Bills have tough choices ahead

Buffalo needs to surround Trent Edwards with weapons among many other needs...

After collapsing down the stretch with a 2-9 record, extending their playoff drought to nine seasons, the Bills need to make the upcoming free agency season count.

Not only is it critical to hit on two or three signings to help the product on the field, it's imperative they give a turned-off fan base dealing with a difficult economy reason to renew their season tickets.

Buffalo added two solid contributors during the free agency/trading period last year in defensive tackle Marcus Stroud and outside linebacker Kawika Mitchell.

The defense improved to 14th in total yards. And while Carolina free agent DE Julius Peppers (14.5 sacks in 2008) is causing teams to salivate and Buffalo's pass rush desperately needs help, the reality is that Peppers is too rich for the team's frugal cap strategy.

Spending the No. 11 overall pick on pass-rushing help seems the wiser and more affordable option at this point.

That makes helping a stagnating offense that ranked 25th and is littered with question marks the top concern in free agency, which opens Feb. 27.

Quarterback Trent Edwards regressed down the stretch after a strong start and many critics are pointing to a lack of support.

If Edwards is to reach his potential, he will need a beefed up receiving corps that includes a veteran No. 2 receiver and a serious pass-catching tight end. Up front, Buffalo sorely lacks a dominating center.

Buffalo considered several veteran wideouts a year ago but passed, instead spending their second-round draft pick on Indiana's James Hardy. The move did not pay off. Hardy was slow to develop then suffered a knee injury that required major ACL reconstruction. His availability for 2009 can't be depended on.

Veteran Josh Reed had a nice year complementing Lee Evans with 56 catches, but his strength is operating from the slot. He isn't a player that draws attention away from Evans as a pure No. 2.

To do that, the Bills would have to make a strong run at Cincinnati's T.J. Houshmandzadeh, the top receiver on the market and someone who is used to the No. 2 role. If the Bengals manage to re-sign him, Seattle's Bobby Engram is available. Injuries and mileage are a concern, but he'd make a good stopgap in Buffalo until Hardy or Steve Johnson emerge.

The Bills aren't likely to find the help they want at tight end in free agency. Houston's Owen Daniels is a restricted free agent.

Center is a different story.

Minnesota Pro Bowler Matt Birk would make a perfect fit and with the Vikings grooming John Sullivan as his replacement, Birk may want to wrap up his career with a new team.

Indianapolis' Jeff Saturday is another option, but the Colts are expected to make a strong run to keep him.

Both of Buffalo's starting centers last year, Melvin Fowler and Duke Preston, are unrestricted free agents. The Bills will attempt to re-sign Preston.

Impacting all decisions on their line is the status of Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters. He held out of training camp last year disgruntled over his contract and the issue has yet to be resolved.


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