Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Free Agency Starts At Home: The Buffalo Bills' Five Biggest Player Decisions

Assuming they get a new collective bargaining agreement done, NFL Free Agency is scheduled to begin on March 3, 2011.  I'm going to go through every team between now and then and identify their top five free agents and try to determine what should be done with each player, be it resign them or let them walk.  I'm going team by team in draft order and currently am at the third pick in the draft, the Buffalo Bills.

The Bills had a rough start to the 2010 season.  Starting quarterback Trent Edwards was ineffective for two games before being cut.  They attempted run a 3-4 for the first half of the season before abandoning it in the second half because they couldn't stop the run with the 3-4.  They started the season 0-8 before finally getting a win over the Lions in week 10.

Fortunately, they looked better later in the season.   They closed out the year 4-4 and their defense looked better after switching back to the 4-3.  Ryan Fitzpatrick emerged as a serviceable starter at quarterback and Stevie Johnson appeared capable of being the number one receiver in their passing attack.

While Chan Gailey is an offensive coach, it will be the decisions he and Bills GM Buddy Nix on the defensive side of the ball that make or break their 2011 season.  The Bills were the worst team in the league against the run last year.  They have to improve their run defense to have any shot of competing in the NFL.

5. John McCargo - Defensive Tackle

John McCargo has done nothing in his career to warrant a roster spot.  The Bills traded back into the first round in 2006 NFL draft to draft McCargo, shocking draft analysts.  McCargo had a second or third round grade from most scouts, so when the Bills traded into the first round and picked McCargo, people were perplexed.

McCargo never went on to fulfill the potential of the first round selection and barely saw the field for his four years in Buffalo.  He only makes this list as a symbol for why the Bills are where they are today.  Wasted first round picks hurt your team in multiple ways.  You lose out on the opportunity to draft a good player and then are stuck keeping a bad player on the roster because of the money guaranteed to him.  The Bills have been amongst the worst teams in the league in the draft over recent years and McCargo is a prime example of what they've done wrong.

4. Akin Ayodele - Linebacker

Akin Ayodele has bounced from team to team over the last five years without much of a reason.  He is a veteran linebacker with experience in both the 3-4 and 4-3 who's worst season came with the Cowboys when he had just 57 tackles.  He is going to be on a roster somewhere next year, be it Buffalo or somewhere else.

Ayodele's problem is he's not an impact player.  He piles up tackles but isn't a very effective blitzer nor a particularly good coverage linebacker.  Bringing him back shouldn't be a priority for the Bills.  If they can replace him in the draft they should, as Ayodele is who he is at this stage of his career.  However, this team is littered with holes so they should be drafting the best player available.  If they follow that plan and don't end up with a linebacker, it would be smart to bring Ayodele back for another year.

3. Shawne Merriman - Linebacker

Yes, Shawne Merriman has already been resigned, but he still deserves a place on this list because he shouldn't have been brought back.  Ever since he injured his knee in 2008 but attempted to play anyways, Merriman hasn't been the same.  He recorded at least ten sacks in each of his first three years but has just four sacks over the last two years.

While Buffalo has a need for pass rushers, resigning Merriman makes little sense.  He hasn't been nearly as explosive since his knee injury but they gave him a deal that will let him earn 2.5 million this year, with the potential to get as high as 9 million with incentives.  2.5 million for a Merriman is far too much when you think about Buffalo's situation.  They are playing in Toronto every year in an attempt to make more money.  They can't afford to give 2.5 million to a player that doesn't even fit the 4-3 defense they want to run.

2. Drayton Florence - Cornerback

The Drayton Florence decision looms large for the Bills. Florence started all 16 games for the Bills last year and did a solid job, helping the Bills defense to third in the league against the pass.  The problem for Florence is Leodis McKelvin was the Bills first round pick in 2008 and the Bills would like him to be starting in place of Florence.

Florence was able to hold of McKelvin for the job all of last season, but with his contract expired and his replacement already on the roster, it's hard to see the Bills bringing him back next year.  The word is the Bills would be open to bringing him back on the cheap but if another team makes him an offer and raises the price tag, I expect the Bills to do the right thing and spend that money to try and fill other holes on this team.

1. Paul Posluszny - Linebacker

The biggest decision for the Bills this year will be whether or not to bring back Paul Posluszny.  While Posluszny was their leading tackler he was also one of their bigger defensive weaknesses.  He's undersized and not the greatest athlete, so he struggles both with engaging blockers in the run game and in coverage against the pass.

Posluszny's NFL future is likely going to be that of an ace special teamer on a better team, but at least for this year the Bills need to bring him back.  The Bills have five outside linebackers on their roster, and four of the five played defensive end in college while the fifth (Merriman) was a pass rushing linebacker.  The Bills can't go into next season with those guys expected to start on the outside in a 4-3 alignment.  If they bring Posluszny back for at least one more year, they can still work on improving the position in the future without sabotaging themselves at it for next year.

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