By John Wawrow
ORCHARD PARK —
Re-opening contract talks with receiver Stevie Johnson and finding a pass rusher — or two — are among the Buffalo Bills’ top priorities this offseason.
General manager Buddy Nix outlined his plans during a wide-ranging, 45-minute news conference on Monday, a week after the Bills (6-10) closed the season with their eighth loss in nine games — and missed the playoffs for a 12th straight year.
Waiting an additional week to address reporters after meeting with players, coaches and owner Ralph Wilson, Nix said his expectations are that the team will “take a big step” next year.
It starts with re-signing Johnson, who’s led Buffalo in receiving in each of the past two seasons and has completed the final year of his contract.
“He fits in,” Nix said. “Yeah, we want him back.”
And he doesn’t consider the receiver’s on-field transgressions to be a major concern. Johnson was penalized twice in five weeks for excessive touchdown celebrations — the second leading to a benching by coach Chan Gailey for the final three quarters of a season-ending 49-21 loss at New England.
“Obviously, we’re not happy about that, and I don’t think Stevie is, either,” said Nix, who then went on to defend the player. “He tries to do the right thing when he’s playing, and he tries to do the right thing in practice and in the locker room. He’s not a criminal. He made a mistake. It cost us, and he paid the price.”
Though Nix said there’s been what he called “dialogue” between the two sides since the season ended, formal contract talks have not re-opened since negotiations broke down about six weeks ago when Johnson rejected the team’s last offer.
Nix didn’t clarify what he meant by dialogue, except to say discussions will continue.
In an e-mail to The Associated Press, Johnson’s agent C.J. Laboy wrote, “We have had no dialogue with the Bills in regards to Stevie’s contract.”
Looking forward to free agency and the draft, which the Bills open with the 10th overall selection, Nix identified a need to improve the pass rush after Buffalo finished tied for 30th in the NFL with 29 sacks.
Nix said the lack of a consistent pass rush is something that dragged down the entire defense, which allowed a franchise-worst 5,938 yards and 434 points — the second-most in team history. The defense is already being shaken up after coordinator George Edwards was fired last week and replaced by Dave Wannstedt.
“I think our secondary, everything, would look better if we had some pressure on the passer,” he said. “We had some rookies that looked like Dan Marino, and we let them look like that because we let them stand there. You’ve got to disrupt the quarterback.”
Rookie nose tackle Marcell Dareus, a first-round pick, led Buffalo with 5 1/2 sacks, followed by veteran outside linebacker Chris Kelsay with five. The Bills’ ability to pressure the quarterback took a big hit six weeks into the season after linebacker Shawne Merriman was sidelined due to right Achilles’ tendon and shoulder injuries.
The Bills are open to Merriman returning to finish out the final year of his contract next season on the condition he passes his physical.
Nix wouldn’t go into detail, but said there will likely be changes to the defensive coaching staff.
In going over other needs, Nix said he’s looking to add at least one and potentially two receivers. He’s particularly looking for a tall player — Nix used Detroit Lions star Calvin Johnson as a comparison — who is capable of out-jumping and out-muscling defenders.
Nix said he intends to draft an offensive tackle and noted that a team can’t have enough defensive backs.
As for his future after completing his second year as the team’s GM, the 72-year-old Nix said he has no plans to retire.
“As long as my energy level stays where it is, then I’m going to do it until the job’s done,” Nix said. “Eventually, (retirement) comes to all of us, but I’ve got no plans for that.”
NOTES: Nix said RB Fred Jackson has been re-assured that the Bills will restructure the player’s contract before the start of next season. Jackson has one year left on his deal. ... The Bills also stand to lose PK Rian Lindell, TE Scott Chandler, WR Roscoe Parrish and LT Demetrius Bell to free agency.