By Ch2 Sports Director Ed Kilgore
Give 'em credit, Bills Head Coach Chan Gailey and GM Buddy Nix are doing the best they can with what they've inherited, but by now, they probably realize retooling the Buffalo Bills is a more complicated endeavor than they'd thought it might be. They won't put it in those words, at least not publicly, but actions always speak louder than words anyway.
Who knows, after watching Marcus Easley show some size, speed and hands in the pre season, there was a method to their madness in literally giving away Lee Evans to the Ravens for a 4th round pick.
Personally, I never liked the giveaway of Evans and still don't think it sent a good message to other Bills veterans, but on the other hand, it may well be the kind of message Nix and Gailey want received. Despite a fall in production over the past couple seasons, it appeared to me that Evans still has great speed and hands that more than offset his sometimes apparent reluctance to go over the middle in traffic. I sense he'll have a big bounce back year in Baltimore.
Gailey makes no secret of the fact he wants his team to become mentally and physically tougher, but you can't do that by regurgitating the words over and over to the troops; they have to know full well what their coach expects, and maybe Evans was a sacrificial lamb in that regard. I'd hope to think that's the case, because otherwise, if it was simply to save a few bucks when the Bills are already among the lower half of the NFL in payroll, then there is no point to the point!
Halfway through the pre season is certainly not the time to be having an open competition for the critical left tackle starting position, but Demetrius Bell's inconsistant play has led to Andy Levitre competing for the job, even though Levitre's size and physique make him more suited to play guard.
As a group, the offensive line continues to be the root of the Bills problems, as I see it. Check out any Super Bowl winner, and we always hear about the great defense and star quarterback as requisite requirements, but show me a Super Bowl winner that didn't have a dominant o-line. You can't. That's where it all starts, really. Winning teams protect their qb's, and that helps avoid turnovers. You don't even have to have a dominant running game, but you'd better be able to move the ball in the air without having too many fumbles or int's out of your qb position.
That leads to Ryan Fitzpatrick, who at the very least manages to avoid sacks by getting the ball out quickly, and not only that, doesn't usually part with it if hit as the forgettable Trent Edwards and J.P. Losman did before he finally became the #1 guy.
Is Fitz the guy that struggled mightily at Denver, or the guy that carved up the Jags with a near perfect 1st half? Good question.
Funny how we think of what a disaster Tom Donahoe was as a gm, but in his first Bills draft in 2001 he traded down in the 1st round to get Nate Clements, an eventual Pro Bowl cornerback, then took Aaron Schobel in the second round and Travis Henry in the 3rd round. In that same draft, the Bills also selected defensive tackle Ron Edwards and offensive tackle Jonas Jennings in later rounds. Every one of these players had productive years in the NFL.
The BIG WHIFF though came the next year, when Donahoe and just about every mock draft expert thought the Bills had a "can't miss" Pro Bowl offensive tackle in Mike Williams. Williams, it turns out, was like many first round busts who start coasting once they get the big money, and before long, they're gone.
After that, Donahoe and everybody who followed him concentrated on just about every position BUT o-line in the early rounds. It was Willis McGahee in '03, then Lee Evans in '04, the same draft as Losman, then no 1st round pick in '05 because of the Losman move and Roscoe Parrish in the 2nd round. It just keeps getting better, with safety Donte Whitner at 8th overall in '06 followed by John McCargo at #26. At least Kyle Williams did sparkle out of that draft as a 5th round pick.
In '08 it was Leodis McKelvin, who still may turn into the playmaking cornerback the Bills envisioned, but the '09 choice of Aaron Maybin makes the Mike Williams choice look brilliant. Then a year ago, it was another running back in C.J. Spiller, and right now that pick isn't looking so hot either. At least the Bills did finally address the o-line by grabbing Eric Wood late in the first round of that '09 draft and it looks like he'll be a solid center for many years to come. The pick of Levitre in the 2nd round was at least a valid attempt at addressing the need, and despite a tough start and position change, Levitre may still turn out to be just fine.
Clearly, Nix made the right call by taking defensive end Marcell Dareus third overall in 2011, both due to the need for a dominant defensive lineman like Dareus who only comes around every few years, and because no offensive tackle was anywhere near Dareus on anybody's board.
You can't fix it all at once, but it's looking like Nix and Gailey felt they'd better give themselves a defense before they began focusing on that o-line. Trust me, you'll be seeing two of the first three picks at least in 2012 going on that offensive line.
In building a competitive team, and at least the Bills were competitive over the last half of 2011, the defense has to be a priority, because it can keep you in games on the road and at least help give your offense some field position. The Bills special teams, while spotty in the pre season at times, are still a plus with Bruce Dehaven coaching around two of the most solid kickers in the league in punter Brian Moorman and kicker Rian Lindell.
Don't worry, I haven't forgotten just how badly the Bills need a franchise quarterback, but unless they totally tank for a shot at Andrew Luck or fall in love with somebody else as a first round gamble, they simply have to put some quality athletes up front on offense. They probably realize now Demetrius Bell wasn't as ready to be a starting left tackle as they'd hoped, but it's reasonable to hope he might improve as the season progresses, as he did a year ago. He did have a solid bounceback game against Jacksonville, and that at least is encouraging.
So here they go with Fitz at qb; a guy with great heart and a brilliant mind who is athletic enough to make plays when the protection breaks down, and a guy who makes the o-line look better than it is by making quick decisions. But Fitz has flaws, such as accuracy issues mostly, and that's why he's been a career backup 'till now.
But even Fitz, with those faults, can look a whole lot better with a decent group in front of him, and fans can't expect Nix and Gailey to get it all fixed at once. Donahoe, and later Marv Levy as a gm, set this team back years, and now it must be retooled in the proper order.
That means they need to stop wasting picks on running backs and skilled players - unless they get the qb they want of course - and start paying attention to the guys in the trenches. The good teams, and certainly the great teams, can beat you at the line of scrimmage.
Still, I think this team will be fun to watch, which hasn't always been the case during this 11 year playoff drought.