The Buffalo Bills proved last year they have a good nucleus of young players but still need a few pieces to make this group a playoff contender. If last offseason was any indication of what the Bills will do this year, the team will not pursue any big-name free agents.
The Bills' plan will most likely be to find the impact players through the draft and support that group with role players in free agency, like they did with Manny Lawson and Alan Branch last season. The team has a number of positions that could use an upgrade but doesn't have the cap space to sign the marquee free agent at each position.
The following slides will look at each of these positions, with one player in free agency and one player from the draft that could fill each role.
Erik Pears struggled last year at right tackle and could potentially be a cap casualty in the coming weeks. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Pears earned an overall rating of minus-5.0 and a rating of minus-15.2 for run blocking, which was third-worst among tackles this past year. The Bills have plenty of options in both free agency and the draft to replace Pears if they decide to go in another direction.
One player the Bills should look at in free agency is Saints tackle Zach Strief, who did an excellent job protecting Drew Brees last year. He only gave up four sacks all of last year and finished as the third-best tackle in pass protection, according to Pro Football Focus.
Last year, Strief had a base salary of only $2.225 million and could be in line for a substantial pay increase, but pairing him with Cordy Glenn would give EJ Manuel the time he needs in the pocket to make plays.
There are a number of players in this year's draft who could help the Bills at the tackle position. With the ninth overall pick there is a chance that Greg Robinson out of Auburn could still be available; he has the potential to be an excellent tackle, particularly in run blocking.
If the team decides to hold off drafting a tackle until later in the draft, it could look at someone like Ju'Wuan James out of Tennessee or Seantrel Henderson out of Miami, who has a great deal of potential but had off-the-field issues in college.
Last year, the Bills linebackers were led by the impressive rookie Kiko Alonso and free-agent signing Manny Lawson. However, after that the talent dropped off significantly and it was clear the Bills lacked the depth necessary at the position, particularly against the run.
If the Bills want to address the run, they should look no further than Patriots linebacker Brandon Spikes. He finished last year as the top-rated inside linebacker against the run, according to Pro Football Focus, but struggled against the pass, which could scare some teams away.
Luckily for Buffalo, it already has the second-highest rated linebacker against the pass in 2013 in Kiko Alonso, and pairing the two together would make sense as their playing styles could complement each other. The Bills also brought in his previous position coach with Pepper Johnson joining the Bills' staff, which could be a selling point for the linebacker.
If the asking price for Spikes gets too high and the Bills decide to find a run-stuffing linebacker in the draft, they will have plenty of options. One player in the latter rounds of the draft who would be a great fit is Wisconsin's Chris Borland.
CBS Sports' NFL Draft Scout projects that Borland would go in Round 3; he has drawn comparisons to former Dolphins linebacker Zach Thomas. At Wisconsin, he showed an ability to make plays behind the line of scrimmage with a career total of 41.5 tackles for a loss.
If the Bills decide not to bring back Scott Chandler, they could be looking for a tight end to fill the void left by Chandler's departure. Last year, he led the team in both receptions and yards but would disappear for long stretches of games.
The big name in free agency is Jimmy Graham, but it is highly unlikely that the New Orleans Saints will let him hit the open market. The market for tight end after him is quite bare, but one player the Bills could consider is Lions tight end Brandon Pettigrew.
The 20th overall pick in 2009 has not lived up to expectations but is still fairly young at 28 with plenty of football left. If the Bills were able to sign him to a reasonable contract, it could be worth the gamble because he does have the potential to be a very good tight end.
One player that would make sense for the Bills in the draft at tight end is Iowa's C.J. Fiedorowicz. Right now he is projected to go somewhere around the third or fourth round, according to CBS Sports.
More importantly, he would be a good fit because he is a good run-blocking tight end. This was one area in which Chandler really struggled and a player like Fiedorowicz would be an upgrade here.
The Bills struggled to find a replacement for Andy Levitre at left guard, which was one of the biggest reasons for the struggles along the offensive line. The Bills started the year with Colin Brown, who was quickly replaced by Doug Legursky once he was healthy. However, neither player was capable of handling the responsibilities at left guard.
One player who could be a great replacement for the Bills would be guard Jon Asamoah, who played for the Kansas City Chiefs last year. He was the 20th-highest rated guard, according to Pro Football Focus, but only started 12 games for the Chiefs last year.
He was much stronger in pass blocking than run blocking, giving up only one sack all of last season. At only 25 years of age, Asamoah still has a lot of good football ahead of him, and pairing him with Cordy Glenn could provide the Bills stability on the left side of that line for years to come.
In the draft there is one player who stands out at guard for the Bills and that is Baylor's Cyril Richardson. At 6'5" and 340 pounds, Richardson would be a player that could help in the run game and particularly around the goal line.
He is projected to go in Round 2, but that may drop if he can't rebound in the rest of the draft process from his performance in the Senior Bowl. Rob Rang said that Richardson "struggled with quicker defensive tackles throughout the week of practice (especially Donald) and wasn't nearly as powerful [of] a drive blocker as one might expect given his size."
The Bills have a number of talented wide receivers, but are lacking that big body target for EJ Manuel, especially in the red zone. This is one position that has plenty of talent and if the Bills decided to go into 2014 with the same group of players, I think they would be more than capable of providing Manuel with the support he needs.
One player the Bills might want to take a flyer on is Danario Alexander, who is coming off an ACL injury suffered at the start of last season. There is no telling what type of player he may be coming off the knee injury, but at 6'5" and 217 pounds, he has the body type the Bills would be looking for.
He had a breakout year in 2012 when he caught seven touchdowns for the Chargers in only 10 games. If the Bills were able to sign him to a reasonable contract, this would be the type of move that would be a low risk with a potentially high reward.
With the Bills drafting three wide receivers between Rounds 1 and 3 over the past two years, it would be a little surprising to see the team draft another wide receiver that high. If the team does decide to draft another wide receiver early, Vanderbilt's Jordan Matthews would be the smart pick, who stands at 6'3".
If the Bills decide to wait until the later rounds to draft a wide receiver, Rutgers' Brandon Coleman would be a good fit. He is projected to go between Rounds 4 and 5 and at 6'5" would be a great target for Manuel in the red zone.