The Buffalo Bills' decision to drop quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick will certainly alter the team's approach heading into the 2013 NFL Draft. General manager Buddy Nix has gone on the record with his desire to find a franchise quarterback this year. Nix must figure out a way to identify a championship-caliber signal-caller this offseason, even as some critics have suggested that the current crop of prospects at the position is lacking.
With the draft a little more than six weeks away, let's run through three strategies the Bills must consider as they search for their quarterback of the future.
1) Do whatever it takes to draft Geno Smith.
The Bills have been looking for a franchise quarterback since Jim Kelly retired following the 1996 campaign. Geno Smith might lack the pizzazz of Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III or Cam Newton, but his game is solid in every respect. He is an efficient pocket passer with the arm talent to make all of the throws in a pro-style offense. Whether it's the deep comeback thrown from the hash to the opposite sideline or the go-route tossed down the boundary, Smith has shown he can make accurate passes with zip or touch. Additionally, he's shown he can throw comfortably from the pocket following traditional three-, five- and seven-step drops, or catch, reset and fire after fielding a shotgun snap. Some evaluators have pegged Smith, who produced at a phenomenal level while directing West Virginia's explosive spread offense, as a "system" player. However, I believe his game is versatile enough to fit into any scheme, with a few adaptations.
New Bills coach Doug Marrone certainly is familiar with Smith's game from their days as Big East rivals; the former Syracuse coach led the Orange to a 3-0 record against Smith, including a 38-14 win in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl last season. Marrone can tweak his system to capitalize on Smith's ability to make accurate throws from the pocket or on the run. Smith's extensive experience directing a no-huddle offense at West Virginia could also jibe with Marrone's desire to push the pace in Buffalo. Smith understands how to process information quickly at the line of scrimmage in order to get his team running the best possible play on every snap. Furthermore, his familiarity with operating at a frenetic pace will allow him to capably lead an offense in transition in 2013.
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Given those factors, the folks in the Bills' front office should make every effort to get their guy in the draft. Even though scouts remain divided as to whether Smith is a legitimate top-10 player, the fact that the Oakland Raiders (who hold the third overall pick) and Arizona Cardinals (pick No. 7) are also in the quarterback market could force the Bills to move up from No. 8 to secure the West Virginia star. Of course, the Raiders and Cardinals are playing coy about their intentions regarding Smith. Still, the possibility that the Bills might not get the right guy to direct Marrone's system should prompt Nix to make a move, despite the likely expense. Critics definitely will take the Bills to task for giving up valuable draft picks to make a trade up the board, but at this point, can Buffalo risk missing out on the top quarterback in this year's draft class?
2) Go best available player in Round 1, second-tier QB in Round 2.
NFL personnel men will tell you that the blueprint for building a championship roster includes taking the best player available on the board, regardless of need. A team that does so is assured of fielding a roster of talented players; its general manager is assured of having the ammunition to fill any remaining holes via trade.
The Bills have plenty to work on, starting with the need to add more athleticism and talent to a lineup that is inferior to the rest of the AFC East. In addition to their obvious need at quarterback, they could use blue-chip players at wide receiver, offensive guard and linebacker. Nix and the front office must determine whether Smith is better than some of the other blue-chip prospects who could be on the board when Buffalo drafts. That group might include Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones, Alabama offensive guard Chance Warmack, Central Michigan offensive tackle Eric Fisher and Tennessee receiver Cordarrelle Patterson. Not only would each player fill a need; all have Pro Bowl potential, based on their immense talent, production and upside.
That's why the Bills must consider addressing another position in the first round and finding a quarterback later in the draft. To take this radical approach, the Bills must weigh Smith's game against the likes of EJ Manuel, Matt Barkley, Mike Glennon, Tyler Wilson and Ryan Nassib. If Smith doesn't look significantly better than any of the remaining quarterback prospects, the Bills can bypass the West Virginia star and focus on grabbing someone else at the bottom of the first round (via trade) or with their pick (No. 41) in the second round.
The three most intriguing quarterback prospects are Manuel, Barkley and Nassib. While I can certainly find flaws in each of their respective games, I can also see how they would be able to succeed in Buffalo under Marrone's guidance. Manuel is an ultra-athletic playmaker with a strong arm and evolving game. He showed flashes of brilliance during his senior season, completing 68 percent of his passes while throwing 23 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions. Manuel continued his ascension up the charts with strong showings at the Senior Bowl and NFL Scouting Combine. Given the windy Northeastern conditions and aggressive AFC East defenses that await whoever plays quarterback for the Bills, there's a strong possibility that Buffalo will want to add a unique weapon like Manuel.
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Barkley, who has 47 collegiate starts under his belt, is the most experienced of all the prospects. He thrived while directing a pro-style offense at USC; he understands the kinds of verbiage, adjustments and checks that exist in most pro schemes. Additionally, he has the personality and mental makeup of a franchise quarterback, which makes him ideally suited for handling the rigors that will come with guiding the Bills out of the doldrums. Underwhelming arm strength could be a problem, but Barkley can address any concerns when he works out in front of a legion of scouts at the USC pro day on March 27. This could boost his chances of figuring prominently in the Bills' plans.
Nassib garners obvious consideration from the team, given the success he had under Marrone at Syracuse. Nassib helped lead the Orange to a share of the Big East title, displaying the skills to playing winning football at the quarterback position. Although I was underwhelmed by his pro-day performance, I can see how the Bills would benefit by giving Marrone a familiar face in today's climate. Offensive coordinators are willing to adapt their respective schemes to fit the skills of the quarterback; Marrone's experience with Nassib could help Buffalo's unit take off in Year 1.
3) Pick up a veteran signal-caller via trade or free agency.
The Bills re-signed Tarvaris Jackson as an insurance policy ahead of Fitzpatrick's release, but the veteran is nothing more than a stop-gap solution. Through 34 career starts, Jackson has a 59.4 percent completion rate, 38 touchdowns, 35 interceptions, a passer rating of 77.7 and -- most importantly -- a 17-17 record. That is not good enough for him to be considered a franchise-caliber quarterback. The Bills must find a way to acquire another quarterback to create a competitive environment on the field and in meeting rooms.
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Conventional wisdom might point toward the team trying to find a young quarterback in the draft, but circumstances could prevent the Bills from nabbing their guy. Thus, the Bills also must turn their attention to a shallow free-agent pool that features limited options at the position. Jason Campbell and Matt Cassel don't inspire championship aspirations, but both are serviceable starters who have achieved moderate success in their respective playing careers. While neither possesses the ability to carry the fortunes of a franchise, Campbell and Cassel are certainly capable of leading a team to wins, provided they have a strong supporting cast.
Of course, the Bills could attempt to pry Matt Flynn away from the Seattle Seahawks. The veteran backup migrated to the Pacific Northwest last season under the premise that he would start, but the emergence of Russell Wilson put his dreams on hold. Flynn would have a legitimate chance to be the man in Buffalo; Marrone could tweak his system to accentuate Flynn's strengths as a pocket passer. Although two career starts is far from a comprehensive sample size, Flynn's extensive experience as an NFL backup should have him well-prepared to take the top job. Given the Bills' decade-long playoff drought, Nix should consider rolling the dice with an intriguing veteran.