The Buffalo Bills finished the 2012 season with their second consecutive 6-10 record. The team has already made huge front-office decisions, promoting Russ Brandon to team president and hiring an entirely new and youthful coaching staff. Now fans wonder what's next.
There is plenty to wonder about: Major decisions must be made regarding impending free agents, personnel, and coaching schemes yet to be announced.
This slideshow takes a look at five major questions the team needs to address this offseason.
The Buffalo Bills prematurely extended quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick to a six-year, $59 million contract after leading the Bills to a 4-2 record in 2011. Since signing the contract, Fitz has played poorly, throwing 36 touchdowns and 33 interceptions.
General Manager Buddy Nix expressed his desire to acquire a quarterback before he leaves. He stated that the team would most likely target one player in free agency and one in the draft. Since taking over as GM in 2010, Nix has only spent a seventh-round draft pick on a quarterback, whom he later released.
While there aren’t any quarterbacks currently set to become unrestricted free agents in March worth taking a shot on, there’s speculation that Alex Smith, Matt Flynn, and Michael Vick all could be released by their respective teams. The Bills apparently made an attempt to acquire Vick when he was reinstated by the National Football League prior to the 2009 season after initially denying it. However, a 33-year-old running quarterback coming off an injury isn’t exactly a hot commodity.
In the draft, the Bills have been linked to Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib, due to his college connection with head coach Doug Marrone, but the team reportedly isn’t as high on him as most would assume. Considering Nix’s track record of drafting players from the ACC and SEC conferences, it’s safe to assume that N.C. State’s Mike Glennon, Arkansas’ Tyler Wilson, and Florida State’s EJ Manuel will be targets of the team in the 2013 NFL draft.
Free safety Jairus Byrd and left guard Andy Levitre were both second-round picks of the Bills in the 2009 NFL draft. Each is regarded as one of the top players at his respective position, and both become unrestricted free agents in March.
Byrd has been an absolute stud for the Bills’ secondary, racking up 308 tackles, intercepting 18 passes, forcing 10 fumbles, and defending 27 passes in his four years with the team. He’s been named to two Pro Bowls as well.
Looking at the parameters for the contract that San Diego Chargers’ safety Eric Weddle signed in 2012 for $40 million over five years, it’s likely that 26-year-old Byrd will garner roughly the same deal on the open market.
Levitre is one of the top pass-blocking guards in the NFL, and according to ProFootballFocus, he’s only allowed nine sacks in 2,043 pass blocking snaps over his four seasons with the Bills. Levitre is also 26 and should command quite a deal in free agency.
Taking a look at the contracts of Carl Nicks, Davin Joseph, Chris Snee, Logan Mankins, and Jahri Evans, a top guard can expect to earn roughly $49.6 million over approximately six years. While it's clear that Levitre is one of the league's top guards, it will be interesting to see if the Bills decide to hand out not one but two big contracts in a single offseason, especially when the team has 16 other impending free agents to decide upon.
Using the franchise tag on Byrd is a realistic option, as the number for safeties during the 2013 season is reportedly $6.798 million. However, as the franchise tag is grouped for tackles, guards, and centers, using the tag on Levitre would cost the team $9.66 million.
The Bills used their No. 10 overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft to select South Carolina cornerback Stephon Gilmore. Gilmore stepped in as a starter immediately, recording 61 tackles, an interception, three forced fumbles, and 16 passes defensed in 1,082 defensive snaps.
While Gilmore looks like the real deal, there is no solid option at the opposite cornerback position. Aaron Williams was graded by ProFootballFocus as one of the NFL's worst defensive backs, while Ron Brooks came into the league an inexperienced player, and it showed. Justin Rogers is a serviceable player, but his upside is limited. Leodis McKelvin, a former first-round pick in the 2008 draft, is finally starting to catch on as a player, but he’s an unrestricted free agent.
There are some intriguing cornerbacks in free agency, including Brent Grimes of the Atlanta Falcons, Derek Cox of the Jacksonville Jaguars, Sam Shields of the Green Bay Packers, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie of the Philadelphia Eagles, and Tracy Porter of the Denver Broncos. However, veteran cornerbacks tend to cost quite a bit of money, and if the Bills do re-sign Jairus Byrd and Andy Levitre, there won’t be much cap room available to splurge in free agency.
This leaves the Bills with the draft as the best option. Alabama’s Dee Milliner is the highest rated cornerback in the 2013 class, and he would be an interesting option for the team’s No. 8 overall pick. However, with both Buddy Nix and assistant GM Doug Whaley expressing the need for quarterback, wide receiver, and linebacker, using a first-round pick on a cornerback is unlikely. Some mid- to late-round prospects that could attract the Bills include Desmond Trufant of Washington, Jordan Poyer of Oregon State, Logan Ryan of Rutgers, and Blidi Wreh-Wilson out of Connecticut.
Leodis McKelvin was the Bills’ No. 11 overall pick in the 2008 NFL draft. He hasn’t exactly been a bust, but he hasn’t lived up to expectations either. McKelvin is 27 years old and has made just six interceptions in his five seasons with the team.
His real value stems from his return ability, where he excels. He averaged 18.3 yards per punt return, taking two in for touchdowns, and averaged 28.3 yards per kick return in the 2012 season.
McKelvin will be interesting to keep an eye on in free agency. Does he ask for an inflated contract due to his return ability, like a Devin Hester or Joshua Cribbs deal, or does he expect a realistic contract on par with his abilities, like Leon Washington’s?
If he’s expecting upwards of $3.5 million a year, the Bills would be wise to let him test the market. On the other hand, if he understands his role with the team as a valuable returner and a marginal starter, he should be brought back. The Bills are not short of return men in the event that he does choose to test free agency, which gives the team some leverage if he wants to stay. It’d be nice to have him back, but it isn’t a necessity.
The Bills reportedly have approximately $20.6 million in cap space to spend in free agency. They have to make several decisions regarding their own players, but there are quite a few players who fit the needs of the team in free agency.
The Bills have a glaring need at wide receiver opposite Stevie Johnson. The team attempted to sign Robert Meachem in free agency last year, so it’s clear they plan on spending at the position. Players like Dwayne Bowe, Greg Jennings, Mike Wallace and Danario Alexander could be attractive targets.
Buffalo could also be in the market for a tight end, as Scott Chandler suffered a torn ACL in the last game of the 2012 season. It isn’t clear just how much time he’s expected to miss in 2013, and there are some reasonably priced targets slated to become unrestricted free agents. These players include Delanie Walker, Martellus Bennett, Jared Cook, and Dustin Keller. The position isn’t likely one the team will spend big on but a mid-level signing wouldn’t be surprising in the least.
The team also expressed the need for a linebacker who can cover, but there might be better options in the draft than free agency this year.