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GUARANTEED TO happen in training camp: wideout pulls a muscle, superstar wants to renegotiate. Generally these things get worked out, especially the holdouts. "The summer of discontent," Al Davis calls it. But there comes a time when a contract stalemate becomes serious, and that's what the Bills went through this summer. Their best player, 26-year-old Jason Peters, the Pro Bowl left tackle, not only wanted his deal reworked but also went incommunicado. The Bills weren't negotiating until he returned to camp, and they were using Langston Walker, the right tackle, to fill Peters's spot on the left.
The new offensive coordinator is Turk Schonert. That means a new system and new offensive line calls. That's not impossible for Peters to pick up on short notice, but not ideal, either. The new general manager is Russ Brandon, a decent person who had to confront one of the more merciless agents, Eugene Parker, the guy calling the shots for the Peters camp. New G.M., huh? Let's see how tough you are.
"If only I'd hear from Jason, but there hasn't been a word," Brandon said early in camp. Ah, but that's the strategy. The big stonewall. Peters, a converted tight end, was in the third year of a five-year contract that would pay him $3.25 million this season. He's far outperformed those numbers. And while a new deal was likely to be worked out at some point, his long absence has made a fragile Buffalo operation even shakier.
An All-Pro left tackle can solve a lot of problems. It means you can put a monster on the right side of the line and just ask that guy to knock people off the ball. Walker, 6'8" and 366 pounds, fills that role, and then some, but the experiment on the left just wasn't working. Walker is a mauler. Peters, 6'4" and 340, is gifted and agile, a natural left tackle. The rest of the line is decent. It could be a force, eventually—but only with Peters anchoring the left side.
Still, the Bills' offense isn't designed to run up big scores. Fifth-year wideout Lee Evans is a flashy long-ball threat. Marshawn Lynch was one of the league's more productive runners as a rookie last season, with 1,115 rushing yards. But third-year quarterback Trent Edwards, who started nine games in 2007, is a careful guy who doesn't want mistakes to mess up his first full season as the No. 1. If Buffalo's going to win, it will be with a spirited defense and with special teams.
No one gave the Bills much thought last year. They got off to a slow start, but then their defense kicked in. They won six of eight, holding opponents to less than 300 yards in five of those victories, and at 7--6 they were poised to make a run at the playoffs. Three straight losses ended that dream.
Oddly enough, the bulk of their free-agent pickups were on defense—tackles Marcus Stroud of the Jaguars and Spencer Johnson of the Vikings, and linebacker Kawika Mitchell from the Giants' Super Bowl unit.
Buffalo's 2008 first-round draft choice, Leodis McKelvin out of Troy, is a cornerback with great skill as a return man. He opened everyone's eyes in the second exhibition game, running a kick back 95 yards for a touchdown against the Steelers. Special teams coach Bobby April, who had the league's top punt returner last year in Roscoe Parrish and a solid kick returner in Terrence McGee, believes you can never have enough of them. "Terrence is a regular cornerback," April says. "He kills himself running back kicks. Having McKelvin is an unbelievable luxury."
The formula could work for coach Dick Jauron, himself an old cornerback. It's an old-fashioned way of winning: Control things with the defense and the return game, then top it off with just enough offense. But there must be stability, all the pieces in place, all players working at the top of their game. And that includes one of the most treasured gifts an NFL team can have—a really talented left tackle.
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP WITH 2007 STATISTICS COACH DICK JAURON (50--67 in NFL), third season with Bills