Category Archives: Buffalo

What Rob Ray meant to the Sabres

This post was originally on Hockey Heaven and you should all be so kind to check out the stuff that Matthew Stewart is pumping out there.
 
A look back at Rob Ray

QUICK HITS

Last week Rob Ray turned 43-years-old. Earlier this week, we took a look at the role of Patrick Kaleta on the Sabres, and so we thought it might be interesting to take a look back at one of the premiere agitators and enforcers of Sabres past in a quick hit. What Ray has contributed to the Sabres organization?  Ray made his debut for the Sabres in 1989-90 becoming a steady ice time contributor throughout the remainder of his career.  Ray was the proverbial tough guy ‘enforcer’ every NHL team needs to guide themselves through an 82 game schedule.  He was listed at 6’0” 220 lbs and played much bigger.  As his playing career ended in 2004, he came back to the Sabres organization shortly thereafter to contribute to the television broadcast. He certainly wasn’t the best player to ever wear the Sabres sweater, but few alumni are more recognizable and adored by fans.  Rob Ray is a synonymous name and face with the Buffalo Sabres. Continue reading

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GM for a day

What I would do if I were Buddy Nix once free agency/CBA opens up:

1.  I would re-sign Paul Pozluczny.  The Bills made selection of Kelvin Sheppard to build depth at the position, not be the cornerstone.  Pairing Sheppard and Pozlucny together you get two smart, instinctive players who may not possess elite athleticism, but will more often than not make the right play.  Losing Pozluczny would put adding pressure on Sheppard while hurting some of the progress that the entire defense made through the draft.  Merriman-Pozluczny-Sheppard-Kelsay/Coleman/Batten/Moats could be a substantial improvement over 2010.

2a. Find a backup for Ryan Fitzpatrick.  There are a lot of viable options in this year’s free agent class that would be suitable.  Tyler Thigpen, Tarvaris Jackson, Drew Stanton and others would be serviceable and have seen time in the NFL but do not jeopardize Fitzpatrick’s position on the team.  Some of the available players will be determined based on whether or not the league reverts back to 2010 rules or not, but the Bills should be able to get a viable option.

2b. I would re-sign Ryan Fitzpatrick now.  I think the Bills will do this because they don’t want to have Fitzpatrick build off last year’s performance and possibly dictate more on the free market.  I would try to get him a slightly lower amount this year for a three year extension and address the quarterback position in next year’s draft.  There will be a rookie wage scale for next year’s draft class which should minimize the financial impact of drafting a quarterback highly meaning a little more money can be invested in Fitzpatrick.  Three year extension would allow him to start in 2012 and bench the rookie and then possibly in 2013 or 2014 would be open quarterback competition and you would still have Fitzpatrick as a backup.  In a perfect world this would create an Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees situation that would allow the Bills to sit their young quarterback one if not two years.

3.  Re-sign Drayton Florence and cut Terrance McGee.  This is easier said than done because you already have one signed to decent money and the other is going to look for the best available contract, however McGee’s inability to stay on the field is detrimental to the secondary and with the focus on the secondary in the draft the Bills are trying to reposition their depth chart there anyways.  Florence made several of the bigger plays by the second in 2010 and had his struggles.  If you can’t re-sign Florence keeping McGee and/or signing another free agent may be the force play to maintain the secondary.

4.   Look to upgrade the tight end position. The Bills passed on several opportunities to upgrade the position through the draft however there is a respectable pool of free agents at the position that include Zach Miller (Raiders), Kevin Boss (NYG), Matt Spaeth (Steelers) and others, including Robert Royal (kidding….seriously I’m kidding). None of these are you elite pass catching tight ends (save possibly Zach Miller) but should fit in with the Bills plan of dual purpose tight ends that should not break the bank.  I wouldn’t expect the Bills to be a huge player in the free agency market at all so upgrading this position would be a place they could be a player.

5.  As obvious as it  sounds, part ways with Donte Whitner one way or another.  I have a hard time knocking Whitner as much as some people because he is a pretty good safety, however like many people on the Bills roster he’s good, not great.  The problem is he thinks he is great.  The Bills drafted Da’Norris Searcy and have George Wilson that can play the strong safety position and both could spell at free safety if need be. I’m not sure how they’ll manage to do it, but I think the Bills would easily take some form of draft pick to part ways with Whitner should he return to the Bills with the league reverting back to the 2010 rules.

6.  Consider extending Stevie Johnson’s contract.  The Bills have several talented young wide receivers and Stevie Johnson led them all in 2010.  Re-signing him after one breakout season though possesses some risk, but letting his contract expire after a second breakout season is even riskier in my opinion.  By no means should the Bills overpay Johnson, but it is at least something I would consider.

7.  Definitely extend Kyle Williams contract.  The Bills are building a young front seven and need someone like Williams to lead the group.  He is your typical lunch-pail toting professional that can help teach young pros how to be pros.  His work ethic and play are things that coaches can only preach, but having him there to mentor some of these young players will be imperative to the team’s development.  Oh yeah, he’s pretty good too.

Obviously this is a pretty boring offseason plan for the Bills, but they have stated over and over again about building through the draft so I wouldn’t expect them to be in the market for a big name player in any position.  Even as I said I would be a player at potentially upgrading the tight end position the team is going to operate out of a lot of spread formations allowing Fitzpatrick the freedom to make his own reads.  Because of that, I don’t have my heart set on them doing much there, however looking at the roster it is one of the few real holes that I think a starter could be brought into.  I  believe that the Bills think they have their starting offensive line and front seven already on the roster and may add depth, but not much else.  There are a few holes in the secondary at cornerback, but they also have several ways to go about addressing those holes.

I do hope that they Bills clean up some of the key personal players who are entering into contract years earlier as opposed to later since there are only a handful to address.  I would honestly be shocked if they don’t extend Fitzpatrick by at least two years and think he’d be smart to ask for that third year.

I do think this team is at the point where they are a player or two away from really competing for playoff spots although the division presents a big problem, but if Dareus can couple with a hopefully emerging Moats to be playmakers on defense and Stevie Johnson & company can provide playmaking ability on offense I think this team is closer than some think, but still not quite there yet. Nonetheless, I am excited about the trip to get there.

Twitter: @brianbund

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Six moments that defined the Sabres season

Now that the season is over I wanted to take a look back at several of the things that made this season memorable for the Buffalo Sabres. Six moments that defined the Sabres season:

6.  Derek Roy’s injury:

In December the Sabres were reeling with the league’s worst record.  Then on December 23rd their leading scorer went down with an injury that all but ended his season.  Fans wrote the team and season off as an opportunity to try and evaluate some of their young players while deciding which veterans to trade. However, after January 1st the team turned everything around with a 28-11-6 record that propelled them from the league’s worst record to the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference.  There is no way to quantify the loss of Derek Roy, but the only thing you can think of is that Lindy Ruff used this as his motivation to push certain veterans, but also push young players. 

Roy’s injury also came back to bite the team in the playoffs.  As injuries mounted Roy was getting ready to return to the lineup.  Had the Sabres advanced giving Roy several more days of practice he may have returns closer to full speed.  However, injuries to Tim Connolly and Jason Pominville in the Philadelphia Flyers series drove Roy back into the lineup.  He played as well as can be imagined after five months off, however a completely healthy Derek Roy would have helped the team in the game.

5. Development of Darcy’s young players:

Nathan Gerbe, Tyler Ennis, Tyler Myers and Chris Butler all became valuable contributors to this organization throughout the course of the season, most specifically during the team’s second half surge.  The addition of Marc-Andre Gragnani to the postseason lineup provided further evidence that the organization has positioned itself with some aging veterans (Vanek, Pominville, Roy) and with the addition a star top line center and top pairing defensemen the Sabres’ future looks bright. 

Myers shrugged off a tough first half of the season that may be attributed to losing his partner (Henrik Tallinder) and adjusting to his new pairing.  Myer’s play in the second half of the season and postseason showed promise of what Myer can become.  The Sabres appear to have the makings of a Chris Pronger, Zdeno Chara type player who is big, physical and can log 25+ minutes a night. Ennis finished fourth on the team with 49 points, including 20 goals while playing in all 82 games.  Ennis’ skating ability and creativity have Sabres fans excited to watch his continued development.  Gerbe skated in 64 games while registering 31 points during the regular season, but his play in the second half of the season into the playoffs is what has won him over with fans.  Despite his 5’5” frame Gerbe skated hard every minute he was on the ice and made the most of all his ice time.  His spin-o-rama goal in the win against Philadelphia at the end of the year was arguably the goal of the year.  Both Gragnani and Butler provide the Sabres with the opportunity to field a very good second and/or third pairing on the blue line as they continue to mature. Butler struggled slightly against Philadelphia in the playoffs while Gragnani shined.  However, I would expect that as both of these players learn from this season they will continue their growth and development.

4. Jhonas Enroth’s play while Ryan Miller was injured:

Ryan Miller going down in the midst of a playoff chase was every fan’s worst nightmare.  However, the play through the 2010-11 season of Jhonas Enroth provided comfort in knowing that the team can survive without Ryan Miller.  Enroth posted a 9-2-2 record with 2.73 GAA for the season including a stretch when Miller went down that included a shutout win against the Rangers and a 4-0-1 record that helped sustain the playoff rush.

People will read into the goalie situation however they want, but what fans should appreciate is that heading into the 2011-12 season the Sabres have a legitimate backup goaltender who Lindy Ruff has confidence in to play.  This should allow Ryan Miller to get a rest every 5-7 games or however Lindy sees fit.  Miller played in 23 consecutive games at one point this season and minimizing those long stretches should be beneficial to both Miller and the Sabres going forward.

3. Thomas Vanek’s emergence as a leader in the second half:

Forgetting that Thomas Vanek led the team in points (73) and goals (32) this season, the storyline for Thomas Vanek was his ascension to being a leader.  Vanek won the right to wear an ‘A’ on his sweater this year and Vanek would be the likely candidate to wear the ‘C’ in 2011-12 after this season.  There are other potential players that may be able to wear the ‘C’, most notably probably Jason Pominville who is on the ice in all key situations, but this appears to becoming Thomas Vanek’s team.  Lindy Ruff has been particularly hard on Vanek for the past several seasons and demanded more from him which Vanek delivered upon this year.  Vanek improved his two-way play and is still their most effective offensive player.  If the Sabres can find a way to bring in a #1 center to play along Vanek the team would markedly improve.  Who doesn’t want to see a Vanek-Richards/Spezza-Stafford line?

2. The playoff run

A season once thought for dead made a turn around after the New Year to make a run that left the team in the seventh position in the Eastern Conference playoffs.  The team gelled together and a variety of different players carried the team at time from Ryan Miller’s March, Jhonas Enroth’s relief appearance, Drew Stafford’s hot streak and Thomas Vanek’s resurgence.  The 28-11-6 record was the league’s second best record behind Vancouver.  Even as the trade deadline approached the direction the team would take was unsure.  The addition of Brad Boyes at the deadline provided a short term spark that the team carried through until the playoff clinching win against the Flyers.

1. Terry Pegula buys the Buffalo Sabres:

February 22, 2011.  Terry Pegula reignited passion for the Buffalo Sabres.  The team had improved their play and was on the cusp of being a playoff contender, however fans remained cautiously optimistic as to how the team should approach the trade deadline.  Pegula’s purchase of the Sabres is a fan.  He is a passionate fan of the team and isn’t running the team like a business.  He is running it more like a fantasy hockey team assembled to win.  “Winning is not a goal, it is a belief” were the word uttered by Terry Pegula that have been embraced by fans.  “The purpose of the Buffalo Sabres is to win the Stanley Cup”.  Pegula’s passion for the Sabres is well documented and it is that passion that will help fuel his desire to bring a championship to the city of Buffalo. 

Stephen Ross (Miami Dolphins), Paul Allen (Seattle Seahawks) and Mickey Arison (Miami Heat) are the only owners according to Forbes that are wealthier than Terry Pegula.  Pegula is almost twice as wealthy as the next hockey owner (Detroit’s Mike Ilitch).  My point is not to dwell on Pegula’s wealth, but more to reiterate his point that Terry Pegula is not the owner of the Buffalo Sabres to make money.  Terry Pegula is the owner of the Buffalo Sabres because he wants to win the Stanley and he possesses the financial resources necessary to make Buffalo ‘Hockey Heaven’.  With Terry Pegula as owner it opens up a world of free agency that fans in Buffalo were never accustomed to and improvements to amenities that players never expected. 

The 2011-12 will most definitely be defined as the season that the Pegula family bought the Buffalo Sabres.  As much as it appears to be Terry’s team, behind the scenes he and those close to him will let you know that this is a family affair along with his wife and children which he wants to bring that family environment throughout the organization. 

When looking back at this season in five to ten years nothing else may be remembered other than Terry Pegula’s purchase, however the remainder of the emergence of Vanek as a leader and the play of the young players could be what helped build the foundation for this group to reach Pegula’s desire for a Stanley Cup in Buffalo.

Twitter: @brianbund

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Delayed reactions to the Bills draft

After taking a day or two to sit back and reflect how the Buffalo Bills approached their 2011 draft one thing has become obvious about Buddy Nix.  He really doesn’t listen to draft gurus who tell them they need to address the quarterback position.  Nix and coach Chan Gailey have both admitted that they need address the game’s most important position, yet also giving their support to Ryan Fitzpatrick.  One thing to consider about the quarterback position is that there is no greater where for a GM and coach to put his job on the line than with drafting a quarterback highly and having it not work out.  So rather than race to find their franchise guy the Bills seem content (as am I) riding at least this season out with Ryan Fitzpatrick as their quarterback.  This is a contract year for Fitzpatrick, but I’d be shocked at this point if they try to get him an extension for two to three years once they have the authority to do so.

I’m not a fan of handing out grades because we know nothing about how they actually perform.  One grade I will give Buddy Nix and company is an A+++ for effort.  They stuck to their draft board and picked players of huge need (i.e. Defense…see Joe @ Buffalo Wins)

As for the players the Bills selected the common theme was defense which when assessing last years team seemed to have the more immediate and gapping holes.  The Bills also continued their theme of trying to find players who are more suited for the 3-4 front which demonstrated their commitment to that switch and although they will use multiple defensive fronts I would look for more of those to be in the base 3-4.  Picking up Marcell Dareus and Kelvin Sheppard the Bills picked up big, physical players who many consider to have the ability to contribute early in their careers.  Both picks also filled a need for the Bills at the 5-technique as well as ILB.  In the second round, the Bills addressed a more under the radar need in the secondary.  Reviewing all the picks:

Marcell Dareus, DT/DE Alabama – Should at the very least be able to help the defensive front rotation.  With the Bills using both a 3-4 and 4-3 front Dareus should play DE in the 3-4 and be able to slide inside when they mix in the 4-3 front.  Nothing about this pick is ‘sexy’.  He was not a sack machine, but he is a strong, nasty defender that will occupy his blocker and maybe another which is really what you want from your 3-4 end.  He possesses good agility for his size and should still be disruptive in the passing game.  This pick made so much sense for the Bills on a variety of levels.

Aaron Williams, DB Texas – When looking at the Bills needs in this draft, DB was under the radar.  With the continued injuries to Terrence McGee and uncertain return of Drayton Florence, the Bills took a first round talent at the top of round 2.  He’s a big corner over 200lbs and should have no problem helping support the run game.  Depending what the Bills do with free agency when it opens up, Williams should at a minimum compete to be the teams nickel back.

Kelvin Sheppard, ILB LSU – Most of the people I have spoken with love this pick.  Gailey coached Sheppard at the Senior Bowl and loved the ‘intangibles’ of the kid.  A subpar pro day workout hurt his potential draft stock, however I am happy that Nix and Gailey referred to what they saw in Mobile and game tape rather than rely specifically in his measurables.  Again, depending what the Bills do in free agency there is little reason to doubt that Sheppard will be given every opportunity to start at ILB in 3-4 situations.  He’s not a Ray Lewis/Patrick Willis freak on the field, but is a smart defender and fills a huge need for the Bills. 

Da’Norris Searcy, DB UNC – First little, and only head stretcher for me.  There were several highly rated TE on the board and potentially some help along the offensive line.  However, what I think doesn’t matter and the Bills secondary was hardly set in stone.  It is expected that Searcy will make a move to strong safety at some point and will have opportunity to compete in nickel and dime situations.  He is another 200lb plus defensive back that continued the trend of the Bills getting big and physical on defense.

Chris Hairston, OT Clemson – 6’6” 328lbs. He’s a big strong man that finished second at the combine in bench press (33) and first among offensive tackles.  The Bills are going to continue this year with Demetrius Bell on the left side and it should be an open competition on the right side.  Many would have liked to see the Bills address this earlier, but I believe Green Bay selecting Sheard out of Mississippi State at least somewhat toppled that plan. I have long contended that this group is more serviceable than some would suggest.  I think being the third year that some of them play together should allow them to gel.  I think the Bills again could address the right side in free agency, however if they do not this along with quarterback I imagine will be the first two picks in 2012.

Johnny White, RB UNC – The south has risen once again.  White was considered an underrated back by Todd McShay and has played multiple positions in college.  He will be an immediate special teams contributor and should compete for the Bills third RB.

Chris White, LB Mississippi St. – Another senior bowl linkage for Gailey. He should provide some depth at the position and contribute on special teams.  He’s again a big physical defender that allowed Nix to stack positions and try to build some depth.

Justin Rogers, DB Richmond – I really don’t know anything, but a late round smaller school player will probably need to be ‘coached up’.  Bills secondary is depleted so there will be an opportunity for him to make the team barring what the team does in free agency.

Michael Jasper, DT Bethel – He’s big and chuncky like Moto Moto from Madagascar 2 (yeah I have a two year old).  Honestly, he’s a very large man that Nix and Gailey will really have to work and will probably not see much time at all this season.

I love what the team did in the draft, but it’s going to take at least one more for them to stack depth at positions and carry that depth.  I’m not as concerned they didn’t address the quarterback position although I would expect Ryan Fitzpatrick to be re-signed very soon once the team is permitted to do so. At the very least, the team appeared to get better this past weekend.  They’ve officially got me excited to see some of these young guys.  Even amidst a lockout….damn you NFL!

Twitter: @brianbund

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The Bills are still in the same position

After the Buffalo Bills took Marcell Dareus with the third overall pick in the NFL draft, they sat back patiently and let the rest of the first round unfold.  Now the Bills sit with the second pick in the second round coming up tonight.  The first pick of the round belongs to the New England Patriots and lets be serious, there is probably no way they are making the pick.  They will look to shop this pick and move back hopefully only a few spots and get one of their top players on their board.

This leaves the Bills with a chance to get one of their top two remaining players depending who that first pick is.  Much like the third pick the Bills are going to have to decide whether or not one of the remaining quarterbacks (Dalton, Mallett or Kaepernick) are the right person to lead this franchise or whether they should address other needs (Kyle Rudolph, Akeem Ayers, etc).  I personally believe the Packers selecting Derek Sherrod out of Mississippi State took one of the players that the Bills would have been forced to strongly consider off the board. 

Buddy Nix and company are in a great position to once again get a player they feel should help this team for the next decade.  Assuming that someone trades with the Patriots for a quarterback then the Bills are in a similar position to the third overall pick in that their choice may off the board and they will need to decide whether a secondary quarterback is the best fit or fill other needs.  Based on what I’ve come to understand of Buddy Nix he’s not going to force the decision for the quarterback.  If they want Mallett, Dalton or Kaepernick he will take them without reservation, but he also will not be afraid to go another direction.

I’m almost more excited for this pick compared to the first because of the uncertainty.  I’m sure Adam Schefter and all other beat writers will ruin the suspense at some point today, but I like where the Bills are at.  I really do.

@brianbund

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Patience Bills fans

I keep hearing Bills fans scream that the quarterback is the most critical component of a successful team and I could not agree more.  However, for the time being there are two thoughts I have on QBs and the Bills.  Ryan Fitzpatrick is good enough to get this team to a winning record and playoff contention.  Two that this team does need to upgrade the QB position to compete for a Super Bowl or have the ability to win games when they don’t play their best.

All of that being said, I don’t think it is critical for this team to select a QB this year for the sake of saying they have addressed the position.  I would personally be just as happy if not more so for following the New York Jets model several years when they took Fergurson and Nick Mangold, then the following year made a point to trade up for Mark Sanchez.  I would like to see the Bills address defense with the first pick and a player that can help them be more competitive this year with their second.  Then in 2012 chances are they’ll still have a top 15 pick and could move up into the top 10 for a quarterback.  Is this perfect?  Nothing is in the draft and if they end up taking a quarterback, I’m ok with that too.  But I hope I really don’t hear too much about how they had to address the quarterback position, because there are more than enough needs to be addressed over the next couple seasons. 

Regardless of how the next several hours and days pan out.  Let’s remember that this team has multiple holes and that one draft isn’t going to fix it all.  It’s going to come down to string several good drafts together and hopefully last years’ continues its development and can be supplemented by this group, regardless of positions.

Twitter: @brianbund

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Dear Buffalo Bills draft selection: Prove it

I have two two-word sentences to whoever the Buffalo Bills select tonight.  ‘Good luck. Prove it’.  Other than that I don’t care who it is they select, what position he plays (unless it’s a running back) and whether he is a one-year wonder or college production machine.  The truth of the matter is that there are probably 5-15 players you could argue that the Bills could end up with that many fans would be happy with and would on paper help this team.  None of that matters unless that player actually ends up helping the team and based on recent first round experiences I will reserve the majority of my judgment until it is time to see them on the football field. 

Here’s a list of players that depending whether or not the Bills trade out of the third spot they could end up with any of the likes of Cam Newton, Marcell Dareus, Von Miller, Blaine Gabbert, Patrick Peterson, AJ Green,Nick Fairley, JJ Watt, Cameron Jordan and on and on.  There’s arguments that Buddy Nix will not take a player who could be classified as a one-year wonder (Fairley or Newton) and will look for a player who had multiple seasons of production (Green, Peterson, Miller).  Looking at the last two drafts you can see an example of each.  In 2009 the Bills selected Aaron Maybin who was riding the production of 1 year and possessing an edge speed rush that had Bills fans salivating.  Now he can’t even get on the field and hasn’t registered one sack or made any significant contribution to the team.  In 2010, the Buffalo Bills selected what could be argued as the antithesis of Maybin in CJ Spiller.  Although it was seen as a luxury pick that the Bills could not waste CJ Spiller was one of the most productive college football players in history with 4,324 career total yards.  He was seen as explosive and dynamic and would open up the Bills playbook with his versatility.  After one season, it is my opinion that it is impossible to truly judge Spiller’s affect however it is easy to say that he did not necessarily burst onto the NFL scene.

The point here is that whenever the Buffalo Bills make the selection on Thursday night, it will be praised and ridiculed from people all over the country when in fact none of it even matters until he produces (or doesn’t) on the field.  Tim Graham of ESPN.com had an article where Buddy Nix that goes onto to show how important parts of the process are AFTER the draft into the development of a player.  I truly am of the belief that the Bills are not as far as some may be from being a playoff team, however as successful as they have been in rounds after the first, the first round and especially top 10 picks present an opportunity to obtain impact players.  The Bills need to make sure they get someone that can produce on the field for the next decade, regardless of position.

For the record, the only player I really don’t want the Bills to pick is Nick Fairley and even that could end up being moot.  I think that the Bills football operations have had a significant overhaul in the culture of how they approach the draft.  Nix is a disciple of John Butler and AJ Smith and Bill Polian who many people praise for their handling of the football departments.  So regardless of who they pick my words to them are, ‘Good luck. Prove it.’

Twitter: @brianbund

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A poor man’s look at the state of the Bills roster

With the NFL Draft less than a week I thought I would take a look at the Bills position by position and try to sum up where they are and hopefully how that will impact them in 2011.  With the current labor situation it is unknown as to what level free agency will play in addressing these needs which would typically help more in the short-term than developing a younger player.  Looking at this current state of the Bills I don’t think they are as far away as some from being a legitimate playoff team, however competing for a Super Bowl there are lacking the game changing talents.  Here is a look at the state of the Bills roster:

Offense

Quarterback

 Most Bills fans were happy with the Ryan Fitzpatrick experiment  and after the first two games for Trent Edwards it was imperative the team needed to head a different direction.  Fitzpatrick played for most of the remaining 14 games on the schedule after Edwards’ release and threw for 3,000 yards, 23 TD and 15 INT.  Over the course of a full season those numbers would have been roughly 3,400 yards, 26TDs and 16 INTs.  Fitzpatrick was also just 14 yards away from being the second leading rusher on the team with 269 yards.  The Bills had the 24th ranked passing attack in terms of passing yards.

With everything that went right about this experiment and solidifying the position to at least a capable level, many fans and analysts wonder if Fitzpatrick can be a quarterback who elevates his team to a playoff caliber team.  I’m off the belief that he is capable of helping lead the Bills to the playoffs, but not capable of propelling them to a championship unless the rest of the talent on the team is upgraded tremendously.  He completed only 58% of his passes and made some timely poor decisions that exhibit his limited physical talents, but over the long haul Fitzpatrick is a guy you want on your team and can hopefully serve as the starter for the next year or two and then is willing to relinquish the role to a younger guy and stay on as a backup for almost as long as he is willing. 

Brian Brohm is a restricted free agent this year and Levi Brown is still under contract.  The Bills could look to bring in someone to remove Brohm and hopefully upgrade the backup position.  If they draft a young quarterback then that will potentially fill that spot as well.

That being said the Bills are going to address this position at some point through the draft albeit this year or next, but if Cam Newton and Blaine Gabbert are available the Bills will have a lot of gut checking to do in determining whether either is a franchise quarterback.  My gut says Newton is gone and that the Bills pass on Gabbert to improve the defense.  Depending who’s available early in round 2 they could address this, but I think the Bills live with Fitz 1 more season before properly addressing the position.  If Newton is available it becomes a 50/50 proposition in my opinion. 

Running Back

 The Bills ranked 18th in rushing last year and after finally trading Marshawn Lynch, the Bills gave the overwhelming percentage of carries to Fred Jackson (61%) for 927 yards.  He added 31 catches out of the backfield for 215 yards and combined for 7TDs.  CJ Spiller was never fully incorporated into the offense averaging 3.8 yards/rush and adding 24 catches.  The labor situation hurts players like Spiller who would have had an opportunity to get into their first full offseason working with coaches on the playbook and technique.  I expect Spiller to be a much better contributor to the team in 2012 with Fred Jackson still carrying the bulk of the work. The depth chart also lists Quinton Ganther and Jehuu Caulcrick where the Bills could look to add another runner in the late rounds or undrafted FA if the current labor situations clears up how those will be handled.

Wide Reciever

 The 2010 receiving core was one of the brightest spots for the Bills with the emergence of Stevie Johnson and play of undrafted free agents David Nelson, Donald Jones and Naaman Roosevelt.  Additionally, Roscoe Parrish before his injury provided the Bills with a slot presence and emerged into a role that both he and fans were hoping.  Lee Evans had a statistically down year and injuries sidelined him to end the year, but with him and Stevie Johnson the Bills appear to have a legitimate 1-2 punch at the position.  With the addition of Nelson, Parrish and others the Bills depth at this position appears strong for the future and should not be a point of emphasis , although as last year’s CJ Spiller pick demonstrated anything is possible. Roscoe Parrish and Stevie Johnson both have contracts that are expiring in 2012 and you would have to imagine that with emergence of Donald Jones the Bills may let Parrish walk while working out a deal to sign Johnson.

Tight End – The current depth chart the Bills have listed is David Martin, Jonathan Stupar, Scott Chandler and Mike Caussin.  The Bills have lacked a pass catching tight end this century and in a league filled with players at this position asked to do virtually everything the Bills will be well served to finally nail a pick for this position after several have not panned out.  The position combined for 23 caught balls in 2010 and 187 yards.  For perspective the Patriots two-head monster of Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski combined for 87 catches and over 1100 yards. This is a position of need for the Bills any way you slice it. 

Many mock drafts having the Bills selecting Lance Kendricks in the 3rd round out of Wisconsin, but many Bills fans would like to see them select Kyle Rudolph out of Notre Dame if he’s still available in round 2.

Offensive Line

 Demetrius Bell made significant strides at LT for the Bills in 2010 and will hopefully continue his progress in 2011 along with the continued development of interior linemen Andy Levitre and Eric Wood.  Many people believe that Wood will slide to his more natural position of center and  mid-season addition Kraig Urbik could provide the Bills with an interior line that would be young and have several seasons under their belt.  The improved play of this unit could ultimately determine the Bills success in 2011 with improved run blocking and providing Ryan Fitzpatrick with the appropriate time to attack teams downfield.   At RT right now it would appear that Mansfield Wrotto would be slotted to start, but If the Bills choose to address this position in round 2 they would hopefully get someone who could step in and compete for that spot. 

The Bills appear to have a solid group coming together on the line, but no true dominant player at any of the positions.  The starting five appears to be somewhat set, especially given the current labor situation.  The Bills need depth across the line given the slate of injuries that 2010 brought and if possible could be well served to address any potential upgrades at any position, most notably along the right side.

Defense

Defensive line

Kyle Williams is fresh off his Pro Bowl appearance and was arguably the Bills best player.  Many questioned his ability to play in the middle of the 3-4 and he answered most of those questions.  Williams had 5.5 sacks and 11 tackles for loss while finishing fifth on the team with 77 tackles. Dwan Edwards was a solid contributor at the end spot and should be the opening day starter again for the Bills.  With the release of Marcus Stroud the Bills appear to be going in a different direction with either second year man Alex Carrington or possibly Spencer Johnson.  Additionally, second year NT Torell Troup will be looking for even more time this year and with the Bills employing multiple fronts.  All of these players should see significant playing time.

Many analysts look at the Bills defensive line as their biggest priority.  Having allowed the most yards in the league hardly nullifies this opinion, but it is hard for me to believe that Buddy Nix and company are going to take a defensive line player just for the sake of it.  The team drafted one in each the second and third round in 2010.  If they see a player they truly believe is a game changer they are going to take that person regardless of position. 

Line Backer

If, and they say they will, the Bills continue to use a 3-4 front they need to get substantially more production from the line backing group.  Consisting mostly of some combination of Paul Pozluszny, Reggie Torbor, Andra Davis, Keith Ellison, Akin Ayodele and Chris Kelsay along with late season bloomer Arthur ‘don’t cross the’ Moats the unit as a whole lacked any big play potential.  Ayodele and Ellison are likely to leave or added back for depth.  Many believe that Pozluszny coming back is more of a formality and given the state of the group it would be important to bring him back.  Pozluszny is not the game changing Ray Lewis/Patrick Willis type middle linebacker but he’s a responsible player that at this point the unit needs desparately.

The in season trade of Shawne Merriman remains the extreme variable for this team.  At his height, Merriman was one of the most feared and punishing players in the NFL and at only 26 years old the Bills hope that he can heal from several seasons of injuries and regain even a high fraction of his old self.  The contract extension to Chris Kelsay still remains to be seen how it plays out, but last season in the 3-4 Kelsay appeared lost in coverage assignments or incapable of executing them.  The contract extension and re-signing Merriman tied up a decent amount of money to the outside players and along with Moats it would appear that the Bills have limited options to upgrade unless they do it with the third pick. 

At this point many of the draft analyst (both professional and amateur) believe the Bills will take Von Miller out of Texas A&M as an attempt to upgrade their edge pass rush.  Miller played in the Senior Bowl with Chan Gailey and was a consensus winner out of the week he spent there.  In addition, unlike many of the top draft prospects (Newton, Fairly, Bowers, etc) Miller was able to put together 17 and 11 sack seasons playing in the Big 12.  People constantly point to his explosiveness off the edge which should allow the Bills to generate some pass rush while most still point to his ability to drop into coverage as an additional strength.  The main concern for Bills fans appears to be the size he possesses at 6’3” 243lbs which he should be able to add onto.  In my honest opinion the Bills draft choice at #3 comes down to Dareus, Newton or Miller for the Bills.  Unfortunately (or fortunately) for the Bills the two teams in front of them may have made up their mind for them.

As much time as was spent on the outside linebacker position the Bills will most likely utilize the Pozluszny and Davis combination heading into the 2011 season, but will probably take a 2nd to 5th round pick on another linebacker that can hopefully play in the middle of that group.  If the Bills can find and use outside playmakers in their 3-4 front than players like Pozluszny should flourish.

Secondary

 It appears, but is not final that Donte Whitner will most likely not be back with the Buffalo Bills in 2011.  The Bills re-signed George Wilson to a 3-year extension that along with Jairus Byrd should solidify the Bills starting safeties. Bryan Scott provides depth at the SS position, but the Bills will most likely need to add someone through free agency to help back up Byrd although If needed Wilson can play both positions.  The Bills only had 11 INTs four came from safeties, five from corners and two from linebackers.   If the Bills are to improve on defense in 2011 they need to generate more turnovers in the passing game.  Some of this can be attributed to the lack of pass rush (27 total sacks) and last ranked run defense that put additional pressure on the secondary in certain situations, however as a unit they need to improve on that total regardless of what happens in front of them. 

Corner should be an interesting position to watch for the Bills this offseason in the draft and into the season.  Drayton Florence provided the Bills with an up and down campaign with 3 INTs including one returned for a touchdown.  However, his and Leodis McKelvin’s inability to consistently match up with opposing wide receivers cost the Bills.  Much like the Bills offensive line where there are some respectable pieces this group lacks a star quality player despite having two first round picks (Terrence McGee and McKelvin) that can shut down opposing teams top threat and make game changing plays on a routine basis.  I mentioned above that I felt like the Bills are in a three-man race for their third pick, however not knowing how they actually evaluate the talent the wild card in this case is Patrick Peterson.  Many believe he is the single greatest talent in this draft and that it is team needs at the top that is driving down his draft position.  Peterson only had seven career INTs at LSU but most of this is attributed to the fact that opposing teams refused to throw the ball his way and at 6’2” and 219lbs he is a big, big corner that still ran a 4.34- 40 .  He’s a talent that may be too tough to pass on, especially If the players the Bills really wanted go 1-2.

Summation:  The Bills have a lot of high quality role players, but in many of the key positions lack that big play talent that can change the course of the game on any snap.  The Bills need to nail the 3rd pick and find a game changing talent regardless of the position.  If, IF the Bills stay at the third selection I think they will take one of four plays mentioned before, but there is a growing hope among fans that the Bills may be able to move down between 5-11 in the draft and still potentially obtain one of these types of talents as well as build depth across this year’s draft.  The biggest problem with trading down this year is the inability to include players so teams trying to make a big jump to #3 may need to forfeit future draft picks which may not be the worst thing for the Bills to still get a very good player in the top ten as well as an additional 1st round pick in 2012.

I will follow up with several scenarios I think could play out for the Bills to include two options that I’m most hoping for.

Follow me on Twitter: @brianbund

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All good things come to an end

Game seven between the Philadelphia Flyers and the Buffalo Sabres went against the grain as it relates to the rest of the series.  The Flyers took control of the contest from the start of the game all the way until their 5-2 victory. 

The Flyers will move onto the Eastern Conference Semi-finals and their opponent is yet to be determined.  For the Sabres they have to take pride in their second half surge and new direction under Terry Pegula and company.  The Flyers were the better team for most of the previous six games and that seemed to culminate in Game seven.  Regardless of the injuries the Sabres sustained throughout the series it was unfortunate to see their season end so abruptly and harshly. 

Some thoughts on how things developed throughout Game seven:

Derek Roy should be commended for the heart and determination it must have taken to get to the point where he could play in Game seven.  He was initially told he would be done for the season and then maybe the second round of the playoffs where that thought seemed impossible for this Sabres team.  Nonetheless, Roy put the work in necessary to get back when the Sabres needed him in Game seven.  You could tell he did not have game shape which after being out for four months and dealing with a leg injury it is difficult to work yourself back into shape that quickly.  Fans should not judge him solely in regards to his performance and if Tim Connolly would have been healthy it seems uncertain if Roy would have played.

The Flyers were the much better team in each game and Ryan Miller was the reason this series and Game seven stayed close.  The Flyers put relentless pressure on the Sabres in the first period outshooting the Sabres 16-2 and creating numerous scoring opportunities. A late goal by Braydon Coburn off the face-off was deflected by Mike Grier past Miller.  The Flyers registered 36 shots and many of their earlier shots generated quality scoring opportunities. Miller’s first period performance helped hold them off the board until the Flyers broke through on that late first period goal with 20 second remaining.

Even though the Sabres won the face-off battle 37-34, Paul Gaustad lost two face-offs that led directly to the Flyers first two goals. 

The Flyers forecheck and the Sabres inability to clear their defensive zone hurt them considerably in this game.  It was a constant advantage that the Flyers enjoyed throughout the series and in Game seven they really capitalized on pressuring Miller and the Sabres.

Danny Briere had a fantastic series against his former team that was capped with a 1 goal, 1 assist performance.  He has scored 94 points in 93 career playoff games.  His departure is well documented, but it is hard to swallow for Sabres fans that a point per game playoff performer left town.  This series put the Flyers depth on showcase, especially at the center position.  His and Claude Giroux’s play carried the Flyers through difficulties in goal.

Drew Stafford is going to be an interesting component to this offseason.  Coming off a 30-goal season the forward played extremely well at times in the series, but failed to generate much on the score sheet (1g, 2a).  Where his value is set on the market is going to determine whether or not he stays with the Sabres.

Chris Butler’s regression through the series really hurt the Sabres, especially with the injury problems that the team faced with Jordan Leopold and Andrej Sekera. Hopefully the young defenseman can learn from this postseason and continue his growth going forward.

This game was more a reflection of how well the Flyers played as opposed to how poorly the Sabres played,.  The Flyers generated more offense, played a more sound defensive game and for the first time in the series played better on special teams.  The Sabres seemed overmatched and even overwhelmed by the emotion of the Game seven.  Turnovers early in their own defensive zone and shooting pucks over the Flyers goalie really hurt any potential chance of building momentum early.

Three Stars:

  1. Danny Briere (1g, 1a and proverbial pest all night)
  2. Claude Giroux (2a)
  3. James van Riedsmyk (1g and solid all around play)

Regardless of the outcome, if many Buffalo Sabres fans were told back in December that they would have the opportunity to compete in a Game seven in the first round of the playoffs they would have been completely happy with the chance.  While that is little condolence for the season being over there are many positives that can and should be taken away from the season including the new direction under new ownership.  There are many questions that management will need to address come July 1 and beyond, but fans should anticipate an exciting offseason and 2011-12 hockey season. 

Over the next weeks and months, we will take a look back on the 2010-2011 season as well as a look ahead to this offseason.

Twitter: @brianbund

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Game 7 preview

 

Here we go!

Is there anything better in sports than a game 7?  Unlike other do or die situations in the NFL and college basketball there are six games played back and forth that build animosity between the players and allow a series of story lines to unfold.  The Philadelphia Flyers and Buffalo Sabres series is no different and based on the fact that every game has been decided by one goal with the exception of a late empty net goal in game 3.  The last two games have been decided in overtime.  Looking ahead, game 7 should provide an electric atmosphere in the Wells Fargo Center and for some excellent television.  Some story lines to watch for in game 7:

First and foremost, with Tim Connolly’s absence there is going to be some pressure for Derek Roy to actually produce for the Sabres.  Sabres fans would have much rather seen Roy’s addition to the lineup serve as additional depth has now turned to needing 15-20 minutes of ice time with the possibility of playing on both special teams units.

In addition to Derek Roy’s return, both Andrej Sekera and Jochen Hecht practiced with the team.  There is no way to know until probably game time who, if any out of the three return to the lineup but being able to insert any and all of these players into the lineup would be a boost for the Sabres.

Will the Flyers’ goalie situation stabilize?  Brian Boucher has been announced he will start in net and in all likelihood Sergei Bobrovsky I assume would be the backup.  The Flyers have resorted to pulling their goalie in three games this series; however they have managed a 2-1 record in those games they do so.  The Sabres need to continue to attack the Flyers’ goalies and sustain pressure for the entire 60 minutes.

Can Ryan Miller steal another game?  Two of the three wins for the Sabres have been because of Ryan Miller playing brilliant hockey resulting in two shutouts.  Miller has played well in the entire series and the Flyers put relentless pressure on him to come back in game 6.  How Miller responds and how well he plays is going to be crucial for the Sabres to advance.

Can the Sabres stop Danny Briere and Claude Giroux?  Together they have combined for 12 points in the series.  Briere’s five goals have all seemed to fall in clutch situations where the Flyers genuinely needed the lift including game 6.  Giroux has had 1 goal and 6 assists and generally had his way with controlling the puck into and through the Buffalo zone.  How well the young Sabres blue line handles these two players may go a long way to winning a road game 7.

Can someone else step up and help Thomas Vanek carry this team offensively?  Vanek has two multi-goal games in this series.  It is the first time a Sabres player has done that since Chris Drury.  Only two other Sabres have two goals, Tyler Ennis and Nathan Gerbe.  If this team is going to compete offensively with Philadelphia they are going to need to have a more balanced attack.  Drew Stafford has played a remarkable series and at times been the Sabres most dominant player, however he only has one goal and game 7 would be a huge moment for Stafford to make his presence felt on the score sheet.

The Sabres blue line is a combined -8 for the series and as a whole the Sabres have not played well against the Flyers at even strength.  It sounds cliché to say that they need a total group effort in game 7 but this unit really does.  At times each defenseman has played extremely well in the series only to have another unit struggle and take untimely penalties.  Their ability to withstand the Flyers forecheck and reclaim the area surrounding Ryan Miller is going to be a crucial aspect of game 7.

The Sabres are 1-5 in Game 7s all-time and the Flyers are 8-6.  The road team has won 8 out of the last 10 game 7s.

Who wants to be a hero?  Game 7 provides the element of either extending or ending your season in one game.  Players have the opportunity to lift their name within franchise player history in moments like these.  Players like Danny Briere and Thomas Vanek are the likely players to continue their hot hand, however in situations like these it can come from the most unlikely of sources.  Barring a complete letdown this game has itself positioned to be a fantastic ride for hockey fans and a gut wrenching experience for fans of both teams.  As Marv Levy used to say, “Where else would you rather be than right here, right now?”

Twitter: @brianbund

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