The Bills appear headed in the right direction under the tutelage of head coach Mike Mularkey after coming within one victory of qualifying for the playoffs.
Mularkey replaced Gregg Williams following the 2003 season and supplied the Buffalo locker room with attributes rarely noticed the previous three seasons. Instilling confidence and an air of toughness to a Bills roster which lacked an identity, Mularkey got the Bills to buy into his program despite a 0-4 start to the season.
The Bills' season and future of Donahoe in Buffalo may have been salvaged with the promotion of 2003 first-round pick Willis McGahee into the lineup. Coming off reconstructive knee surgery, McGahee gave the spark the Bills needed at running back. Playing remarkably well, McGahee rushed for 1,128 yards and 13 touchdowns, while splitting time early in the season with disgruntled running back Travis Henry.
Building for the future, the Bills would not have been a formidable offensive unit if it weren't for the emergence of wide receiver Lee Evans. The first of the Bills' two first-round picks in 2004, Evans had a solid rookie campaign. Displaying game-breaking speed and quickness, Evans teamed with veteran Eric Moulds to give the Bills one of the better starting wide receiver combos in the game.
This offseason could dictate the Bills' direction for years to come. The reins to the offense has been turned over to the second of Buffalo's two first-round picks in 2004, quarterback J.P. Losman. Also, starting offensive left tackle Jonas Jennings is an unrestricted free agent, as is mainstay defensive tackle Pat Williams.
Both Jennings and Williams are expected to command significant attention in free agency. The potential loss of a legitimate backside protector in Jennings could be troubling for a team expected to field an inexperienced player at quarterback. As the team prepares for free agency, Donahoe is believed to be talking with Arizona about dealing Henry for offensive tackle L.J. Shelton, a one-time starting offensive lineman for the Cardinals.
The athletic Losman is undeniably the quarterback of the future. Veteran quarterback Drew Bledsoe was released and backup Shane Matthews is an unrestricted free agent. While Matthews is uncommitted about a return in 2005, the Bills will need a veteran presence on the roster to help guide Losman, as well as provide depth at the position. Brad Johnson could be an attractive option for the Bills.
If the Bills reach an agreement to trade for Shelton, re-signing Jonas Jennings would not be a priority. Backup offensive lineman Marcus Price is also an unrestricted free agent and could depart for the right opportunity. Losing both players could create depth issues. Another option may be to move Trey Teague to left tackle and sign a quality player from the deep pool of centers available in free agency.
If the Shelton deal is finalized, the Bills should place their immediate focus on re-signing Pat Williams, an All-Pro caliber defensive tackle who creates havoc in the interior. The Bills do have depth at the position with Tim Anderson, Ron Anderson, and Justin Bannan, but none are the force Williams is. Williams' departure would create a huge void.
With the emergence of McGahee, Travis Henry is expendable and expected to be traded. The Bills will need to address their depth at running back. Chester Taylor (Baltimore) and Anthony Thomas (Chicago) would be solid options in free agency.
The Bills have numerous options at tight end. However, none are of high quality and the best two players are coming off significant knee surgeries. The tight end position has numerous, quality free agents available such as Jermaine Wiggins (Minnesota), Bubba Franks (Green Bay), and Itula Mili (Seattle).
SALARY CAP STATUS:
Approximately $12 million to $14 million under the expected 2005 league-mandated salary cap.
Offensive line - The Bills need to improve the quality and depth of its line. Jonas Jennings has had his share of injury issues and could depart in free agency. Backup Marcus Price is expected to field offers elsewhere and may not return.
Quarterback - J.P. Losman is going to need quality, experienced receivers to help him make the transition to the starting role. Most inexperienced, mobile quarterbacks tend to look for a comfort zone or dump-off option, but the Bills have significant uncertainty in such options. The Bills were not deep at tight end before suffering injuries at the position.
Defensive back - Age, turnover, and depth could be factors in the near future for the Bills' defensive backfield. Starting cornerback Troy Vincent is on the downside of his career and safety Izell Reese is not expected to return. Players at positions where speed and quickness are a necessity can be exploited quickly in the NFL.
Backup QB - Shane Matthews is the player the Bills are looking to first. He is undecided at this time about playing. While a backup quarterback is a necessity, there will be talent available as late as the start of training camp. The Bills would like to have this position locked up by the spring to ensure stability.
FREE AGENCY / OFF-SEASON:
KEY ACQUISITIONS: None.
KEY DEPARTURES: QB Drew Bledsoe (Dallas).
FRANCHISE PLAYER: None.
TRANSITION PLAYER: None.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: DT Pat Williams; FS Izell Reese; LS Bradford Banta; LT Jonas Jennings; OT Marcus Price; QB Shane Matthews; TE Ryan Neufeld; WR Drew Haddad.
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: CB Kevin Thomas; FB Joe Burns; OG Mike Pucillo.
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS: LS Jon Dorenbos; LB Josh Stamer.
Team Needs: Buffalo Bills
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