Buffalo Bills fans will have had enough of season 2012, and no doubt be glad to move on from the “what could have been” talk that prevails after a promising preseason turns to a 6-10 regular season. For over a month now their pro personnel department has been evaluating the roster and targeting players on other rosters that could make them better. Free agency provides smart teams an opportunity to sift through the noise and land quality players at value.
The Bills’ low national profile means little is known about the new regime and how they plan to build the team. While serving as the Saints’ offensive coordinator from 2006-2008, new coach Doug Marrone’s offense finished first in the NFL in yardage twice, and he helped develop a back with Reggie Bush’s talents into a weapon that stressed defensive triangles — which bodes well for CJ Spiller. His OC, Nate Hackett was an offensive quality control coach in Buffalo under Dick Jauron and is expected to deploy a West Coast offense, which he learned from his father Paul Hackett. We’re expecting the Bills to release Ryan Fitzpatrick (barring a contract reduction), and keep Tarvaris Jackson as a bridge QB before drafting a new signal-caller early in the draft — despite a lackluster showing from the position at the recent Senior Bowl.
Frankly, Buffalo fans must be tired of “circling the wagons” and going around and around in the AFC East. This coaching staff needs to get the team lined up and ready to stampede in 2013. And here’s three free agents that can help out.
Aaron Schobel was the last Bills defender to log double digit sacks prior to Mario Williams doing so with one bad arm last year. Yes, we know sacks aren’t the end all, but in a 3-4 scheme you generally want your OLB’s to combine for 20 sacks a season, like the Steelers did with James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley back in 2010. However, Aldon Smith’s and JJ Watt’s don’t grow on trees, and with Chris Kelsay being 33 and coming off a neck injury that ended his 2012 season, he’s likely a situational rusher now. The Bills need another pass rusher with scheme familiarity who can come in and play alongside Williams, while also being able to hold his own when they let Williams put his hand in the dirt on passing downs.
Free Agent Fix: Paul Kruger
DC Mike Pettine comes over from the Jets and has been a 3-4 coach his entire career — and keep in mind the Bills ran the 4-3 for only a year under Dave Wannstedt. Pettine learned his craft at the NFL as an OLB with the Ravens and there is expected to be a lot of scheme carry over. Paul Kruger will be one of the more sought after free agents this year. After being shifted out to OLB — he worked as a DE in his first three NFL seasons — he led all 3-4 OLB’s in Pass Rushing Productivity, and, with pass rushers rarely hitting the open market, stands to make a fair bit of coin. He’s not especially strong against the run, with only two games in the green in run defense this year, and the Bills may find themselves in a bidding war with a team like the Browns who have plenty of cap space, but Kruger fits a glaring need.
Thirty. That’s how many times over the past three years the Bills have allowed foes to tally 125 or more yards rushing in a game. In those games they’ve given up an average of 190 yards at a rate of a 5.4 yards per carry, which is mind-boggling. Part of this has been due to changes in systems, inexperienced defensive coordinators, as well as just poor effort by the front seven. This could be forgiven if the Bills were a team like the mid-2000’s Colts who stopped the run on the way to the quarterback, but that hasn’t been the case for a defense that’s logged one sack every 16.5 pass attempts over the same three years.
Free Agent Fix: Mike DeVito
Mike DeVito has quietly been a very reliable player for the Jets over the past four years, with only three games graded in the red in run defense. He has finished in the Top 10 for three years straight in our 3-4 DE Run Stop Percentage, and has with a total of 69 run stops. Yes, the Bills have invested a lot of money into the defensive line recently, but Mark Anderson is coming off a serious knee injury, turns 30 in May and can be released with minimal impact on the salary cap. DeVito can quickly solidify the front and his familiarity with Pettine is a natural fit. This would allow Marcell Dareus to be a penetrating 3-4 NT, which he was to a pretty good extent in 2011 when he was healthy.
Tight End/Slot Wide Receiver
Prior to the Senior Bowl, GM Buddy Nix admitted, once again, that the Bills big needs were at QB, LB and WR. In our scenario, the Bills have addressed two of those three needs, but what do they do about bolstering the passing game? Stevie Johnson is an interesting option in the slot, but he’s going to be needed to draw coverage in other ways. There should be some interesting options available in the second round of the upcoming draft to shore up the depth at WR, but TE is a glaring weakness. Scott Chandler may have finished second on the team in receiving yards, but it was only 571 yards, he tore some knee ligaments at the end of the year, and he’s really been just another guy on the roster. If he returns in 2013, he stands to be a candidate for the Physically Unable to Perform list, and seems to be depth material at best. Clearly another option is needed here.
Free Agent Fix: Dustin Keller
What’s this? With such rich receiving quality in free agency available, including Mike Wallace, Wes Welker, Dwayne Bowe, and Greg Jennings, not to mention other TE’s such as Jared Cook, why is Dustin Keller an option? Well, Buffalo has been badly burned by big name receivers in free agency and a change in scenery (and QB’s) is just what Keller needs. His 2012 season was disappointing to be sure, but much of that may be due to a lingering ankle sprain and the fact that Mark Sanchez is, well… Mark Sanchez. Let’s go back to 2011, when Keller finished sixth in Yards Per Route Run by a TE and had 30 receptions for 316 yards with just two drops when lined up as a slot TE. Critics are right to point to his large amount of game grades in the red, but with his QB issues and the lack of a real offensive-minded coaching staff (not to mention the lack of continuity) it’s hard to not think he needs a change. Keller could be had for a reasonable price here, and the Bills could use another veteran skill player to help the QB while the defense tries to carry the team early in the season.