The Future of the Bills?

The Bills' 2004 draft should leave many fans at least somewhat distressed about the future of this franchise. Instead of running this team with clear designs on future improvements of the team as a whole, the front office appears to be operating without much direction or synchronized planning at all.

Tom Donahoe has conducted his drafts less like a seasoned and effective GM and more like a kid in a candy shop or as a fantasy team owner in a keeper league. The most recent restructuring of Bledsoe's contract "ensuring his presence in Buffalo through 2006" should also be of tremendous concern to Bills fans insofar as the future goes. Excuses for his past play abound, but the facts are screaming out much louder than invalidated hopes.

Extensive emphasis has consistently been placed on the more glamorous and high profile skill positions at the expense of the trenches or the lines where the battles are won and lost. The Bills are two deep at RB at least. Four or five deep in decent WRs. Two deep with highly paid QBs now. Alas, only a handful of skill position players can be on the field at once.

Skill position players are nice to have, but they are usually nothing without solid line play, defensively or offensively. In fact, the woes of the Bills the past few seasons have largely been the result of exactly that, poor line play on both sides of the ball. Yet, the last two drafts have been largely skill position clinics. Why are many Bills fans left with the impression that Donahoe is incapable of conducting a good solid, fundamental draft including some premier linemen without ensuring that his name appears in the biggest of draft day headlines!

In 2002 the Bills stole pre draft day headlines with the "theft" of Bledsoe via trade from division rival New England. Last season pre opening day headlines of the Bills doing similarly with Lawyer Milloy dominated the discussion for most of the season NFL wide last year until the Bills played a New England team in week 17 which wasn't utterly distraught. This season it was a trade up once again giving away next season's top selection and more for a future quarterback not in the Bills plans at least until 2006.

Meanwhile, how many players are the Bills going to draft that are never given appropriate time to develop? Wire was drafted in '02 and played exceptionally as a rookie; in fact, almost as well as his replacement Milloy did last season. Yet, he was replaced in only his second season by Milloy at ten times the cost and forcing much ado over how to best utilize Wire.

Josh Reed was drafted as a 2nd round 36th overall pick and Sam Aiken drafted last season in the 4th round, yet, Aiken is now in jeopardy of being released with the drafting of Evans. Reed is facing at least a degree of benching due to the need for the team to get their worth out of their first round selection. The Bills trade up in '02 to acquire Ryan Denney in the 2nd round, then Kelsay is drafted the following season in round 2 as well.

Perhaps all of these moves will pay off somehow. However, to date they have not.

On paper the Bills have arguably the best collection of talent at the offensive skill positions of any team in the league now. Any! It will certainly be interesting to hear Donahoe's and the coaches' comments in defense of Bledsoe following, or perhaps even during, this upcoming season.

So why is this piece even being written? Can't you just be happy Weiler?

Sure. I could stick my head in the sand over the drafting of a couple of players in positions that historically it would have to be a minor miracle if either is to contribute more than nominally this year in favor of a "rah, rah, we're going to the playoffs" mantra. We already know fully that Losman won't see the field, that Anderson will only see spot relief, and that Euhus won't see much significant playing time. To think anything else would be naïve. Evans only replaces a promising Josh Reed coming into his third season, a season in which WRs traditionally break out.

However, what is most disturbing is that by the time these two high profile draftees come of age and are ready to contribute, both lines may be in utter disarray and arguably no better than when Donahoe took over the team. I am disturbed by the direction that this team is headed in. This team is either on the fringe of defying some major league odds or on the front edge of an era the likes of which the Bills have not seen since the early or mid ‘80s.

The current Bills' offensive line looks like this:

Not one player remains from the OL that Donahoe inherited. Considering that, he has certainly not gone to any great length to put together a top offensive line.

Only two linemen are on the roster which were originally drafted in round 4 or higher. The line contains one former 1st rounder, a 3rd rounder, three 5th rounders, a 6th rounder, two 7th rounders and one undrafted free agent. This does not suggest that the offensive line has been a priority, which should raise serious questions as to competencies in the strategic planning department at One Bills Drive.

In conjunction with how Bills' player staffing has been conducted, it should also raise questions as to what the braintrust of the Bills considers to be the most important aspect of the team. Conventional wisdom and simple reason and common sense indicate that two strong lines are always a part of Super Bowl winners. Apparently those in charge of the Bills don't quite see it that way and believe that the skill positions are the priority, even skill position depth at the expense of starting line talent. When one considers that the only first round selection that has been made has resulted in a highly underachieving RT, the point is emphasized even further.

The Bills best lineman and former 3rd rounder is up for free agency next season along with the team's best backup in Marcus Price, the former 6th rounder. Consider that if Jonas Jennings is not resigned, the Bills will be left only one linemen that was drafted originally among the first four rounds. Alarming? It should be. Will Jennings re-sign now? If not, will he re-sign if the team does not demonstrate a significant improvement this season? What about the other linemen as discussed below?

Mike Williams has yet to prove that he was a worthy 1st rounder and 4th overall selection and is presently not even playing as well as Jonas Jennings, a former 3rd rounder. Of course it remains to be seen whether any of the current low round linemen answer the call. But as of now Pucillo, Tucker, Sullivan, Sobieski have not demonstrated that this is going to occur. None have even demonstrated that they are on the level of starting consistently in the NFL.

In fact, they have only 46 starts among them collectively with Sullivan having nearly half of those starts. Price will be 33 next season, Villarrial will be 32, neither is a premier lineman. Villarrial was brought on as a run blocker, not for his skills at pass blocking. Marques Sullivan is a strong hopeful, but even in 2002 played only solid ball yet not to a level that clearly distinguished himself or put him in the premier category.

Is it possible that the Bills will be all set with a group of former 5th through 7th round draftees along with an undrafted journeyman? Sure it is. But common sense would also suggest that such an occurrence would fall into the more than minor miracle category.

The same can be said for the defense. Throughout the four years of Donahoe's drafts, the Bills have yet to land an impact starter other than Aaron Schobel who was drafted four years ago now and becomes a free agent following this season. Other draft picks since Donahoe's first draft in 2001 have been 3rd rounder Ron Edwards in '01 whose status is also tentative at present. The Bills have tendered Edwards an offer that he has yet to sign. If this is a one-year deal, then he should become an unrestricted free agent at the onset of next season following his fourth season in the league.

Tyrone Robertson was a 7th rounder in '01 and is no longer with the team. Trade-up 2nd rounder Ryan Denney and 5th rounder Justin Bannan were the Bills' only defensive line draftees in '02. Neither has proven anything other than mediocrity at best, not even that in Bannan's case. Last season DE Chris Kelsay in the second round and DT Lauvale Sape in the 6th round were the only two linemen taken to address DL concerns.

Kelsay just as with Denney has huge question marks lingering as to his effectiveness and Sape will be fortunate to be on the roster for '04. Kelsay will enter this season not having started a game. This year's draft produced only 3rd round DT Tim Anderson who is noted for overachieving but noted by scouts to not be of "impact player" caliber.

The bottom line is that in the past four drafts during Donahoe's tenure, they have only produced a single decent defensive lineman to date. Pat Williams predates Donahoe's arrival and Sam Adams has a bigger name than ability on the field. Chris Villarrial was brought in as a free agent but as primarily a run blocker to lead our rushing offense. Or is it going to be a passing offense now with a boatload of WR-ing talent greater than that of any other team in the league now?!

At last check, the Bills' problems last season had everything to do with pass blocking and the passing game. Yet, not one single lineman was added to the Bills that is known for their pass blocking skill. Instead, Jim McNally is supposed to be a panacea for a lack of talent. Forget the likelihood that any improvement due solely to coaching could very well be offset by a significantly more difficult slate of defensive opponents and many which led the league last season in generating interceptions.

On defense, Pat Williams and Aaron Schobel will both be up for free agency as well with Williams being 33 next season to boot. Sam Adams is not getting any younger either and at the present time only Ron Edwards and rookie overachiever Tim Anderson are the primary candidates for backfilling the Adams/Williams tandem. Oliver Gibson is an aging backup who will be 33 next season and cannot be relied upon much beyond this season.

This team seems to have absolutely no synchronized plan. Just as several skill position players will be coming of age, both lines are likely to be in at a minimum, a state of needing serious upgrades, at worst in a state of total chaos coupled with one of being irreparable within only a single offseason. This is without even considering chemistry issues.

Consider that if the Bills are incapable of turning in a season whereby they prove to the league that they are on the right track and moving in the positive direction from a competitive standpoint, then they will have become unappealing for free agents to sign with which will very likely include some of their own free agents desiring to play for more competitive teams.

The Bills have arguably and on paper, the best collection of offensive skill position talent in the entire league bar none. It is better than New England's easily and better than the Dolphins and Jets to be sure. Coupled with a defense which was ranked second last season in yardage and fifth in scoring, there will be precious few excuses given the strong statements emanating out of One Bills Drive over the assurances that the present offensive line, and defensive line, are more than adequate to propel this team forward. Miscalculations here should raise serious questions as to the ability of the Bills braintrust to evaluate line talent.

Once again, I leave the reader with the question of "what happens if Aaron Schobel, Jonas Jennings, and Pat Williams do not wish to re-sign with the Bills? Or even two of the three? Franchise money for any of them would be unwise and unwarranted and a highly inefficient use of precious cap space. Even if they are all resigned, the current issues remain. A failure to re-sign them simply forces the issue out of the frying pan and into the fire.

What if Edwards goes elsewhere with promises of starting as well as desiring to play for a winner? Marcus Price's status would be up in the air as well. Under any circumstances several players will be falling off due to age either in effectiveness or altogether off the roster over the next couple of seasons. The Bills seem to have no plan and definitely have no recently drafted players capable of stepping in and starting immediately and certainly not of the caliber that fans have been used to seeing in recent seasons.

Yet, this is what happens when the team uses a media/marketing approach to staffing this team as opposed to a nuts & bolts approach whereby it ensures that both lines are solid at all times. This is also what distinguishes the Bills presently from every Super Bowl winner over at least the past decade.

As to this particular season, Drew Bledsoe just received his second honeymoon with the Bills via what essentially translates to a stay of execution and a three-year extension after reworking his contract following a 32 game streak of absolutely abysmal individual performance. Why should 2004 be much different than 2002? Will this "second marriage" really result in anything different than what fans have seen out of Bledsoe for eleven seasons now? It would be naïve to think so.

The line is almost identical to that of 2002. Jennings, Teague, Sullivan, and Williams will be four of five starters more than likely. Ruben Brown played much better in '02 than he did last season and is replaced by Chris Villarrial on the other side of the line. Jennings is solid and improved over '02, and the Bills' best lineman, but still not one of the league's top LTs. Teague is what he was in '02 but no more. Sullivan also likely about the same with a season of nearly complete inactivity. Williams has certainly not improved to the degree expected. Regardless, opinions are sure to vary there.

Depth is on or about the same as it was in 2002. The Bills lost only three man-games to injury in 2002. Will they have the same fortune this season? If not, how will such inexperienced and unpolished depth do in relief? For Bledsoe who needs ultimate protection simply in order to achieve mediocre production?

Let us take a peek at the rest of the team however. Moulds is the same and some suggest that he has regressed which is not an opinion that I share. Reed may be better, but after drafting Evans, how much of a factor will Reed be? Evans surely will not replace a Price who was in his fourth season with equal value as a rookie. The TE situation is virtually the same. McGahee joins Henry as largely the only significant difference. How good McGahee will be remains completely unknown and will not make up for inadequate line play regardless.

The coaching is different and surely McNally will help. But many fans are quick to point out potential contributions of a veteran McNally but slow to consider the potential effects of a substantial learning curve for Mularkey and Clements. Hopes were just as high prior to the 2002 season as they are now. How good Mike Mularkey is as a head coach certainly remains to be seen. However, he enters the ranks of head coaching with significantly less experience than most first time head coaches. To assume greatness or even guaranteed improvement over prior regimes may not be justifiable at this time.

The 2002 schedule featured only three playoff teams one of which was a relatively weak 9-7 Jets team. It featured only two games vs. teams which had 10 or more wins. The Bledsoe and the Bills were 0-4 in those four games. Bledsoe threw 9 interceptions in those four games and added 3 lost fumbles for 12 total turnovers in them.

This season the Bills play 7 teams that finished last season with 10 or more wins and four of last season's playoff teams. Several teams on the Bills schedule not in the prior group will have improved from last season to this one on top of that. The schedule is also not particularly friendly either with nary a break following two relatively easy games vs. Jacksonville and Oakland to open the season. It also has a hellacious stretch of road games to finish off the season. The team will hit the field with two completely new and inexperienced coaches leading an issue-laden offense and the team in general.

So the question is asked, what reason is there that Drew Bledsoe will all of a sudden revert from play that has plagued his career simply because he has restructured his contract? Again, there is little difference between the team of '02 and this current squad pending further major changes, following June 1st perhaps. If Bledsoe was incapable of leading this team into tough games without playing poorly then, what has changed to indicate that he will not play poorly now in those same tough games? There certainly will be no lack of tough games this season. A simple restructuring does nothing for Bledsoe ability wise. It merely costs the team less for the same level of play.

Moreover, Bledsoe's extension raises further questions as to this season's draft in relation to how it will help the team this season. Whether or not Bledsoe plays better remains to be seen. However, there is absolutely nothing historical or otherwise suggestive based on his playing history that suggests that this season will be any different than any other season of his. Reasonable expectations are for Bledsoe to struggle against teams which end up finishing better than .500 as well as better defensive teams while costing the Bills at least several games on the merits of turnovers.

Mike Malarkey's first tough coaching challenge could come on or about week 7 after a string of games the likes of which Bledsoe has never fared anything close to well in throughout his entire career. Weeks 4-7 will present games at home vs. New England, on the road in NY vs. the Jets, at home again vs. the Dolphins, and then on the road again vs. Baltimore with Ray Lewis & Co.

If Drew Bledsoe can sustain that string of games by playing well and not costing the team more than he contributes, then it will be a first for him. If not, then Mike Mularkey may very well be faced with his very first tough coaching challenge and perhaps even the most pivotal decision of the season and one which may very well impact the health and welfare of the Bills for seasons to come. On one shoulder he will have Tom Donahoe. On the other he will have the fans, media, and the longer-term interests of the team. What goes on between the two I would pay big money for to be a party to.

E-mail: mweiler.billsreport@cox.net

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