Which one? The Bills yin and yang 2011 started with a top ranked offense, a top ranked running game, an INT hungry defense, and a 5-2 record that included big wins over the rival Patriots (the first in 15 games) and the Eagles. Buffalo had first in the AFC East, the NFL was being introduced to names like Fred Jackson and Ryan Fitzpatrick, and there was much rejoicing as fans considered the possibility of playoffs again. Then, before you could say "beef on weck", a massive string of injuries (from Jackson to center Eric Wood) stalled the train before it could even get halfway to the station and Buffalo fell apart in the second half, winning only one of their last nine games and finishing the season looking like the filthy slush left in the streets at the end of winter.
Offensively, their rankings fell from tops in the NFL to mid-range, with the running game finishing 13th (120.1 yds/game, though CJ Spiller was coming on at the end...finally) and the overall scoring getting 14th (23.2 pts per game), but when they were healthy, they were hot. Unfortunately, their offensive line was a sieve after losing 3 starters (especially Wood, as the Bills allowed just 7 sacks before his injury week 10, but had let 23 total by the end) and Fitzpatrick was either on his back, or forcing errant throws the second half of the season. On the other side of the ball, the bright side was even tougher to find amidst the muck. If you take away Buffalo's three biggest defensive games of 2011 (4 INTs against both the Eagles and Patriots, 10 sacks against Washington) you aren't left with much to crow about. Though rookie Marcell Dareus proved he was worth the first round pick (43 tackles, 5.5 sacks without veteran DT Kyle Williams who was, of course, injured) and new addition LB Nick Barnett led the team with 130 tackles his first year, the rankings were ugly the whole way through. 30th in points allowed (27.1), 28th in rushing yards allowed (139), and simply dreadful overall without a few big games (their sacks were barely in the teens if you take away the Washington game). Coach Chan Gailey spent most of the season trying to stem the bleeding at multiple positions, but couldn't hide his team's weaknesses past the midway point and stumbled badly to end the year.
From 5-2 to start, to 6-10 by the end of the season, Buffalo managed to hold every position in the AFC East, but finished fourth. No playoffs, no redemption, no joy in the Queen City once again (they've been out of the post-season since the Music City Miracle of the 1999/2000 season).
Positions of Need:
This one's changed in the last week or so, what with signing Super Mario to anchor the Bills' new look front four in 2012. While they still need help shoring up the pass rush for next year (29 sacks just won't do), as well as get better defending the run, it is no longer the urgent Draft priority it was a month ago.
Left Tackle -
I know it's not a sexy pick, but Buffalo needs a little more help defending Fitzpatrick's blind side from opposing defenders and, as of the writing of this, free agent Demetrius Bell was still shopping around for a new deal rather than re-signing. GM Buddy Nix has stated this offseason that "you can never have enough tackles", especially when only two players on your offensive line played all 16 games last year, so you've got to think that this will be addressed in the first two rounds of the draft (especially now that a defensive end/outside linebacker isn't such glaring need). There was really no free agent market for tackles this year (Bell was the highest ranked prospect), so in order to bolster their 28th ranking in sacks allowed, and give Jackson more holes to run through, they'll have to tackle their problem on Draft Day. Even if they do take a high pick and use it on the O-line, they may still take another project later, as their lack of depth on the line was thoroughly exposed in 2011 (losing Wood showed how important it is to have a good, solid center). This draft is full of talent in the middle rounds, both for the defensive and offensive lines, so though they may grab a top level guy with pick number 10 (Jonathan Martin from Stanford... please still be there), there'll still be good options in the second/third round.
Wide Receiver -
Youth reigned in the Bills' receiving corps in 2011, led by 25 year old Steve Johnson and his questionable antics/hands (more Sharpie messages on his undershirt, more big drops late in games). Though Johnson had to be disciplined for his mistakes, the former 7th round pick has proven quite the value for the Bills, with back-to-back 1000+ yard season adding up to 17 TDs, while showing a real desire and passion to play here. He is the unquestioned star of the receivers and though others stepped up in 2011 (again, due to what seemed like weekly injuries), no one got a good, firm grip on that number two receiver position. Roscoe Parrish, the seven year veteran and odds on favorite, honestly never made it out of the pre-season (he had one catch in 2011 for 16 yards) and will likely not be re-signed. David Nelson looked great in his sophomore effort (61 rec, 658 yds, 5 TDs), but has been far too comfortable (and been far too successful) playing in the slot to move him from the #3 position. If Donald Jones could have stayed healthy, the #2 spot was his (23 rec, 231 yds, TD), but he was largely injured after week 5, only grabbing two balls for 57 yards from that point on and calling it a season by week 10.
Buffalo has spent the off-season largely re-signing their own, bringing back receivers Ruvell Martin and Derek Hagan, adding up to ten options at wide receiver for 2012. Deep, sure, but still no stand out star to pair with Johnson, no deep threat to draw double teams and stretch the field. The Bills made brief passes at Robert Meachem, Vincent Jackson, and Mario Manningham, but with so much focus on signing Mario Williams to the D-line, the passion to sign anyone else seemed to be less and, in the end, many of these star receivers have to be made to feel like they're the most special free agent or else they aren't interested. It will once again fall to the draft, but, again, now that DE/OLB is no longer a pressing need, the Bills might spend their first round pick grabbing some of that top ten receiver talent in the Draft. It would be more exciting than a tackle and may be the spark needed to raise Buffalo's passing attack to the level of their running game in 2012 (at least if Jackson can stay healthy).
OLB/DE/Pass Rush -
Not so much a need, as a want at this point. You've got three pieces to the Buffalo pass rush puzzle in place, with Super Mario on the left end, alongside Dareus and Kyle Williams at the tackles, but it remains to be seen who plays on that right end. The obvious choice is Chris Kelsay, who has put up good numbers in his nine years with Buffalo (426 tackles, 30.5 sacks), but was hampered by injury last year (calf) and only managed 41 tackles to go with his five sacks. A veteran leader in the locker room, Kelsay seems to improve the defense whenever he's on the field, but is starting to show wear and may not make it through a full 16 games healthy.
Shawne Merriman seems to be another option, but moving him to defensive end would be predicated on him being healthy enough to play (he's played 5 games in just under two seasons, with 9 tackles to show for it). There's also Dwan Edwards, who came in the Lee Evans trade, another veteran (7 seasons) who seems solid enough, if not spectacular since coming to Buffalo (109 tackles, 3.5 sacks in 27 games), but who would be more comfortable in the middle backing up Williams or Dareus rather than playing the end. Lastly, (and oddly) there was talk that Aaron Schobel wanted to come out of retirement to play DE for the Bills again, but he's been gone two years and already played nine seasons (all for Buffalo), so he might not be quite the force he was. Still, he retired with 483 tackles and a monstrous 78 sacks...
Long shot needs in the first round - Cornerback (McGee is a perennial injury concern, Drayton Florence is constantly under whelming me, and Leodis McKelvin is approaching "put up, or shut up" time after four years); Quarterback (Fitzpatrick still has question marks to his game and Tyler Thigpen is a capable back-up, but he's nothing more than that).
First Round Targets:
OT Jonathan Martin - Stanford- Junior - 6'5", 312 lbs
He spent the last two years protecting Andrew Luck's blind side; you know, that guy who was largely considered the best quarterback prospect since Peyton Manning. While USC's Matt Kalil is still considered the number one pick at tackle and will likely go in the first few picks, Martin's run blocking is far superior and he's at least as good at pass protection. Luck was sacked only 17 times the last two seasons with Martin at left tackle and the Cardinals run attack was ranked 18th in the NCAA (5 players, including Luck, had over 100 yards, and the team as a whole ran for 2,738 last season) . He's quick off the snap, has natural abilities in blocking/footwork/hands, and has a high football IQ paired with a vicious, clean style of play on the field. A hard worker with great experience on a pro-style offense (he played in a Jim Harbaugh system for two seasons), he fell to third behind Iowa's Riley Reiff in the tackle rankings because he was too sick for the Combine, but he's still better at the position in my opinion and has had more NFL style experience, less learning curve (plus, Reiff's short arms have him being pegged for guard in the pros). If he's still available, this should go a long way to solving Buffalo's left tackle issues for the future and strengthen the blind side both for the running and the passing game (Fitz needs time to throw and he's amazing, but rush him and he awful).
WR Stephen Hill - Georgia Tech - Junior - 6'5", 215 lbs
Initially projected as a third or fourth rounder, Hill showed flashes of big play abilities in the Yellow Jacket's option offense, but nothing that screamed first round prospect. I mean, he's only got 49 receptions on his career and nine TDs, so why'd he come out early? Well, because he's a baller, that's why. With just 28 receptions in 2011, Hill had 820 receiving yards, putting him at 1,248 for his career. In three of his games last season, he averaged 40+ yards a catch (4 for 181 against Western Carolina, 3 for 126 against Middle Tennessee, 1 for 56 against Duke) and has a career average of 25.5 per catch (his 2011 average of 29.3 yards was first in the nation). Then, at the Combine, he just blew people away like he was RG3. His 40 yard dash time of 4.36 seconds was second overall, he had a 39.5" vertical leap, and was one of the best route runners scouts saw in the off-season. Basically, he's a big target, has the speed to burn defenders down the field, and can get up above DB's to grab the ball, then turn and take it for big gains; he's essentially all the Bills are looking for in a number two. Undervalued due to his rather brief stat sheet, Hill isn't making the noise Justin Blackmon or Michael Floyd, but also doesn't seem to bring the entitlement and diva attitude. He's a great match for Johnson and a steal for any team that grabs him, but would fit in perfectly in Buffalo's young offense.
DE/OLB Courtney Upshaw - Alabama - Senior - 6'2", 272 lbs
I've been on about this guy since his second BCS National Championship win, one that saw him win defensive MVP with 7 tackles and a sack against LSU. On his career under Nick Saban, playing in a hybrid scheme that saw him lining up at inside linebacker, outside linebacker, AND defensive end, he amassed 140 tackles (35.5 for loss), 16.5 sacks, and 6 forced fumbles (he recovered three as well). He may have fallen in the rankings by sitting out his Pro Day and most of the Combine (he ran some routes), but the tendonitis that sidelined his off-season displays shouldn't affect him come training camp and he should be a force if Buffalo chooses to grab him at number 10. Bringing him in settles the right end debate and would once again have him playing with fellow Alabama alum Marcell Dareus (that, plus the championship experience, seems to make him much more attractive than South Carolina's Ingram or North Carolina's Coples). He has great wheels and flexibility for his size, can set the edge against the run and burst through the line to get after the QB with equal skill, and has enough adaptability to get back in pass coverage should he need to (though it was the weakest part of his game). He's the guy if they decide to bring in another force up front.
Not much here, really. There's no one specific player or position that the Bills are locked in to, so no real chance for a team to steal it out from under them. If, say, Miami decides to take Upshaw to shore up their pass rush, Buffalo will just take a left tackle or wide receiver, or maybe even one of the other many, many pass rushers available in the top 20. The Bills have the luxury of needing help at positions where the Draft is deep this year and should have no problem finding a replacement player should someone poach their desired first pick.
Again, not much to blowing here. Buffalo isn't looking at any other current NFL players right now and have a high enough pick to not need a trade up for their current needs. They also have the luxury of being largely ignored by the NFL as a whole and are rarely bothered for big deals before the Draft, so they should just keep the number ten pick without any drama or last minute offers. However, with nine picks over seven rounds (two 4th round picks, two 5th round), I could see them trading away some of those later picks for a veteran cornerback or pass rusher should they not find what they're looking for on the Draft board after the first day, but their place in the first round should be unchanged.
Draft History (past first round picks):
2011: 3rd pick - Marcell Dareus - DE - Alabama
2010: 9th pick - C.J. Spiller - RB - Clemson
2009: 11th pick - Aaron Maybin - DE - Penn State
2008: 11th pick - Leodis McKelvin - DB - Troy
2007: 12th pick - Marshawn Lynch - RB - California