ORCHARD PARK —
After two years of essentially rebuilding the Buffalo Bills’ roster from scratch, general manager Buddy Nix believes it’s finally time his team began showing signs of being relevant.
The high-priced splash of signing defensive end Mario Williams last month was a giant step. Next comes the NFL draft, in which the Bills have several needs — left tackle, cornerback, receiver and even linebacker — and an opportunity to add what Nix calls a “difference-maker” with the 10th overall pick Thursday.
“I’ve said it before and it’s no secret, it’s time of us to take a step and be (relevant) all the way through,” Nix said. “You can’t put a number on it, but I certainly expect us to be competitive throughout the year.”
Now that would be something for a bumbling franchise where a long line of Nix’s most recent predecessors’ flirtations with attaining a semblance of relevance have failed.
Drew Bledsoe’s addition in 2002 didn’t pan out as well as anticipated. Neither did the Bills committing a combined $62 million in free agency to sign offensive linemen Derrick Dockery and Langston Walker in 2007. And let’s not forget the one-year signing of Terrell Owens three years ago.
Through a combination of their own ineptitude — draft busts, coaching carousels and near-endless quarterback shuffles — and bad breaks, the Bills have gone 12 seasons without making the playoffs. It’s the NFL’s longest active drought, and a stretch in which Buffalo’s enjoyed just one winning season, a 9-7 finish in 2004.
No need to remind Nix where the team has been. What counts is which direction the Bills might be headed, because there’s a distinct buzz in Buffalo that maybe, just maybe, this might be the year in which expectations of a breakthrough could finally be approaching reality.
Hopes began to rise last month, when Nix broke from his build-through-the-draft approach by signing Williams to a six-year, $100 million contract. Buffalo further addressed improving its anemic pass rush by signing free agent defensive end Mark Anderson, and also re-signed top receiver Stevie Johnson.
The focus now turns to the three-day draft, in which the Bills have 10 picks.
“You’d think at 10, you’d get a starter,” Nix said. “We’d like to get a difference maker or a playmaker.”
Though there are several holes still to fill, the smart money is on the Bills leaning toward selecting a left tackle or defensive back — both distinct needs that would help solidify an emerging core on either side of the ball.
Georgia’s Cordy Glenn, Stanford’s Jonathan Martin and Iowa’s Riley Reiff are also considered candidates at tackle after the Bills lost starter Demetress Bell in free agency. Nix has confidence in Chris Hairston taking over after the rookie fourth-round pick had seven starts at the position last season.
Yet, Nix added that his research shows that a majority of Pro Bowl-caliber left tackles are selected among the top 10 picks.
As for cornerback, the Bills can choose between Alabama’s Dre Kirkpatrick and South Carolina’s Stephon Gilmore to add to an aging backfield which features veterans Terrence McGee, who’s proven injury-prone, and Drayton Florence, who is entering the final year of his contract.
Alabama safety Mark Barron is also considered an option because of his hard-hitting style.
The Bills are coming off a 6-10 season, in which they got off to a 5-2 start before a rash of injuries and a lack of experience depth led the team to lose eight of its last nine. The additions of Williams and Anderson, and Dave Wannstedt’s promotion to coordinator, improve what was a young and patchwork defense last year.
The offense returns mostly intact, and remains in the hands of quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, who was inconsistent in his first season as a full-time starter. Despite Fitzpatrick’s struggles — which came immediately after he was bowled over by a big hit to the chest in a 23-0 win over Washington on Oct. 30 — the offense continued showing signs of progress.
Buffalo finished with 5,624 yards offense, the most since 1992.
Like many of his NFL colleagues at draft time, Nix is playing his cards close when it comes to providing hints as to which way he’s leaning.
And yet, Nix made a curious point of clarifying what positions he regards as being play-makers, and made sure to emphasize that left tackles fell in that category.
“I think they are,” Nix said, revisiting a question in closing a near 50-minute pre-draft news conference.
“A difference maker is a guy that makes your team better,” Nix said, noting how a left tackle plays a significant role in protecting the quarterback in passing situations. “So I think in that light, certainly, left tackle fits that need.”