By Tim Schuler
STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
The Bills will party like it's 1999 if they ever make the playoffs again. That's the last year the team did the postseason dance, which is tied with the Lions for the NFL's longest active playoff drought. And having something in common with the Lions is not a good thing these days.
The signing of Terrell Owens is the overwhelming offseason news, and knowing T.O.'s history, the spotlight should be his for his entire stay in Buffalo (however long that might be). We still have a hard time fathoming this marriage. It's not that Owens isn't a great receiver. And it's not that the Bills don't need a game-breaker. But T.O. in Buffalo is like A-Rod playing for the Royals or LeBron James signing a free agent deal with the Clippers. You just never expect to see it happen.
While Owens will open up the offense and quarterback Trent Edwards should continue working his way up the learning curve in Year 3 (assuming Owens doesn't start calling him a bookworm or questioning his courage), there are plenty of holes on coach Dick Jauron's team. The offensive line is in complete rebuild mode after trading Jason Peters and losing Derrick Dockery, Melvin Fowler and Duke Preston to free agency this offseason. That means the top two offensive linemen and arguably four of the top six from last season are gone, hence the reason the Bills chose two potential starting guards in the first two rounds of April's draft.
Most of the skill players are back, though Marshawn Lynch will be watching the first three games because he can't seem to keep his nose out of trouble. The receiving corps is loaded with Owens, Lee Evans, Josh Reed and Roscoe Parrish. The defense - which ranked 14th in yards per game - not bad considering no one could get to the opposing quarterback - should be decent if Aaron Schobel returns to form after a foot injury held him to five games in 2008. Schobel, rookie Aaron Maybin, Paul Posluszny, Kawika Mitchell, Donte Whitner and Terrence McGee form the nucleus of a unit that should keep the team competitive.
If the offense can get enough protection to make use of those gifted skill players, this team should at least stay in the playoff hunt for a while, though the Patriots look like the cream of the crop in the AFC East. The Bills don't have enough depth - that goes for a number of position groups - and if there's any breakdown in a couple of those units it could be another long season. So, the offensive line, progress by Edwards and relatively good health are the big keys in avoiding that 10th straight non playoff season.
Round, Overall, Player
1. (11) Aaron Maybin, DE, Penn State
Edge rush maven, at minimum, should spend his rookie year as the situational pass-rusher.
1. (28) Eric Wood, C, Louisville
Will switch to guard, with a chance to start.
2. (42) Jairus Byrd, CB, Oregon
He'll switch to free safety, and if he pans out the Bills can keep Donte Whitner at strong.
2. (51) Andy Levitre, G, Oregon State
Depth needed after losing three O-Line starters, and he can play guard or tackle.
4. (121) Shawn Nelson, TE, Southern Mississippi
With starting job up for grabs, the pass-catching Nelson could be a steal.
5. (147) Nic Harris, S/LB, Oklahoma
Average-at-best speed makes him a linebacker for the Bills.
6. (183) Cary Harris, CB, USC
Physical corner could contribute on special teams.
7. (220) Ellis Lankster, CB, West Virginia
You can never have enough cornerbacks, right?
Terrell Owens, WR (Cowboys)
The never dull T.O. and his reality show make an unexpected switch to Buffalo, where he's supposed to open up the offense.
Dominic Rhodes, RB (Colts)
Could be a third-stringer at this stage but may see decent playing time in Weeks 1, 2 and 3.
Ryan Fitzpatrick, QB (Bengals)
Trent Edwards has a history of getting nicked up, so the Harvard grad could see some starting time again.
Jason Peters, OT (Eagles)
The Bills got sick of his money act, but he'll be sorely missed.
Robert Royal, TE (Browns)
Good team guy, but rookie Shawn Nelson should quickly become a bigger receiving threat.
Jabari Greer, CB (Saints)
Bills loved his style of play, but a price tag of $23 million says it's Leodis McKelvin's time.
T.O. OR B.O.?
Terrell Owens could be just what the Bills need after struggling on offense since 2002. Before T.O., Lee Evans coupled with any other Buffalo receiver was not a scary combo, because it was easy to double-team Evans the whole game. Evans and Owens, however, form a lethal duo. That could do wonders for QB Trent Edwards, who's used to dropping back and seeing Evans getting bumped and double-teamed while a bunch of others fail to get open. Now, he'll be able to take his pick because one of the stars will be left in single coverage. On the other hand, the Bills have a work-in-progress offensive line and a non-established quarterback, potential dynamite for an Owens explosion if he can't get the ball to his liking. The Bills have had enough problems this decade that they don't need a locker room meltdown.
SORTING THE RB'S
Marshawn Lynch's suspension has thrown a monkey wrench right through the picture window. That, coupled with last season's mild disappointment on the ground (1,036 rushing yards, eight TDs) likely takes him well out of the first round in most drafts. He should be fresh when Week 4 rolls around, but the Bills like to see Fred Jackson take about one-third of the workload anyway. So if Jackson can hold veteran Dominic Rhodes off, he should be one of the league's better No. 2 fantasy backs. He could get you at least those three starts, and remember as a reserve last season he had 130-571-3 on the ground and 37-317-0 through the air.
REMAKING THE O-LINE
The Bills fortified a depleted line early in the draft, using the extra first-rounder they had to take Louisville's Eric Wood, then trading up to get an extra second-round pick -
Oregon State's Andy Levitre. Both players have the skill set to start right away, but may switch positions so there could be some bumps along the way. Free agent Geoff Hangartner should be an upgrade at center, but the question is, "Who's going to play left tackle?" Langston Walker, a big drop-off from Jason Peters, looks like the probable candidate, though that could mean the Bills have new faces at all five spots.
CRUCIAL YEAR FOR Trent Edwards
Edwards made a decent fantasy leap in 2008, going from 163.0 passing yards a game to 192.8, with a jump in completion percentage from 56.1 to 65.5. He also scored three times on the ground. With everyone back at receiver and running back, with Terrell Owens and rookie Shawn Nelson providing additional weapons, with another year of experience under his belt and with the same offensive coaches back, we think Edwards could take a pretty big leap. Certainly not enough to be an every-week starter, but 3,000 yards and 20 touchdowns are realistic targets if his line gives him time.
Rising: Trent Edwards was a 65.5 percent passer last season, and with new weapons on offense, things could open up to a 20-TD level.
Declining: Josh Reed is coming off his best season with 597 yards and 56 catches, but don't expect even close to that with Owens around. Reed has only nine touchdowns in seven seasons.
Sleeper: The pass-catching Shawn Nelson is 6-5, 240 and runs a 4.52 40-yard dash, and could earn the starting job as a rookie.
Supersleeper: Steve Johnson probably won't be fantasy relevant, but we love his sure-handedness and size, and he's still working his way up the learning curve.
Aaron Schobel, DE
Used to be a lock for high sacks, but he's coming off a subpar 2007 and an injury-filled 2008.
Aaron Maybin, DE
Should get 5-7 sacks, but don't buy in until he wrestles a starting spot.
Paul Posluszny, LB
Essentially a rookie in 2008, 110 tackles show he should be a stud in that category for years.
RotoWire Rank: 25
Article first appeared 6/09/09
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