a player just entering his prime who will be 26 this season and stands to benefit the most from an offensive line coach like Jim McNally.

Woody is the most seasoned, however his health will need to be accurately evaluated prior to seriously considering him. He likely will also command a higher price than necessary due to his coming from the world champion Patriots and due to his name recognition. Ravens UFA Center Mike Flynn may also be a good two to three year solution as he will be 30 this upcoming season. He might be an economical alternative. The Bills cannot afford to tie an inordinate amount of money up on only one acquisition if other viable options are available. This is an one of two areas where the Bills should invest a sizeable portion of their cap resources overall however. The other is defensive end.

DL: This is unquestionably the Bills? biggest need area in conjunction with interior offensive line help per above. Tom Donahoe recently pointed out that the Bills finished tied for 9th in the league in sack generation. The painful truth behind those numbers however is that of racking them up vs. poor competition. Other than Aaron Schobel who played very consistently throughout the season, the other starting 6 members of the Bills' front-7 on defense logged 18 sacks, 70% of those 18 sacks were logged in six games vs. the teams on the Bills' schedule that finished at 6-10 or worse. Those same six players generated only 5.5 sacks in the other 10 games that the Bills played and half of those were generated by Posey.

This merely epitomizes the Bills and emphasizes the fact that the Bills have largely been a team capable of beating only the weaklings on the block during the Bledsoe/Donahoe era. The Bills only seem capable of beating the better teams under anomalous circumstances such as blizzard conditions, teams with pivotal injuries, or vs. teams in disarray such as the Patriots at the beginning of last season.

While many fans seem to want a high profile veteran such as Javon Kearse, the reality of the situation will not allow for it if the Bills are to realistically address other need areas effectively. Kearse will command a king's ransom. Secondly, he would simply result in yet another Donahoe-special overpaid marquee veteran who does not perform to the level of his salary. Kearse has had recent injury and minor performance issues as well. He plays well but is not worth selling the farm to acquire him. A defensive end a notch or two below will easily suffice and will not hinder efforts to address the other issues on the team.

Football is not about jersey and merchandise sales regardless of what some in the Bills organization may think. It is, or should be, about wins and putting a winning product on the field. Jersey and ticket sales will follow. Nevertheless, perhaps someone should offer such a business course at One Bills Drive for the top brass based on the results of recently past offseasons. .

The better deals each season in free agency are the lesser profile veterans who likely will not earn as much as the marquee name players yet those who have put up solid numbers. They are preferably players doing so in their mid-twenties so that sharp GMs can pick them up as they enter their primes thereby expecting their performances to improve significantly as they do. At worst they are capable role players, at best they are bargain finds of young players who had played well early in their careers on the verge of blossoming as they enter and play in their primes.

One such player is defensive tackle Robaire Smith. He is exactly the type of player that fits the bill, no pun intended. He will be turning 27 this fall, was a first time starter this season in place of Thornton, he is 6'4"/310, will be in his fifth season, and rewarded the Titans with a very competent season after being given the nod. He has some injury concerns but played well this past season in his first full season as a starter. He is an excellent pass rusher and can play DE in a pinch. Adding him would be a steal from a team noted for scouting and acquiring defensive tackle talent. He may command too much for the Bills to be competitive however.

Also available is sixth-year first-time starter Bert (Bertrand) Berry from Denver. Berry will be 29 next season and started all 16 games for the first time in his career and rewarded the Broncos by leading the team in sacks. He is mid-prime and played in a 4-3 in Denver. Even with a lapse in play, Berry would be a huge upgrade and a solidification to the Bills? defensive line woes. He is purely a pass rusher however which may not make him ideal for the Bills.

Grant Wistrom is another such player although while he did not have as good a season as Berry from a pass-rushing perspective, he is a five-year starter and will be 28 this upcoming season. Berry is the better pass rusher and Wistrom is the better run defender. Wistrom is very Hanson-like. Either would be an enormous upgrade over what the Bills have had. Eric Hicks will be 28 this upcoming season and perhaps fits better than either Wistrom or Berry.

My solution: Make a serious effort to sign DT Robaire Smith while pursuing DEs Hicks, Wistrom, Berry or another DE if they can be had for a good deal. Resign Ron Edwards a restricted free agent. Barring Shawn Andrews being available in the draft with the 13th overall selection, draft Keneche Udeze or Tommy Harris if either is on the board then. Then select another defensive end and a defensive tackle in rounds 1 thru 4. Drafting Udeze with the first overall selection would solve the Bills DE issues immediately as an immediate starter although it would likely take a half a season for him to get comfortable in the NFL. His drafting would make unnecessary a free agent defensive end acquisition. The problem is that free agency is now while the draft is almost two months away.

LB: What ails the linebackers is simple and is twofold. Posey needs to be replaced and London Fletcher cannot cover RBs and TEs adequately. It is that simple. More than likely every decent offensive coordinator in the league knows that when they need a gimme 3rd-and-7, spread the field and toss it to a RB or TE over the middle at or beyond first down territory. Never fear however, last season's draft may well be the answer here. The Bills already have the potential solution on their roster and need only perhaps some additional depth at the LB position.

Fletcher would be much better suited to the SLB spot replacing Posey there. He is small enough to be able to sneak through smaller holes in the line, has a fast enough short burst to wreak some real havoc in that spot. He would not consistently overpursue as Posey does either. He would almost be like a very large SS blitzing yet with much greater power and strength. His tackling of rushers would be incredibly superior to that of Posey as well.

Crowell, given that he was an ILB at Virginia with a defense reported to have been created around him should easily be able to fill in capably at WLB in place of Spikes. Then put Spikes in the MLB spot where he would be an instant improvement over Fletcher. Everyone wins while the team improves as a whole, which is what this entire offseason exercise is all about.

My solution: Move Spikes to MLB where he should be, slide Fletcher over to SLB where he should be, and then try Crowell at the WLB spot in place of Spikes. This would significantly improve the defense at linebacker without spending a dime! It would also improve the performance of both Spikes and Fletcher in terms of their individual contributions. If Crowell is incapable of doing that, then he was a poor draft pick in the third round last season. Stamer and Posey remain situational players and the first two depth spots. Attempt to pick up an inexpensive depth LB in free agency or in the later rounds of the draft.

DB: Here, Antoine Winfield will be set free to see what he's really worth on the market. It would be unexpected if he returns to the Bills. Neither should the Bills pay more than $3 million for him. He is only average in coverage in spite of being arguably the best run supporting CBs in the league and the hardest hitting CB on top of it. Nevertheless, the primary role of cornerbacks is pass coverage and interception generation. He is nowhere close to tops at either.

Safety is also an issue. However, this is largely due to mismanagement with the current talent base available on the team as well as improper staffing regarding the secondary in recent offseasons.

My solution: Allow Winfield to sign with another team unless he decides to re-sign with the Bills in the average $2.5-3 million range. Replace Winfield with Terrence McGee and find out which combination of Milloy/Wire at the SS/FS spots works best and run with it or give Pierson Prioleau another season at FS. Again, this would improve the defense in the secondary without spending a dime. The Bills, in order to improve to the level necessary if they truly expect to be competitive this fall, will absolutely need to dig up some starting talent on their current roster from players who have not started before or players such as Wire and Sullivan who have, yet were replaced after only one season's opportunity.

Summary/My solution:

The Bills have a core of marquee impact players on defense. Pat Williams, Aaron Schobel, Takeo Spikes, Nate Clements, and Lawyer Milloy. On offense for marquee players they have Eric Moulds and Travis Henry along with presumably Willis McGahee this season. They need perhaps a marquee offensive linemen in the interior as well as role players to fill in around those players. The tackles on offense are more than adequately serviceable given proper coaching. The Bills do not need more marquee or premium players on defense, only solid role players as well in order to adequately fill in the gaps.

Cut Drew Bledsoe pushing the Bills? cap space to just over $14 million. Use the first four selections in the draft this season, or four of the first picks in the first four rounds to draft 1 QB, 1 G/C, 1 DE, and 1 DT/OL, not in that order. Pick up solid up-and-coming players, one each, yet not marquee players at LDE and interior OL. Spend the bigger bucks on them. Sign Billy Volek or Jon Kitna from an extremely limited list of free agent QB options this season. Resign Ron Edwards and Marques Sullivan, RFAs and UFA Sam Gash or pickup Kreider from Pittsburgh if the price is right.

Use the later rounds of the draft for WRs, possibly S depth, and LBs or another DT. The draft in ?04 is extremely rich and deep to the extent that it is perhaps the deepest draft ever. This presents a very favorable situation for the Bills and if managed wisely could be a veritable bonanza for them.

If either Shawn Andrews, Tommy Harris, or Kenechi Udeze are available when the Bills select, they should opt for them in that order. Andrews is a massive tackle who would instantaneously help the Bills further their ground game and could afford to learn at a guard spot. He apparently has weight issues however and those should be monitored. Udeze is the best suited DE for what ails the Bills on the line. He is big and quick. Harris is a monster as well capable of playing both DT and DE. It is quite possible that none of the three will be on the board when the Bills select. Jake Grove would also be a nice selection capable of starting immediately although perhaps a questionable pick at #13 overall. Trading down in an effort to garner both Grove and Vernon Carey would also be wise and yield two instantaneous and viable starters.

If not, the Bills may want to perk an ear to see if perhaps the Pats, not wanting to be preempted for Kevin Jones or Steven Jackson, would be interested in swapping their 1/21 and 1/32 selections for the Bills' 1/13 and 2nd or 3rd round selections or another package deal. Such a move would allow the Pats to get the RB that they want and give the Bills two better players as a pair than they would get with their top two original picks assuming that the aforementioned three players had already been selected. As well, this assumes that the Pats would be interested in the deal. Regardless, in such an overall rich draft, trading down should remain a very serious option for the Bills in attempting to get more talent for fewer dollars.

This would leave the Bills with the following depth chart next season:

WRs: Moulds, Reed Ts: Jennings, Williams C/G: Bober, Teague, Coleman, Williams, or Sullivan TE: Campbell QB: Volek or Kitna/Brown and a rookie RB: Henry/McGahee FB: Gash or Kreider

LDE: Hicks, Berry, or Wistrom LT: Adams/Robaire Smith RT: Williams RDE: Schobel SSLB: Fletcher MLB: Spikes WSLB: Crowell LCB: McGee SS: Wire/Milloy FS: Milloy/Wire RCB: Clements

The acquistion of Andrews, Udeze, Carey, Harris, or Grove in the draft would also represent starters as rookies.

E-mail: mweiler.billsreport@cox.net

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