The Buffalo Bills are hoping they can make a relatively quick turnaround from their 5-11 season.
In introducing Marv Levy as the team's new general manager, Bills owner Ralph C. Wilson Jr. said, "As far as I'm concerned I have to hark back to what was said by George Allen, who Marv worked with at the Redskins: 'As far as we're concerned, the future is now for the Buffalo Bills.' "
If the future is now, the Bills are going to have to make a lot of smart roster decisions over the next five months because they were a long way away from Super Bowl contention this year.
The Bills were outgained by more yards in 2005 than in any season in their history. Their average of 257 yards a game was the franchise's lowest ever in a 16-game season, even lower than the 2-14 years of 1984 and '85. Their average of 343 yards a game allowed was the fifth worst ever.
So how many starting players are the Bills from being a legitimate contender to win the AFC?
How about two offensive linemen, one outstanding quarterback, one starting receiver, at least two good starters in the defensive front seven and one starting cornerback?
That's arguably seven key players.
Obviously the quarterback might be in the fold, if J.P. Losman can blossom into a good player. The cornerback probably is in the fold, too, presuming the Bills prevent Nate Clements from hitting the free-agent market. The receiver might be in the fold, but don't count on it. The Bills would have to surprise everyone and keep Eric Moulds.
Here's a look at the Bills' starting positions that are uncertain heading into the offseason:
Receiver: Moulds is scheduled to receive $7.1 million in cash this year and have a cap figure of $10.8 million. The Bills could let those numbers stand, but paying that much to Moulds will hinder their free-agent shopping to some degree. The team is virtually certain to ask Moulds to take a significant pay cut. That's when Moulds must ask himself: Do I make a good salary in Buffalo and hope Losman matures fast, or do I refuse a pay reduction, force the Bills to release me and go play my last few seasons with a playoff contender? Moulds probably could find a job with a contender like Philadelphia, Atlanta or New England if he was willing to work for slightly under market value. The problem for the Bills is the crop of receivers available in free agency this offseason is expected to be thin. Josh Reed is a free agent and probably won't be back. Roscoe Parrish is strictly a No. 3 slot receiver.
Left tackle: Mike Gandy was a bargain for the Bills, considering they paid him a mere $800,000 signing bonus. However, is he good enough to be an asset at tackle on a playoff team? It didn't look like it in 2005. On the other hand, Gandy started for Dick Jauron in Chicago. Does Jauron think he's good enough? The Bills will be able to find a tackle prospect at some point in the draft. They also could decide to shift Jason Peters over from the right side to the left. That would be another big shift for the young guy. Everybody in the Bills building -- teammates and coaches -- was wowed by Peters at right tackle and thinks he could be a star. Levy suggested this week the Bills may take their time assessing Mike Williams' future. He's due a big bonus July 1. But given cap concerns it's hard to imagine Williams coming back.
Left guard: Bennie Anderson struggled in pass protection. The Bills tried to replace him with Williams at midseason. It didn't work. Anderson is signed for two more years. Considering all the other team needs, this is a spot the Bills may try to fill from within. One possibility is shifting Gandy over from tackle and letting him compete with Anderson.
It appears the Bills don't have to worry about right guard. Chris Villarrial, an exceptional pass protector, had an injury-plagued season but says he's not ready to retire.
"I'd like to come back and play," Villarrial said. "I don't think going out on a sour note like this is the way to go."
Center: Trey Teague is set to become a free agent after starting 60 games for the Bills. He's smart, and he did a better job than people give him credit for over the past four years. But the Bills drafted Duke Preston in the fourth round last year to be their center. Preston impressed the coaches. Despite never playing the position in college, Preston filled in capably at guard during parts of seven games. Center is his natural position. If the Bills don't like their options at left guard, they could move Preston over there and try to bring Teague back.
Quarterback: The question is, how will the team handle any competition for the starting job between Losman and Kelly Holcomb? And can Losman make a big step forward in Year Three? Before Jauron arrived, it seemed certain the Bills would look for a younger No. 3. Shane Matthews is a free agent. Matthews played for Jauron in Chicago. We'll see.
Cornerback: Clements did not have a very good year in '05. However, he's 26, he had a great year in '04 and he has 20 interceptions and 10 forced fumbles in five seasons. The Bills aren't likely to find someone as good anytime soon. It's going to cost a fortune to sign him to a long-term deal; pick a signing bonus -- $10 million, $15 million? The chances of a long-term deal are almost nil without a collective bargaining extension because any deal can only be spread out over four years. The franchise tag will cost $5.9 million. At the least, that would take care of a starting position for a year while the Bills work on filling all their other holes.
Defensive tackle: Sam Adams still gets plenty of respect from his peers, who picked him as an alternate to the Pro Bowl. Ironically, Adams was only an alternate on his own team. Adams was in the doghouse of the coaching staff, which made him a healthy scratch for the Carolina game and relegated him to a backup role the last five games. Adams still has the talent to do so much more for the Bills. He does not have an onerous contract. He's due $3.5 million in cash this year with a cap figure of $3.8 million. The Bills have broached the subject of a pay cut with him. If the Bills demand that he take a pay cut, Adams probably will opt to be released.
The Bills must decide on the other spot, too. How much better do they think Tim Anderson can get? If he were the No. 3 behind someone the caliber of Pat Williams, that would look pretty good. The Bills will have to give serious consideration to taking a DT with the eighth overall pick. Ron Edwards is a free agent who may well return. But he's coming off a second shoulder surgery in three years. Justin Bannan is a free agent and would be a worthy depth player to bring back.
Strong-side linebacker: Jeff Posey is signed for one more year at a reasonable cost. In the Bills' scheme, his role has largely been to hold the point of attack and force the play toward middle linebacker London Fletcher. Still, the Bills need more plays from the strong side. Posey has just three tackles for losses, four sacks and one forced fumble the past two years. Posey's backup is Mario Haggan, who was not able to push Posey for any snaps on defense. Angelo Crowell can play weak side or middle but doesn't have the size to play strong side.
Safety: The Bills' tandem is getting older. Troy Vincent will be 35 in June. Lawyer Milloy will be 33 in November. Still, with all their other needs, it's hard to see the Bills finding anyone better than those two. They're both highly paid, but the team would have no trouble handling their cap numbers -- $4 million for Milloy and $3.2 million for Vincent. Milloy's status probably would only be threatened if the Bills opted to keep Moulds or Williams at a high cost.