The Bills showed promise during a 5-2 start to the 2011 season. But after seven straight losses, Buffalo fans had to take a rain check on that promise – one hopefully to be redeemed with $33 million in cap space available this offseason.
With that cap space, and the 10th overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, the Bills have an opportunity to remedy some of their current ills.
Where the Giants were the perfect example of how depth can carry a nicked-up team, the Bills are the best example of how a lack of capable backups can doom the unprepared. Injuries along the offensive (LT Demetrius Bell) and defensive (DT Kyle Williams) lines, as well as the loss of RB Fred Jackson, derailed the Bills. Across the board, Buffalo needs depth, which makes their draft pick even more intriguing.
Ryan Fitzpatrick needs a slot receiver who can win off the line and keep the Bills’ short pass offense on-time. But if Stevie Johnson is allowed to leave via free agency, wide receiver becomes an even bigger hole. Do they consider a receiver like Baylor’s Kendall Wright or Notre Dame’s Michael Floyd? The draft is missing a top 10 tight end, but do the Bills target Washington’s Fred Davis or Houston’s Joel Dreessen to give Fitzpatrick an outlet down the middle of the field?
Bell is also a free agent. Regardless, a lack of depth at tackle made Fitzpatrick’s life miserable when Bell went down, which makes Iowa’s Riley Rieff fit a need as well.
Buffalo’s second-level defenders were impacted by the loss of Williams, but that loss does not account for the balance of their indecisive play versus the run (allowing 139 yards per game).
The Bills tried to fill their linebacking corps with a mix of youth — Kelvin Sheppard and Arthur Moats — as well as experience — Nick Barnett and Shawne Merriman – but that pairing produced mixed results. It will be interesting to see if the Bills sway more toward the draft or high-profile free agents this offseason to shore up their run defense.
Atlanta’s Curtis Lofton and Seattle’s David Hawthorne are slated to be available and could offer more instinctive – and explosive – play from the position. If they head toward the draft for help, Boston College’s Luke Kuechly is the draft’s hot name early, but Mychal Kendricks (Cal) impressed at the combine and could be a steal in later rounds.
While it wasn’t contained just to their November slide, the Bills could not get after the quarterback (ranking 27th with 29 sacks).
Shifting to a 4-3 scheme this season, Buffalo is set at defensive tackle with Williams and Marcel Dareus, but they are hurting on the edges. Mario Williams (Houston) and Cliff Avril (Detroit) are two stud pass rushers who might be franchised by their respective teams. On the other hand, veteran DEs John Abraham and Robert Mathis could still produce for a team like the Bills for a couple of seasons.
South Carolina’s Melvin Ingram, UNC’s Quentin Coples and Clemson’s Andre Branch could be options through the draft. Either way, the Bills need some kind of rush to cut down on the 30 touchdowns they allowed through the air in 2011.
“Playbook” — the ultimate football Xs and Os show — aired Thursday and Friday on NFL Network during the season. Check the NFL Network broadcast schedule for further details. Follow “Playbook” on Twitter @NFLN_Playbook.