Darwin Walker is either going to be an insignificant footnote to the Buffalo Bills' season or a prime subject of second-guessing.
Check back around Oct. 22. By then the Bills will have played six games and have just finished their reunion meeting with Baltimore running back Willis McGahee. We should have a good idea by them if the Bills are good enough in the middle of their defensive line.
The Bills concluded they like what they have in the fold Sunday and traded Walker to the Chicago Bears in return for what is expected to be a fifth-round draft pick.
The deal came a week in advance of the Aug. 5 deadline the Bills faced in regard to Walker. If he had not reported to Bills camp by then -- and it was obvious he wasn't coming due to his inability to reach a new contract with Buffalo -- he was headed back from whence he came, to Philadelphia.
So the bottom line for the Bills is this: They gave up starting linebacker Takeo Spikes (to the Eagles) in return for a fifth-round pick (from Chicago) and a seventh-round pick (from Philadelphia). The Bills also gave up backup quarterback Kelly Holcomb, but he was likely to be cut by the Bills anyway. The Bills also saved $5.98 million in salary. Spikes was due to make $4.6 million and Holcomb $1.38 million.
Asked if he thought that was a good return for Spikes, Bills General Manager Marv Levy said: "Yes. I do. We do like our linebacking corps, even though they're not blow-you-away [marquee] names. . . . We're content with the deal."
Spikes had not totally bought into the Bills' defense, which had him playing on the strong side rather than the weak side. So the Bills believe they are faster, younger and more eager at linebacker without him.
The Bills knew Walker was intent on getting a new deal when they made the trade. Walker was scheduled to make $1.3 million this year and $1.4 million next year, the last year of his deal. With 26.5 sacks the past five years, he had clearly outperformed the terms of a contract he signed in 2002. But the Eagles had invested No. 1 picks on defensive tackles in 2005 and 2006 and were planning on cutting Walker.
Walker would have been willing to play for a one-year deal in Buffalo, but the Bills were not willing to increase his salary much, according to Walker's agent.
That's a debatable call, since the Bills still are at least more than $15 million under the NFL salary cap, according to The Buffalo News' figures. (Firm numbers on rookie bonuses are not yet in.) By the end of the year, the Bills are likely to spend right up to the $112 million cap in terms of "real cash" -- or actual payouts in 2007 -- which is their target for spending this year.
How badly do the Bills need Walker? He's ideally a "three-technique" tackle, attacking the line of scrimmage and playing opposite the outside shoulder of a guard. He can play the nose tackle (opposite the outside shoulder of the center), but that's not his forte.
When the Bills made the trade, their three-technique position was a worry because John McCargo was a month removed from a second surgery to repair a broken bone in his foot. McCargo's recovery went well this summer, and he's back at practice. He shares the position with Larry Tripplett.
Levy, however, said uncertainty over McCargo was not the prime motivation for acquiring Walker.
"There was a concern about John but that wasn't what motivated the deal primarily," Levy said. "Maybe it factored in. We felt it was a position that needs depth. In today's game in particular you need to have a rotation of people through there. We're very encouraged by the progress John McCargo has made, however. That helps alleviate a little bit the fact we weren't able to come to terms [with Walker.]"
At the nose the Bills are status quo from last year, when they ranked 28th against the run. Kyle Williams starts and is backed up by Tim Anderson.
The Bills are counting on improvement from all four defensive tackles plus better linebacking -- and throw in a better offense -- to make a big difference.
The Bears were a willing trade partner because they lost three of their top four defensive tackles from last season. They still have an All Pro in Tommie Harris. It's presumed the Bears have some sort of pay raise for Walker in the works.
While the Bills would not confirm the terms of the deal with Chicago, Levy said the draft choice could change (for the better) if Walker meets certain playing-time requirements.
"Jim Overdorf worked on negotiations very earnestly," said Levy, referring to the Bills' director of football administration. "But when he [Walker] didn't show up to camp -- we wanted him here at the beginning -- and it looked like it would drag on. The opportunity presented itself for us to make this deal with the Bears and that seemed like the best thing to do."
The Bills will practice from 11 a.m. to 1:05 p.m. today at St. John Fisher College in Pittsford. Tuesday's evening practice is sold out. It starts at 7. They will work from 1 to 3:05 p.m. on Wednesday. There are tickets still available for Thursday night's practice at 7, but free tickets for it only are being distributed at the three Verizon Wireless Communications stores in Rochester.