So often the nobodies in the AFC East in the last decade, the Bills should have been the “nearly men” this season, but a slew of injuries to their most important players left Buffalo as also-rans once more. However, with those players returning, the Bills are closer than ever to competing in the AFC East and with a little more luck on the injury front and some shrewd pickups in free agency, they could be the team to emerge from the trio behind New England to take the fight to the Patriots in 2012.
Buffalo is notoriously not a hotspot in free agency with players seeking brighter lights and bigger contracts than the team from upstate New York can offer, so they will need to make the right signings at the right prices and only add the extra dollars for the right player. The Bills have made strides, even though it wasn’t necessarily reflected in the win column, and this is a pivotal offseason for Chan Gailey and his team. Finding the right players to move this team forward in free agency on their customary budget will define whether the team in the throwback uniforms will throwback their form to better times as well.
Primary Need: Defensive End
In all honesty, this could easily have been the Bills’ primary, secondary, tertiary and even their quaternary need. This team needs an upgrade to their pass rush and they simply cannot settle for not seeing it improve in 2012. With the return of Kyle Williams and assuming that Marcell Dareus (+14.8) becomes more consistent in 2012 the Bills’ two best pass rushers will be their defensive tackles and they will be completely lacking a consistent threat off of the edge. A quality inside pass rush is a great asset for the Bills, but they must find a defensive end who can capitalize on the opportunities that Dareus and Williams will present them with. Currently, the Bills have a number of DEs who are solid run defenders but simply offer nothing off of the edge and, truth be told, look more like defensive tackles than defensive ends. Buffalo would not be panicking if they were to bring in three new defensive ends–they have the run defenders to work them all in situationally–but they must find a three-down DE this offseason to help this defense move forward.
The edge rush is one of those positions seeing a bumper year, though the class could yet take a hit as teams start to stick franchise tags on players they are unable to tie up long term before the tag deadline. The prohibitive cost of the defensive end tag, however, seems likely to aid the Bills’ cause with our Top 3 edge rushers seemingly likely to hit the open market. Mario Williams (+10.4) is at the top of the tree with his salary last year making it next to impossible for the Texans to tag him. Williams’ foray at outside linebacker was far from unsuccessful, but teams like the Bills should be able to extend him the sort of contract as a 4-3 defensive end that 3-4 teams simply cannot match for a player still unproven as an outside linebacker. Williams is likely to spark a bidding war which may put off the Bills, though Williams could be the marquee signing the Bills’ D needs. If they look elsewhere, John Abraham (+37.8) is familiar with changing sides throughout the game (which the Bills’ defense calls for its defensive ends to do) and his consistent pass rush (119 total pressures in the last two seasons) would be a substantial upgrade. Some more “value” signings could be Jeremy Mincey (+19.9) from Jacksonville or Israel Idonije (-1.0) would be an intriguing add–in keeping with the Bills’ seeming desire for bigger defensive ends while offering more pass rush than their incumbent starters.
Secondary Need: Offensive Tackle
Ever since the Bills let Jason Peters walk, they’ve been in search of a fix at offensive tackle and they finally got one this season in the shape of Demetrius Bell (+6.8). There’s just two problems with that: 1) Bell only registered six starts in 2011, and 2) he’s an impending free agent. With the Bills’ need to lock up their sole receiving threat, the franchise tag is out of the question, so there is a real danger that the Bills will let a potential franchise tackle hit the open market. With no long-term solution at right tackle either, Buffalo is in real danger of hitting the reset button at tackle–a position they really could do with some stability, given the interior of their line is really coming together. If they play their cards right, the Bills could see their O-line climb even higher than the fourth spot they occupied in our offensive line rankings for the 2011 season.
The absolute must for the Bills at tackle is re-signing Bell at the right price. For a player who showed such dramatic flaws early in his career, he’s developed incrementally to now show the potential the Bills saw in him. He shouldn’t be in line for a big contract, but the paucity of quality tackles on the open market could inflate his value. Even so, Bell offers more value to few teams more than he does to Buffalo and he should be priority No. 1. If he slips away, the Bills will be in dire straits at left tackle and can only better themselves–outside of the draft–by acquiring Jared Gaither (+3.8) from San Diego. If they sign either of these two, they could be set at the spot for years to come. Over at right tackle, where again there is a lack of quality and depth on the open market, the Bills will need to weigh up cost and the improvement they would see from that investment. Erik Pears offered little as a run blocker in 2011, but was solid enough in pass protection and that may just see him keep his job. However, low value signings like Anthony Collins (+4.3) and King Dunlap (+1.8) could yet see the Bills upgrade the position at a low cost. Collins, in particular, could set them up for the foreseeable future as he will only be 26 when September 1st rolls around.
Tertiary Need: Wide Receiver
The Bills’ clear priority ahead of free agency opening was locking up their only true threat at wide receiver, Stevie Johnson (+6.0). Mission accomplished. While he may have well-documented issues with drops in key situations, he’s also a potential game-breaking receiver and was just about the only one to successfully take the fight to Darrelle Revis in 2011. However having just locked up Johnson, the Bills’ work is not done at receiver with a dire need to upgrade a supporting cast that can be described as no better than adequate. Tight end Scott Chandler (+5.8 receiving) the next best target that doesn’t play out of the backfield. Buffalo’s receiving corps is more about quantity than quality and they need to shift that balance a little more to take some of the pressure off of Johnson and give Ryan Fitzpatrick a leg up in obvious passing situations.
The deep class of free agent wide receivers comes at a good time for the Bills with the wide array of talent meaning they don’t have to enter a losing battle for a limited number of quality pass-catchers on the open market. It is difficult to see how any of the top free agent receivers wouldn’t help the Bills. Wes Welker (+21.3) would be some coup from New England, strengthening themselves down-to-down while weakening a division rival. Luring Mike Wallace (+8.2) from the cap-strapped Pittsburgh Steelers would offer a devastating pairing with Johnson, while any one of Vincent Jackson (+5.0), Dwayne Bowe (+10.5) and Marques Colston (+21.2) would provide a clear upgrade in physicality that currently is inadequately taken care of by David Nelson (-3.4). Much like defensive end, this year’s free agent receiver class is broad on top talent and deep on quality. The Bills need to cash in at least in one spot, but ideally on both.
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