Figuring out what personnel they need to improve the run defense and the rushing offense figures to dominate the Buffalo Bills' planning over the next two months.
The Bills have 44 days before the start of the NFL's free-agency period. Unlike last offseason, when they overhauled their entire front office, the six-week stretch before the NFL's shopping season is a calm before the storm for the Bills' personnel department.
Come March 2, the first day of free agency, the Bills can start to try to improve on a team that finished 28th in run defense and 27th in rushing offense.
On defense there are four big question marks in the front seven and one impending hole in the secondary.
The Bills need to find an impact defensive tackle to make their run defense more sturdy. They are very likely to lose middle linebacker London Fletcher, whose contract is up. They are expected to try to re-sign starting defensive end Chris Kelsay, but his contract also is up. They need to make a decision on whether they think Takeo Spikes can regain his form at outside linebacker. In the secondary, they are virtually certain to lose cornerback Nate Clements, who is poised to strike it rich in free agency.
On offense, the Bills have one starting lineman -- left guard Mike Gandy -- whose contract is up. They are facing a potential holdout by running back Willis McGahee, who has a year to go on his contract and who wants a significant pay raise. They must decide how many offensive line positions they want to try to upgrade.
With the run-and-stop-the-run problems in mind, here are the top five personnel questions facing the team this offseason.
1. Can they find an impact defensive tackle?
The need is obvious. The Bills would be happy with a high-quality addition at either defensive tackle spot -- the nose tackle (who plays opposite the outside shoulder of the center) or the "three-technique tackle" (who plays opposite the outside shoulder of the guard). If they added a nose tackle, they could spell him with Kyle Williams and let Larry Tripplett and John McCargo share the "three" spot. If they found a good, lighter, attacking tackle, they could have McCargo and Williams share the nose spot and have a new guy and Tripplett share the three spot. It looks like a good rotation, as long as the new man is very good and McCargo develops after missing his rookie year with a broken foot. This is a prime spot for the draft, unless the Bills love one of the less heralded DTs who are scheduled to be on the market. Robaire Smith of Tennessee and Cory Redding of Detroit are two younger defensive tackles on the rise whose contracts are up.
2. What is the future of Spikes and the rest of the LB corps?
The likelihood is Fletcher will find a better offer somewhere else after five stellar years in Buffalo. Spikes is under contract for two more years, at $4.5 million this year and $5 million in 2008. That's no problem from a salary cap standpoint. The Bills are projected to be about $39 million under the 2007 cap and don't have to make any cuts based on salary. Because the salary cap has taken a big jump two straight years, teams are expected to have an average of more than $20 million each in available cap space.
Spikes battled through injuries all season after making the long recovery back from a torn Achilles tendon. Is the Bills' new regime committed to Spikes and confident he can return to greatness next year? There was a sense of uneasiness about that question among some players in the locker room late in the year, something even Spikes seemed to allude to before the last game.
"You don't know who may be here or who may not be here next year; you never know," he said in answering a question about Fletcher.
The Bills have a returning starter in Angelo Crowell, who could play outside or perhaps the middle in place of Fletcher. Keith Ellison could move up to full-time starter outside after a promising rookie year. There seems to be little reason not to give Spikes the chance to prove he can be great again, unless they have some bigger plans in mind at linebacker, which leads to the next question.
3. Who will the Bills spend their money on?
They're not going to spend it on Clements. If they were determined to sign the star cornerback, they would have made more of a push to do it last offseason. Clements is expected to be one of the top five free agents on the market. Denver's Champ Bailey got the biggest bonus ever for a cornerback at $18 million. Clements could rival or surpass that. The Bills aren't going to make Clements the highest paid player in team history.
They're probably not going to spend it on Fletcher. Likewise, they would have made a push to do so by now. Indications are they would prefer to spend it on someone younger. Fletcher is going to be 32 this year.
The Bills' last huge-ticket free-agent signing was Spikes in 2003. The Bills spent a lot of money on bonuses last year, but it was spread out among numerous players. If the Bills wanted to bid for a premium free agent, a couple of big names that stand out at linebacker are Chicago All-Pro Lance Briggs, with whom Bills defensive coordinator Perry Fewell is familiar, and Indianapolis' Cato June, who plays the Cover 2 scheme.
4. How will the McGahee situation play out?
This has impasse written all over it. The Bills are not inclined to make McGahee one of the top-paid backs in the NFL a year before his contract runs out. McGahee showed heart in playing through injuries this season. He finished 23rd in the NFL in rushing. In 2005 he was 10th. McGahee's agent, Drew Rosenhaus, could legitimately argue that McGahee's numbers could be much better if he were playing in a fully developed offense with a passing game that was feared by opponents. That does not describe the Bills the past two years.
The Bills could do nothing. McGahee is under contract through 2007. The risk is McGahee holds out all preseason and doesn't report until the week of the season opener. The Bills could try to pursue a trade before the draft. The complication with that option is a team that bids for McGahee would have to want him badly enough to sign him to a long-term deal as soon as the trade is made. If that team was just renting him for the last year of his contract, it would not make the Bills a very good trade offer. Whatever happens, look for the Bills to try to bring back Anthony Thomas, who is a free agent, and to try to add a speed back as a change-of-pace runner to add another dimension to the running game.
5. How does the offensive line improve?
Line coach Jim McNally likes Gandy at guard. Coach Dick Jauron has a good relationship with Gandy. Look for the Bills to try to re-sign him. If that happens, the Bills would be set with Jason Peters at left tackle, Gandy at left guard and center Melvin Fowler.
What do they want to do about the right side? The line could use another dominant player besides Peters. Duke Preston fared pretty well at right guard the second half of the season. Considering he was a rookie seventh-round pick, Terrance Pennington held his own at right tackle. The expectation is the Bills will try to add a player at one of those two spots, either in free agency or the draft. It's not considered good "caponomics" to spend big money on a guard in free agency. Nevertheless there are two dominant ones expected to be available, Cincinnati's Eric Steinbach and San Diego's Kris Dielman. No doubt with all the money available this year, some teams will decide spending big at guard is acceptable.