With Buffalo's 700-pound wall no more, shoring up the middle of its once stellar defense is clearly the club's main objective in the draft, where it selects eighth overall.
The Bills ranked 31st at stopping the run last year at 137.8 yards per game and everything fell apart from that.
Buffalo is just as hurting on its offensive line where it is looking for upgrades at center and tackle. However, the aftershocks of cutting tackle Mike Williams - the fourth overall pick in the 2002 draft - has general manager Marv Levy and coach Dick Jauron feeling leery.
Sure it was Tom Donahoe who selected Williams that high, a move that impacted Buffalo's salary structure and master planning for four seasons.
But it was a lesson for everybody at One Bills Drive that it's safer and faster to build an offensive line with experienced free agents than raw rookies who need lots of tender loving care.
When free agency finally kicks off on March 11, the Bills will have ex-New York Jets center Kevin Mawae on their radar, according to reports. The Bills are not expected to re-sign Trey Teague. Philadelphia Eagles tackle Jon Runyan and Atlanta's Kevin Shaffer, just 25, are other free agents the Bills are discussing.
Were Buffalo to land some solid veteran blockers and perhaps a wide receiver if it decides to jettison Eric Moulds, it can focus on defense in the draft.
This side of the ball was virtually neglected the past two drafts with 10 of 12 picks overall spent on offense. The result was the Bills' defense growing old last year and plummeting from No. 2 to No. 29 during a 5-11 campaign.
Tops on the Bills wish list is Oregon defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, one of the strongest players at the combine. At 6-4, 338, he's big enough to eat space but also has the quickness for Jauron's attack defense. Defensive tackle in general has quality and depth this season, so the Bills could come back to this position in later rounds as well.
Were North Carolina State defensive end Mario Williams to fall to Buffalo, the Bills would also have to consider adding a pass rusher of his skills to their lineup. Chris Kelsay has not developed as expected as a consistent complement to Aaron Schobel on the left side.
Finding strong safeties and linebackers is also on Buffalo's to-do list. They cut veteran SS Lawyer Milloy and have no real depth at the position. Nebraska's 6-4 Daniel Bullocks and Ohio State's Donte Whitner are later-round options.
Buffalo's linebacker corps of Takeo Spikes, London Fletcher and Jeff Posey has been good, but Spikes is coming off Achilles' tendon surgery and Fletcher and Posey are showing their age. Young veteran Angelo Crowell, who filled in well for Spikes last year, could be an option where needed but the Bills still need to shop.
Even though star Ohio State outside linebacker A.J. Hawk is expected to go in the top five, he's close enough for the Bills to consider trade-up options. If not, Iowa's Chad Greenway is a Top 10 talent that warrants consideration.
At inside linebacker, the Bills have to start grooming Fletcher's replacement. Iowa's Abdul Hodge is the best prospect and might slip to the Bills in the second round.
Who they should pick: Bobby Carpenter, LB, Ohio State
While many believe the Patriots still have one of the most talented rosters in the NFL, the team does enter free agency and draft preparation with a number of areas that need an injection of youth and or depth heading into 2006. New England has added varying degrees of youth to the roster in recent drafts at areas such as offensive line, wide receiver, tight end, defensive line and defensive back, leaving linebacker as one of oldest spots on the roster and no potential young starters on the horizon. In fact, New England hasn't taken a linebacker in the first four rounds of the draft since a previous regime selected Ohio State's Andy Katzenmoyer in the first round in 1999.
That said, linebacker, running back, wide receiver, and defensive back are all legitimately worthy of an injection of youth, depth and talent on draft weekend. In terms of what the draft class has to offer, the secondary group is probably the deepest of the four spots, while wide receiver is one of the weakest groups in years and running back and linebacker have a serious drop off from the top-end talent to mid-round prospects.
So seven years removed from its last foray into young 'backer talent another Ohio State linebacker, the big, versatile, athletic Bobby Carpenter, a guy with the ability to play inside or out in the 3-4, could be the pick at No. 21 for the Patriots as they look to restock a championship caliber roster. Carpenter compares favorably to a guy he's built a relationship with in the offseason at Ohio State, current Patriot and former Buckeye Mike Vrabel, but there's a chance he could be gone by the time the Patriots take the clock.
New England's need at linebacker is intensified by the team's release of veteran Willie McGinest just prior to free agency. While the productive former Pro Bowler may very well re-sign at a number lower than his previous $8 million he was slated to get, even his return leaves the team with just four proven linebackers. And all four are either getting up in years or have legitimate injury concerns. The draft crop has a number of outside edge rushers that could project well in the 3-4 (a scheme that is undergoing league-wide growth), and few players who could project as run stuffing inside players, although that position is much tougher to fill with a young player right out of college.
One thing that actually benefits the Patriots is a slightly higher draft spot. While Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick certainly isn't happy about his team's early than usual postseason exit last January in Denver, it does come with a couple benefits. Belichick and his coaches had a much early start in their video work and draft preparation than in previous Super Bowl seasons. It also means the team will be at 21 instead of 32, a pick in the team had in 2004 when Vince Wilfork surprisingly slipped to the defending champs and filled an immediate need. Could the same happen again in 2006?
"There are a few less variables at that spot, but there are still a lot of teams picking ahead of us," Belichick said. "So it's not like when you are picking third and you can say, 'OK (this is our guy)'. I mean we are at 21, so there are a lot of things that can happen in front of us."
But the team has the ammo, with nine picks already and the possibility of more in the free agent compensation process, to move to get any players it may specifically target. Five of the nine picks come in the first 105 selections.
"You can move up a little bit higher, that's right," Belichick said. "There is no doubt about that. And we have enough picks that we probably have some flexibility to move in the draft. But again, right now that's so far down the line. I think what you have to do is do your homework, know the draft, know the players, understand how they are going to fit in your system. And that's where we are. We are not even close to any kind of draft strategy, 'Oh, I think this guy will be there.' That's so far away. We haven't gone over it at all."
Not surprisingly Belichick wouldn't hint at players or positions that might be catching his eye in the draft preparation process, remaining vague in a positive description of the 2006 class as a whole.
"It's early. I think there are some players out there that would be good on our team and could help our football team," Belichick said. "I don't know if that's going to end up being more or less than normal or how they are going to fall. But a lot of the guys I've seen have good futures in the NFL, will have a good career and they would help our team."
Who they should pick: Winston Justice, T, Southern California.
Even before the start of the free agency, three positions the Dolphins are targeting this off-season - quarterback, center and defensive tackle - had become obvious. Miami spoke with Minnesota about a potential trade for quarterback Daunte Culpepper and visited with two big-name players - center Kevin Mawae and defensive tackle Sam Adams - who were recently released by the New York Jets and Buffalo respectively.
Unless the Dolphins find a long-term answer at quarterback by trade or free agency, Miami is expected to address the position early in April's draft. Because the Dolphins draft at No. 16 in the first round, it seems unlikely the franchise will have any chance to land the players who are considered the top three quarterbacks in the draft -- Southern California's Matt Leinart, Texas' Vince Young and Vanderbilt's Jay Cutler. But the Dolphins should have a shot at the second tier of quarterback prospects, which is led by Alabama's Brodie Croyle and Clemson's Charlie Whitehurst, in either the first or second round.
Mawae visited with the Dolphins on Wednesday and could be a nice replacement for Seth McKinney, who is slated to become an unrestricted free agent. The Dolphins, though, also are speaking with McKinney about re-signing. Mawae has six career Pro Bowl appearances, but is 35 and coming off a season-ending triceps injury that ended his streak of 177 consecutive starts.
Adams is the kind of big-bodied nose tackle the Dolphins would want to replace Keith Traylor, who will be 37 entering the 2006 season. The Dolphins, though, may not be able to afford Adams considering the other areas on the team they need to address with limited salary cap space.
One such spot is left tackle, as the team released starter Damion McIntosh last week to clear more than $4 million in cap room. The Dolphins don't have an heir apparent for McIntosh on their roster, which could make Justice an appealing choice if he were available when the Dolphins select in the first round.
Although he played right tackle for the Trojans, the 6-6, 319-pound Justice is believed to have the athleticism to shift to left tackle in the NFL. Justice also has familiarity with Miami assistant offensive line coach Tim Davis, who was his position coach at Southern California before joining the Dolphins in 2005.
Although McIntosh has started the past 30 games at left tackle, the franchise hasn't had a dominating player at the position since Richmond Webb manned the spot from 1990 to 2000. The Dolphins have rafted seven tackles since 2001 and the only one to start a game at left tackle is Wade Smith, who was converted to center after Nick Saban became Miami's head coach in 2005.
Left tackle is an especially hard position to fill in free agency, which is evidenced by the fact 10 of 12 starters on playoff teams last season were selected in the first three rounds by their respective franchises.
"Most teams who have one don't let them ever get in (free agency), whether they end up franchising them, re-doing their contracts or whatever," Saban said. "I think there are certain positions that are difficult to (address) in (free agency). Left tackle would be one of those without having to significantly overpay someone if they were available."
Much like every NFL team, the potential labor impasse obviously delayed the Jets from jumping into the free-agent market. But free agency finally is here, and the Jets have plenty of holes to plug.
At least they now have some salary-cap room. A flurry of player releases, plus the restructuring of contracts such as quarterback Chad Pennington's, has actually put the Jets at least $10-15 million under the new, increased cap of $102 million.
Although Pennington has begun throwing, the team still isn't ready to pencil him in as the starting quarterback on opening day, because of all his recent shoulder woes. So they are searching for a "hold-the-fort guy," as former coach Bill Parcells used to say.
Two potential options in that vein may not be feasible, coincidentally because of injury reasons. San Diego's Drew Brees would seem like a natural fit, considering that he blossomed while new Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer was the quarterbacks coach for the Chargers, but he is coming off shoulder surgery, just like Pennington. Brees underwent arthroscopic surgery in January to repair a torn labrum suffered in the season finale.
Free agent Jon Kitna has long been rumored as a possibility, but the Bengals may make a stronger pitch to re-sign him, considering that starter Carson Palmer is coming off a severe knee injury suffered in the loss to Pittsburgh in the AFC playoffs. Kitna has indicated he may be receptive to staying with Cincinnati.
Instead, Washington's Patrick Ramsey seems to have moved to the top of the Jets' list, and in fact, has worked out for them. The Jets probably could obtain Ramsey in a trade for for a mid- or late-round draft pick.
They still have some gaping holes on the offensive line, particularly at center after the release of veteran Kevin Mawae, although they may be leaning toward keeping veteran Pete Kendall there as a stopgap maneuver. Kendall moved over from left guard and started the last 10 games in 2005 after Mawae suffered a season-ending triceps injury.
At left tackle, the Jets appear to be targeting veteran Brad Hopkins, recently released by the Titans. Atlanta's Kevin Shaffer is a free agent, but may still be out of their price range if they are planning to trade up from their No. 4 pick in the draft.
Another potential move that will have a big impact on their cap is the rumored trade of John Abraham. Denver may be the most likely landing spot for the standout pass-rushing defensive end, who likely won't be a good fit in the 3-4 defense. The Jets are interested in some better fits for the scheme, such as Willie McGinest, who is better at dropping into coverage and was cut by the Patriots in a salary-cap move. They also could be eyeing mammoth nose tackle Ted Washington, who was cut by Oakland, to man the middle of the D-line.