Buffalo Bills: Who Should Be Their Top Free Agent or Draft Day Target?
It seems there may be no one fix or answer to the woes of Buffalo. To think that there is a single player who can waltz into Western New York and fix almost 20 years of disappointments (counting from the last Super Bowl loss, though some would start before that), well that's just naive. What the Bills are doing, though, is looking for the best way to keep their team moving foward, examining needs and finding ways to patch the many holes in their ship before it starts to sink too much further.
Wide receiver is the flashy, sexy need for the Bills, who will look to find a No. 2 to match up with budding superstar (?) Steve Johnson, but Justin Blackmon (Oklahoma State) should be gone by pick 10 in the Draft and though Notre Dame's Michael Floyd may be there, it doesn't seem the year for Buffalo to put a high first-rounder into youth at wideout. Looking to pick up an established name like the Colts' Pierre Garcon for a second round pick seems more useful and it could become even more important to grab a veteran should Stevie Johnson not sign or continue playing like a high school kid (i.e. no brains, all ba... well, you know).
Another serious offensive need is more protection for "franchise" QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, as the 22 sacks he suffered this year barely told the tale of a season characterized by Fitz running for his life and pass rushers finding themselves too often in the Bills' backfield. Though Ryan has to own many of those 7 fumbles and 23 interceptions, the offensive line was a mess of injury all year (center Eric Wood missed 7 games, guard Urbik missed 3 games, and only Andy Levitre and tackle Eric Pears played all season) and you have to believe that a healthy line (as is) could give Buffalo the same success they had to start the year. Though they should grab some help later in the Draft, again it's not a first-round category or ASAP level need.
That means defense, kids. More specifically: pass rush. Buffalo allowed 232.1 pass yards per game in 2011, ranked 19th in the league. That was among their highest ranked defensive category and after firing their defensive coordinator George Edwards in favor of ex-Miami coach Dave Wanstedt, the commitment to strengthening that area is at a premium. Rookie Marcell Dareus needs more help getting to the opposing QB (his 5.5 sacks led the team) and the Bills need to improve on their early season ability to hassle teams into mistakes in the air (their 20 INTs ranked 7th in the NFL, but came mostly the first half of the year).
The answer? For me, though there are some defensive ends and tackles that look great to snatch in the top ten, Buffalo needs to find a player more adaptable than your average pass rusher. They need to find someone who can be equally useful in both a 3-4 and 4-3 defense, who has the explosiveness to attack the QB, the speed to hassle receivers, and the ability to cut off runners, as well as the power to stop them.
To those in the know of the SEC, that spells out Courtney Upshaw, senior OLB/DE out of Alabama, a guy who may not be able to save the Bills, but who gives their defense a titanic leap forward. Dareus and Upshaw played together as members of the Crimson Tide, where Upshaw used his impressive lower-body strength to occupy defenders, often clearing a path for Dareus to get to the quarterback. Working at both linebacker and on the defensive line, Upshaw can play from either a three-point/two-point stance or a standing position, able to also use an impressive array of leverage and hand tricks to engage, manipulate, and then break from those blocking him.
Mel Kiper and the other Draft gurus have Courtney at the top of their boards, both for his versatility and his strength. He's been playing on NFL level defenses in Alabama's hybrid schemes for four years, so he is ready built with pro-style tools. His college career stats include 88 solo tackles (141 total) and 17.5 sacks, including career SEC ranks of 7th in tackles for loss and 12th in sacks and forced fumbles. He is very adept at reading quarterbacks' eyes in the pass game and though he only had one INT in his career, he was brilliant at breaking up screens and reading offensive plays on the fly, often ending up in the right spot to break up a big play to the outside. As a run defender, another Buffalo need (28th in rush yards allowed), Upshaw pays great dividends at either OLB or DE, with the strength to stand up runners and "setting the edge", forcing the runner back into the teeth of the defense.
With two National Championships at an SEC school, Upshaw is ready to play at the pro level now and Buffalo should take advantage of this Swiss Army Knife of talent. He's dangerous in so many more ways than a traditional linebacker or defensive end, working equally well from either spot on the field, and should be the perfect addition to the young and growing Buffalo defense. His ability to hassle the QB should give the hungry Bills' defensive backs more opportunities to grab some INTs for scores, his ability to cut off the run should cut down on those big 3rd downs that teams so often grabbed from the Bills, and his defensive intelligence should improve the squad as a whole. In fact, Upshaw's whole game seems to be about improving the total defense around him, becoming a vital cog in whatever gearworks he's plugged in to.
Take a chance on Courtney, Buffalo. He's a solid player with great experience from his time in SEC country, playing on one of the top NCAA defenses in the country during his four years at Alabama. If the Bills maintain their commitment to youth, to the future of the franchise, they will go out and take the best players to address their needs and pave the way for further successes. With Upshaw, you get one of your potential assurances that the future of Buffalo might not be as murky as expected. Or, at least the hope that things can still get better.