Today at 4:00 p.m. marks the start of the 2012 NFL free-agency period. Will the Buffalo Bills make a splash this year by landing a key playmaker on either offense or defense, or will they wind up being in talks with a number of key free agents only to come up short?
According to an article from Profootballtalk.com that ran on 3/11/12, after the Buffalo Bills signed their own free agents to new deals (Steve Johnson, Ruvell Martin, Scott Chandler and Kirk Morrison), the team is still $30.8 million under the 2012 salary cap figure of $120.6 million. That means the Bills rank sixth out of NFL teams with the most money to spend in free agency. They got bumped up from No. 7 when the Washington Redskins were stripped of salary-cap money by Roger Goodell on Monday.
The Bills seemingly turned a corner during the 2011 free agency period when they landed Nick Barnett and Kirk Morrison. Partly those transactions were due to need after Paul Posluszny landed a king's ransom from the Jacksonville Jaguars. They were also landed due to some recruiting efforts made by Shawne Merriman. Say what you will about Merriman's injuries, but the dude can recruit with the best of them.
We are going to take a look at who may be some of the primary and secondary free-agent targets who are available and who would help the Buffalo Bills reach their 2012 goal of qualifying for the playoffs.
If you have been sleeping under a log for the past month, you won't have a clue who is available in free agency. So to bring you up to speed, I wrote this article yesterday that spells out who are the surest bets in free agency this year.
It gives you an overview of the safest bets, as well as some secondary options. On the final slide, I have included links to the top 50 free agents ranked by both ESPN and by Peter King of Sports Illustrated.
The one thing that will be different about the Buffalo Bills' approach in 2012 free agency is that general manager Buddy Nix promises that the Bills will be aggressive this year in landing a "difference-maker."
If you are aggressive, that means you are in front, leading the way and making the biggest overtures towards the free agents you have targeted. It also means that you can't be cheap, because low-balling a potential free agent you like is the quickest way to get him to cross your team off of his wish list.
Assuming that the Bills will have to overpay to get their desired free agents to play in Buffalo, how much will this strategy put a stranglehold on the Bills' salary cap for 2013 and beyond? That is another important consideration for the team, since the objective is not just to contend for the playoffs in 2012, but to be the type of team that can contend for many years to come.
We will start with the top free-agent priority in boosting the pass rush, and work our way down from there.
1) Mario Williams—Houston
Williams is undoubtedly the top defensive free agent in 2012. He can play defensive end or outside linebacker, as he has done both for the Texans. He is 6'6" and weighs 283 pounds. He is a combination of power, speed and quickness. Those skills have allowed him to generate 53 sacks in his six years in the NFL. He also has created 11 forced fumbles and is only 27 years old.
Williams will cost a fortune to sign, but he will be a difference-maker. To be sure. The chances are strong that the Bills will pursue Williams, but it is unknown if they can sign him to a long-term deal. He is the working definition of making a big splash and would go a long way towards solving the Bills' anemic pass rush.
2) Jeremy Mincey—Jacksonville
Mincey is just 28 years old. He is 6'3" and weighs 270 pounds. Mincey has been steadily improving and put up some of the best numbers of his career in 2011, as he totaled 57 tackles, eight sacks and forced four fumbles last year. He will be considerably less expensive than Williams.
3) John Abraham—Atlanta
More risk involved here due to his age. Abraham is 33 years old and is entering his 12th season in the NFL. He is 6'4" and weighs 263 pounds. Abraham has delivered at least 9.5 to 16.5 sacks in six of the past eight years.
4) Mark Anderson and Andre Carter—New England
These guys switched off as the Patriots' top pass-rushers in 2011. Carter began the year as the top sack artist, until he got hurt, and then Anderson stepped in. They both wound up with 10 sacks, which would have made either one the team leader in Buffalo in that category.
Carter is 32 years old and 6'4" and weighs 255 pounds, while Anderson is 28 years old and 6'4" and weighs 255 pounds. Their sacks, height and weight are identical.
5) Dave Ball—Tennessee
Ball is 31 years old and 6'5" and weighs 255 pounds. He is a situational pass-rusher that contributed 36 tackles, four sacks and two forced fumbles last year for the Titans. Ball would be the cheapest option of this group.
6) Aaron Maybin—New York Jets
Maybin is a restricted free agent and he led the Jets with six sacks in 2011. The Bills, however, would have to give up a first-round draft pick and...Okay, I will stop. Just joking here. You know there is no way that the Bills will ever go back to Maybin again, right?
Even though the Bills have signed Steve Johnson to a brand new contract, the team still wants to add one more dynamic wide receiver to strain opposing secondaries more than they do now. If the Bills can add a top-flight receiver to the mix, it will give Ryan Fitzpatrick adequate weapons to stretch the defenses and exploit their weaknesses. Here are the top options:
1) Vincent Jackson—San Diego
According to this story from Yahoo Sports, it appears that Vincent Jackson is going to be heavily pursued by Buffalo, Chicago and Tampa Bay. The Washington Redskins were also in the mix, but they may need to bow out due to losing so much salary cap space yesterday.
Jackson is consistent. He produced at least 1,000 yards in receptions each of the three years that he played a full season. He has caught 272 passes in his career for 4,754 yards and 37 touchdowns. He averages 17.5 yards per catch in his career. Jackson was tied for No. 6 in the NFL with 21 catches of at least 20-plus yards.
If you are looking for a big play receiver, who offers a big target (he is 6'5" and weighs 230 pounds), Jackson is your best bet.
2) Mike Wallace—Pittsburgh
Probably the best free-agent wide receiver for stretching the field, but the Bills would have to make an offer high enough that the Steelers couldn't afford to match. If they did that, it would mean that the Bills would have to sacrifice their first-round pick at No. 10 to Pittsburgh. That means Wallace won't happen, even though he would help the offense out in more ways than one.
3) Mario Manningham—New York Giants
He's not a No. 1 wide receiver like Vincent Jackson, but Manningham could become a solid complement to Steve Johnson. He had an impressive run in the playoffs, and that infamous catch down the sidelines in Super Bowl XLVI. He will get serious offers due to his performance in the postseason, but the Bills will offer him what they think he is worth.
4) Robert Meachem—New Orleans
While his counterpart, Marques Colston, gets more attention, Meachem is the wide receiver free agent that I covet from the Saints. He has been in the NFL for five years. He is a 40-50 catch per year type of receiver, but he averages 16.1 yards per catch over his career. Meachem has scored 23 touchdowns in his four years in New Orleans.
Back in late February, the Bills were still in negotiations with free agent Demetrius Bell. But now here we are with the free agency period set to begin today, and Bell is going to be able to start fielding offers from around the league once 4:00 p.m. rolls around.
If the Bills fail to sign Bell to a long-term contract, and don't succeed at finding a top left tackle in free agency, then that very well could dictate what they do with the first-round draft pick at No. 10 in April.
The quality left tackles in free agency (besides Demetrius Bell) are few and far between.
1) Jared Gaither
San Diego. Gaither stepped in late in the 2011 season to replace the injured Marcus McNeill and didn't allow a single sack in his five games. Gaither is a massive 6'9" and weighs 340 pounds. He is just 25 years old.
Speaking of McNeill, he might also be a target in free agency down the road. Right now he is still with San Diego, but he is going to take up about $10 million in salary cap space, so the prevailing thought is that the Chargers will eventually release him. When that happens, the Bills might need to pounce on him if he is medically cleared to play.
The cornerbacks available in 2012 free agency are plentiful and talented. The Bills are serious about improving their secondary, as was evidenced by the Bills becoming the first NFL team to bring in free agent Stanford Routt for a visit after he was released by the Oakland Raiders.
Here are the best free-agent options that the Bills could target:
1) Cortland Finnegan—Tennessee
Finnegan is 5'10" and weighs 188 pounds. He has been in the NFL for six years and is 28 years old. Finnegan will be in demand in the free-agent market, but there is word that he has been trying to package a deal where he and Vincent Jackson would join a new team together. Interesting how that package could solve two of the Bills' problems all at once.
2) Brandon Carr—Kansas City
Carr is 6'0" and weighs 207. He is just 25 years old and will be coming into his prime years. Carr has defended 65 passes in his four-year NFL career, to go along with eight interceptions. According to this article in Pro Football Weekly, Carr is coveted in the free-agent market.
3) Carlos Rogers—San Francisco
It seems that the 49ers have signed a few free-agent corners of the Bills over the years. Perhaps it is time that we repay the favor. Rogers is 30 years old and 6'0" and weighs 192 pounds. He had a great 2011 season, and wants to see top dollar from a new team (seeking $5 million range in a four- or five-year deal). Hard to say if he is worth all of that.
Besides Demetrius Bell, the other key free agent that the Bills have negotiated with, but haven't come to terms with yet, is safety Bryan Scott. Scott has been invaluable to the Bills over the past few years, due to his ability to play at safety or nickel linebacker.
The Bills have been talking to Scott but there is still no deal to speak of as we prepare to enter free agency. Who are the options to replace Scott if the Bills don't bring him back?
1) Dwight Lowery—Jacksonville
If the Bills want to upgrade the secondary and bring in somebody that could challenge George Wilson or Jairus Byrd, Lowery is available in free agency. He has graded out as one of the better safeties in the league in pass coverage.
Lowery is 5'11" and weighs 198 pounds. He is just 26 years old, so has many years of football left in him. In his four years in the NFL, Lowery has defended 40 passes, had nine interceptions and 143 tackles.
2) Reggie Nelson—Cincinnati
Like Lowery, if the Bills want to bring in a player capable of challenging to be a starting safety, Nelson is seeking the same $5-5.5 million range that Carlos Rogers is looking for.
Nelson is 5'11" and weighs 206 pounds. He has been in the league for five years and has defended 39 passes and has 13 career interceptions to his credit.
Thanks for checking out our presentation. It should be an interesting free agency year for the Bills and for their fans.