5 Free Agents the Buffalo Bills Must Target
The field conditions at the end of the Week 17 season finale between the Buffalo Bills and New England Patriots was symbolic of the Bills capping off their 14th straight playoff-less season—a franchise stuck in the mud.
The Bills finished off their first season under Doug Marrone and his staff with enough positive flashes to give Bills fans hope for their long-awaited turnaround, but results in the standings were all too familiar. For the third straight season the Bills finished with a 6-10 record and last in the AFC East, while their divisional opponents were in the playoff picture until the bitter end.
Considering the reshuffling of the deck on offense last offseason, honest expectations were met by the Bills in Marrone's first season at the helm. There was much talk about Marrone and coordinator Nate Hackett's high-speed, no-huddle offense in the preseason, but the lack of quarterback consistency led to a sputtering unit. Red-zone scoring continued to be an issue, as the Bills scored a touchdown on just 47 percent of their trips inside their opponents' 20-yard line, which was the fourth worst total in the NFL.
The defense was considerably better under Mike Pettine, but the Bills arguably have the most talent on that side of the ball in the division. While the offense has many more glaring needs, the defense should be more of the focus when free agency opens in March.
Alan Branch, Manny Lawson and Jim Leonhard were all considered unexciting moves a season ago, but all three players had a direct impact on reshaping the culture of the defense. Marrone and first-year general manager Doug Whaley will need to find similar hole-fillers during the upcoming offseason if they want the team to take a step out of the mud in 2014.
The following five players provide the best value for a franchise committed to building through the draft.
5. Offensive Tackle Zach Strief
Ideally the Bills will go offensive-line heavy in the 2014 draft, but grabbing a veteran before May isn't the worst idea.
Zach Strief has quickly made himself into one of the best right tackles in the NFL since becoming a full-time starter during the 2011 season. The Northwestern product spent his first five-and-a-half seasons with the New Orleans Saints as a swing tackle on a talented line, but he finally got an opportunity to start over Charles Brown due to injuries and ineffectiveness at the position.
Opposite rookie Terron Armstead, Strief was a mainstay for a Saints' offense who returned to relevance after a Sean Payton-less season in 2012. Strief graded out as ProFootballFocus's top right tackle (+26.5) and only surrendered three sacks on the year despite the Saints almost exclusively throwing the football.
Erik Pears has been a serviceable player in his three years starting in Orchard Park, but he was one of the worst run-blockers at his position according to PFF (-15.2). Strief is a better pass-blocker, but he graded out positively in the run game as well (+5.4).
As a potential All-Pro candidate for his work on Drew Brees' right side, Strief will likely see a significant pay raise in the near future. However, Marrone was Strief's offensive line coach during the tackle's first three seasons in the NFL, and Strief fits into Buffalo's blocking schemes well.
4. Defensive End Tyson Jackson
If the Bills are looking to fortify their depth on the defensive line this offseason, look no further than former top-five selection Tyson Jackson. The Bills' coaching staff showed no worries about bringing in former first-rounders with bust labels last offseason—i.e. Jerry Hughes, Manny Lawson, Branch—and Jackson is a similar type of stopgap.
After collecting only five sacks in his first four seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs, Jackson brought down the quarterback four times amidst the Chiefs' resurgence. At the time of the 2009 draft, Jackson seemed like one of the safest picks in the top half of the first round, but his underwhelming performance on the field earned him the title of bust from Chiefs fans.
The former LSU defensive end would be a good fit on a Bills' defense that shows multiple looks over the course of a game. Although not as big as current Bills' defensive tackle Marcell Dareus, Jackson has the ability to play outside in a 3-4 or inside as a three-technique tackle in a 4-3 setup. Pettine is not married to either scheme, as he tries to put his defenders in the best position to succeed in a specific situation.
Alex Carrington's future with the Bills is up in the air after an injury and even with Branch signing a three-year extension last week, Buffalo should not be discouraged from adding more meat to their already talented line.
3. Outside Linebacker Parys Haralson
The Bills did a great job finding values at linebacker both in free agency and the draft last year, but the position remains one of the team's biggest issues. Should the Bills replace the Nigel Bradham-Arthur Moats tandem next offseason, Buffalo will have a completely different starting group than they did at the end of the 2012 season.
Parys Haralson played in all 16 games for the rejuvenated Saints' defense, while playing on a one-year contract. The former San Francisco linebacker sat out all of 2012 with a torn triceps injury and was traded to the Saints for a seventh-round pick in August.
At 29, Haralson is no longer the pass-rusher he was during his first few seasons out of Tennessee, but he still provides great value for linebacker-needy teams. Haralson is above average in coverage—he graded +1.5 according to PFF metrics—and is solid in run defense.
The Bills finish 28th in the league in rushing yards allowed per game.
Haralson is not a long-term option to start and may even be more of a situational player, but the run defense at the second level has been so bad not to look for an upgrade over the current options. Having played for guys like Rob Ryan and Jim Harbaugh, Haralson is a consummate professional who fits into Pettine's multi-look scheme.
2. Tight End Scott Chandler
I would be lying if I said the Bills should not look to upgrade the tight end position at some point this offseason, but it is hard to overlook what Scott Chandler did from a production standpoint in 2013. Dennis Pitta and Jermichael Finley may be the biggest names on the market come March, but both have severe injury questions to overcome.
Chandler was a mostly reliable target for rookie quarterback EJ Manuel and the two developed a good rapport as the season progressed. However, some of Chandler's most memorable plays were big gaffes that changed the tide of two games. He fumbled the ball away in an overtime loss to the Falcons and then dropped two easy first-down catches that stalled drives in a season-ending loss to the Patriots.
Still, Chandler has been Buffalo's best red-zone option since coming to the team late in 2010. His 14 receiving touchdowns since 2011 is second only to Stevie Johnson and in his third full season with the Bills, he was the team's leading receiver this past season.
The team would be wise to invest in a tight end early in the draft, but Chandler is still a player the Bills would be lucky to have.
1. Free Safety Jairus Byrd
Listing the Bills' top two unrestricted free agents might look like a cop out, but bringing back both Chandler and Jairus Byrd is imperative to continue to improve under Marrone. Despite missing the first five games to start the year due to plantar fasciitis, Byrd still finished among the leaders in interceptions and was named Second-Team All-Pro by the Associated Press on Friday.
The Bills have the option to tag Byrd again, but the team does not need the circus another holdout would bring. Instead, their main focus should be re-signing their All-Pro safety to a contract that should make him a future Bills' Wall of Fame inductee.
Byrd sent cryptic messages out on Twitter following the team's loss to New England on Sunday that may provide some insight to his intentions. Perhaps Byrd wants to move on to a team further along in the process, rather than waiting to see what the Bills' rebuild looks like. However, it is hard to argue Byrd would be playing for a better defense than the one he is currently playing for under Pettine. Most top defensive teams already have standouts at free safety.
If Byrd does decide to leave once free agency opens, safety will immediately become one of the biggest needs the Bills will need to fill with a UFA from another team.