<
>

O-line, not Owens, determine value

7/2/2009

The Bills will use their 2009 training camp to figure out just what they heck they are. Are they an aerial machine, bolstered by the acquisition of Terrell Owens? Are they still bound by Dick Jauron's arch-conservative, run-centric nature? Now that they've lost their best offensive lineman, will their blocking schemes move backward? Can they muster more than the anemic pass rush (24 sacks) they managed in '08? Can anyone on defense stay healthy?

There are a lot of moving parts here. As T.O. enters the fold to play alongside Lee Evans, the Bills will be breaking in Langston Walker at left tackle (which has disaster written all over it); they'll count on two rookies to play in their line's interior; they'll be playing their first few games without suspended rusher Marshawn Lynch; they'll also be replacing their starting tight end with unproven commodities; and finally, they'll add rookie pass-rusher Aaron Maybin and '08-injured Aaron Schobel to a shaky defensive perimeter.

The most glaring questions for fantasy owners, of course, will revolve around Owens. At age 35, does he still have that freight-train ability once he has the ball in his hands? Will he suffer the same problems with drops as he did the past couple years in Dallas? Will he help Evans' fantasy production by diverting attention from him, or hurt it by leading the Bills in targets? Can Trent Edwards, not what you'd call one of the NFL's big-armed quarterbacks, get the ball downfield with enough zip for T.O. to make plays? Will the offensive line give Edwards enough time?

However, perhaps the underreported story of Buffalo's training camp will be offensive coordinator Turk Schonert's assertion that he plans to run a ton of no-huddle spread formations. We all know from past experience that if a team stays committed to such a scheme, it can produce scintillating fantasy numbers.

What to look for in camp

Key position battles: Marshawn Lynch will begin the year on suspension because of gun-related charges; as of this writing, it was unclear whether the commissioner's office would reduce Lynch's three-game penalty. For as many as three weeks, then, the starting running back job will come down to some combination of Fred Jackson and Dominic Rhodes. Whichever man looks strongest in camp figures to start and potentially dominate carries, conceivably making him a temporary fantasy option in a lot of leagues.

The third receiver gig behind Terrell Owens and Lee Evans seems basically up for grabs, with former No. 2 man Josh Reed, Roscoe Parrish, James Hardy (who may not yet be recovered from his torn ACL) and Steve Johnson vying for playing time. If the Bills follow through on their threat to run a spread offense, one or more of these guys could wind up being relevant in deeper fantasy leagues.

Though Buffalo drafted tight end Shawn Nelson in April's draft, the Bills have pretty much ruled out starting him at the position to begin the year. Instead, they're investing time having Nelson run some wideout routes, so we may see him on some third downs in the spread. Nelson isn't much of a blocker yet, so Derek Schouman is expected to be the starter to begin the year, with Derek Fine potentially pushing him. Nelson would be the only guy to consider drafting here, and even then, only in a deep league.

The middle of the team's secondary is also relatively up for grabs, with former No. 8 overall pick Donte Whitner having to move from strong safety to free safety; Bryan Scott potentially stepping in and taking over that strong safety position; rookie Jairus Byrd, a converted college cornerback who seems likely to get in the nickel mix; and former starting free safety Ko Simpson. Only two of these guys can start, and the Bills would probably prefer it if Whitner and Scott were the tandem, but camp will tell the tale.

Fitting in: I could write a novella about Owens' issues "fitting in" everywhere he's ever played, but the good news is that he usually comes equipped with a honeymoon period for new quarterbacks. In fact, don't be surprised if T.O. is weeping over Edwards' sublimity to the media in August. It says here that Owens will probably be fine, and if he's not, well, let's just say I'm guessing you'll hear about it on the ESPN family of networks.

More interesting is the question of rookie Aaron Maybin, April's No. 11 overall pick. NFL general managers had conflicting opinions about Maybin, a one-year starter at Penn State. Some viewed him as a terrific 4-3 defensive end. Others believed he was a one-hit wonder who wouldn't be heavy enough at the point of attack, and wouldn't be able to get around big, athletic offensive linemen. His success may hinge on the health of Aaron Schobel, a fellow defensive end who played only five games last year because of a Lisfranc sprain. Schobel is an elite pass-rusher, and if he's right, he'll divert attention from Maybin and last year's incumbents, Chris Kelsay and Ryan Denney. Because Kelsay and Denney are still around, though, it'll be interesting to see if Maybin is mostly a third-down specialist in his rookie campaign.

On the line: This is where the Bills' season hinges, and where training camp will get most interesting. Maybin was the big name, but Buffalo had another first-round pick this April, and used it on Louisville center Eric Wood. But because the team also signed Panthers free agent center Geoff Hangartner, the assumption now is that Wood will begin his NFL career playing guard, opposite the team's '09 second-rounder, Andy Levitre. Veterans Kirk Chambers and Seth McKinney will also be on hand to help if the rookies stumble, but neither guy inspires much confidence.

And yet, the interior offensive line isn't even the biggest worry. With Jason Peters gone to Philly because the Bills didn't want to pay him (which, in light of how poorly Peters played last year, might have been quite smart), a literally massive vacancy remains at left tackle. So career right tackle Langston Walker, a giant guy but not at all quick, will move to the left side. Yikes. Frankly, Walker wasn't very good on the other side; over here, there's a chance he gets Edwards hurt. Meanwhile a former guard, Brad Butler, will play right tackle. This will be a huge story. If Walker can't stop edge rushers (and I don't think he can) and Butler can't clear space for the rushing game (and I'm not sure he can), the values of every skill-position player on this team plummet. This is the area I'll be watching closest in training camp, because it could result in many attractive-looking Bills assets being nearly worthless.

The bottom line

So the two key questions heading into Bills camp are whether the team is really serious about putting the pedal to the metal and running a no-huddle spread offense, and whether the organization has cobbled together an effective enough O-line to make the offensive scheme matter. Sure, you'll get tons and tons of T.O. updates, and I'll be as interested as anyone to see what the receiving mix winds up being between Owens and Evans. But if nobody can block, it won't really matter all that much.

Christopher Harris is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner. You can e-mail him here.