Buffalo Bills' Blueprint for Winning Free Agency
Free-agency periods carry a mixed bag of emotions for Buffalo Bills fans, and the 2013 edition of the free-agent frenzy has many people guessing.
No one expects the high of the Mario Williams signing that shocked the NFL landscape 12 months ago, but there are still plenty of holes to be filled before Buffalo is competing for the playoffs. The Buffalo brass will be primarily looking for linebackers, wide receivers and offensive lineman over the next few days, but surprises have come to be expected in Orchard Park.
A lot has changed since last year's free-agency period, including a new coaching staff and a quasi-reconstruction of the front office hierarchy.
Head coach Doug Marrone dropped the college game for the professional ranks, but he'll be back to recruiting on Tuesday. Only this time, the needs and wants of his prospects will be a bit different.
Fair or not, Marrone will be overscrutinized for every move he makes over the next few days because of the current state of the franchise. The team seems to think it's a few pieces away from making a run at the playoffs, something that has not been done in Buffalo since 1999.
A positive start to a NFL head coach career would be making smart and cost-effective decisions in free agency.
Already Checked Off
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Tagging Pro Bowl Safety Jairus Byrd
Buffalo made the smart decision of not allowing Byrd to test the free-agent market after another Pro Bowl campaign. The two sides could not come to an agreement for a long-term deal during the NFL combine when they met.
The Bills are hopeful that another full year will give the two sides time to hammer out a deal to keep Byrd, who is arguably Buffalo's most valuable player.
Re-signing Leodis McKelvin
News trickled in early Saturday morning about the Bills and McKelvin agreeing to a new deal worth a whopping $20 million over four years. A quick visit to a smattering of Bills-focused message boards provided a slew of emotions ranging from happiness to disgust.
The $5 million-per-year average seemed like a lot at first glance for a guy that has made most of his money in the NFL as an electric return man. McKelvin has not lived up to his billing as a top player at cornerback, but he provides serviceable coverage with superior special teams skills.
The price tag is competitive with what another team likely would have signed McKelvin for, but the former Troy product now gets to stay in an environment he is familiar with. Obviously, defensive coordinator Mike Pettine saw enough from McKelvin on tape to think that he could work with him on defense as well.
Re-Signing Andy Levitre
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Hard-nosed. Consistent. Leader. Backbone.
It does not matter what word you use to describe Andy Levitre's style of play, the Buffalo Bills cannot afford to let one of the biggest names on the market go without a fight.
Levitre has been the staple of the Bills' rushing offense since he came into the league four years ago as a second-round draft pick of then-head coach Dick Jauron. He has played every position on the offensive line, including short stints at left tackle and center because of injuries.
Matt Miller, Bleacher Report's resident draft expert, had Levitre as the sixth-best guard in the league entering the 2013 season, and he is not the only one who thinks so. Several advanced statistics groups have Levitre among the best guards in the league, especially as a pass-blocker.
The notoriety is a testament to how hard Levitre has worked since getting to Buffalo.
Getting Levitre to come back to Ralph Wilson Stadium will not be nearly as easy as it would have been last season had he been a free agent then. Due to being widely regarded as a top player at his position, suitors have lined up in wait of the Tuesday free agency kickoff.
According to Chris Wesseling of NFL.com, the Bills will be competing with the San Diego Chargers, Indianapolis Colts and Tennessee Titans for his services, though I would not be surprised to see a few more teams enter the rumor mill before it is all said in done.
Levitre would mean a lot to the Bills' near-future successes, and he should be priority No. 1.
Restructure Ryan Fitzpatrick's Contract or Release Him
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Let that number soak in for just a minute. It is an astounding amount of money for a player who ranked 17th in passer rating and threw only 24 touchdowns to 16 picks.
Those numbers are not worthy of one of the richest quarterback contracts in the current NFL landscape. However, this is the amount of money that the Bills foolish gave Ryan Fitzpatrick after a small body of work, including an upset win over the Patriots two years ago.
General manger Buddy Nix is surely kicking himself now for the gut-reaction move that has somewhat handcuffed the team financially.
$10 million is no longer a lot of money for a very good starting quarterback in the NFL, but the Bills are not receiving much return on their hefty investment. The quarterback situation in Buffalo is so bad that the Bills re-signed Tarvaris Jackson to another one-year deal to compete with the beleaguered starter.
Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk and NBC Sports released an article last week that claimed Jackson's deal may actually spell the end of Fitzpatrick's time in Buffalo. Fitzpatrick is due a $3 million bonus only two days from now if he is still on the roster, which is even more reason why the team should dump his salary now.
All of this can be avoided if Buffalo and Fitzpatrick's camp can renegotiate the terms of the contract to reflect what he provides on the field. The bonus will not hurt the team as much if his base salary is more manageable, and it would allow them to add a few more key free agents necessary to take the next step.
Fill the Gaps
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The Buffalo Bills still have glaring holes.
For a team that made drastic moves toward improving the overall talent of the team last offseason, they still need a few pieces to turn the franchise around.
No one knows for sure what the Bills will be thinking when 4:01 p.m. ET strikes on Tuesday, but they should be in the mix for the second-tier players.
Don't groan at the thought of second-tier.
Guys like Cary Williams, Mike Jenkins, Brandon Gibson and Dannell Ellerbe all fall into that category for me. They could be guys the team is looking at bringing in for a tour, or maybe they are not even in the ballpark. Again, there is not much information coming out of the Bills camp about who they may or may not be targeting in free agency.
I laid out a couple of secondary names that could be good fits for the team's new direction in 2013, but they are purely guesses based on need and projected cost. You can check out the Bills free-agency primer here.
It really does not matter who they target, but it would instead be an encouraging sign to see the team active again this offseason. The team is starting to gain a bit of respect from outside free agents as a place that may not be so bad to play for, and a new regime could attract a few key pieces as well.
Use the Dollars Wisely
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Buffalo is not one of the teams that currently has its back up against the wall of the strict salary cap, but the Bills also want to make smart business decisions with their cash.
If the Bills take care of Levitre, who could easily ask for over $8 million per year, the cap room will suddenly look a lot smaller.
Dan Van Wie wrote a great piece about the Bills' open cash on March 5, which perfectly outlines how and where the Bills need to focus their efforts.
High-priced free agents most likely will not be making trips to Buffalo for official visits, but the team will have enough room to sign a handful of second-tier guys.
I know, that dreaded phrase again.
The Bills can fill holes at linebacker and wide receiver without breaking the bank, while addressing their other needs at much cheaper rates through the draft. Free agency can be a blessing in terms of getting a quick fix, but the team needs to focus its efforts on the long-term success of the franchise.