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Draft busts doomed careful approach ; Gailey made good use of limited talent, but Bills need to spend some of their savings

This is the ninth part of a series assessing the Bills' 2010 season. Today's installment deals with front office and coaching.

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Two big factors gave the Buffalo Bills' decision makers a reason to take a careful approach to roster overhaul in 2010.

First, General Manager Buddy Nix and coach Chan Gailey wanted to see for themselves exactly what kind of talent was on board. Second, the NFL was entering the uncertainty of an uncapped season and facing the prospect of no football -- and limited revenue -- in 2011.

The Bills' 4-12 season proved to all that a lot of the talent on hand was not good enough. Many of the young players who got one more shot to prove themselves flamed out, including: Trent Edwards, James Hardy, Aaron Maybin, Marshawn Lynch, Chris Ellis and John McCargo.

The draft classes of 2005 through 2008, which should be driving the Bills' bus, have helped crash it into a ditch.

Meanwhile, the Bills made only two of what could be called major free-agent signings in the 2010 offseason, defensive end Dwan Edwards and tackle Cornell Green. Linebackers Andra Davis, Reggie Torbor and Akin Ayodele were less expensive additions made after the first wave of free agency.

That wasn't unusual. Much of the league put a rein on spending given the distinct possibility of a work stoppage. The Bills have positioned themselves about as well as they could to weather a lockout.

Buffalo wound up about $12 million under the mythical salary cap in cash spending this year, according to figures compiled by The News. The Bills spent about $116 million in actual cash. There was no salary cap this year, but the last one in place, in 2009, was $128 million. The Bills were about $11 million under the cap in cash spending in 2009, according to News figures. They had a cash surplus of at least $12 million in 2008.

Once a new collective bargaining agreement between the players union and the owners is signed -- however long that takes -- the Bills will have cost certainty for the next five or so years. We'll see how that affects their spending.

Here's a quick review of the coaching and front-office moves the past year:

*Positives: Gailey made good use of his offensive talent, even though the Bills ranked only 25th in yards gained. There is a lot of experience on his coaching staff. He showed he's willing to change course by benching Edwards after just two games. No doubt, he would have been better off picking Ryan Fitzpatrick to open the season. But a lot of coaches would have stuck with their decision longer before reversing direction. Gailey also brought more leadership and a tougher mentality to the job. The fact players admitted they worked harder under the new strength and conditioning coaches and in practice was an indictment of Dick Jauron's regime. For now, the re-signing of Shawne Merriman looks like a positive. The Bills are gambling he can get healthy. It's hard to knock the organization for spending money. And the reality is the Bills have to overpay to get anybody of any stature to come here, given the long history of losing in Buffalo. There were some good pickups during the season. Guards Kraig Urbik and Chad Rinehart, former third-round picks, both look like legitimate prospects.

*Negatives: The Bills' plan to bolster the offensive line by signing Green failed. He did not play well even before he got hurt. Going to camp with Jamon Meredith and Kirk Chambers as the third and fourth tackles was a bad plan. Time will tell whether C.J. Spiller can produce like Reggie Bush. He'd better. The Bills would have been better off trading Marshawn Lynch before the draft. He wanted out in the worst way. FoxSports maintains the Saints would have given a third-rounder to Buffalo. Whether the Saints are exaggerating or not, the presence of Lynch didn't help the Bills' backfield early in the season. The contract extension for Chris Kelsay rewarded a consummate team player, but Kelsay does not make a big impact. Depending on what happens in free agency, the Bills will be second-guessed on whether the money could have been better-spent elsewhere, like on safety Donte Whitner. Effectively switching to a 3-4 defense, not surprisingly, is going to take time. To their credit, the coaches modified the front this year.

*Outlook: The only way a team in a market like Buffalo's can compete is to perform better than average in the draft. Obviously, the Bills have been way below average. It's crucial for Buddy Nix and his staff to string together three better-than-average drafts. It's too early to make a call on the 2010 draft. Buffalo needs Torell Troup and Alex Carrington to pan out on the defensive front seven. What else will the team do to make the defensive front seven competitive in the AFC East? Will the Bills spend cash to cap in 2011? Given their savings the past three years, they should budget to go over the next couple of years.

End of series

e-mail: mgaughan@buffnews.com

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