As far as I’m concerned, NFL free agency got underway a week ago, when the Bills’ eighth home game got the heck out of Toronto and returned to Ralph Wilson Stadium where it belongs.
I’m not sure of the particulars, but I know one thing: The Bills got better. And that’s the one thing that matters in free-agent season, that your moves give you more of a fighting chance in the fall.
It was a victory for CEO Russ Brandon, who delivered on his promise to do everything in his power to help the Bills win by ending the outrageous practice of farming out a home game to Canada. I don’t believe the series might resume some day, either.
If every off-season move added one win to the schedule, the Bills wouldn’t have the longest playoff drought in the league. So now it’s time for Doug Whaley, the young general manager, to make his team more competitive on the field.
This is Whaley’s first full offseason as the Bills’ general manager. Buddy Nix didn’t formally hand over the job until May, but Whaley’s fingerprints were all over the draft, and the solid spring acquisitions of Jerry Hughes, Manny Lawson and Alan Branch.
Now Whaley needs to further justify his reputation as one of the NFL’s rising young minds by fortifying a flawed but promising roster and turning the Bills into a true contender.
It’s year two for the new regime. Regardless of when he officially became GM, Whaley is part of the new ruling triumvirate with Brandon and coach Doug Marrone. They’re intensely competitive men who have no appetite for another losing season.
No one wants to contemplate a fourth straight 6-10 season. The Bills won six games despite their issues at quarterback, and could have won another three if a play or two went the other way. But it’s no longer OK to be close. They should be shooting for 10 wins.
This isn’t the Sabres, where the owners have the public all dreamy-eyed at the prospect of becoming a contender in 2018. This is the NFL, where fortunes change quickly and teams routinely jump from last place to the playoffs in one season.
It’s not that complicated. You stack some good drafts, hold on to a core of veterans, and fill in the holes with wise free-agent picks. Look at Seattle, which suffered its fourth straight losing season in 2011 and won the Super Bowl two years later.
Whaley’s task is to build on the promise of last spring. Brandon said the Bills would be busy in free agency. That didn’t mean they were going to come out at 4 p.m. Tuesday, dumping wheelbarrows of cash at the feet of the high-end free agents.
They did that two years ago for Mario Williams. They overpaid for Williams. That’s what happens at the start of free agency. I’m no fan of Mario, but at least he was the difference in two wins last season, which is the least you can expect for a $16 million salary.
The big news Tuesday afternoon was re-signing kicker Dan Carpenter. It wasn’t a surprise, but it was a wise play. Carpenter might have been their MVP a year ago. When a guy makes almost every kick in Buffalo, you hold onto him.
The Bills didn’t need to go after the top guys this year. OK, I would have paid Jairus Byrd long ago. He’s one of their few stars, a true playmaker. If they think Aaron Williams at $6.5 million a year is better than Byrd at $9 million, good luck to them.
But they’re in decent shape at many of the big-money positions: Elite pass rusher, cornerback, left tackle, maybe wideout. You can always use depth, of course (see cornerback Nolan Carroll, who was scheduled to visit Tuesday night), but Whaley’s main concern is finding players to fill in some of the gaps.
Presumably, Whaley knows the league. Let’s see how he fills his hole at left guard. The Bills blundered last year by letting Andy Levitre go and trying to patch the position with borderline pros.
They say Whaley likes “ascending” guys. How about identifying some players who aren’t on everyone’s radar? Isn’t that what separates the great personnel men from the merely good ones?
Whaley needs help at inside linebacker. Kiko Alonso was a revelation as a rookie, but as the season wore on, he seemed to wear down. The Bills were bad against the run, and they need a bigger run-stopper in the middle. If they want Alonso to have his optimal value, he should be moved outside.
Jameel McClain, who won a Super Bowl with the Ravens, would fit the bill. Brandon Spikes supposedly had discipline issues in New England, but he’s tough against the run. Another quality of a good GM is knowing when a problem guy is ready to change his ways.
Injuries are a way of life in the NFL. You prepare for the worst. The Bills set a franchise record for sacks last season, but they could use a dependable third pass rusher. Willie Young, who played for Jim Schwartz in Detroit, is an intriguing option.
As I’ve said before, they need an upgrade at backup quarterback. If the Bills are in a playoff race and lose EJ Manuel (we’ll have plenty of time to debate him later), do they really want to put their fortunes in the hands of Thad Lewis?
Shaun Hill, who played for Schwartz in Detroit, could be an option. I wouldn’t rule out Michael Vick, assuming the money was reasonable and he wouldn’t be a divisive force.
Whaley doesn’t need to hit a bunch of home runs in the coming days and weeks. But he can’t afford to whiff, either. He’s nominally a first-time GM, but he’s no rookie. This roster is his; it reflects his football vision, and it’s time to show some real progress.