How Does the Bills' Depth Measure Up?

Pat Kirwan at NFL.com recently penned a piece regarding depth in the NFL. I thought I would therefore use Kirwan's guide to size up the Bills' depth situation.

The first of Kirwan's key points was, "When [he] looks at the quality of depth, the criteria is narrow. Veterans -- not rookies -- who can come in and perform with limited practice time are very important."

He goes on to list seven teams which in his opinion have the depth to "make a run" while simultaneously listing eleven teams which may be in trouble with losses to certain starters, listing the particular situations of each. While the Bills are not on either list, depth is an issue for this upcoming season as has been one of the themes of my offseason pieces.

He lays out five criteria that he says constitutes "excellent depth" on offense.

1. A backup quarterback with a proven record of winning.

I would add to that one that demonstrates at minimum some rudimentary leadership skills as well as a confidence and enthusiasm that the team can rally around.

2. A third wide receiver who can play well in the three-receiver package and step into the lineup as the starter for a month and be productive.

3. A second tight end who can create personnel grouping problems for opposing defenses and has the ability to bring an extra dimension to the offense that the starter doesn't have.

4. At least two veteran offensive linemen with no less than 10 career starts each under their belt.

5. A backup running back who can give you 80 to 100 yards a week until the starter returns. Kirwan likes a guy who has done it before at least once or twice.

So how do the Bills measure up here?

First, I would also clarify or qualify Kirwan's criteria here not so much with a proven record of winning, but with a proven record of solid play, particularly against playoff caliber teams considering that this depth is supposed to aid in a playoff run as well as the aforementioned leadership skills. Surely, a quarterback cannot be held accountable if the offense performs but if the defense allows for losses.

Nevertheless, the Bills backups, assuming that the backups are Brown and Losman, do not have a record at all and essentially no starting experience at all between them. As to Kirwan's criteria, other than two seasons wedged in among a dozen, the Bills starter does not meet it either leaving the Bills entering the season with an enormous question mark there. .

Second, the Bills are over their heads in wide receivers and will likely release one or two decent receivers as a result of overstocking the position. Some fans may argue against this, however it will become quite clear this season that the "issues of the receivers" over last season had more to do with Bledsoe than with the receivers, particularly in Reed's case. There is absolutely no depth issue there with the Bills being arguably the deepest team in the league when it comes to receivers.

Third, the only experienced tight end on the roster is Mark Campbell which is why releasing Dave Moore was a questionable move in exchange for only a nominal cap savings which may not even come into play. Rookie Jason Peters is an intriguing option but is a raw as a player can be. Rookie Tim Euhus will not add anything that Campbell does not have and is more limited given his stated singular competency as a purely receiving tight end. Ryan Neufeld also does not qualify.

Fourth, the Bills have only two backup linemen with 10+ career starts. Ross Tucker and Mike Pucillo each with 12 starts in their young careers. Both however demonstrated clear issues with their play last season leaving their viability as depth to be counted on in a dicey state. Jim McNally's coaching may be what is needed to correct this however which remains to be seen. In spite of a wealth of starting experience, Marcus Price seems to be capable of filling in short-term at the tackles although he is past his prime as well and cannot be expected to play at his career best either.

Fifth, it is unknown whether the Bills have this or not. This depends entirely upon the emergence, effectiveness, and health of Willis McGahee. McGahee's dossier suggests that he is easily capable of meeting this requirement and then some. He is nothing more than a "red shirt" rookie however and should not be counted on according to Kirwan. Nevertheless, Bills fans should not count their chickens before they hatch. The best that this can be characterized as is questionable due to an extensive injury history coupled with McGahee's rookie status.

Using Kirwan's criteria then, the Bills possess two criteria that fall completely short, one that is met in spades, and two others with question marks attached. On the question marked spots, one has depth meeting the criteria yet with dicey performance histories and the other with reasonable hopes of being more than adequate, yet for the moment only hopes.

In short, offensively the Bills have one box checked, two unchecked, and two question marks.

Defensively, Kirwan lays out seven criteria that he says constitutes "excellent depth" on defense.

1. A pass rush specialist or third defensive end.

2. A third defensive tackle so the starters can rotate.

3. An excellent third corner to play nickel defense.

4. A third safety to get into dime defenses.

5. A backup "mike" (middle) linebacker to call the defenses and line people up.

6. A special teams difference maker.

7. Throw in at least one assistant coach with head coaching experience to help the boss.

Again, let's take a look a how the Bills measure up here.

First, the Bills possess one pass rushing specialist and that is Aaron Schobel. There is not one other player on the roster, starter or depth, that can honestly be deemed a "pass rushing specialist" with a performance history to support such a status. The Bills have yet to effectively solidify their second, or perennially troubled "left defensive end" position let alone have a third defensive end or pass rusher otherwise in depth. Schobel's departure after this season in free agency alone would have a profound effect on this Bills line for several seasons.

Second, the Bills do have Ron Edwards and newcomer Oliver Gibson for this season. The issues will spring forth next season as Edwards and Williams may become free agents. As well, neither Adams, Williams, nor Gibson are spring chickens which highlights the need for "rotational depth" as well. For this moment however, the Bills appear to be set here.

Third, the Bills have very acceptable depth corners in Kevin Thomas and Terrence McGee.

Fourth, the Bills are attempting to find a starting free safety although fans should have every confidence that Coy Wire will step up to the task more than nicely. After that however, and opinions will differ here, but Reese and Prioleau do not quite measure up leaving depth as an issue here.

Fifth, the Bills currently have no backfill for Fletcher who provides only average play to begin with and struggles in pass coverage. Again, my preference here would be to move Spikes to the middle and put Fletcher in Posey's spot where I believe he would easily double Posey's performance in terms of sacks and pressure on opposing QBs and be far superior to Posey in run support.

In such a role, Fletcher could then be used as "just in case" depth for Spikes as the outside spots would be easier to backfill with other talent available on the roster. I suppose the same argument could be made as is, however, why not make the switch to the stronger linebacking configuration to begin with. Depth here is dicey.

Sixth, Coy Wire was beginning to make a name for himself as a special teams standout. There does not appear to be anyone else vying for the honor however. How much time, if any, Wire gets on special teams as the starting free safety remains to be seen as does whether or not someone else steps up on special teams.

Seventh, Jerry Gray adds an element of stability in this department in spite of his lack of tenured experience. Tom Clements is raw in his spot, but second level assistants with experience are plentiful enough to provide Mike Mularkey with any consulting that he needs during the season and in games. It is Mularkey's first year status that will be more the issue as he learns the ropes, expectedly.

In short, defensively the Bills have two boxes checked, three unchecked, and two question marks.

All in all, of Kirwan's dozen categories, the Bills have three boxes checked, five unchecked, and four question marks.

Kirwan adds, "Great depth is having a quality player at all 12 spots. To get into late January, most teams will have to tap into all 12 to make it."

So at least according to Kirwan's criteria, the Bills are ill suited from a depth perspective for any sort of playoff success.

Of course luck will play a role as well by way of the extent of injuries to the starting units. In 2002 the Bills had a very fortunate injury situation with few injuries overall. Such fortune is unusual however and cannot be counted on in a league where injuries are such an expected part of the game. However, the Bills not only ail in these depth issues, but also possess several starting role issues as well leaving questions as to how effective they will be even during the regular season given the odds of making the playoffs remaining slim.

In order to have hopes for making the playoffs and for playoff success, barring an incredibly easy schedule, any team needs to demonstrate an ability to beat winning teams in this league as a result of solid play, not merely as a result of capitalizing on massive injuries or other anomalous issues. This is one area under which the Bills have drastically fallen short during the Bledsoe era however. That will be the first step in rectifying the competitiveness issue of the current team.

On a related note, Mickey Spagnola, staffwriter for DallasCowboys.com, quotes Bill Parcells in a recent article in commenting on the Cowboys 21st sack ranking last season as saying, "I'd like to be a little less reliant than we were last year on blitzing,…" The Cowboys made some moves in that department signing wise.

The Bills would have been well suited to heed the same strategy. The Bills front four alone is rarely capable of producing much significant pressure on opposing passers. With its interior line aging to boot, there is little expectation for this season of greater pressure from the same front four.

Kirwan says, "With a few weeks until training camp, there are still a few players out there to bolster the depth. There may be a guy or two coming back from NFL Europe, but generally speaking, depth was created over a long period of time and now it may be time to just hope and pray injuries don't grab your favorite team."

It is that "long period of time" upon which the team's methodology should be challenged. This will particularly come home to roost next season as a wealth, really the core, of the Bills' lines come up for free agency and/or aging players which will need to be replaced at some imminent point and perhaps as soon as following this season.

The point can be made over and over again, but with both lines being questionable as is, if every linemen up for free agency next season departs either as a free agent or as an "age", performance, or salary related cut, the Bills' lines next season will be in absolute shambles. The best case scenario would be for the Bills to re-sign every free agent, but even then the current collective appears to be far from two top lines not to mention that signing all free agents is unlikely. This raises questions as to the Bills' efforts over that "long period of time" which is now and has been last season in preparation for next season and beyond.

Whether the Bills improve on record this season or not remains to be seen. However, the current circumstances seem to indicate that if the Bills can simply find their way to 8-8 that would be fortunate given their schedule this season. Anything less will very likely cost the team in its efforts to build a winner going forward.

Strategists following the team's situation closely can easily see that the transition from this current season to next one will likely be extremely precarious. The Bills' biggest issue is not whether they can make the playoffs this season. Rather, it is simply improving and getting this wagon moving in a forward direction again so as not to hinder the re-signing of key players as well as the team's efforts to draw new talent which will be sorely needed for next season and beyond.

While the current cast is a merchandiser's dream with excessively deep skill position players, the real core of any solid NFL team, the lines, are questionable to say the least and will be in an extremely fragile state heading into next season as well. Dependent upon the re-signing of our own free agent linemen, which will very likely hinge upon establishing some early success this upcoming season, the Bills are tinkering with the disintegration of their lines for next season and have made little, if any, provision for "plan B" replacements, also known as depth.

As such, the Bills find themselves in somewhat of a catch-22. Performance of the team this season depends upon both depth as well as line play. Yet, the line play may not provide the required level of success necessary to assist the Bills in re-signing their own free agents let alone other free agents. A failure by the Bills to do so will not only render depth on both lines a key issue, but will also leave the starting lines in a rather feeble state for next season to say the least.

Comments: mweiler.billsreport@cox.net


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