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Nix is wishing on a fading star

There's a chance that Shawne Merriman will wind up making Buddy Nix look like a genius. Maybe Merriman will shrug off his chronic injuries and revert to his Pro Bowl form of a few years ago, terrorizing opposing quarterbacks and leading the Bills back to the playoffs.

I'm dubious.

It came as a shock Saturday to hear that Nix had re-signed Merriman to a two-year deal. When the Bills claimed Merriman off waivers in early November, I assumed it was a half-year rental and there was virtually no chance the former Chargers star would sign an extension and stay in Buffalo.

But lo and behold, Merriman agreed to a two-year contract for an estimated $5.25 million a year -- more if he reaches performance incentives. It's a pretty generous deal for a guy who was cut in mid-season by a contender and earned $1.7 million without playing a down for the Bills.

My initial reaction was why. Why would Merriman sign with the Bills when he was scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent, with the right to peddle his services to all 32 teams? Why rush into this deal and eliminate a precious opportunity to test the waters for the highest bidder?

The answer is the same as it was when Terrell Owens came to our town. It was the best offer he could get. It had to be. When Merriman was cut by the Chargers, there were numerous reports that he was hoping to go to a more exotic locale, like Miami or Tampa Bay. Instead, the winless Bills got first crack.

Now they're overpaying for him. That's how it goes. If you want an NFL free agent to consider Buffalo, you overpay. You need to outbid the market and discourage the player from looking around. Merriman's agent is no fool. He had to know this was by far the best offer his client could get.

This reminds me of what the Sabres did with Tim Connolly a couple of years ago. Connolly was due to become a free agent, but the Sabres gave him an outlandish raise and took him off the market. They gave him a two-year, $9 million deal that was likely better than anything the injury-prone Connolly would have fetched elsewhere.

Nix was the chief of scouting when the Chargers drafted Merriman 12th overall in 2005. Now, he wants to look like the smartest guy in the room again. Nix still believes in his guy and wants to prove everyone else -- including his old boss in San Diego, A.J. Smith -- wrong.

The Bills have money. They were $25 million under last year's cap in actual spending when they claimed Merriman in November. A few days later, Merriman pronounced himself ready to return to action. About 15 minutes into his first practice, he hobbled off after re-injuring his Achilles.

On Nov. 28, the Bills put him on injured reserve. Nix said the Bills did their homework before extending Merriman, though he conceded it was a gamble.

The Bills are throwing good money after bad. Merriman suffered a serious knee injury in 2008 and missed 15 games. He was hobbled by lower-leg injuries in '09. He was indignant when the Chargers wouldn't give him a lucrative extension before this season. Smith grew weary of waiting for Merriman to recover and cut him.

Maybe Nix knows more than everybody else. I'd put my money on Smith. Re-signing Merriman is a further indictment of the front office's handling of the linebacker position. This move is a clear indication that the Bills are desperate for an outside linebacker who can get after the passer.

They have nothing to lose, except more of Ralph Wilson's money. But if they're ready to start throwing money at free agents, it would be wiser to invest the money in players who are at the top of their game and not in compromised physical condition.

Signing Merriman will create a splash. But there are more urgent concerns, starting with today's finale at the Jets. Nix needs to get the highest possible draft pick and find an impact player who can help the Bills return to respectability.

That means Nix, or Ralph Wilson, should instruct Chan Gailey to give a lot of playing time to his backups today. Ryan Fitzpatrick will be a game-time decision. He's listed as questionable with a sore knee. What's truly questionable is that there's even a debate. Gailey should sit Fitz and play Brian Brohm.

The Bills are 4-3 after an 0-8 start. It was a nice run. But there's nothing to be gained by beating the Jets. The Bills could draft as high as second if they lose. They could draft as low as ninth if they win. That's a big range, based on one win against a Jets team going through the motions and resting players for the playoffs.

If the top teams can rest players to enhance their playoff prospects, why can't the bad teams do the same thing to enhance their position in the draft? Is it somehow more noble for the bottom teams to give an honest performance in the last week of the season? Do they owe more to the fans?

If a 10-5 team can rest players, a 4-11 team ought to do the same. Playoff teams are doing what's best for their playoff future. Well, the Bills would be looking to protect their future, too, by getting a higher pick.

This first-round pick could be the one that makes the difference over the next several years, the one that propels them back toward the playoffs after 11 years on the outside. A win over an unmotivated Jets team today seems awfully hollow by comparison.

So Merriman stays. Nix won't resurrect this franchise by wishing on a former star. The only way he'll restore the Bills to glory is by nailing picks in the draft. The higher the better. You want real progress? Root for a loss today.

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com