5 Big Moves the Buffalo Bills Could Make in 2014 Free Agency
Free agency has been a popular topic around the Buffalo Bills forums for the last few weeks and for good reason, after the team finished its ninth consecutive losing season. Last week I touched on five players the Bills would be smart to go after or retain, but what are some potential big splashes the team could make during the free-agency period in March?
Earth-shattering moves have been scattered in the 14 years since the franchise's last playoff appearance in 1999, with Mario Williams, Takeo Spikes and London Fletcher being the most notable. You can throw Terrell Owens into the mix as well, but the one-year experiment can still be perceived as nothing more than a publicity stunt to generate season-ticket sales in 2009.
The Bills have plenty of money to spend in the offseason with nearly $29 million available in resources according to Joel Corry of CBS Sports, while Over the Cap reports the team has well over $30 million in savings. Regardless of the actual number, the Bills have few big-name free agents to re-sign and could potentially be players during the signing period if they so choose.
A Mario Williams type of signing is a once-a-decade move, but there are several talented players on the open market who would be good fits with the Bills, depending on their contract demands. Without getting too far into fantasy land, here are a few big moves the Bills could make to take them to the next level of competitiveness in the AFC East.
5. Release Stevie Johnson out of His Contract
During the 2012 offseason, Stevie Johnson completed his rags-to-riches story by signing a five-year deal to stay with the Bills through the 2017 season. Questions about the future of the hot-cold receiver raged at the tail end of the 2012 season, but Johnson ultimately decided to give the team that took a chance on him another shot—fully aware he would be playing for his third head coach and playing through another "rebuilding" effort.
After three straight seasons of more than 75 catches and 1,000 yards receiving, Johnson struggled through injuries and the death of his mother. In the second year of his new contract, the enigmatic receiver finished with just 52 catches for under 600 yards and only three touchdowns—his lowest totals since becoming a full-time starter in 2010.
Still, a season marred by injuries and family tragedies doesn't warrant a release so early into a commitment, does it? When you consider his value—he is not among the top 20 highest-paid receivers—Johnson's average salary of $7.2 million hardly seems like a player considered for release.
Johnson is a love-him-or-hate-him player and despite his production, his on-field gaffes and off-field problems make him an interesting case for release. On Friday, lead beat writer for BuffaloBills.com Chris Brown spoke on WGR550 in Buffalo about what the Bills could do about their top receiver. Brown mentions in the interview (wide receiver talk begins at 14:08 mark) that Johnson was "hard to reach" at times when speaking about the coaching staff rallying the team around each other.
If Johnson is truly not buying into the team-first mantra of Doug Marrone, his production can be easily replaced by a player drafted early in the 2014 draft.
4. Wide Receiver, Eric Decker
The odds of Eric Decker leaving Denver are not high and neither is the prospects of him wanting to join the Buffalo Bills after catching passes from Peyton Manning for two years. Then again, the same thing could have been said about Mario Williams before the 2012 free-agency period.
Decker caught a career-high 87 passes in 2013 only a season after coming down with 85 catches off of Manning's throws. Those numbers put him among the elite at the wide receiver position in the NFL, but the Broncos have two other Pro Bowl receivers on the roster with Demaryius Thomas and Wes Welker.
Keeping Decker is in the Broncos' best interest moving forward, but they have other key free agents to re-sign like Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Shaun Phillips and Knowshon Moreno. Decker is, at best, a luxury compared to the aforementioned three players who fill specific holes moving forward.
Drafting a big receiver might be a better cap decision for the short term, but if the Bills had the chance to lure Decker to Buffalo, his consistency would be the better option for the long term.
3. Offensive Guard, Jon Asamoah
Jon Asamoah has been a name coming up more and more in the comments section over the last few weeks. A former third-round pick out of Illinois, Asamoah has consistently gotten better during his four season in the NFL and will finally earn his first big payday.
Guard is an obvious need for the Bills, after the team struggled through a year without Andy Levitre, who bolted for Tennessee last offseason. Colin Brown and Doug Legursky were hardly up to the task of replacing the Pro Bowler, which led to inconsistent efforts from the offense week to week.
Asamoah graded out positively on ProFootballFocus's (subscription required) end-of-season rankings (+7.9), finishing as the 20th-ranked player at guard out of 81 qualifiers. He has played almost exclusively at right guard, which is where Kraig Urbik is stationed, but Asamoah's positive plays in both run and pass blocking make him a potential bargain on the market.
Heading into his fifth season, the 25-year-old will probably carry a cap hit of around $5 million should the Chiefs let him test the open market.
2. Offensive Tackle, Zach Strief
The Zach Strief drum will be beaten for much of the offseason by Bills fans who want to see the team upgrade the right side of their line. I mentioned Strief last week in the article, "5 Free Agents the Bills Must Target," and he shows up here because his addition is part of a dream scenario for the team.
Erik Pears is a nice depth player, but Strief is a starting-caliber player who could take the offense to the next level. The Bills offensive line was run roughshod all season long and their inconsistencies almost got the team's running backs hurt on several occasions. Buffalo's three starting quarterbacks had time to throw for the most part, but Cordy Glenn's bookend could use an upgrade this offseason.
Strief is another player whose steady play should earn him a bigger contract than his 2013 team might be willing to offer. If the Bills are going to balk on signing their top, in-house free agent for the second straight year, then they will need to look at spending the money wisely elsewhere.
1. Defensive End/Outside Linebacker, Brian Orakpo
Jairus Byrd has been mentioned enough and without a doubt he should be the Bills' top priority, but the free safety said nothing during the season to give the impression he was willing to stay beyond this year. With that said, how nice would it be to sign a guy who should have been in a Bills uniform all along?
The Bills passed on Brian Orakpo—a favorite of the Bills fanbase during draft time—in favor of one-year-wonder Aaron Maybin in the first round of the 2009 draft. At the time it looked like the team made a glaring mistake and five years later the results are even worse than anyone could have imagined. Orakpo has turned himself into a Pro Bowl player, while Maybin is now focused on his abstract art career.
Orakpo is a definite franchise-tag candidate, but Washington's murky future might mean they could pass on their pass-rusher. While he would create a bit of a logjam at he position, especially if the Bills decide to move Kiko Alonso outside, it would be hard to deny the impact of adding Orakpo to an already elite unit.
This move is more than wishful thinking, but one can dream right?