Bills draft needs: If not quarterback, then defense

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer

It has been 11 years since the Buffalo Bills reached the playoffs. Barring an upset, that string will be extended to an even dozen this season. The Bills just have too many holes and not enough talent to compete with New England and the Jets in their division.

That doesn't mean Buffalo can't move forward. When you're 4-12, the world is full of possibilities. But first things first, and what Buffalo must do immediately is settle on a quarterback game and solidify its run defense.

Nobody was worse defending the run than Buffalo, and that's a problem that must be resolved. But the Bills weren't all that great defending the pass, either, with interceptions down and touchdowns up. So consider defense an area of concern.

Nevertheless, it's the quarterback who gains most of the attention. For too many years, Buffalo has been looking for the next Jim Kelly, but the Bills don't need a quarterback of Kelly's magnitude. They just need someone to solidify the position, and maybe Ryan Fitzpatrick is that guy; maybe he's not.

The draft will tell.

QB: There's a lot to like about Fitzpatrick, but the question is: Can Buffalo win with him as its starting quarterback? Put another way: Is he the long-term solution? Fitzpatrick put up decent numbers -- a career-best 3,000 yards, 23 touchdowns in 13 games --- but the Bills often played from behind, so he was forced to throw a lot. No question, he played well. But he has never proven he can win, and there's a perception that no matter how hard he works or improves he cannot be a franchise quarterback. Most people think he's a career backup keeping the position warm for the next prospect -- but for whom? Brian Brohm? Levi Brown? At some point, Buffalo must settle on someone at this position, which is why some mock drafts have the Bills choosing a quarterback.

Five possibilities: Bills
Cam Newton, QB, Auburn: He's probably gone by the fourth pick, but if he isn't consider Mike Brown intrigued. The Bengals like what they saw of him and thought more after seeing him a second time.
Blaine Gabbert, QB, Missouri: One problem here: If you're going to pick someone with the fourth pick he better be ready to start immediately. Gabbert is not. That makes him a long shot at this position.
Von Miller, LB, Texas A&M: His stock has been creeping north for the past month, and he makes perfect sense for a club that couldn't stop the run and wasn't very good vs. the pass. He's a top-five talent who could solidify Buffalo's defense.
Marcell Dareus, DT, Alabama: The Bills were the worst defense vs. the run. Dareus is a disruptive defensive tackle who plugs the middle and is best suited for the 3-4. What are we missing here? He's perfect for Buffalo but may be gone by the third choice.
Patrick Peterson, CB, LSU: He's the best player in this draft, period, and the Bills need a playmaker at the position. No cornerback ever has been drafted higher than third, and that's where Buffalo sits. But they have higher priorities than CB.
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RB: If you play in Buffalo you better be able to run the ball, and the Bills can ... just not all that effectively. They fell from ninth to 18th in rushing last season, and that's not good -- especially when they exercised their first pick of the 2010 draft on a running back. C.J. Spiller was supposed to signal the end for Marshawn Lynch, but it took Buffalo nearly half the season before pulling the plug on the former Cal star. In the meantime, Spiller languished on the bench, which is not what is supposed to happen with the ninth pick of the draft. Of course, it would've helped if Spiller were more adept at picking up pass protections. He played sparingly, with most of his time reserved for special teams, and that will change. Spiller is a dynamic breakaway threat who is a perfect change of pace from the underrated Fred Jackson, who took over for Lynch after he left. All he did was rush for 927 yards, average 4.2 yards a carry and haul down 31 passes.

WR: Once upon a time the Bills looked for a receiver to take the heat off veteran Lee Evans. Now they look for someone to take the heat off former seventh-round draft pick Stevie Johnson, who led the team in catches, yards and TDs. Johnson was one of the team's biggest surprises, and, at 24, he should only improve -- provided he stops blaming drops on someone else, if you know what I mean. Evans is still a threat, but he's 30 and his numbers have declined the past two years. That's the bad news. The good is that there is help everywhere, and let's start with free agent David Nelson, who had 31 catches for 353 yards and three TDs. He, Naaman Roosevelt and Donald Jones are security nets in a group that includes Evans and Roscoe Parrish -- whom the Bills finally used as a receiving weapon. Put them together, and you have the team's deepest position.

TE: If you're looking for pass catchers here, you're at the wrong address. The Bills' leading receiver at this position had 12 catches, and, Jonathan Stuper, please step forward. Stuper is a free agent the Bills didn't tender, so let's start looking elsewhere. Shawn Nelson has the potential to be a productive and dangerous pass receiver, but he has been a disappointment -- with migraine issues last season that caused him to miss the final five games. Veteran David Martin had the only touchdown catch for tight ends, and Scott Chandler played in only four games. I think you get the idea: The Bills could use help at the position.

OL: Sooner or later the Bills must find a right tackle, and it might be sooner if they move Demetrius Bell from the left side. Bell is a talented player but he was handicapped by having to fight through injuries. Buffalo believes Bell is a talent out of the Jason Peters mold, but he has yet to demonstrate it at left tackle. A move to the right side might work, especially with Mansfield Wrotto and Cornell Green unsuccessful there. Eric Wood is another lineman who played through injuries, and there's a chance he begins this season where he ended in 2010 -- center. Veteran Geoff Hangartner is the starter there, and he's solid. But Wood looked good, too, when he switched positions. Andy Levitre is strong at left guard, and Chad Rinehart or Keith Urbik can fill in at right guard if Wood moves. But that doesn't change the biggest concern: The Bills must find a tackle. If it's not the right side, then it's the left. All I know is the club has been looking for a right tackle for years, without success. But that's why they made the draft, Buffalo.

DL: Don't blame nose tackle Kyle Williams for the run-stopping woes. Though he's smallish for the position, the guy is one of the most effective tacklers in the game -- producing a career-high 77, including 5½ sacks, and making it to the Pro Bowl. The problem is that there's not much help for Williams. Yes, that has something to do with the Bills' switch to a 3-4. They didn't have the right guys for the defense, and it showed far too often. With Marcus Stroud gone, there's a need at defensive end where Stroud, Spencer Johnson and Dwan Edwards had exactly one sack. Of course, that might be more a reflection of opponents' success running the ball. I mean, why throw when Buffalo can't stop opposing backs? Look for Alex Carrington and tackle Torell Troup to play more, but the Bills must find someone here or at linebacker to rush the pocket. They had only 27 sacks last season, fifth fewest in the NFL.

LB: Paul Posluszny is the star here. But he's also a potential free agent, which means re-signing him should be a high priority. Posluszny had a career-high 151 tackles to lead the team, and he's the perfect guy to build this defense around. Akin Ayodele worked out well, Arthur Moats showed up as a pass rusher and Chris Kelsay made the move from defensive end to outside linebacker without much problem. But it's the disappointments that are almost as noteworthy. Take Aaron Maybin. The team's first-round draft pick in 2009 has done nothing since pulling on a Bills jersey and is in danger of getting cut. The switch to the 3-4 was supposed to suit Maybin, but he has yet to produce a sack. Shawne Merriman is another first-round choice (San Diego) who could help if he found his game. Merriman once was one of the league's top pass rushers, a disruptive force who lived up to his nickname, "Lights Out." But that was years ago. He has been plagued by injuries and lackluster play since, and the surprise here is that he re-signed with Buffalo.

DB: It wasn't long ago that this was the strongest and deepest area on the club. But that changed almost overnight, as Buffalo dropped from 28 interceptions in 2009 to 11 last season -- with safety Jairus Byrd, who led the team with nine in 2009, falling off to one. Some of that you can blame on the pass rush. The Bills didn't have one. But some of it is on these guys. They weren't very good, either, surrendering 28 touchdown passes. Safety Donte Whitner may not return after producing a career-best 140 tackles. A team leader, Whitner is a free agent, and the re-signing of George Wilson could signal his exit. There are all sorts of cornerbacks -- Drayton Florence, Terrence McGee, Leodis McKelvin, Reggie Corner and Ashton Youboty -- but there's not a shutdown player there, Florence is a free agent, McGee is injury prone and McKelvin hasn't exactly shone.


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