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WNY : For a good time, call someone else.

Doesn't this just make you want to visit?

 

The weather sucks, the people are bitter, there’s never anything going on. The food’s great, the sports fans are devoted, there’s always something to do.

Western New York. Two different views, each held (in one regard or another) by everyone who has ever lived in the area. There’s no way for someone who knows these parts, who has lived this way of life, to truly forever love or hate Buffalo, Rochester, or any point in between.

I suppose the same could be said for many regions, but it’s not often that you find such a strange mixture of views on the day-to-day from the locals as you do here. The same people who are infatuated with everything you see in this part of the state will eagerly join in on a conversation knocking each and every downfall – be it the school systems, the snow, the sports teams, or any multitude of other gripes – and those who are always down on the place they live will be quick to come to bat when someone has even the slightest negative remark to make about it.

Case in point – earlier this week, Brad Marchand, a player for the defending champion Boston Bruins of the National Hockey League and by default natural enemy of all Buffalonians, told WEEI radio in Boston that Buffalo is “the worst place in the NHL … I’ll be pretty excited to leave” and the uproar began. The way folks were reacting, you’d think the guy sifted through the Yellow Pages and called every number in the 716 area code just to tell them what their mother does with her spare time. Now, this is nothing new – not by any means. We’re used to national figures, athletes mostly, wiping the city and the area through the mud when they talk about it (other notable recent incidents include comments from NFL stars Tom Brady and Willis McGahee as well as  future NHLer Emerson Etem) and really, should we be so defensive?

If you think about it, for a millionaire (or anyone high-profile for that matter) this tree doesn’t exactly have ripened fruit dangling from every branch. Guys like that, those who travel from city to city regularly looking to be coddled in their down time, are simply not finding much to please them around here. This, as Matthew Stewart of The Daily Torch mentioned in a discussion over the subject recently, is a place for families that don’t mind being cold. For better or for worse, this is a solid assertation about WNY. You don’t hear about folks from other parts of the country planning trips to come around these parts, and you sure as hell aren’t seeing families jumping for joy to plant their roots in our podunks without good reason. This is a place for people who were born here and haven’t found an excuse to leave yet. Every single family and individual that I’ve known whom left greener pastures for New York’s redheaded stepchild did so for one of two reasons – primarily, it’s because they have relatives around here that need them for one reason or another and much less frequently, these relocations are for a job opportunity.

Those job opportunities haven’t exactly been bountiful in recent years, and it’s not a number trending upwards. Buffalo’s always been referred to as a ‘blue collar’ town – a city filled with low-to-middle class people working hard for modest wages. This classification originated during the 20th century when it was one of the largest cities in the country and industrial boom created many factory and construction jobs for its inhabitants. In the past few decades, though, much of that has died off – yet the mentality still remains. When I think of a blue collar individual, I think of the typical lunchpail-toting worker coming home after a long day of doing whatever necessary to get by and provide for their family. Update the image to a more recent timeframe, and that’s most people you’ll meet from this area. A job is a job as long as it’s putting food on the table, and it’s uncommon to find many who aren’t living closer to a paycheck-to-paycheck life than in financial comfort in these parts. For folks like that, downtime’s important.

For those of you reading this who are from WNY, just give it a thought – when you or your peers are trying to have a good time and really unwind, what’s the plan? A lot of folks will go to one of the numerous hole in the wall dives peppering the streets of every town. Some take to various sporting events of all different levels, or maybe catch the occasional concert from a group who accidentally scheduled a venue in the middle of nowhere. Often, though, we think to leave town to truly enjoy ourselves. Niagara Falls, New York City, out of state, out of country. It’s not that we’re looking for something new most of the time, either – it’s that we’re looking for anything at all. I myself get out often in between a full work schedule, but I enjoy attending minor league hockey games, seeing the same faces in the same dimly lit bars, and eating at the same niche restaurants after catching a show from a band I’ve never heard of. The same things that constitute a decent application of my slim amounts of time and scant income (and those of many like me) would be simply unappealing to the likes of a Marchand, McGahee, or Brady. For those types, this region’s a bump in the road to bigger and better. They’d much rather be in a city like New York, Boston, Dallas… you name it – somewhere that their lifestyles are accommodated.

You consider that, and can you still take the same level of frustration with comments the nature of those the aforementioned made? For them, it is a bad place to be. It takes a certain fool to enjoy this area and its people, it takes a deranged mind to eat something that looks like and is named after garbage, and it takes an absolutely damaged soul to stay true to these sports teams.

But we do, so why should we care that they don’t?

I, for one, couldn’t care less. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go brush the snow off of my car and find something to do in this godforsaken hellhole.

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How to build a winner – what’s Buffalo been doing wrong all of these years?

What’s it take to build a team? I’m not looking for just any team. We know how to build that team – we’ve been doing it for years. That team doesn’t win – that team doesn’t make the playoffs.

What’s it take to build a winning team, a team like last night’s Giant club that’s now won two rings in four years? Plenty of people will look at that question and simply say ‘players,’ but it’s never that easy. If that were the case, the ‘dream teams’ would win it all every year – those who load up on name free agents and try to just let things work. Truly, it’s not a perfect science. That’s the great thing about sports, and the NFL specifically – so many factors can and do go into creating a team that it’s impossible to really say what it takes to field a solid unit. Between coaches, scouts, executives, trainers, and players that each team employs, everyone within an organization plays a part in the success – or lack thereof – that the on field product has on a yearly basis.

Finding who to bring in, promote, retain, and even part ways with is a constant task for those in the upper echelon of decision makers in each of these organizations. In Buffalo, the hierarchy runs from team owner Ralph Wilson Jr. through general manager Buddy Nix before moving on down the chain to head coach Chan Gailey. There are other men in the mix here and there, but these three are the main ones with final say and responsibility for the moves made throughout the year to shape the Bills into how we see them on a weekly basis. The common conception over the years is that Wilson is incapable and unwilling of spending money on the team that he’s owned from its upstart in 1959. Even if that was the case throughout the early 2000’s, he’s seemed to ease back on that stance in recent seasons which has allowed the team to utilize a previously untapped resource in the negotiation department – the ever-important dollar sign. Not to say that all of these athletes are superficial, but when early spring comes around and the league year is just about to start, Bills players whose contracts are coming to an end have long understood that if they want to get paid what they’re worth, it won’t be here – and other team’s quality free agents can’t often find a reason to even recognize Buffalo as a legitimate option. They don’t win, they don’t pay, why would you go there?

It’s a valid thought process. Or is it now, in 2012? Last year, the team could have gone into the season with their starting inside linebackers 33-year-old Andra Davis and career backup Reggie Torbor but made a strong push in the free agent market to pursue San Diego free agent Kevin Burnett. Burnett ultimately chose the Dolphins before visiting Orchard Park, and everyone thought that Nix would give up and settle on what he had, as is the Buffalo way. Two days after Burnett signed his four-year deal with Miami, Buffalo made their splash and signed former All-Pro linebacker Nick Barnett from the Green Bay Packers. Barnett had been on the market for less than 72 hours when he made Buffalo his first visit on a long list of interested teams – and Nix wouldn’t let him leave the building without a deal. Barnett signed a three-year, twelve million dollar deal to come to Buffalo and immediately become their best veteran player.

Sure, the excuses are there already – he was coming off of an injury, the Packers cut him, he wasn’t Kevin Burnett – but this is something new for the Bills. Lately, when they’ve doled out the money for a ‘big time starter’ in free agency, it’s been a massive overpayment for someone who even the average Joe could see wouldn’t work here (Terrell Owens, Cornell Green) while they’ve let quality home-grown talent (Travis Henry, Antoine Winfield) simply walk to another team, further making a mockery of the Bills in league circles. Barnett’s willingness to cancel visits to other cities and immediately sign here shows something to other free agents – this place may be viable. Doesn’t hurt that the Bills looked like one of the league’s best throughout the first half of the season, either. Still, considering how they finished, it may not be the easiest to get new guys to come here.

That’s one of the things that the team has to be able to shift the perception of heading into the offseason. Last year, it was common knowledge that Shawne Merriman’s starpower, status, and recruiting were integral in getting Barnett, now the team’s starting weakside linebacker, to commit to spending his time in Western New York. This year, they’ve got to play on that and Buffalo’s impressive beginning to the 2011 season to pull in quality players. Barnett, Merriman, and to a slightly lesser extent, Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams should be able to have a bit of that ‘I want to play with those guys’ pull on free agent defenders, but what’s the draw on offense? I don’t foresee the team chasing any big time offensive players outside of the wide receiver position and possibly tight end if they let Chandler test the market (I think they’ll look for an upgrade at backup quarterback this offseason as well, but you’re still not signing a name there), so what would get them here?

There’s the obvious opportunity to start, which heightens with a potential departure of Steve Johnson for another team. Still, guys like Dwayne Bowe, Reggie Wayne, and Brandon Lloyd will be signing to start anywhere they go. This will attract the lower-tiered guys, like Mario Manningham, the other Steve Smith, Robert Meachem, and others. These are guys that have talent but are buried on their team’s depth charts behind the types of guys that we actually want. Past that, though, there’s not a lot that’s going to make a Wayne, Lloyd, or perhaps someone of Vincent Jackson’s caliber come here, unfortunately. While Fitzpatrick looked great throughout a good chunk of the season, he still passed for less than 4,000 yards and his top receiver (Johnson) had just a hair over 1,000 yards receiving. He spreads the ball around a lot, which doesn’t benefit a lot of the guys looking to get the ball multiple times in a series. Players like Johnson and Fred Jackson are some of the best at what they do in the league, but they don’t quite have that pull that Barnett and Merriman would have, especially considering they are home-grown talents that came up through the ranks as Bills and have never played elsewhere. That’s where the money situation comes into play, and you can bet that if this team really wants to contend in 2012 that they’ll have one of the top-paid starting wideout tandems in the league. It’ll take a significant number to get Johnson to return, and an even bigger one to get a quality counterpart on the opposite end of the field.

To me that’s not a bad thing, though, as long as they spend the money wisely. So long as the team can be smart, they’ll avoid Langston Walker and Derrick Dockery-esque signings and bring in quality players who can actually help the team improve. Later in the week, we’ll look at who they should pursue, and who they’ve got a decent shot at landing. After that, we’ll dig into draft preparation. Hope you’re as excited for that as I am. Until next time, Bills fans.

 

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New site is now active!

Head on over to fromtherockpile.com, or use the shortlink [ftrp.us] to start using the new site – I’ll be updating both here and there for a limited time before everything is eventually switched over completely to the new location. If you have a subscription with this site (ftrp.wordpress.com) please, go ahead and re-subscribe to the new site – and if you don’t have a subscription, click over and subscribe anyways!

 

We’ll have a new banner and a couple new features rolling out soon, as well as more Buffalo Bills content as often as I can put it out, but for the most part the site will stay the same. The new domain names and hosting makes things easier on both readers and writers alike, and I’d like to thank Chris Glogowski for his help with setting this all up, and of course, for hosting this whole experiment.

 

Please, do us a favor and enjoy the new digs. Subscribe, read, and share – you’ll be glad you did.

 

Thanks again for all of your continued support.

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1/30/12 Bills Updates

Photo property of the Associated Press.

Some decently significant, but more or less obvious information was confirmed by Head Coach Chan Gailey today – Buffalo will utilize a four-man front in their base defense for 2012. Obviously, that’s not exclusive as most teams in the league play more of a hybrid scheme nowadays (as Buffalo has since Gailey’s hiring) but whereas they played with four down linemen on around 45% of the plays for the past two years, that number should greatly increase in 2012. No matter the formation or alignment, the new strategy is very clear  – this team wants to put as much pressure on the quarterback as possible. That’s what Dave Wannstedt does with his units, and you can look for him to send multiple rushers on almost every play, with the hopes of giving his defensive backs ample opportunities to make plays if the main goal (a sack) can’t be achieved.

The only new assignment that Gailey would be committal to in his press conference regarding the defense was his announcement that Kelvin Sheppard, the second year pro, will be the starting middle linebacker. Presumably, that would move fellow 3-4 ILB Nick Barnett, one of the team’s best defenders in 2011, to the weakside where he can better utilize his athleticism and have more freedom with his movement around the field. The scheme shift creates a need for a strongside linebacker, as most of the corps will either be changing positions  (Kelsay back to end, Johnson to tackle) or be out of a job (presumably Davis, Torbor, and Eddins). This leaves Arthur Moats, Danny Batten, Shawne Merriman, Scott McKillop, Chris White, and Kirk Morrison for Wannstedt and his staff to figure out what to do with. White, McKillop and Morrison (if re-signed) will likely battle for the backup middle linebacker position in camp (though Gailey says he’d like to add a ‘stout’ number two there during the offseason) and Gailey sees Moats and Batten as ‘tweeners’ who will get their shot at linebacker, but will likely end up being depth at defensive end. Merriman wasn’t mentioned today, but there’s a good chance that he mans the strongside role if noone gets added there. His pass rushing and leadership capabilities make him a great fit on paper, but his lack of lateral ability and movement in pass coverage may make him a situational player, likely with his hand in the dirt on passing downs.

The front-seven shifting doesn’t just displace the linebackers, but the line itself will also see some changes. Starters won’t look much different, with Dareus and Williams plugging the middle, but Chris Kelsay returns to his natural spot at left end while it remains to be seen what happens at the opposite end of the line. Even before today’s announcement, it was no secret that Gailey and Nix would like to bring in a pass rusher, and right defensive end would be the most ideal place to put them. Amongst those ending 2011 listed as linemen, you can expect Dareus, Williams, Torell Troup, Spencer Johnson, Kellen Heard, Lionel Dotson, Jay Ross and Dwan Edwards all end up as tackles. This, obviously, will displace a good chunk of these guys, most notably Edwards, who is due a decent sized paycheck  (around 4.5 million) this year for someone who will be a situational player, at best. Jarron Gilbert, a late-season acquisition, should remain at end if he makes the roster, and I’d imagine Alex Carrington, the team’s 2010 3rd round choice, to play there as well while also shifting inside occasionally. Kyle Moore will probably be lumped in with Moats and Batten, as he is a college end turned linebacker, and will be moved to wherever his strengths suit him best.

We’ve also had quite a few coaching changes since the season ended – the most notable was already discussed here a few weeks ago when Defensive Coordinator George Edwards was fired and Inside Linebackers coach Dave Wannstedt was promoted to take his place. Since then, though, there have been a handful of staff moves on both sides of the ball. On defense, Outside Linebackers coach Bob Sanders was promoted to the title of Linebackers coach, taking in the ILBs since Wannstedt has bigger fish to fry. Also, the team picked up William Inge, who coached linebackers at the Universities of Cincinnati (’08-’09) and Buffalo (’10-’11) while also serving as UB’s Defensive Coordinator in those two years, to be their Assistant Defensive Line coach. Adrian White has been promoted from Defensive Quality Control to Assistant Defensive Backs coach, and taking his role is University of Pittsburgh graduate (’08) Eric Thatcher. Thatcher started at free safety in Wannstedt’s defense at Pitt for three seasons, so he already has familiarity with Wannstedt’s scheming and playbooks, which could help him acclimate much easier.

On the offensive side of the ball, Quarterbacks coach George Cortez left the team to become the head coach of the Hamilton Tigercats of the Canadian Football League, and in his place comes former Ole Miss offensive coordinator David Lee. Lee has been a quarterbacks coach in the NFL previously, with stints both in Dallas and Miami, and while on South Beach he was the man responsible for bringing the Wildcat offense into the pros, something that bodes well for Brad Smith going forward. He also, through working in Miami, has worked extensively with Tyler Thigpen which should be beneficial. Another former University of Buffalo coach (Tight Ends, ’01-’05), Andrew Dees, was brought in to replace Bobby Johnson as the Assistant Offensive Line coach after Johnson took a position with the Jacksonville Jaguars coaching their Tight Ends. Wide Receivers coach Stan Hixon left Buffalo for the same position on Bill O’Brien’s staff at Penn State, and moving into his role here is Tight Ends coach Bob Bicknell, who held that position for the past two years. This leaves Bicknell’s former position as the only one left to fill on the coaching staff heading into the offseason.

We’ve had our first contract situation taken care of before the season is technically over, as Garrison Sanborn signed a three-year extension to keep him as Buffalo’s starting long snapper. I’ve noted before how well he plays the least recognized position in football, and after playing in all 48 games over the past three years, he’s earned a new deal to keep him in town.

 

Also, I’m proud to say that From the Rockpile will be moving to a new address soon. We are currently in the process of getting everything functional on new servers with two new URLs, one full-length and one designed for shortlinks. This should be going live sometime this month, and once it is, I’ll be sure to update everyone here as well as on my Facebook and Twitter pages so you can update your bookmarks and subscriptions. I’m very excited about this move to a legitimate .com and hope that you’ll all continue to be a part of things when we make the shift.

 

That’s all for this time – expect something a little less stale than coaching assistants shuffling around in the next installment. Thanks for reading, I’ll see you all after the Super Bowl.

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Stay classy, Patriot fans.

Photo found on goodmenproject.com

 

I have an extreme distaste for Boston sports.

 

If you grew up in New York, it’s in your blood – rather, it should be. As a kid, who was my baseball team? Not the Red Sox. Who did I root for in hockey before I truly followed the Sabres? Whoever’s playing the Bruins. What team, under every circumstance, was there never any cheering allowed for in the house on Sundays? I think you get it by now.

Still, with that, I’m a grown man and can respect the accomplishments of others. I’ll be the first to admit, often, that I’m an admirer of Bill Belichick and how he’s managed to work the system. Forget ‘Spygate’ and all of that other purported nonsense. The way that man has built an empire, built a system – on both sides of the ball – that flat-out works, is beautiful. He mastered the format used by few other teams (led by his protégés, not coincidentally) that puts in place a certain grading system for his scouts, requiring college-level evaluators to know the entire professional roster, and how player A from East Nowhere State could fit in amongst the fifty-three men currently in the locker room – and who he’d have to replace to do so. The offense he runs, with strong and gritty linemen, skill players you’ve never heard of, and one of the best quarterbacks to play the game – yeah, that’s admirable, too. His defenses have been lacking since the days Harrison, Bruschi, and Seymour roamed the gridiron, but considering he hasn’t finished lower than second in the division in twelve years (ten of those in first), it’s admissible.

Brady’s a whole different story. While I hate him – and that’s a strong word – in the realm of sports, and he’s probably one of the only players in all of football I can truly say that about, I still think he’s an amazing player. My tune has changed over the years about him. Whereas I used to dismiss any positivity regarding him with the words ‘system quarterback’ I have now long since realized that he has qualities that no system can give you. The guy is positively unflappable and incredible in the clutch. Even the greats before him looked to be in a panic when the pressure was on, but when Brady sees a linebacker closing in, he gets angry and (more often than not) tends to throw a touchdown pass in a display of how-did-he-do-that talent – all the while jawing at the defender who just wasn’t quick enough to get to him. When it’s not against Buffalo, I like to watch the guy play. Sorry if that makes me any less of a Bills fan, but I do.

Because of these reasons, and plenty more, I’d like to see Tom Brady and Bill Belichick win another Lombardi Trophy. Legacies and reputations are big in this league, and these guys have two of the best of each. A fourth ring for the tandem would get Blair Buswell, the lead bust carver in Canton, to start in on his inevitable work a little quicker. Nobody ever thinks of it this way, but New England bringing the trophy home also means bringing it into the division. Now, the East looks better. Now, a victory means more. That, honestly, would sound better to me than any other headline :

 

Buffalo Bills defeat Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots

 

…doesn’t it just have that “hell yeah we did” ring to it?

 

 

Unfortunately, I don’t deal with Brady and Belichick on a daily basis. I do, however, deal with myriad Patriots fans. No other team in the league seems to do this, so I wonder why it is that the vast majority of Patriot ‘faithful’ whom I know and encounter (and I use faithful loosely as the bandwagon overfloweth) feel the need to act as though the team overcomes such incredible adversity with every victory? At the same time, is it necessary to remind other fans that their teams didn’t win (“Yeah, well how’s Buffalo doing?!” is a common one around here) after every victory for your good guys? Between being a good fan and being an insufferable sonofabitch, the line is very fine for many sports fans. Around here, that line is more than often blurred and ignored in favor of letting everyone know “Hey guys! I like a team that WON a football game, you scumbags!” when it comes to New England fans (some – not all). There’s a sense of homer goggles with every team’s fanbase, it’s unavoidable, but it seems to be the case tenfold with this club. Just this year alone, I’ve overheard fans proclaim that BenJarvus Green-Ellis (600 yards and a 3.7 YPC in 2011) is the best back in the league – that Chad Ochocinco (15 catches, 276 yards, 1 touchdown … in 15 games) is still one of the top number-one targets in the game, just waiting for his breakout game. Don’t even get me started on what trash was talked about the greatness contained within Albert Haynesworth (3 tackles in six games) before his release. Listen, I’m all for rooting for your team. I’m a huge supporter of it. I just don’t believe it’s necessary to berate other teams’ fans and act as though you don’t know what it’s like to win.

 

 

Let me clarify, again, that I’m not talking about every New England fan here. But this outburst of insatiable look-at-us attitude being displayed is absolutely ludicrous and looks bad on you all. I’m wise enough to know that not every Bills fan gets loaded before games – not every Eagles fan throws batteries at Santa – and not every Patriot fan rides jocks and talks down. Just remember, all it takes is one instance to change a view.

 

This rant may have died off after I started writing, but for Christ’s sake, guys, stay classy. I know I have a good number of New England fans who read this site, and most of you are clear-minded individuals who will look at this and laugh because you know just the type of fan I’m talking about. Then, there’s some of you who will look at this and get angry because, well, this is you.

 

Do me a favor? For the next two weeks (and if you want to be a really decent person, the rest of your football-watching life) act like you’ve been there before because, bandwagon or not, you have. Often.

 

Now, go enjoy these next two weeks without being a pain in our collective ass. Football fans across America thank you.

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Stop the music, Buddy. No more musical chairs.

Photo property of Rick Stewart / Getty Images

 

Pat Williams, Antoine Winfield, Travis Henry, Nate Clements, Willis McGahee, Jason Peters, Jabari Greer, Marshawn Lynch… what do these men (and dozens like them) have in common? They all got their starts as Buffalo Bills and when their contracts came up, the team didn’t want to pay for them to continue playing here so they were either let go without a consideration or traded away to save a few dollars.

For years, this has been an issue that has plagued the Bills. They simply seem inept when it comes to recognizing the players that make the most sense to retain in order to field a decent team. In some cases, such as Clements’ and Peters’, the money requested far outvalued the production shown ($80 and $60 million, respectively) so the argument could be made for letting them walk, but as a whole, the logic has seemed to be to just let free agents walk and try to reload through the draft and with low-level signings. When you’re letting those players take off in three or four years, the whole process is shot and entirely counterproductive.

2012 can be the year that mindset changes, and if Nix and company want to win, it needs to be. With eighteen contracts to consume themselves with in the next month-and-a-half, they can really set the tone for what they are trying to do. There’s a handful of starters and key role players in this group, and if they don’t at least make a valiant effort to bring them back, you’ve really got to wonder if it’s just more of the same here. For a team that showed so much promise to start the year, let’s hope not.

RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS

OL Kraig Urbik & Chad Rinehart, LS Garrison Sanborn

 

Six months ago, you couldn’t bribe me into saying that Kraig Urbik should have a job in the NFL, much less a starting role with the Buffalo Bills. After seeing how well he played this year, however, I’d say his return needs to be made a priority for the team. He proved to be a strong and versatile player who works well in offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris’ blocking schemes, manning every spot on the line besides right tackle at some point throughout the 2011 season. Urbik saw most of his time at right guard and eventually became the team’s starting center after Andy Levitre proved ineffective there (following Eric Wood’s season-ending injury) later in the year. He shouldn’t command a huge number, and paired with Rinehart, he makes up some solid interior depth should Levitre or Wood go down again.

Rinehart stepped in wonderfully to both guard positions at various points this year and made quite an impression, easily earning himself a new deal in my eyes. The injuries and constant shifts made these two players gain much more experience on the line than they otherwise would have, thus making them hard to dispose of. Sanborn has continued his three-year dominance amongst long snappers, one of the most unsung positions in all of professional sports. He’s incredibly consistent and is among the best in the league at what he does. It would be simple to say that he is a lock to be brought back, but we all thought the same about Mike Schneck before he was cut just prior to the season opener in 2007 in favor of the (much worse) rookie Ryan Neill. Quality long-snapping is integral to solid special teams play and Sanborn has helped  Brian Moorman greatly since being signed out of Florida State in 2009.

I fully expect the team to re-sign all three of these guys, and they may tender Urbik and Rinehart with the low-end compensation which, since both were third round picks, would send back a choice in that round if they were to sign elsewhere.

UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS

HB Tashard Choice, TE Scott Chandler, WR Steve Johnson, Roscoe Parrish, Ruvell Martin, Derek Hagan, OT Demetrius Bell, LB Andra Davis, Kirk Morrison, Reggie Torbor, DB Bryan Scott, Reggie Corner, K Rian Lindell, Dave Rayner, Brandon Coutu

 

It looked like a bad signing at the time, after being cut twice in the same season (by Dallas and Washington) with a combined 155 yards from scrimmage in seven games, but Tashard Choice helped out the Bills in his six appearances this year. It was clear after Fred Jackson went down that CJ Spiller wasn’t going to be able to shoulder the load himself, and Johnny White wasn’t ready to play at the level we needed him to, so Choice (who has ample experience in Gailey’s system) was brought in to help out. As the second back, he still only compiled 121 yards and a score in those six games, but he served to spell the younger Spiller and picked up on blocking when needed, something that quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick surely was thankful for during the dark days of this season. Still, Spiller broke out of his shell with 830 yards from scrimmage and 6 touchdowns (561/4 rushing) in 2011 and ended up developing decent enough blocking capabilities to stay on the field in third down situations, something that was hindering him all of last year and early in this one. Because of Spiller’s emergence, Gailey has already said he’ll get a much increased workload – something closer to a 50/50 split with Jackson – in 2012. Due to that, as well as the hopeful further development of White, I can’t see Choice being offered a deal to return. You best believe, though, that if someone goes down, he’ll be the first on the short list of backs called in.

You know how when Rian Lindell’s injury prompted a Dave Rayner signing everyone was worried? It was justified. Rayner completed just 66% of his kicks for Buffalo this year, which fully explains why he was a free agent in mid-November. With every miss (including two in his last game, a home victory against Denver), Lindell was becoming Rayner’s biggest fan. Before the injury, Lindell had made good on 86% of his kicks but wasn’t a lock to be re-signed. With Rayner’s showing, and later (for one game, the last of the season) Brandon Coutu’s (0-1), Lindell’s value became increasingly apparent. Since it was a shoulder injury that sidelined Rian and not something that would alter his kicking mechanics, he should already be back to 100% and able to pass a physical. Coutu may get a call to training camp just for an extra leg, but Lindell will get his payday for sure, while Rayner searches for his twelfth NFL team since 2005.

The linebacker contracts that are expiring likely won’t even get consideration until Wannstedt decides which scheme he is installing for 2012. With 33-year-old Andra Davis, 30-year-old Reggie Torbor, and 29-year-old Kirk Morrison all barely factoring in throughout 2011, it’s unlikely that any get offers from the Bills. Davis was a team captain, but he also came into the season as a starter alongside Nick Barnett before eventually giving way to rookie Kelvin Sheppard. If the team shifts to a 4-3, Morrison may be offered a low-end deal to come back as interior depth, but both Davis and Torbor are built for, physically and mentally, the 3-4 and would be better off moving on. If a 3-4 stays intact, I could see Davis receiving a one-year contract to continue mentoring young guys such as Sheppard, Chris White, and Scott McKillop, but that’s unlikely. I think that Morrison will have better opportunities and I can’t see any of these three returning to Buffalo in 2012.

Both reserves in the secondary, veterans Bryan Scott and Reggie Corner have two very different roles with this defense. Scott plays both safety positions and linebacker, when the scheme calls for it, as well as extensive play on the kick coverage team. Corner has been cut by this regime twice already and is only continually brought back because he knows the defense that another signee would have to take time to pick up. I’d be surprised if Scott didn’t return as his value to the defense and the different roles he takes depending on the packages employed are hard to replace, though Da’Norris Searcy looked up to the task of doing so during his rookie season this year. Corner was, even with injuries, the team’s fourth cornerback at his best point in 2011 and won’t return. Nix has already said that he’d like to add at least two more corners in free agency, and even if there are no other moves, a starting tandem of Terrence McGee and Drayton Florence with Aaron Williams and Justin Rogers coming on in nickel and dime situations is more than enough, at least for one more season, to keep Corner out.

The writing was on the wall midway through the season for Demetrius Bell – after he returned from injury, completely healthy, to continue sitting on the bench in favor of fourth-round rookie Chris Hairston. Bell did finally end up getting one more start and some spot duty here and there, but the fact that Hairston so seamlessly replaced an opening day starter isn’t good tidings for the latter. Bell could easily net a decent payday from another team if he chooses to test the waters, possibly as a right-tackle starter for a team in serious need, but he may not have any other choice. If the Bills do offer him a deal, it will be as a reserve, and it won’t even be a guarantee. Nix came out this past week to publicly say that, while he was pleased with the play of the offensive line (led the league with just 23 sacks allowed), he still thinks that left tackle is a position of need in the draft this April. If the Bills were to go out and grab someone like Matt Kalil, Jonathan Martin, or Riley Reiff in the first round then Bell would have to compete with Hairston to be able to back them and right tackle Erik Pears up. Is that a position that he’d even want to put himself in? I think it’s safe to say that we’ve seen the last of Bell in a Bills uniform.

Another opening day starter, tight end Scott Chandler, had his breakout season in 2011, catching 38 balls for close to 400 yards and six touchdowns after recording just one catch in his previous two years as a pro. He began the season as a one-dimensional red-zone weapon for Ryan Fitzpatrick, but as teams began to pick up on the big man’s tendencies, he became less effective there. When that happened, Gailey adjusted his routes and got him more involved in the regular passing game, which helped to further open up the offense for Fitzpatrick and Jackson. Still, 389 yards isn’t exactly elite, so while Chandler is a solid blocker and a good target for Fitz, he’s not an absolute necessity. Considering Tennessee just set the market for low-end tight ends by signing their third stringer Craig Stevens to a four-year, fifteen million dollar deal, it’s safe to say that Chandler’s agent would be looking to an upgrade over that, and you don’t need me to tell you that Scott’s production so far hasn’t exactly warranted a contract of that stature. I think that Nix and Gailey both would like him to return, but at what cost? We’ll see what happens over the next few weeks, assuredly, but don’t get your hopes up, Chandler fans.

Did you know that the Bills have fourteen wideouts in their organization in some capacity at this moment? All of those guys under contract and they still can’t find a competent compliment for Steve Johnson. Donald Jones is penciled in as the number two, and he competed with Marcus Easley in camp for that last year along with Roscoe Parrish, but the production and consistency required simply weren’t there. Nix and Gailey both have come out to say that they would like to add a big, playmaking wideout this offseason, as well as another ‘Parrish-like’ slot receiver – which leads me to believe Roscoe’s time here is up. It’s unfortunate, because Parrish was so heavily underutilized by Dick Jauron and has ended his last two years with Gailey actually using him on the injured reserve with a combined ten games played. I think that the team would like him to return as a third or fourth receiver, to interchange with David Nelson and to stretch the field on open sets, but he’s another player that could likely make more and have a bigger role elsewhere. The injuries may play in our favor though, as other teams may not have nearly the right interest to make an offer after not seeing him complete a season since 2009. Ruvell Martin and Derek Hagan were both brought in to attempt to fill that number two role after Jones was hurt early in the season, and neither could do so. Martin can’t run effective routes and has terrible hands, so I can’t imagine him getting so much as a thought from our offices, but Hagan has earned some praise from Gailey and now-former receivers coach Stan Hixon (now with Penn State in the same capacity) throughout his limited time with the team in 2011. A 6’2″ target, formerly of the Oakland Raiders, Hagan showed solid route running and caught 13 passes in four games of limited action, including a touchdown against Miami. I would be surprised if he didn’t get an offer to stick around and compete in the crowded pool of talent we have at the position throughout the summer.

Of the four receivers whose contracts are up, there is only one that can be considered a priority – rather, the priority – for Nix and the rest of the Bills front office this year. Antics aside, Steve Johnson is the best wideout we’ve had since Eric Moulds (yeah, I know, how’s that guy you’re thinking of doing in Baltimore?) was tearing things up for every bad quarterback to don a red helmet in the late nineties and early 2000’s. I’ve put this out there plenty before, but it bears repeating, I don’t care about a player’s character or attitude as long as they are doing their job – and Johnson does his job. Simply put, Steve Johnson gets points – Steve Johnson gets yards – Steve Johnson draws coverage – Steve Johnson makes this offense go. You let him walk away and collect his big payday from a contending club and you set this offense back significantly. That would be an exercise in the Buffalo way, the same thing that jettisoned the list of guys I started this piece off with out of town. This kid is the definition of a home-grown talent. We brought him up from a seventh round nothing to one of the top wideouts in the game today, and he deserves to be paid as such. His rhythm and level of understanding shared with Fitzpatrick is something that you can’t get by just bringing in another name. Nix and Gailey both said this week that the past issues he’s had have been dealt with, and if he were to return he’d know what to expect if it happens again. To have a disciplinary scale in for him – and others who do things similar – is what has been needed all along anyways. They need a true number one target here, and Johnson is that guy. This is one of those do what it takes kind of players – re-sign him and keep those playoffs in sight.

They’ve got until the first week of March to negotiate with these guys before they hit the open market, and I’m interested to see how it plays out. The personnel moves this offseason could serve to be huge in giving that final push into the postseason for this team (or the cement shoes to the pits of mediocrity – your call, Buddy). Let’s just hope they do what’s right. I’ll see you again next week to discuss other team’s free agents and who we should be going after. Until then, Go Bills.

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