Bills' Options for Approaching the Draft

The highlight of the offseason for avid NFL fans unfolds on Saturday as the NFL Draft holds the keys to the future success of every fan's team. GMs, coaches, and other representatives from each team have been busy generating rumors and false perceptions in order to shroud their teams' true interests from other teams.

While the true needs of some teams are blatantly apparent, some teams have greater flexibility than others do in being able to staff their teams. Part of the draft day strategy for team officials is also attempting to ascertain what positions the teams in front of their team will likely select. The draft is by no means an exact science and is highly dependent upon months upon months of independent research conducted by teams, some in private, some much more public.

Skill position players generally top fans' draft day wish lists in that they generally provide greater highlights and bring more fan and media awareness to teams than do linemen or other lesser prominent players. They are the players that amass the meaningful statistics as a result of all around solid play by all aspects of the team. However, as the adage that is as old as football goes, the war is still won in the trenches. Some teams' "trench needs" are clearly different than others.

Ask any Bills fan these days what exactly the Bills draft needs are and in what order and one is likely to get as many varying responses as the number of fans which were asked the question. For this season's Bills however, some needs are unquestionably more glaring than others.

Given that the lion's share of the problems with the Bills over the past two seasons have been on the offensive side of the ball, it stands to reason that this is the area where the Bills will expend at least several draft picks to fill needs. Some fans and media will insist that wide receiver and quarterback are the team's two largest offensive needs. Some will toss in tight end as well. Clearly the Bills do not have running back high on their list nor even on the list at all. As I see it the Bill's biggest needs are on the offensive and defensive lines.

Upon arriving in Buffalo Tom Donahoe inherited a team with an offensive line which was essentially falling apart at the seems due either to players aging to the point of ineffectiveness or simply a lack of talent in the pool of offensive linemen on the roster. Ruben Brown was the only consistent and decent lineman on the offensive side of the ball.

Since that time, the Bills have added five offensive linemen via draft selections. Two of them have developed into starters, two have started sparingly, one in place of the other, and the fifth has not seen a snap as a starter. Those linemen are Jonas Jennings, Mike Williams, Mike Pucillo, Marques Sullivan, and Ben Sobieski respectively. The Bills also brought in four current linemen as free agents. They are Marcus Price, Trey Teague, Ross Tucker, and most recently Chris Villarial.

The presumed starters this season are Jonas Jennings at LT, Teague at C, Villarial at RG, and Big Mike Williams at RT. Marcus Price is an excellent backup at the tackle positions and can be relied upon in relief. The remaining four linemen will vie for the open LG spot where Mike Pucillo started last season and was replaced due to injury in week 11 by a young Ross Tucker. The interior offensive line is where the Bills' immediate issues on the line lie.

So why are the lines the two biggest need areas then heading into this draft? Jonas Jennings, easily the Bills best offensive lineman becomes a free agent after this season and it is anyone's guess as to whether or not he will re-sign with Buffalo. Trey Teague is in the third season of a four year contract and could very possibly be released following this season as an overpriced center. Backup Marcus Price is also a free agent following this season.

Mike Williams has underachieved as an overall 4th player selected and struggles with pass rushers around the end, Trey Teague is adequate at best and a weakness combined with the young and inexperienced guard who will be playing to his left side. Chris Villarial should provide solid and above average play at RG and will enable Williams to focus on his role only.

The depth however is a different matter. Sobieski, last season's fifth round selection has yet to start a game. Neither Ross Tucker, Mike Pucillo, or Marques Sullivan have greater than a single season of starting experience with both Tucker and Pucillo having less. Neither Tucker or Pucillo provided the type of play last season to come even close to guaranteeing them the starting role.

The 2004 Bills are expected to be predominantly a running team. It would therefore stand to reason that they will need a solid offensive line in order to aid in achieving that. Good depth in the event of injuries will also be required. At present, whether or not the current line can accomplish that is very questionable.

As well, the team and front office floated every excuse in the book last season in order to draw heat away from Drew Bledsoe. As a result, coaching and offensive line play were given 90% of the blame. Given that, it stands to reason that the line needs addressing.

Chris Villarial replaces Ruben Brown thus far as the only change to the offensive line from last season to this one. Villarial brings an added year of youth over Brown and perhaps even a marginal improvement in play. However, given the bad rap on the line last season, this in and of itself will not be adequate to correct the situation to the extent that it requires correction. It also shifts the weakness on the line from the right side of the interior line to the left side, Bledsoe's blind side of the interior line.

Therefore the Bills will have to turn towards this draft in order to do correct this. Drew Bledsoe was clearly overhyped and overrated when he was brought to the Bills. But even fair quarterbacks are made to look better than they are with stellar offensive line play.

It stands entirely to reason then that the Bills will be looking to the first two rounds of this draft in order to fix this sketchy offensive line. Whether or not this occurs remains to be seen and will be known shortly. A trade down with a team needing to move up would suit the Bills nicely in this deep draft.

The Bills will also need a quarterback at some point and preferably some defensive linemen as well. At present the Bills possess one selection in each of the first five rounds and two seventh round selections. So barring a trade down, the Bills will acquire five drafted players for the coaches to work with who possess decent chances of making the team and hopefully with two or three contributing immediately for this season upcoming.

For now however, fans are left to speculate, hope, and wonder how the scenario will unfold this coming Saturday in what figures to be a solid draft deeper than most. It would behoove the Bills however to address the part of the team that will be paving the way for an issue-laden Bledsoe and what is promised to be a strong two-pronged running game featuring Travis Henry and Willis McGahee.

Other than that, the largest issue on defense last season was the inability of the Bills to generate a pass rush with any regularity. Sure, the Bills finished tied for 9th in sacks last season, but other than Aaron Schobel, 70% of those sacks which were generated by the other 6 of the front 7 were generated against only the worst teams in the league and teams which had terrible offensive lines in only five of sixteen games. So a beefed up pass rush would certainly be welcome.

Amidst the fan fervor for the team to draft a WR, QB, TE, S, or CB, fans need to remember that even a mediocre quarterback can succeed behind an excellent offensive line whereas even the best quarterbacks will struggle behind inadequate offensive lines. The same is true for running backs. As well, on defense, solid play by an excellent defensive line will trickle down to the linebackers and secondary easily.

So it would be wise for the Bills to finally ensure that their trenches are more than near adequately manned. All the talent in the skill positions on offense will not make a difference if the play does not have time to develop. On defense, the corollary is true, that if the defensive line can disrupt the opponent's play before it develops, then the value of the opponent's skill position players is mitigated severely.

Here's hoping that the Bills will prepare for a 2004 football season of "trench warfare." Offensive line, defensive line, and quarterback should be the three most pressing needs for the Bills on Saturday.

E-mail: mweiler.billsreport@cox.net

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