M.I.A. - Bills need a designated speed rusher

Buffalo's pass rush was virtually invisible last season. After failing to land James Hall in free agency, a cure must be found in the draft. There's one freak-of-nature speed rusher that may be the perfect fit. Find out who it is...

Tony Romo corralled the shotgun snap. Six seconds. Took another two steps back. Five seconds. Waited briefly. Four seconds. And flung the ball to a wide-open Patrick Crayton at the right sideline. Crayton caught the eight-yarder, scurried out of bounds and all of a sudden, Dallas eyed a 52-yard field goal with two seconds left. Six turnovers ‘n all.

Such improbabilities last season were largely in part of Buffalo's nonexistent pass rush. Not only did Nick Folk bang that kick through to stun a collectively over-caffeinated Ralph Wilson Stadium crowd, which had waited 13 years for a Monday Night stage. But no Bills' player had more than 6.5 sacks, and only one eclipsed 2.5 sacks. As a team, Buffalo finished with 26 sacks (29th in the NFL).

The Bills' refurbished offensive line made history last season, allowing only 26 sacks on the other side of the ball, the lowest amount in franchise history since 1982.

If football is truly won and lost in the trenches, the Bills are only winning only half the battle.

Last season, defensive ends Aaron Schobel and Chris Kelsay rarely collapsed the pocket. Both signed lifer-contracts prior to the 2007 season, and both failed the deliver. Whether it was Romo calmly dissecting Buffalo's defense in crunch time (despite five interceptions) on Monday Night, or Tom Brady looking like Clint Dolezel in the Arena Football League, with 373 yards on 31-of-39 passing and five touchdowns on Sunday Night, the Bills' pass rush was embarrassed throughout last season.

In both of these games, Buffalo registered zero sacks, but possibly the biggest effect of a lackluster pass rush is in game-planning. Opposing offensive coordinators never had to account for a specialized speed rusher when scripting a game plan. They knew that against the Bills it was perfectly fine to release tight ends and running backs on pass routes. Five linemen were enough. No speed rusher, no extra blocker needed. And with more passing options, quarterbacks easily demoralized Buffalo's injury-depleted defense.

The Bills' front office took action this off-season on defense. Marcus Stroud, Spencer Johnson and Kawika Mitchell are three definite upgrades over Kyle Williams, Larry Tripplett and Keith Ellison. But neither Stroud, Johnson or Mitchell directly address the Bills' sorry pass rush. The run defense will improve on its 25th ranking. But nothing has been done – yet – to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The contracts of Schobel and Kelsay are certainly a big reason why. Their deals are worth a combined $73.5 million – long-term contracts by dollar signs, if not production.

This figure shouldn't matter. It's not uncommon for teams to invest heavily in three defensive ends with the third end usually in a hybrid outside linebacker/defensive end build. In Green Bay, third-down specialist Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila signed a seven-year, $37.3 million contract in 2003 after three straight 10-plus sack seasons. But in a full-time role, KGB was physically mauled and worn down by bigger offensive tackles.

Despite that cap-killing contract, the Packers hung onto KGB and relegated him back to a situational role – behind starters Aaron Kampman and Cullen Jenkins. KGB responded. Last year he had 9.5 sacks in his first 11 games and the Packers went 13-3.

The Bills' appeared to target such a player as a secondary mission in free agency.

The team brought in free agent James Hall for a visit on March 13. The 6-foot-2, 280-pound Hall had 11.5 sacks in 2004 with Detroit under then-defensive coordinator (and current Bills' head coach) Dick Jauron. But no deal was reached, and Hall simply signed back with the team that cut him, St. Louis.

Don't expect Buffalo to sift through trash in the coming month before the NFL Draft. Even the trash is getting picked over.

NFL Network's Adam Schefter reported Friday that Oakland has signed Kalimba Edwards to a two-year, $5 million contract. The former second-round pick has been wildly inconsistent in his six seasons with Detroit, showcasing rare Lawrence Taylor edge-rush speed one play and Erik Flowers-underachieving for the next 10 plays. Left in the bin is Greg Spires, Renaldo Wynn and Darrion Scott. In 25 combined seasons, none of these three have eclipsed an eight-sack campaign.

So onto April. Buffalo has a much, much deeper talent pool to search through – Gbaja-Biamila was the 149th overall pick in the 2000 draft.

Marcus Howard at the Sugar Bowl
(Getty Images)

The Bills will most likely load up early with a cornerback, wide receiver and tight end, but in the mid-to-late rounds, they should take one or two pure speed rushers.

Do what most front offices shy away from: Embrace the ‘tweener.

It doesn't get any more tweenish than Georgia's Marcus Howard.

Most scouts are projecting Howard as an outside linebacker in the NFL, and with good reason. At 6-0, 225 lb., Howard would be grossly undermatched – 125 lb. lighter than offensive tackles. That's just dangerous. In his No. 38 uniform, it was easy to mistaken Howard for a free safety last season.

But if he put on some weight (which he may in the process of), Howard could be the rare, terrorizing creature the Bills sorely lack.

In both BFR Mock Drafts so far, we have Buffalo picking Howard in the fifth round. This could become a fourth- or third-round projection soon. Howard has been regularly clocked in the 4.4-range, and you don't register 10.5 sacks and 12 tackles-for-loss in the best conference (SEC) for nothing.

Marcus Howard
(Getty Images)

In Georgia's 41-10 beat-down of Colt Brennan and Hawaii's video-game offense, Howard was named the game's Most Outstanding Player. He had three of the Bulldogs' eight total sacks, while forcing and recovering a touchdown.

Howard wasn't even given a chance to start until his senior season at Georgia, where coaches were unsure whether he was a defensive end or a linebacker, hence the mind-twisting ‘tweener dilemma. But in the Sugar Bowl and the ensuing NFL Combine, Howard has displayed freakish potential.

Whether it's Howard, or a Division II darkhorse nobody has heard of, Buffalo must infest its dull pass rush with off-beat talent – smaller, faster ends to at least throw quarterbacks' timing off. Schobel did have 14.5 sacks two years, but there's no guarantee he'll return to that form.

The last thing Bills fans want to see is an untouched Tony Romo nonchalantly completing an eight-yard out to set up a heartbreaking, game-winning field goal.

Tyler Dunne is the Publisher of the Buffalo Football Report. Contact him at thdunne@gmail.com

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