Click here for Part I of "Help Wanted."
And here for Part II.
Birk is major upgrade at center
One player on the offense is guaranteed to touch the ball on every single play, but he is also one of the least recognized on the team. This player, of course, is the center.
A center's job is not appreciated nearly enough. They have to make the calls for the offensive line (basically pointing out who has to block whom, and where the blitz might come from), snap the ball, and get up and block a mammoth defensive tackle; they have to do this all on every offensive play. Do all this every play, and the offense goes as planned. Screw up any aspect, and it's all eyes on you.
All eyes were on Buffalo's tag team of Melvin Fowler and Duke Preston in the middle this season, and in this case that's not a good thing. Fowler was often blown off the line in the early going when the Bills struggled to run the ball, while Preston goofed up a few snaps in his 11 starts. Both are free agents this offseason, and the Bills need to upgrade.
The Bills can fill their vacancy in the middle of the line with a call to long-time Minnesota Viking Matt Birk. The 11-year veteran has spent his entire career with the Vikings after being drafted in the sixth round in 1998. He took over as the starter at center in 2000 and hasn't looked back (aside from losing the 2005 season to injury). Birk has started 123 games, and has been elected to six Pro Bowls.
Birk anchors an offensive line that opened the door for the league's leading rusher, Adrian Peterson. His 6-4, 309-pound frame gives up about an inch and 20 points to Preston, which would probably only cost the Bills the title of "NFL's biggest offensive line," which fans had been reminded of no less than 50 times on television broadcasts this season, despite the fact that it ended up meaning very little in terms of offensive efficiency.
In exchange for a minimal size downgrade, Birk would bring stability and reliability, as well as a ton of experience at the most important exchange (center/quarterback) in the game. Early word is that Minnesota has not initiated extension talks with the veteran. Oh, and in case Buffalo's front office or Ivy-league coach are concerned with smarts: Birk has a degree from Harvard.---
Keeping Crowell is key
One of the other positions the Buffalo Bills will be looking to upgrade this season will be left outside linebacker, where Keith Ellison was less than stellar as a fill-in in 2008. They need not look far.
Ellison was in the lineup because Angelo Crowell, a standout talent on the outside, was unexpectedly placed on injured reserve after choosing to have knee surgery to rectify a nagging injury. There was a lot of tension the week before the season opener between Crowell, who was entering a contract year, and the Bills' front office and coaching staff. The sixth-year pro should have opted for surgery during the summer or at least during training camp when he knew he wouldn't be able to play out the season. Instead, Crowell took the team by surprise and was essentially punished by being placed on IR: he wouldn't be able to audition for any teams, even though he'd probably have been physically able to play by the bye week.
It seems now, however that Crowell and quasi-GM Russ Brandon have set aside their differences. If this is the case, Brandon should move to resign Crowell. He has the skill to be a Pro-Bowl linebacker, and would have commanded huge free agent money if he'd played in 2008. Now he is a risky prospect for teams who would only have his numbers from 2007 and earlier to go on and a spotty knee to worry about.
Not only has Crowell proven he has the ability to succeed physically in the Bills' defense (which was admittedly slow without him), he already knows Perry Fewell's scheme. There would be no learning curve, as there would be for a free agent or a rookie, either of which would almost certainly be behind Crowell both physically and mentally.
Lest we forget, Crowell was the rock of a very battered defense in 2007. He started every game at strong side linebacker, leading the team with 126 total tackles. He also recorded two sacks, an interception, and a decisive safety (in the season's most memorable win at Washington). He stepped into the starter's role in 2005 following a season-ending injury to Takeo Spikes and had been a forced to be reckoned with until this past offseason.
Crowell would be an excellent complement to Kawika Mitchell on the opposite side; the two of which are apparently friends since both were drafted in 2003, despite never actually playing together. Crowell would aid a sickly Bills pass rush and allow Mitchell (who tied for the team lead for sacks in '08 with a measly four) and middle linebacker Paul Pozluszny to roam the middle of the field and to stop the run. As a whole, the three would form a versatile unit, and one of the most talented in the league.
The Bills know what the 27-year old ‘backer can do, and they can get him for a cheap multi-year deal.
Adam Beilman is an analyst for the Buffalo Football Report. Contact him at email@example.com.