AFC East: Trent Edwards

New York Jets cut-down analysis

August, 31, 2013
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Most significant move: It wasn't a surprise, but the New York Jets waived Greg McElroy, their only quarterback not named Mark Sanchez who has started a game in the NFL. Granted, McElroy has only one career start, but the move is significant because it underscores the lack of experience at the position. If Sanchez (shoulder) doesn't dress for the season opener, it leaves the position to Geno Smith, Matt Simms and Graham Harrell, who have a combined total of four career pass attempts -- all by Harrell. The former Packers backup made the final cut despite having spent only three days with the Jets. McElroy was waived with an injury, so he wouldn't have been ready for Week 1 anyway. Still, this is a precarious situation to say the least.

Not much depth on offense: Aside from quarterback, the Jets are perilously thin at a few spots. They have only five receivers, one of whom (Santonio Holmes) is a question mark because of his surgically repaired foot. The group includes a rookie free agent, Ryan Spadola. They also don't have an experienced backup at tackle. Jason Smith was supposed to be that guy, but he was atrocious in the final preseason game. Vladimir Ducasse can play some tackle, but that's not his best spot. Rookie OT Oday Aboushi (fifth-round pick) isn't ready to play. They have low numbers in the backfield -- only four backs, although Mike Goodson will be eligible to return from his suspension in Week 5.

What's ahead: The Jets need help on offense. You can't go into a season with Aboushi as your No. 3 tackle, so look for them to address this over the next 24 hours. Anybody up for a Wayne Hunter reunion? The wide-receiver situation is interesting. Right now, the Jets have only three healthy and experienced receivers. They're either confident Holmes will return for the opener or they have plans to add a veteran. The quarterback situation bears watching, too. If Sanchez is sidelined a few weeks, it might behoove New York to import an experienced backup. A couple of former Marty Mornhinweg-ites are available -- Vince Young and Trent Edwards.

Jets cuts: QB Greg McElroy (injured), RB Mossis Madu (injured), WR Michael Campbell, WR Mohamed Massaquoi, WR Ben Obomanu, WR Zach Rogers, TE Chris Pantale, C Erik Cook, OT J.B. Shugarts, OT Jason Smith, DL Junior Aumavae, DL Lanier Coleman, DL Tevita Finau, DL Antonio Garay, LB Troy Davis, LB JoJo Dickson, LB Jacquies Smith, DB Royce Adams, DB Mike Edwards, DB Rontez Miles, PK Dan Carpenter.

Placed on reserve/suspended: RB Mike Goodson.
E.J. Manuel Al Bello/Getty ImagesBuffalo's selection of quarterback EJ Manuel could be as defining as it was surprising.

Rookie head coach Doug Marrone has yet to coach in his first game with the Buffalo Bills. But just a few months into his regime, it’s easy to pinpoint how to gauge his overall success or failure in the NFL.

The Marrone era in Buffalo will be defined by Thursday's shocking selection of former Florida State quarterback EJ Manuel -- no more, no less.

The Bills, led by general manager Buddy Nix, jumped out on a limb Thursday by making Manuel the first quarterback taken in the NFL draft with the No. 16 overall pick. It was perhaps the most surprising move of the first round, even after the Bills traded down eight picks with the St. Louis Rams to get the player they believe is the long-term solution at the position. Buffalo also gained a second- and a seventh-round pick and swapped third-rounders with St. Louis.

It is no secret that the job security of head coaches is closely tied to their quarterbacks. Look no further than the AFC East.

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick struck gold by drafting Tom Brady 13 years ago in the sixth round. As a result, Belichick and the Patriots have dominated the AFC East ever since and have been to five Super Bowls, winning three. Belichick and Brady also are the all-time winningest coach and quarterback combination in NFL history.

On the other end of the AFC East spectrum, New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan is on the hot seat after 2009 first-round pick Mark Sanchez flamed out. Sanchez was the first pick of the Ryan regime, and both are on the hot seat in New York. Former Bills head coach Chan Gailey was fired after last season, in part, because veteran quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick was a bust after signing a $59 million contract.

The Marrone-Manuel tandem could turn out either way for Buffalo. But if I had to take an educated guess before Manuel throws his first pass and Marrone coaches his first game, this decision has the potential to blow up in Buffalo’s face in three or four years.

The Bills have the NFL’s longest playoff drought at 14 years and counting. They have a history of drafting the wrong quarterbacks (J.P. Losman, Trent Edwards) and signing the wrong veterans (Fitzpatrick). That makes it extremely hard to trust that the Bills went against conventional wisdom and got this one correct.

Manuel comes with good physical tools. He's athletic, mobile and has solid accuracy. But there is tons of pressure facing Manuel as the first quarterback taken for various reasons.

By association, it's expected that Manuel will be the best quarterback from this 2013 NFL draft. Adding to the pressure is Buffalo passed over Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib, who played for Marrone in college. It could only add salt to the wound for Buffalo if Manuel struggles and Nassib turns out to be a good quarterback when the Bills had the most intel with Nassib’s former head coach in the building.

West Virginia’s Geno Smith and USC’s Matt Barkley also were rated higher than Manuel by most experts. Manuel will be compared to those quarterbacks at the next level, too.

But the controversial decision has been made by the Bills and the time for second-guessing is over. It’s time for Manuel to get to work and live up to his billing as the top quarterback taken in this draft. Manuel will compete in training camp with veteran quarterbacks Kevin Kolb and Tarvaris Jackson. Maybe the Bills will get a one-year stopgap from Kolb or Jackson -- at best -- but Manuel will have to be ready to play sooner than later. The Bills say they are not rebuilding and are strong in several areas. One of the biggest things holding Buffalo back is its quarterback situation.

The Patriots, with Brady, remain the gold standard at quarterback in the AFC East. The Miami Dolphins appear to be heading in the right direction with second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill. But New York and Buffalo have a lot of quarterback questions that were not answered in the first round.

The Bills have been looking for a franchise quarterback since the retirement of Hall of Famer Jim Kelly. Manuel must develop into a franchise starter or it will set the Bills back for another three or four years.

Dolphins kick tires on Croyle, Edwards

October, 5, 2011
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The Miami Dolphins, at the very least, need a backup quarterback if Chad Henne (shoulder) is out for a significant period. So Miami kicked tires earlier this week on Brodie Croyle and Trent Edwards, ESPN.com's John Clayton reports.

It's unclear if Miami will sign either quarterback. Dolphins backup Matt Moore is getting first-team reps in practice during Miami's bye week.

But neither Croyle nor Edwards should instill much confidence in Miami turning its season around. Both quarterbacks struggled mightily with Kansas City and Buffalo, respectively.

Miami's next game will be against the New York Jets on "Monday Night Football" Oct. 17.

Camp Confidential: Buffalo Bills

August, 15, 2011
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PITTSFORD, N.Y. -- Buffalo Bills inside linebacker Nick Barnett knew bad news was coming this summer, and he still couldn’t fully accept it. Despite his eight seasons with Green Bay, the speculation was that the Packers had to trade or release him this offseason. Barnett had been placed on injured reserve in both the 2008 and 2010 seasons, and his heir apparent, Desmond Bishop, already was in place. It was a no-brainer move to most observers, even though Barnett was still thinking about the possibility of helping the Packers repeat as Super Bowl champions. “If you read my tweets,” he said, “that’s all I kept talking about.”

These days Barnett is talking about something different -- how he can help the Bills transform one of the league’s worst defenses into a sturdy, reliable unit. No team in the NFL was worse against the run in 2010 (Buffalo allowed 169.6 yards per game), and that was one key reason the team signed Barnett so quickly after the Packers released him in late July. At 30, he still has the quickness and playmaking ability that allowed him to amass 787 tackles, 15.5 sacks and nine interceptions during his Green Bay career. He’s also aware that his energy and leadership will be invaluable to a team that lost its top tackler, Paul Posluszny, in free agency.

Bills assistant head coach and linebackers coach Dave Wannstedt said Barnett already is the team’s best linebacker. Head coach Chan Gailey has raved about his new player’s approach. “He brings experience and speed to this defense,” Gailey said. “He’s a guy who always plays fast.” Added Barnett: “I’m just trying to be myself. I haven’t played since Week 4 [a dislocated wrist ended his season] so I’m still finding my way. But the biggest thing I wanted to bring to this team was an attitude. I want to help the younger guys relax and have fun out there because that’s what I do.”

Though Barnett needed some time to accept his release from the Packers -- “I’ve never been fired from anything before,” he said -- he quickly sensed that Buffalo was the right place for him. He liked the team atmosphere, the family environment and the die-hard fans who are the city’s trademark. In many ways, Barnett felt like he was going to a place quite similar to Green Bay. “The talent level is there,” Barnett said. “But like everything, it’s going to come down to communication and attitude. If we do those things, we’ll be productive.”

THREE HOT ISSUES

1. Will Ryan Fitzpatrick be better? Yes. Fitzpatrick was a decent quarterback in 2010 -- 3,000 yards, 23 touchdowns, 15 interceptions -- especially considering that he was basically thrown into the job after the Bills gave up on former starter Trent Edwards. Fitzpatrick also has far more advantages coming into this season, despite not having an entire offseason to work with coaches. The major areas that he needs to improve? Accuracy and consistency. What he doesn’t have to worry about any longer? Proving to his teammates that he can lead this team and knowing whether the job is his alone. “Last season was interesting, but my whole career has been about being ready to show what you can do when the opportunity comes,” said Fitzpatrick, who spent his first five NFL seasons as a backup before getting his shot as a full-time starter three games into 2010. “One of the good things we have as an offense is that we have a lot of guys who’ve spent an entire season playing together and getting familiar with each other. When you look at the offenses in New England and Indianapolis, that continuity is what makes them so successful, and now we’re one step closer to that.”

[+] EnlargeShawne Merriman
Richard Mackson/US PresswireBuffalo defense is relying on Shawne Merriman to return to Pro-Bowl form.
2. Can Shawne Merriman return to an elite level? As long as he’s healthy. Right now the three-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker thinks that the strained Achilles that limited him to only three games last season won’t be an issue. The bigger challenge for him is finding a comfort level after registering only four sacks over the past three seasons. The Bills are banking on his getting up to speed in a hurry. For a team that tied for 27th in the NFL in sacks last season (with 27), having a rejuvenated Merriman harassing opposing quarterbacks would be a much-needed blessing. “I don’t feel like I need to respond to people who’ve been counting me out over the last couple years because all you have to do is watch me practice,” said Merriman, who had 43.5 sacks in his first 60 career games. “It’s definitely been hard [not playing] but I also feel like I’ve done everything I’ve needed to do to get back. I can see good things happening this season.”

3. What role will C.J. Spiller play in the offense? One of the more disappointing aspects of the Bills' offense in 2010 was the lack of productivity from Spiller. Drafted ninth overall in last year’s draft, he was supposed to bring breathtaking speed and elusiveness to the Bills. Instead, Spiller wound up with only 283 rushing yards and 24 receptions in his rookie season. Those numbers should increase now that Buffalo has a less crowded backfield (the team traded Marshawn Lynch to Seattle midway through last season) and a greater sense of urgency about involving Spiller. “We need to get him more touches,” Gailey said. “We need to find more ways to get him in space so he can use that speed. He’s already grown as a runner because he’s better at running inside, and he’s shown more patience. The one thing I’d really like to see him improve on now is ball security. He had some problems with fumbles last year [Spiller had five fumbles and lost three], and we can’t have that.”

WELCOME SIGHT

Roscoe Parrish: The Bills' offensive players know that Parrish has developed into a valuable receiver after being used mainly as a returner early in his career. They realize it even more now that he’s healthy. After missing the last eight games of 2010 with a broken wrist, Parrish has been impressing teammates with his trademark speed and quickness. The explosiveness he brings to the offense after sitting out half a year also hasn’t gone unnoticed. “Now that he’s back, you remember how much he means to this offense,” Fitzpatrick said. “He really adds another dimension.”

PLAYER TO WATCH

Brad Smith: Don’t be surprised if Smith becomes a more dangerous playmaker in the Bills’ offense. He made his name as a kick returner/wide receiver/Wildcat quarterback with the New York Jets, and rule changes should allow him to increase his playing time in Buffalo. The NFL agreed to abolish the rule requiring teams to determine a third quarterback on game-day rosters -- that player could participate only in emergency situations, and his presence would prevent the team from using any other quarterback during a game. Now a player like Smith can be used far more often in Wildcat situations. Even if Smith appears as a quarterback in three or four plays a game, his involvement won’t limit his coaches’ options. “We were going to use him in a similar role anyway, but that rule really helps,” said Gailey, who has gained a reputation for finding creative roles for versatile players. “Now you don’t have to wonder about whether he needs to be listed as a third quarterback who can only play in emergency situations or if he can be used as a Wildcat quarterback whenever we like. It’s going to make a big difference.”

OBSERVATION DECK

  • [+] EnlargeMarcell Dareus
    Rick Stewart/Getty ImagesFirst round draft pick Marcell Dareus has impressed his coaches in training camp.
    Rookie defensive end Marcell Dareus hasn’t needed much time to make a strong impression on his coaches. Wannstedt called him a “special kid with the right approach to the game,” and Gailey thinks it shouldn’t take long for Dareus to prove why he was worthy of the third overall pick in this year’s draft. “He’s a big, physical guy and he’s got an edge to him,” Gailey said of Dareus, who's 6-3 and weighs 323. “You have to like that about him.”

  • Even though the Bills lost their second-best tackler from last season -- strong safety Donte Whitner -- the loss may not be as troubling as it looks. Though he was a strong presence in run support, the team thinks strong safety George Wilson can help the Bills more in the playmaking department. When Whitner was injured two years ago, the tandem of Wilson and Jairus Byrd gave the secondary a bigger boost with their pass defense skills.

  • The emphasis on stopping the run is going to put more pressure on the Bills cornerbacks this season. Gailey believes he has the personnel to handle the increased responsibility, and Terrence McGee is essential to this approach. He has spent more time covering slot receivers in training camp, which will allow Leodis McKelvin and Drayton Florence to handle outside receivers when the defense faces three-receiver looks.

  • Wide receiver Donald Jones is another player worth watching. When asked about teammates who have caught his eye early in training camp, Fitzpatrick said Jones had elevated his game in his second season. An undrafted rookie in 2010, Jones was a nice surprise in camp and finished with 18 receptions. This year he’s using his size and strength to make himself a tough receiver to handle at the line of scrimmage.

  • The Bills recognize that their biggest challenge this season will be learning how to change expectations. Gailey has talked about the difference between hoping to win and expecting to win, and his players believe they can make great strides. Fitzpatrick agreed that last season, too many players were worried about losing their jobs as the team transitioned into Gailey’s tenure. This year, there is far more comfort and a sense of purpose on a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 1999. “We definitely need to take the approach that we deserve to win,” Fitzpatrick said. “And we have a chip on our shoulders. We hear all the people talking about how tough the AFC East is, and nobody mentions our name. That can be fuel for our fire, and we have to believe we can surprise people.”

Is Buffalo or Miami a good place for Pryor?

June, 9, 2011
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FoxSports.com writer Adam Caplan broke down all the factors facing Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor's transition to the NFL.

Caplan quotes an unnamed scout who says of Pryor: "You need to get him with a team willing to be very patient. Heck, I'm not so sure he's even a quarterback at this point. He's far away from being able to handle what's going to come at him at our level. You don't really see him being asked to make a lot of tough throws. That won't be the case going forward."

With that in mind, Caplan gave five appropriate places for Pryor to play quarterback. Two of the locales are in the AFC East.

Buffalo Bills: "While journeyman quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick played fairly well last season, he’s in the final year of his contract. It also remains to be seen if Levi Brown, whom the Bills selected in the seventh round of last year’s draft, has a future with the team. And keep in mind, head coach Chan Gailey likes to develop mobile quarterbacks. He did a nice job of developing former Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Kordell Stewart."

Miami Dolphins: "Starter Chad Henne is in the final year of his rookie deal, and Miami doesn’t have a true developmental quarterback on its roster. Tom Brandstater, who was signed as a free agent last season, was originally selected in the sixth round of the 2009 draft by the Denver Broncos."

I agree with Caplan about the Bills. They do have a void at backup quarterback and would like to develop one for the future. Brown doesn't seem to be that guy. He wasn't good enough to make the team out of training camp or even be signed to the practice squad. The Bills didn't bring back Brown until they waived Trent Edwards in-season. Last season's primary backup, the disappointing Brian Brohm, is a free agent.

As for the Dolphins, it's hard to imagine them grabbing a player like Pryor after their experience with Pat White. The Dolphins didn't have the patience to wait around for him to develop NFL passing skills. Also consider that on the Dolphins' depth chart are Chad Pennington and Tyler Thigpen. Both are free agents, and while Pennington is recovering from knee surgery, either could be back.

Evans laments '10 decision to back Edwards

May, 24, 2011
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ELMA, N.Y. -- Lee Evans doesn't mince words when he reflects on the Buffalo Bills' decision last summer to go with Trent Edwards at quarterback instead of Ryan Fitzpatrick.

Evans
Evans
New head coach Chan Gailey gave all the first-team reps and preseason starts to Edwards.

"That was a huge missed opportunity, a huge missed opportunity," Evans said Monday at Sahlen's Sports Park, where he, Fitzpatrick and about 30 other Bills have gathered this week for informal workouts.

Fitzpatrick mostly watched Edwards work out with the first-team offense and took occasional reps for months. Yet after two losses to start the 2010 regular season, Edwards went from clear-cut starter to not good enough for the roster. The Bills waived him and switched to Fitzpatrick.

In 13 games, Fitzpatrick completed 57.8 percent of his throws for 3,000 yards and 23 touchdowns with 15 interceptions. He played with a panache that made those ordinary numbers seem even better to Bills fans.

"It's hard, especially at the quarterback position, to come in and take control as he did," Evans said. "You have to take your hat off to him. It's a remarkable feat to come in and do what he did last year.

"Had we been doing it from the beginning, he would have been that much better even earlier. Given all that, I think he did well, and this year, with him knowing that he's the No. 1 quarterback, that gives everybody a vote of confidence moving forward."

The change sparked the offense, but it remained erratic. In essence, Fitzpatrick was working through his version of training camp on Sunday afternoons.

It was Week 7 against the Baltimore Ravens when Evans said he noticed the Bills' offense climb out of the hole created by the Edwards decision.

The Ravens beat the Bills 37-34 in overtime, but Fitzpatrick completed 67.4 percent of his attempts for 382 yards and four touchdowns with two interceptions.

Baltimore was the first of three straight three-point losses that pushed Buffalo's record to 0-8. The Bills then went 4-3 the rest of the way with Fitzpatrick as the starter. He missed the season finale with an injury.

"He has the respect and the confidence of everybody on the team," Evans said. "He's the type of quarterback that can communicate with you on and off the field. He leads by example, and not just what he says. He's smart enough to be able to handle situations. Guys trust in him and believe in him."

Don't go changing: Bills show faith in O

May, 18, 2011
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At some point, the unlikely collection of NFL teammates struck somebody as unusual, and they began to sort out who the highest draft pick was.

Together last month for a mini passing camp near quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick's home in Arizona, eight Buffalo Bills players laughed about their long-shot backgrounds.

Sophomore receiver Marcus Easley was the closest thing to a bonus baby, and he was a fourth-round draft choice with zero NFL games. So who was next in line? Backup quarterback Levi Brown was the answer, a seventh-round pick last year, 209th overall, and unable to make the roster out of training camp.

Bills practice
Courtesy of David NelsonBills players (L to R) Naaman Roosevelt, Levi Brown, Steve Johnson, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Fred Jackson, David Nelson, Donald Jones and Marcus Easley pose for a picture following a workout last month.
Wide receiver Steve Johnson went 224th, Fitzpatrick 250th. Running back Fred Jackson and receivers David Nelson, Donald Jones and Naaman Roosevelt weren't drafted at all.

"This is testament of who we are as a group," Nelson said Tuesday night from his home in Dallas. "We all believe in each other. We all push each other. We all compete with each other. We know we're against the odds. We're a bunch of guys nobody gave a chance to."

The Bills have a couple of first-rounders in their offense who didn't attend the workouts. Running back C.J. Spiller and receiver Lee Evans are important components, but it's impressive to consider such a big contingent of overlooked players making up a team's offensive core.

Nelson and the rest of that gang can speak with a little more conviction about their futures in Buffalo now. When they gathered for some casual workouts, there was plenty of doubt about the direction of the offense.

The draft hadn't taken place yet, and the Bills owned the third and 34th selections. There was considerable talk about a quarterback being a serious option. If Auburn star Cam Newton still were on the board, could the Bills pass him up? Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert might have been a possibility, and it was anybody's guess who would still be on the board in the second round.

"I'm sure Fitz was bracing for something," Jackson said Tuesday of the pre-draft mood. "Everybody had to be."

One thing was for sure among the Bills' players: They were rooting for the front office to stand pat at quarterback.

"We've been talking about it as a receiver group for a while," Nelson said. "We were hoping that they would stay away from quarterbacks in the draft because we have all the confidence in the world in Fitz and what he can do. We like the direction we're headed in with him."

The Bills gave their offensive players a major vote of confidence last month. Of their nine draft choices, only two play offense. They drafted Clemson tackle Chris Hairston in the fourth round and North Carolina running back Johnny White in the fifth round.

The Bills will acquire more offensive players whenever free agency dawns. General manager Buddy Nix has said they will sign another quarterback, but the club sent a strong message about Fitzpatrick's standing when they didn't draft one.

"They showed they have a lot of faith in Fitz," Jackson said. "Me and my teammates all have a lot of faith in him, too. We're excited about that. I'm looking forward to working with him and trying to build on what we did last year and making that playoff push."

Fitzpatrick and Jackson will enter the 2011 season with substantially more juice than they had last summer. Both of them were considered backups.

"You have to say that it had some kind of affect on us," Jackson said. "We weren't on the same page when we got in the lineup, but that's part of the game, and we have to adjust.

"It does hurt to not get the reps, but as long as you mentally prepare like you are the No. 1 guy, you can hit the ground running. Hopefully, now we can get those reps and go into this season as the No. 1 guys and put this team on our shoulders and make some plays."

[+] EnlargeRyan Fitzpatrick
Nick Laham/Getty ImagesThe Bills are confident in Ryan Fitzpatrick's ability to lead the team.
Fitzpatrick won over the Bills' locker room and much of their fan base last year. Trent Edwards' presence had worn thin everywhere. The man known as "Captain Checkdown" was uninspiring at best. He was frequently injured and rarely showed a hint of nerve.

New coach Chan Gailey backed him in the beginning. Edwards took most of the offseason reps and was named the No. 1 quarterback when training camp opened. Edwards started all four preseason games.

Fitzpatrick, Brown and Brian Brohm fought over the scraps. Fitzpatrick attempted 23 passes before the season.

Asked at the NFL scouting combine in February whether he regretted those decisions, Gailey replied, "Shoot, yeah. If I knew then what I know now, I wouldn't have done that."

At 0-2, the Bills made an abrupt change. They waived Edwards.

Fitzpatrick was a jolt to the huddle, to the Ralph Wilson Stadium crowd, to the community. He grew a bird's-nest beard and called himself the "Amish Rifle." He wore his wedding ring during games. He actually threw the ball downfield.

He made the games entertaining again, even the defeats. Fans forgave him for occasional reckless interceptions.

Jackson was in a similar situation despite rushing for more than 1,000 yards the previous season.

He was in a crowded backfield with Marshawn Lynch and hotshot rookie Spiller and didn't start the first four games, carrying the ball 20 times for 87 yards through the first quarter of the season.

When the Bills traded Lynch for a 2011 fourth-round draft choice and a conditional 2012 sixth-round pick, the door opened for Jackson again.

"Right now, I feel like I'm the No. 1 guy and C.J. will come in and get a lot of plays," Jackson said. "I feel like I'm going to be the guy that's carrying the load and has got to make that running game go.

"I'm sure C.J.'s working hard and will [have] the opportunities as well, but I just got to shoulder the load and take the pressure off Fitz and make us a balanced offense. I want to be that guy."

Spiller generated preseason buzz for rookie of the year honors, but he had a disappointing campaign (283 rushing yards and no touchdowns, 157 receiving yards and one touchdown) and still has much to prove.

Jackson rushed for 614 yards in the second half of the season, tying with Ray Rice for sixth in the NFL in that span. The running backs ahead of them were Arian Foster, Jamaal Charles, Maurice Jones-Drew, Chris Johnson and BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Nice company.

The Bills ranked 25th in total offense, 18th in run offense and 24th in pass offense. Not too swift compared to the rest of the NFL.

But all of their best offensive superlatives in 15 categories (points, first downs, yards, etc.) happened Oct. 24 or later. The same can be said about individual player superlatives, aside from Fitzpatrick's 71.4 completion percentage in Week 3 against the New England Patriots.

The Bills obviously found enough there to make a commitment, and the players aren't crying for help. They're thrilled the group will stay together.

"We did some good things on offense last year," Jackson said. "We feel like if we could get back on the field healthy and get another crack at this thing, we'll continue to have some success."

Bills draft record not as bad as you think

April, 21, 2011
4/21/11
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Kyle Williams and Steve JohnsonUS PresswirePro Bowler Kyle Williams (left) and receiver Steve Johnson were both drafted in the later rounds.
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Buffalo Bills fans have pondered some persistent questions over the years.

How would life have changed if Scott Norwood made that kick?

What will happen to the team when Ralph Wilson passes away?

Was the Music City Miracle really a forward lateral?

How on earth does Tom Modrak still have a job?

Modrak is Buffalo's vice president of college scouting. Modrak, formerly a Pittsburgh Steelers scout during their Steel Curtain years and director of football operations with the Philadelphia Eagles, has held the Bills' top scouting job since May 2001 and worked his first draft for them in 2002.

In that time, the Bills' streak of seasons without a playoff appearance has extended to 11 and counting. Despite holding prime draft-order slots, they have repeatedly squandered them with maddening first-round decisions.

The list is enough to make the most optimistic Bills fan groan: pass-rusher Aaron Maybin (zero sacks) 11th overall instead of Brian Orakpo (19.5 sacks) two years ago; small-school cornerback Leodis McKelvin 11th overall instead of Pro Bowl left tackle Ryan Clady in 2008; safety Donte Whitner with the eighth pick in 2006 and then trading up for defensive tackle John McCargo; trading up for quarterback J.P. Losman in 2004; useless tackle Mike Williams fifth in 2002.

"Certainly we've had our misses up at the top," Modrak said Tuesday at a news conference to preview next week's draft. "We've done pretty well in the middle and at the end, the non-glamour kind of picks. But we've missed some. That is regrettable."

There are additional selections one can criticize: wide receiver James Hardy in the second round; running back C.J. Spiller ninth overall even though the Bills had a pair of 1,000-yard rushers already ...

[+] EnlargeTom Modrak
George Gojkovich/Getty ImagesDespite some high-profile misses, Tom Modrak's draftees have performed well on the whole.
OK. I'll stop now. That's enough to illustrate why there's frustration over Modrak and his scouting department's evaluation skills.

The fact Modrak joined the Bills to serve under former president Tom Donahoe -- an executive Wilson and Bills fans came to despise -- only adds to fascination of Modrak's continued employment.

Now that I've set the table, let's yank the tablecloth out from underneath the plasticware.

Data suggest the Bills haven't drafted much worse than the average NFL team since 2002.

ESPN researcher John Fisher -- he claims no relation to St. John Fisher, the namesake of the college where the Bills hold their training camp -- shuffled some spreadsheets and came up with some information that's not particularly damning when compared to the rest of the NFL.

  • The Bills have drafted five Pro Bowlers with Modrak in charge of scouting. That's tied for 14th in the league. One of those Pro Bowlers was Willis McGahee for the Baltimore Ravens, but Modrak was the chief scout who drafted him. What the Bills did with McGahee afterward that isn't his fault. Same goes for Marshawn Lynch.
  • Although a game started for the Bills isn't as impressive as a game started for the New England Patriots the past nine years, Bills draftees from the first through third rounds have started 804 games, 15th in the league.
  • Bills draftees from the fourth round or later have started 417 games, eighth in the league.
  • When it comes to individual statistics accumulated with the teams that drafted them, Bills taken from 2002 onward have ranked third in 1,000-yard rushing seasons, tied for seventh in 1,000-yard receiving seasons, 20th in total sacks and 19th in total interceptions.

While the Bills have missed badly on several of their prominent selections, they have done quite well in the latter part of the draft with gems such as cornerback and Pro Bowl kick returner Terrence McGee (fourth round in 2003), Pro Bowl defensive lineman Kyle Williams (fifth round in 2006), receiver Steve Johnson (seventh round in 2008) and left tackle Demetrius Bell (seventh round in 2008).

Top running back Fred Jackson and perennial Pro Bowl left tackle Jason Peters -- traded to Philly two years ago -- weren't drafted at all.

"If you look at other teams, they do it. They miss at the top," Modrak said. "When you don't win, it's magnified. It looks bad.

"But I think from a strictly homer point-of-view [late-round success] is the work and the labor that goes into it and the detail that's paid to those kinds of things. That does not say that other teams don't do the same thing, but we have a good group, and we fortunately have done that."

The Bills have had some obvious blind spots in the draft.

A refusal to pick a tackle earlier than the fifth round since 2002 has hurt them. Peters' success as a converted tight end is a factor in that trend, but the Bills were having contract problems with him while he still was on the roster. Foresight would've been helpful. But that's an organizational philosophy more than Modrak's domain.

The Bills' track record at tight end is miserable, too. They've drafted five: Tim Euhus, Kevin Everett, Derek Schouman, Derek Fine and Shawn Nelson. Everett was the lone selection sooner than the fourth round. A broken neck while covering a kickoff on opening day in 2007 ended his career.

That tight end quintet has combined to score five NFL touchdowns. Of the 143 tight ends drafted since Modrak joined the Bills, 43 of them have scored more than five touchdowns individually.

Some might also say finding a quarterback has been a failure. Starting quarterbacks, however, aren't easy for any team to locate.

Forty-seven quarterbacks have been drafted within the first three rounds since 2002. The only three teams not included in this pursuit have been the Indianapolis Colts, New Orleans Saints and Dallas Cowboys. The Bills took two within the first three rounds, Losman 22nd overall in 2004 and Trent Edwards 92nd in 2007.

That league-wide group yielded nine Pro Bowlers, but just two of them -- 24th overall pick Aaron Rodgers and third-rounder Matt Schaub -- weren't selected in the top 11. Rodgers and Schaub served as backups for three seasons before they became starters.

Bills general manager Buddy Nix explained that scouting is only one of three critical phases that determine whether a draft pick explodes or fizzles.

"You've got to pick the right guy," Nix said Tuesday. "He's got to have enough athletic ability and enough intelligence, production to do the job, which is what you spend the year doing. We're scouts and personnel guys.

"The second phase, now -- and don't make light of it because it's just as important -- is coaching, strength coaches, trainers. That's the second phase, and both of those things have to be in place. If not, the development of the guy is retarded.

"I'm not going to name teams, but you can name teams every year that get top guys and they don't get any better. They actually may go the other way, and it's the developmental part."

Chan Gailey is Buffalo's fourth head coach -- fifth if you count interim coach Perry Fewell -- since Modrak came aboard. Coordinators have passed through a revolving door. The Bills also have overhauled their strength and conditioning program a couple times.

Nix then stressed that even if the precisely correct draft choice is made and the proper infrastructure is in place, a third phase still can torpedo development. The player can ruin his future if he's "not willing to be a professional and do everything it takes."

"You can go back and look at the so-called busts, and it's one of these three phases," Nix said. "You've got to have it all for them to be really good.

"So even though we put it all on one thing -- 'That was a terrible draft. That was a bust. Those idiots don't know.' -- that's just about a third of it."

Another element that must be considered when discussing Buffalo drafts is the question of who makes the final pick.

Nix and Gailey have been clear Nix makes the final call, although Wilson still can exercise his ownership privilege.

Before Nix became GM last year, trying to decipher who was to credit or blame for a Bills draft choice was like a "Three Stooges" scene. The irate boss hears a commotion, storms into the room and asks "Say! What's the wise idea? Who did this?" Moe pointed at Larry. Curly pointed at Moe. Larry pointed at Curly.

Modrak has been a constant since 2002, but there have been many voices in the Bills' draft room in that period, from Donahoe to GM Marv Levy to chief operating officer Russ Brandon to the various opinionated head coaches who lobbied for prospects they hotly desired.

The Bills' scouting department clearly needs to step its game up to help turn around the franchise. They'll never be the kind of team that lures top free agents because of their market conditions. Buffalo simply isn't as sexy as Miami or San Diego or New York and doesn't offer a perennial chance to win like New England or Pittsburgh does.

But, believe it or not, the Bills' drafts could have been substantially worse since Modrak arrived.

Sheer luck buoyed Mark Sanchez's stats

March, 13, 2011
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New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez showed notable growth in his sophomore season, flipping his touchdown-to-interception ratio from deplorable to dependable.

As a rookie, he threw 12 touchdowns and 20 interceptions. Last season, he recorded 17 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. His passer rating increased 12.3 points.

[+] EnlargeMark Sanchez
Nick Laham/Getty ImagesWill the lack of one-on-one coaching this offseason hurt Mark Sanchez?
Numbers often can be misleading. Randomness aided Sanchez considerably.

Football Outsiders game-by-game research concluded Sanchez led the NFL -- by far -- in dropped interceptions.

Sanchez had 15 of them, three times as many as his rookie season. He had six more dropped interceptions last year than the closest quarterbacks, Carson Palmer and Peyton Manning.

Sanchez made 507 pass attempts, far fewer than Palmer (586) or Manning (679). Sanchez threw an interception or had one dropped on 5.5 percent of his throws.

His combination of interceptions and drops were lower as a rookie. Only five of them were dropped for a total of 25, but they accounted for 6.9 percent of his 364 attempts.

Football Outsiders' criteria to determine a drop: "We don't mean a defender sort of near the play, or guys who dive and see interceptions go off their fingertips. We mean guys who dropped balls that hit them right in the hands or chest."

The other three AFC East starters added together didn't have as many dropped interceptions as Sanchez.

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady won the MVP award in large part for his absurdly low interception percentage. He threw four all season and none over the past 11 regular-season games. Only five of his 492 attempts were dropped.

Even if all of Brady's misfires had been caught by defenders, he would have posted a respectable 1.8 interception percentage.

Buffalo Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick had 15 interceptions and six more of them dropped on 441 attempts, or 4.8 percent.

Fitzpatrick's predecessor, Trent Edwards, had some of the NFL's worst numbers. Edwards passed 101 times for the Bills and Jacksonville Jaguars. Five of them were intercepted. Three more would-be interceptions were dropped. That's 7.9 percent of his passes earmarked for the opponent.

Chad Henne was Mr. Tough Luck. He led the AFC East and was tied for fourth in the league with 19 interceptions, but only one was dropped. So of all interceptable passes he threw, defenses snagged 95 percent of them.

Steve Johnson: 'I'm with Fitz 100 percent'

March, 7, 2011
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The big Buffalo Bills debate these days is whether they should select a quarterback with the third overall draft choice or make a long-term commitment to Ryan Fitzpatrick.

The Bills are closely scrutinizing this year's quarterback class. They will attend Cam Newton's campus workout on Tuesday.

Bills receiver Steve Johnson isn't keeping his preference a secret.

"I'm with Fitz 100 percent," Johnson told me by phone from his offseason home in Elk Grove, Calif.

Johnson has plenty of reasons to back Fitzpatrick. They were a prolific tandem last season.

Fitzpatrick relieved Trent Edwards as the starter in Week 3 and got hot with Johnson, who caught at least one touchdown pass in their first five games together and nine touchdowns in their first eight games.

Johnson finished with 82 receptions for 1,073 yards and 10 touchdowns in a breakout campaign.

"After seeing what he did and playing with him last season, it comes down to loyalty with me and loyalty to the team," Johnson said. "I mean, why wouldn't you stick with the guy who pretty much got the ball rolling?

"If we were to take Cam Newton, I wouldn't say it was a negative or be worried with Fitz. If they was to get Cam Newton, I think that could be good, I guess, for the future or if something were to happen to Fitz.

"But I'm rolling with Fitz either way it goes."

Although quarterback is the marquee position, Johnson notes the Bills have all sorts of options to explore with the third overall pick.

"We can go receiver," Johnson said. "We can go QB. We can go line. We can go anywhere in this draft. We were 4-12."

Highlights from Chan Gailey at combine

February, 24, 2011
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Buffalo Bills head coach Chan Gailey and Miami Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland have completed their media responsibilities at the NFL scouting combine.

Here are some quick highlights from Gailey's gathering, with an Ireland report to follow. I'll elaborate on the more interesting issues later:
  • How Gailey would describe the roster: "I think we're on the right track. I do. I believe we have character on the team. I believe they understand. Hopefully, we're going to get better in each phase. You've just got to get them to understand how to win that close game."
  • On the No. 3 overall pick, Gailey said the general philosophy was to "take care of immediate needs and, at the same time, take care of the long-term franchise good. You have to consider all scenarios."
  • Gailey said that includes possibly trading up or trading down: "We don't turn our phone off at night."
  • He is "anxious" to see Auburn quarterback Cam Newton work out in Lucas Oil Stadium and called him "a big athlete that's in that Wildcat mode, but obviously has the ability to go to the dropback-passer mode."
  • Gailey claimed he wasn't concerned with Newton being a one-year starter at Auburn.
  • Ten years ago, the NFL dictated to colleges how quarterbacks should play. In the next decade, Gailey foresees college football dictating how the NFL uses the quarterbacks who emerge from whatever offenses are popular.
  • Gailey also declared he's "extremely confident" in incumbent starting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and admitted he made a big mistake in not going with him instead of Trent Edwards last year: "Shoot, yeah! If I knew then what I knew now, I wouldn't do that. But you do what you can with the information you have, make a decision, hope you learn from it quickly and rectify the situation."
  • Gailey noted he's never been on a team where he thought he had too many good cornerbacks, there's always room for more. Drayton Florence and Ashton Youboty are about to become free agents. Gailey bluntly added former first-round pick Leodis McKelvin "left something on the table," but still has the chance to be a top-notch cornerback. I hope he'll commit to what he needs to commit to," Gailey said.
  • Reports on outside linebacker Shawne Merriman's recovery from Achilles surgery have been "all positive."
  • Last year's first-round pick, running back C.J. Spiller, needs to become better with ball security and pass blocking: "It didn't work out like anybody planned -- he planned, I planned, any fan out there planned. I still think he's going to be a very good to great player for the Buffalo Bills. I'll do better at finding ways to use him more."
  • The Bills consider their defense neither 3-4 nor 4-3, but a mixture: "If we are a hybrid, which I think we will be, it allows you to take Chris Kelsay and shift all the 3-4 over and now Kelsay or Merriman is a rush guy. We feel like we can massage that as we need to, getting the best football players on the field."
  • The Bills plan to draft defensive linemen based on talent more than positional fit and then find ways to use them.
  • New assistant head coach Dave Wannstedt, who has overseen great 4-3 defenses, will have wide-ranging roles as Gailey's top consultant on both sides of the ball.
  • Free-agent safety Bob Sanders visited the Bills while Gailey was out of town and he didn't have an update on where that stands.
  • The Bills have made an organizational decision not to comment on the NFL labor situation.

An AFC East take on Super Bowl matchup

January, 31, 2011
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Super Bowl week is upon us. Prepare to get bombarded with stats, analysis, anecdotes and obscure storylines about the Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers.

I won't go out of my way to hammer folks over the head with Super Bowl angles all week, but there's a fitting way to look at ahead to Sunday's showdown in this space.

Regardless of what AFC East team you follow, your boys squared off against both Green Bay and Pittsburgh in the regular season. AFC East cross-divisional opponents for 2010 were the AFC North and NFC North. They played each other nine times.

The Steelers went 3-2 against the AFC East, including their AFC Championship Game victory over the New York Jets. The Packers went 2-2.

The New England Patriots were the only AFC East club to beat both Super Bowl entrants, but the Miami Dolphins came close.

Let's review the games to see if we can find a comfort zone for making a prediction for Super Sunday.

[+] EnlargeStevie Johnson
Karl Walter/Getty ImagesHad Stevie Johnson hauled in this pass, the Bills would have defeated the Steelers in overtime.
Pittsburgh Steelers

Results versus AFC East: Won at Dolphins 23-22; lost to Patriots 39-26; won at Buffalo 19-16 in overtime; lost to Jets 22-17; won over Jets in playoffs 24-19.

What we learned: There are no perfect teams, but the Steelers looked particularly flawed in their games against the AFC East. They Steelers easily could have been swept in the regular season and wouldn't have won the AFC North if not for two lucky breaks against the AFC East's non-playoff teams.

The sloppy Dolphins didn't deserve to win at home in Week 7, but they should have anyway. Ben Roethlisberger appeared to fumble into the end zone in the final minutes and Dolphins outside linebacker Ikaika Alama-Francis appeared to recover. But officials prematurely blew the play dead and didn't follow the fumble as they should have. Video evidence didn't help clarify the sequence, so the Steelers maintained possession and kicked a field goal for the victory.

The Steelers, conversely, didn't deserve to beat the Bills in Week 12 at Ralph Wilson Stadium. The Steelers were shaky and went into sudden death against one of the league's worst teams. In overtime, Bills receiver Steve Johnson infamously dropped a perfectly thrown Ryan Fitzpatrick bomb in the end zone. The Steelers survived to kick a field goal.

The Steelers lost both of their home games against the AFC East. The Patriots thumped them in Week 10, and the Jets pulled out of a potential nosedive with a Heinz Field victory in Week 15.

Of course, the Steelers rebounded in the playoffs to beat the Jets in the conference title game. The Jets sleepwalked through the first half, but outscored the Steelers 16-0 in the third and fourth quarters before falling short.

Green Bay Packers

Results versus AFC East: Won over Bills 34-7; lost to Dolphins 23-20 in overtime; won at Jets 9-0; lost at Patriots 31-27.

What we learned: Green Bay's games against the AFC East went a little more by the book, but not totally. And one of their losses was mitigated by Aaron Rodgers' absence.

Buffalo still had Trent Edwards at quarterback when Green Bay properly cruised in Week 2. The other game that went (mostly) as expected was a Week 15 loss in Gillette Stadium. Rodgers was out with a concussion against New England, but backup quarterback Matt Flynn still drove Green Bay within 15 yards of victory in the closing moments.

The Packers' other games were a tad peculiar. The Packers lost a thriller to the Dolphins at Lambeau Field in Week 6. Rodgers scored on a fourth-down run from the 1-yard line to send the game into overtime. Dan Carpenter's 44-yard field goal won it.

Two weeks later, the Packers went to the Meadowlands and blanked the Jets in one of the biggest head-scratchers of the year. Neither team scored a touchdown. The Jets' shutout was even worse considering they were coming off their bye week.

Prediction

I'm basing my prediction on what I witnessed throughout the season.

All in all, the Packers looked pretty solid against the AFC East and had a shot to beat the Patriots without Rodgers.

But what stands out even more for me is how wobbly the Steelers looked in all four regular-season games and the second half of the AFC Championship Game. Without two fortuitous bounces, the Steelers would have been swept in the regular season and wouldn't have had a first-round bye.

I can't get that out of my mind when I predict the Packers to win 27-20.

How do AFC East QBs stack up for 2011?

January, 27, 2011
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All four AFC East starting quarterbacks are under contract and in place for 2011.

Yet each comes with his own set of intriguing circumstances and at least one major question for next season.

[+] EnlargeTom Brady
Greg M. Cooper/US PresswirePatriots quarterback Tom Brady led the NFL in TD passes this season.
Even the resident superstar, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, hasn't won a playoff game in three years and faces a recovery from foot surgery.

The other three -- Mark Sanchez, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Chad Henne -- certainly don't come with any guarantees.

Sanchez's sophomore season seems like a success in the afterglow of another deep postseason run with the New York Jets, but he still has a long way to go to deserve his Sanchize nickname.

The Buffalo Bills like Fitzpatrick but could be tempted to draft a quarterback with the third overall pick. The Miami Dolphins already could be searching for Henne's replacement.

With those issues in mind, let's look ahead to the 2011 season by breaking down each quarterback in the context of what we learned about him in 2010.

I've ranked them in terms of impact and asked Scouts Inc. analyst Matt Williamson to weigh in with his thoughts.

1. Tom Brady


Big 2011 question: How long can he keep doing it?

Pluses: Brady showed he can win with practically any supporting cast. His teammates have been transitory regardless of perceived significance (e.g. Randy Moss). Even with inexperienced help and a few retreads, Brady obviously was the league's MVP and earlier this week was announced as the only unanimous All-Pro selection.

Brady is the ultimate field general. He manipulates defenses, makes quick decisions at the line of scrimmage and delivers the ball with pinpoint accuracy. He broke the record for consecutive throws without an interception and led the NFL in touchdown passes.

Minuses: The combination of age and injuries are the biggest concern -- if there is one. Brady will turn 34 before next season begins and had foot surgery last week to repair a stress fracture. It was his second major operation in three years. At this rate, we can't expect Brady to be in his prime four or five more years. The window is closing.

Brady, though, doesn't rely on mobility. Perhaps his biggest shortcoming -- a flaw that opened the door for people to make a case for Michael Vick as MVP -- is that Brady doesn't make plays with his legs. As Williamson noted, Brady's not the best improviser when a play breaks down.

Brady also has lost three straight postseason games. While some would chalk that up to happenstance, it's a trend that certainly will be on Brady's mind the next time they make it, which should be in a year.

Williamson's take: "To me, he's still the king of the castle. It's pretty hard to argue against Brady or Peyton Manning. The bar is set so high that 30 teams in the league would kill for either of those guys to be their quarterback, and that will be true a year from now.

"He's so competitive. His work ethic is so great. He can throw the football as well as anyone. His supporting cast is phenomenal. His head coach isn't going anywhere. If your biggest problem is 'How much longer is he going to last?' then that's not much of a problem. The guy's great."

2. Mark Sanchez

Big 2011 question: Can he evolve into a truly great quarterback in his third season?

[+] EnlargeMark Sanchez
Alan Maglaque/US PresswireJets quarterback Mark Sanchez continued to play his best in big games this season.
Pluses: Sanchez seemed ordinary for major chunks of 2010. I would have ranked Fitzpatrick ahead of him halfway into December. But Sanchez proved to be a money quarterback with two more road playoff victories and another solid performance in the AFC Championship game.

Sanchez is developing into a clutch quarterback, a topic I examined in a column last week. Authorities such as Bill Parcells and Sam Wyche have been impressed with Sanchez's ability to rise to the occasion. His postseason stats dwarf his regular-season numbers. He has five fourth-quarter comebacks and won back-to-back overtime road games this season, something that never had been done before.

Sanchez is only 24 years old and already has played in six playoff games. His combination of age, experience and potential will keep him in the spotlight for a long time. Jets backup quarterback Mark Brunell told me last week that Sanchez is "going to be an elite quarterback someday."

Minuses: There are plenty of negatives to keep Williamson and me from jumping on the Sanchez bandwagon. Sanchez is inconsistent from game to game and inaccurate with his throws. He's prone to turnover flare-ups, proving he can be rattled. He has trouble coping with blitzes.

Sanchez completed 54.8 percent of his attempts, third-worst in the NFL. He threw only 13 interceptions (wonderful number compared to the 20 he threw as a rookie). But Football Outsiders charted 15 more dropped interceptions, an excessive number. Football Outsiders managing editor Bill Barnwell noted Sanchez should have thrown more interceptions than a year before because he had only five dropped as a rookie. Defenders held onto 80 percent of potential picks in 2009, but just 46 percent this season.

So Sanchez's abysmal 75.3 passer rating (fifth from the bottom and behind Henne) downplayed how scattershot he was. Take away Sanchez's four games with 100-plus passer ratings and he threw six touchdowns and 12 interceptions.

You can see why the Jets need to maintain their infrastructure and not become dependent on Sanchez yet.

Williamson's take: "I have been a huge basher of him. I think he's been vastly overrated. To talk about him as a top 10 quarterback, top 12 or 15 quarterback, is crazy to me. But these last two games have opened my eyes. I will give him much more benefit of the doubt now.

"I still need to put an asterisk next to him. In the AFC Championship Game, that's as good as he's going to play, and that's good enough for the Jets to win. They have the formula. He has great receivers, a great line and one of the best defenses in the league. But he still has issues. His best moments are something that anybody can do. He still struggles with the blitz. His arm is still average. He's not a guy who can attack outside the numbers. He can't drive the ball deep downfield.

"I'd rather play against him than with him. Still, he plays his best when it matters most, and most quarterbacks don't. His intangibles are really encouraging. I don't think the stage ever is too big for him."

3. Ryan Fitzpatrick

Big 2011 question: Will he be the long-term answer or just a stopgap?

[+] EnlargeRyan Fitzpatrick
Luc Leclerc/US PresswireBuffalo quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick could enter next season as the Bills' starter after some inspired play this season.
Pluses: Fitzpatrick was a journeyman backup who could be on the verge of his first full-fledged offseason as somebody's starting quarterback. The Bills brain trust opted for Trent Edwards at the start of training camp and gave him all of the first-team reps. But two games into the season, new head coach Chan Gailey had seen enough and inserted Fitzpatrick.

Despite Fitzpatrick's limited interaction with the first-teamers, he provided a noticeable spark with his mobility and deep throws. The coaching staff and his teammates almost immediately seemed to have renewed faith in the offense. He helped previously anonymous receivers such as Steve Johnson and David Nelson turn into dangerous contributors.

Fitzpatrick also became easy for Bills fans to root for. He was a seventh-round draft choice out of Harvard who nearly became the first Bills quarterback to throw 30 touchdowns in a season since Jim Kelly. Fitzpatrick challenged defenses and took chances downfield.

Minuses: Fitzpatrick is 28 and probably has hit his ceiling. He might be satisfactory as a caretaker, but his prospects as a playoff quarterback are dubious. He was a backup his first five years in the league and didn't stand out in 15 starts with the St. Louis Rams and Cincinnati Bengals. The fact he signed with the Bills to be a backup in 2009 reflected his worth on the open market.

Fitzpatrick is fun to watch because he takes chances, but his swashbuckling tendencies get him into trouble. He's liable to feather a pass between two defenders or throw a horrendous interception on any given play. He committed five turnovers in Week 16 against a Patriots team that had nothing to play for.

General manager Buddy Nix told Buffalo News reporter Mark Gaughan this week that the Bills need to draft a quarterback in April. Whether the Bills grab Cam Newton or Blaine Gabbert with the third overall pick will clarify the plan for Fitzpatrick as a long-term solution.

Williamson's take: "I don't think Fitzpatrick is the answer. I don't think he can ever be in the top 50 percent of starting quarterbacks in this league. He can get you to 8-8, but in the end you're going to want to replace him. But I wouldn't fault the Bills at all to say 'Let's give him another year. Let's give him an entire offseason as The Man.' They should say 'This is your team, and we're going to go out and get you a receiver, a defense and a blocker or two.'

"The Bills can jump off that bridge a year from now. The Bills can't reach on a quarterback in the first round and have him sit behind Fitzpatrick. That organization has too many issues. Their needs are too great to spend No. 3 money on the 12th-best player in the draft. You tread water with Fitzpatrick for now and hope he gets a little better."

4. Chad Henne

Big 2011 question: Will he be able to seize the starter's job again?

Pluses: Henne was benched once and pulled from a game late in the season. He had a rough year, but he's 25 years old -- young enough to be considered a prospect yet with substantial experience. Henne was a four-year starter at Michigan and sat for a year behind Chad Pennington before taking over the Dolphins' job in 2009.

Henne has a strong arm and can make all the throws. He's also tough, missing only one week with a knee injury that the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported would "more than likely" end his season. Henne returned in Week 12 and, on the other side of the country with the season on the line, threw for 307 yards and two touchdowns against the Oakland Raiders.

Henne could benefit from some new voices. Offensive coordinator Dan Henning retired, and quarterbacks coach David Lee took a job with Ole Miss. The Dolphins hired young offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, who has been exposed to Brady and Brett Favre. Receivers coach Karl Dorrell, the former UCLA head coach, will be Henne's position coach.

Minuses: The Dolphins publicly expressed their dissatisfaction in Henne by benching him. He flopped in 2010 even though the Dolphins made one of the offseason's biggest acquisitions, trading two second-round draft choices and committing a metric ton of cash to star receiver Brandon Marshall. Henne also had one of the league's top slot receivers, Davone Bess.

But Henne's erratic play doomed their season. He produced a trio of three-interception games and posted a passer rating below 70 five times.

Henne plays like a robot. Every motion appears purposeful, as though it was programmed, rather than coming naturally. He doesn't perform well off the script, can lock onto receivers and freezes in the pocket.

Williamson's take: "If we had this conversation 365 days ago, I would have been all about Chad Henne. I was very much a believer in him before this season. There wasn't one player in the league who let me down more than Henne. I thought he was on the verge of being really good.

"The Dolphins really handcuffed him with the play-calling and lack of a vertical passing game. That hurt him. He needs to throw the ball a lot. He needs to go deep. He needs to use his arm.

"But when you watch him play the game now, he's not even close to being good enough. I think a change of scenery would do him a world of good, but they can't afford to get rid of him for nothing. They would be foolish not to bring competition in for him.

"I like his skill set and think he can be very good, but he looks the worst I've ever seen him, and I was involved at trying to recruit him out of high school to Pitt. He was horrible this year."

Fitzpatrick fine, but Bills still watching QBs

January, 26, 2011
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Buffalo Bills head coach Chan Gailey has been vocal in his support of quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick.

The career backup stepped forth and produced a career year in 2010, giving Bills fans reason to think about other positions when the Bills draft third overall in three months.

Bills general manager Buddy Nix, however, won't rule out a quarterback. The obvious candidates would be Auburn's Cam Newton and Missouri's Blaine Gabbert.

"We certainly like Fitz," Nix told Buffalo News reporter Mark Gaughan during preparations for the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala. The Bills are coaching the South squad.

Fitzpatrick's performance "wasn't more than we expected because I knew Chan would get him to play better," Nix said. "We counted on that and he did. I really like him. I think he's got a lot of qualities you need. We just need to keep putting good players out there."

No matter how much Nix or Gailey love Fitzpatrick as their offensive leader, Bills owner Ralph Wilson will make the final call. Wilson told Associated Press reporter John Wawrow in October that drafting a quarterback was the club's top priority.

Fitzpatrick might have won Wilson over as the season wore on, but the Hall of Fame owner has a reputation for pursuing his desires with conviction once his mind is made up.

Nix said the Bills need to come out of the draft with a quarterback. Their backups are the underwhelming Brian Brohm and second-year pro Levi Brown, a seventh-round pick last year who wasn't good enough for a practice squad spot out of training camp. The Bills brought back Brown after the Bills waived Trent Edwards.

"To answer the question of third pick, whoever is there that we think is going to be a franchise impact player for us is the guy we'll draft," Nix said. "Where anybody thinks it makes sense [in terms of position], it doesn't matter to me. If it's a guy that we think long-term's an impact guy, no matter what the position, we'll take him."

Bills regular-season wrap-up

January, 5, 2011
1/05/11
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NFC Wrap-ups: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final Power Ranking: 30
Preseason Power Ranking: 31

[+] EnlargeChan Gailey
Crystal LoGiudice/US PresswireChan Gailey's Bills will have to address a number of needs during the offseason.
Biggest surprise: The Bills opened the season 0-8, which would be considered a mild surprise. They weren't supposed to win. Most shocking was first-year head coach Chan Gailey's ability to keep his overmatched talent committed enough to pull out of the nosedive. In one six-game stretch, the Bills won four games and lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers in overtime. The Bills were a team of overachievers led by quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick (seventh-round draft choice and career backup), running back Fred Jackson (undrafted), receiver Steve Johnson (seventh-round pick) and defensive tackle Kyle Williams (fifth-round pick).

Biggest disappointment: The Bills closed out the season with losses to the New England Patriots and New York Jets by a combined score of 72-10. But even more disgusting than their finish was the lack of production the Bills received from recent first-round draft choices. Rookie running back C.J. Spiller (ninth overall) didn't live up to the promise he demonstrated in the preseason. Outside linebacker Aaron Maybin (11th pick in 2009) started one game and still doesn't have a sack. The Bills dumped running back Marshawn Lynch (12th pick in 2007) for a fourth-round pick. Safety Donte Whitner (eighth pick in 2006) was uninspiring again. Defensive lineman John McCargo (26th pick in 2006) was a healthy scratch for 15 games. Receiver Lee Evans (13th pick in 2004) posted mediocre numbers before landing on injured reserve in December.

Biggest need: The Bills own the third selection in April's draft. There are few positions they could settle upon and have it not be a helpful decision. The Bills remain in a rebuilding phase and need help in a great number of places and should find an elite player -- unless their first-round track record fails them yet again. The Bills can't go wrong with a quarterback, pass-rusher, run-stopping defensive lineman, offensive tackle or inside linebacker.

Team MVP: Kyle Williams, defensive tackle. He played for the NFL's worst run defense, but he was the only player opposing offensive coordinators needed to neutralize. Williams recorded 5.5 sacks.

Why didn't they realize that sooner? The Bills could have changed the course of their season had the brain trust not misidentified their offensive centerpieces. Gailey gave quarterback Trent Edwards all the meaningful training camp and preseason snaps, leaving Fitzpatrick with slapdash preparation time. Gailey gave Fitzpatrick the job in Week 3, and the Bills cut Edwards shortly thereafter. How much further along would the offense have been had Fitzpatrick been groomed for the job properly? Lynch started three out of his four games before the Bills traded him, rendering Jackson a bit player. Jackson got more than 12 carries for the first time in Week 7 and still almost rushed for 1,000 yards.

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