General manager Marv Levy said improving his offensive line was his No. 1 off-season priority and he made quick work addressing it.
Less than 24 hours into free agency, the team landed three veteran unrestricted free agents in Derrick Dockery, Langston Walker and Jason Whittle. Dockery will start at left guard, Walker and right tackle, and Whittle will compete with Duke Preston for the starting right guard job or back up all three interior positions after the releases of Chris Villarrial and Tutan Reyes.
Unfortunately for Buffalo, holes were opening up quicker than the front office could plug them.
As expected, prized defensive free agents -- cornerback Nate Clements (49ers) and linebacker London Fletcher-Baker (Redskins) -- quickly jumped ship, creating two huge holes in an improving unit that jumped from 29th to 18th in yards allowed.
Meanwhile, the team traded running back Willis McGahee to the Ravens to rid themselves of his growing contract demands and mercurial personality. But it created a huge hole in their offensive backfield with journeyman Shaud Williams the only signed running back on the roster.
Clements was a leading playmaker and one of Buffalo's best first-round selections ever (2001). Finding his heir apparent in the draft with the No. 12 pick would not be a bad move.
Michigan's Hall, a senior, would be a good value pick at that spot. He doesn't have superior recovery speed but in Buffalo's Tampa 2 scheme, he should be fine.
At running back, coach Dick Jauron and Levy were leaning toward inking a veteran free agent and had Dominic Rhodes and Chris Brown in for interviews. Corey Dillon was on their radar as well. None of those free agents, however, are as good as McGahee meaning the Bills could turn to the draft for a set of young legs with better upside.
With four Day One picks after the McGahee trade, Buffalo could package something together and move up into the top five for a shot at Oklahoma's Adrian Peterson. Or they could sit tight and go after California's Marshawn Lynch, who ran for 2,600 yards and 21 touchdowns the past two seasons and has mid-first round to early second-round grades. The Bills could move up in the second round from No. 44 and grab Lynch.
TEAM NEEDS: RB, CB, LB
1. Running back: The Bills ridded themselves of a brewing sideshow by trading Willis McGahee to Baltimore for three draft picks (third and seventh this year, a third next year). Unfortunately, the move created an instant hole in their backfield. Buffalo ranked 27th in rushing and McGahee failed to crack 1,000 yards, but the reality is that he won't be easy to replace. Not easy, but not impossible.
2. Cornerback: The Bills lost their best defensive player when free agent Nate Clements signed with San Francisco for $80 million over eight years. They'll need to draft a player high on day one or sign a veteran to replace Clements' career 523 tackles, 23 interceptions, 75 passes defended and 12 forced fumbles. Good luck.
3. Middle linebacker: Linebacker London Fletcher-Baker, who led the Bills in tackles five consecutive seasons, was free to leave as an unrestricted free agent and he quickly jumped to the Redskins. Fletcher-Baker was a warrior, but at age 32, is in danger of hitting the wall and handing him a $25 million contract -- as Washington did -- would not have been wise.
DRAFT SCOUT SKINNY
Despite their needs at running back, cornerback and linebacker after veteran defections and trades, the Bills may find passing on Louisville defensive tackle Amobi Okoye impossible to do. And with two extra picks this year after the Willis McGahee deal, there will be ample opportunity to address other needs after taking Okoye, one of the best players available regardless of position, with the No. 12 pick.
Not that spending a high pick on a defensive tackle would be a crime. The Bills ranked 28th against the run last year and aren't sure if John McCargo, a late-first rounder last year, is the answer.
Finding a replacement for departed free agent cornerback Nate Clements is also a high priority and teams often must spend high in round one to find quality covermen, someone capable of starting as a rookie. The Bills like Michigan senior Leon Hall.
It's no accident that Miami's five-year drought without a playoff appearance coincides with some of the NFL's least-productive draft classes.
Of the 33 players chosen in that span, 18 are no longer on the roster. Tight end Randy McMichael and guard Seth McKinney, the last remaining members of the five-man class of 2002, were released early in the off-season, while starting free safety Yeremiah Bell is the only one of nine selections from the 2003 class still on the roster.
Combined with an uneven mark in that span when it comes to player acquisitions via trades and free agency, Dolphins general manager Randy Mueller faces a daunting task trying to rebuild what had become one of the NFL's oldest teams because of its lack of draft success. Quarterback, a speed wide receiver, offensive linemen and a tight end are pressing priorities the team has yet to address after the first two weeks of free agency.
Fortunately for Mueller, the Dolphins have more picks among the top 60 -- No. 9 in the first round and Nos. 40 and 60 in the second -- than at any point since the 1998 draft that yielded one Pro Bowl player (cornerback Patrick Surtain), one starter (defensive end Kenny Mixon) and one bust (running back John Avery). Mueller acquired New England's second- and seventh-round picks earlier this week by trading wide receiver Wes Welker to the Patriots.
As the draft rolls around in late April, Mueller may try to move down once again in the first round to acquire even more picks. The Dolphins also picked up a sixth-rounder from Denver early in the offseason after dealing defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson to the Broncos, but Miami doesn't have a fifth-round pick after last year's trade with Detroit for now-departed quarterback Joey Harrington.
"If we do select at No. 9, rest assured it will be someone that I think will come in and contribute right away," Mueller said at the NFL Scouting Combine, which was his last media availability. "We need that from two or three picks this year. For the next two or three years, we need an influx of young talent on our team."
TEAM NEEDS: QB, WR, LB
1. Quarterback: The Dolphins have drafted only two quarterbacks in the past eight drafts and both -- John Dutton (1998) and Josh Heupel (2001) -- failed to make it out of training camp. The failure to develop their own quarterback or find one via free agency has forced the franchise to trade draft picks for non-impact players like A.J. Feeley, Joey Harrington, Jim Druckenmiller and Cade McNown. While working under former coach Nick Saban, Dolphins general manager Randy Mueller said he subscribed to the theory of trying to draft a quarterback each year. Mueller now has the chance to instill that philosophy with the Dolphins.
2. Wide receiver: Even with the franchise investing a 2006 third-round pick in Derek Hagen, Miami is sorely in need of adding speed at this position. Chris Chambers has lobbied for the Dolphins to select Ted Ginn Jr., but using the No. 9 overall selection on the Ohio State burner might be a stretch.
3. Outside linebacker/defensive end: The Dolphins have two players who will be at least 30 years old entering the season with Jason Taylor and the recently signed Joey Porter as their top pass rushers. A young player can gain a world of knowledge working behind those two players in practice.
DRAFT SCOUT SKINNY
The Dolphins will have an advantage when it comes to scouting Brady Quinn, as new quarterbacks coach Terry Shea worked with the Notre Dame signal-caller during pre-draft drills before being hired by Miami. Quinn is an intriguing prospect if he falls to the No. 9 overall pick and one who will get a long look from Miami's front office during pre-draft meetings.
Mueller has said he wants to improve team speed, which makes a burner like Georgia Tech's Calvin Johnson or Ohio State's Ted Ginn Jr. intriguing, especially if the Dolphins move from the No. 9 spot.
Left tackle has generally proven the safest position to pick in the top 10 and the Dolphins are unsettled at the position following the free-agent defection of Damion McIntosh to Kansas City. With Wisconsin's Joe Thomas almost a certain top three pick, Penn State's Levi Brown would be considered the most attractive tackle remaining at No. 9.
Mississippi's Patrick Willis would be a great fit for New England but his impressive performance at the Combine has propelled himself into the top 20, which means the Patriots would have to trade up to get him.
If Willis is gone, Beason would be a nice consolation prize. Primarily an outside linebacker at Miami, Beason would move inside for the Patriots. The athletic linebacker has drawn comparisons to Jonathan Vilma, a player Bill Belichick liked coming out of college.
Even with the signing of Adalius Thomas, the Patriots still need depth at linebacker, especially on the inside. After Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel, the Patriots have very little depth at inside linebacker. Eric Alexander is really the only other inside linebacker with any experience, so an upgrade at this position is high on New England's priority list.
On the surface, Beason looks like a Tampa 2 outside linebacker but that's not necessarily the case. People at the Combine said Beason had the physical ability to move inside and play the middle in a 3-4 scheme. That would give the Patriots the luxury of grooming Beason behind Bruschi and using him on passing downs as a rookie because of his good coverage skills. Beason is also a big hitter and solid special teams player. He would add some much needed youth and athleticism to an ageing position.
Beason has been shooting up draft boards and is now considered by many to have a first round grade. With his physical skills and instincts on the field, Beason would be a good fit in New England if they decide to take him with the 24th pick.
With the Patriots' second first round selection, they could add some young talent to their secondary. If that's the case, cornerback Chris Houston (5-10, 185) out of Arkansas would be a welcome addition to New England's defensive backfield.
Houston was the star of the Combine after running a 4.32 40-yard dash and doing 27 reps of 225 pounds. Some may think Houston is just a workout warrior but that's not the case. In 2006, he went up against Dwayne Jarrett, Robert Meachem and Dwayne Bowe -- all possible first round receivers -- and held them to a combined 14 receptions for 168 yards and one touchdown. That's pretty impressive considering all the hype surrounding those three receivers.
After franchising Asante Samuel and with Ellis Hobbs emerging, the Patriots are sitting pretty when it comes to starting corners. However, they have very little depth at that position. New England enters the offseason with no clear-cut third corner on the roster. Houston can come in and play the slot as a rookie but he also has the skills to become a shutdown corner down the road. He may not be big but Houston physically manhandled both Meachem and South Carolina's Sidney Rice when he faced them last year. Houston is a great athlete with the overall tools teams look for in a defensive back. Plus, playing his best against the toughest receivers he faced last year will bode well for Houston on draft day.
There's also a good chance the Patriots could trade one of their two first round picks. This is a draft where there doesn't appear to be much difference in players who are projected to go in the late-first round area from those expected to go in Round 3. This could be a situation where New England trades down to get more value or adds picks for the future, especially after losing its second and seventh round selections in the Wes Welker deal. However, if they keep both picks and Beason and Houston are on the board when the Patriots pick, they would be a great addition to the New England defense.
Expect the Patriots to try and get younger at both linebacker and defensive back in this draft. They did a good job of addressing offensive needs already in free agency and their pretty set when it comes to starters on defense. However, the team lacks depth at linebacker and defensive backs and that was exposed by the Colts in the AFC Championship Game.
The Patriots could add a receiver and even a young running back but look for this draft to be used as a way for them to add youth and athleticism for the future on the defensive side of the ball.
TEAM NEEDS: S, LB, CB
1. Safety: This is a position that's been a thorn in the Patriots' side recently, especially with the injuries to Rodney Harrison. While Harrison has vowed to return in 2007, he's nearing the end of a remarkable career. Artrell Hawkins is better suited in a backup role and the jury is still out on James Sanders. He played well at times last year but Sanders coverage ability is still in question. That leaves Eugene Wilson, who is coming off a season-ending leg injury himself. The Colts attacked New England's safeties down the middle of the field and that's something the Patriots need to address. This is a deep draft at the safety position and a player like Texas' Michael Griffin or Miami's Brandon Meriweather could be a target late in the first round.
2. Linebacker: Adalius Thomas was a huge signing for the Patriots but they still have a lot of work to do at linebacker. Including Thomas, every starting linebacker on the team will be at least 30 years of age when the season starts. With Tedy Bruschi likely entering his final season, New England needs a young inside linebacker to groom as his replacement. Teams had success throwing over the short middle of the field against the Patriots last year and a lot of that had to do with the veteran linebackers losing a step. With only Eric Alexander as a viable backup at the moment, the Patriots will likely add an inside linebacker on Day 1 of the draft. If they use one of their first round picks on that position, either Mississippi's Patrick Willis or Miami's Jon Beason would look awfully good in a Patriots uniform.
3. Cornerback: The Patriots franchised Asante Samuel, meaning he'll most likely play at least one more year in New England. With Samuel and an improving Ellis Hobbs, New England has two pretty good starting cornerbacks. The problem is the depth after those two. Chad Scott and Ray Mickens are both getting long in the tooth and aren't locks to make the team. Randall Gay has shown he can be a solid nickel back but he's missed most of the last two seasons because of injuries. Offenses had success spreading the Patriots out at times last year and with Samuel's long-term future with the team in doubt, bringing in a talented young corner makes sense for the Patriots. Having two selections in the first round could land New England with one of the draft's top cornerbacks like Texas' Aaron Ross or Arkansas' Chris Houston. Both players have the coverage skills and physical ability to excel in the Patriots defense.
DRAFT SCOUT SKINNY
After filling a lot of needs already in free agency, the Patriots have the luxury of going in many different directions when the draft rolls around. They can package the 24th and 28th picks to move up and grab an immediate impact player like Louisiana State safety LaRon Landry or Mississippi linebacker Patrick Willis. Both players are expected to be off the board by the time the Patriots pick but could be instant stars in New England's defense. Landry, especially, would be a monster at safety under Bill Belichick.
If the Patriots stay put, they will likely target an inside linebacker or secondary help. Jon Beason out of Miami is a physical, athletic linebacker that the Patriots are said to be enamored with. He could come in and learn under Tedy Bruschi before taking over the starting job in 2008.
There should be a number of quality defensive backs still on the board late in the first round. New England needs depth at both cornerback and safety, so those positions are a definite possibility in the first round. Arkansas' Chris Houston, Texas' Aaron Ross and Pittsburgh's Darrelle Revis are some top rated corners that could intrigue the Patriots. Meanwhile, Florida's Reggie Nelson and Texas' Michael Griffin are versatile safeties that would be a good fit in the Patriots defense. If New England keeps both picks, expect one of them to be used to upgrade the defensive backfield.
The Jets' new leadership -- coach Eric Mangini and general manager Mike Tannenbaum -- insist on building the team through the draft and they avoid shelling out big bucks for overpriced free agents. That's the attitude the pair took in their first offseason together a year ago and they're going through this offseason with the same philosophy.
So rather than give up a pair of high draft picks to sign a restricted free agent running back such as San Diego's Michael Turner, the Jets swapped second-rounders with the Bears for Thomas Jones, immediately giving their running game credibility with a featured back to replace Curtis Martin.
"We think he's a good fit on and off the field, a tough outdoor, Northeast runner," Tannenbaum said. "We still have those four first-day picks, which was important, and we've added a good piece to the puzzle."
Jones didn't come completely cheap. The Jets had to sign him to a front-loaded, four-year, $20 million deal with $12 million in guarantees. Yet the Jones trade gives the Jets one less position to focus on in that first day of the draft.
That should allow the Jets to pursue a nose tackle in the draft that fits their 3-4 scheme more than Dewayne Robertson did last season.
While other teams jumped on most of the free-agent guards, the Jets stayed quiet, with the intention of picking up one in the early rounds of the draft--keeping their offensive line young after taking tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson and center Nick Mangold in the first round last year.
And while they certainly could use a big-time cover corner, the Jets didn't even think about Buffalo's Nate Clements. The big-ticket cornerback was signed by San Francisco. The Jets probably wouldn't have pursued New England's Asante Samuel, either, despite the fact that he played for Mangini. Of course, that was rendered moot when the Patriots franchised Samuel.
With a first, two seconds and a third-round pick, the Jets will look to pick up a guard, cornerback, defensive lineman and probably a wide receiver on the first day of the draft.
Also keep in mind that the Jets have done some of their best work in recent years on the second day, picking up such fourth-rounders as wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery, strong safety Kerry Rhodes and running back Leon Washington.
TEAM NEEDS: CB, DL, OL
1. Cornerback: The Jets are annually looking to add a shutdown corner but seem to fall short every time. They signed Andre Dyson last offseason and he started 15 games, but Justin Miller has been inconsistent and was benched in 2006. Neither David Barrett, a starter in 2005 who has been hindered by myriad injuries and inconsistent play, nor Miller is likely to start again.
2. Defensive line: The unit improved dramatically in the second half -- 13 sacks in the first eight games were followed by 22 in the last eight; 13 rushing touchdowns allowed in the first half dropped to just one in the second. The Jets, however, are still looking for an impact nose tackle and a defensive end that truly fit the 3-4 scheme the team adopted last season.
3. Offensive guard: Rookies D'Brickashaw Ferguson and Nick Mangold proved the Jets have long-term solutions at left tackle and center, now the team must look at someone who can eventually replace veteran Pete Kendall at left guard. There were some big-ticket guards on the free-agent market, but the Jets showed no interest.
DRAFT SCOUT SKINNY
With the trade for Thomas Jones completed, the Jets don't need to look for a running back with their first-round pick. Even though they're picking so late in the first round -- 25th overall -- the Jets can fill other needs.
Many of the top cornerback prospects will be gone by the time the Jets pick but they will have some options. They've drafted several corners over the past few years and the best choice here might be Aaron Ross of Texas.
The Jets need defenders who fit the 3-4 mold and Nebraska defensive end Adam Carriker is one of them. Another of those players is outside linebacker Paul Posluszny of Penn State, an outstanding run-stopper.
The Jets took offensive linemen in the first round last year and could do so again with guards Ben Grubbs of Auburn and Texas' Justin Blalock available. With no standout at tight end currently on the roster, Arizona State's Zach Miller and Miami's Greg Olsen will be looked at.