"What are they thinking?"
This is the reaction that any team's free-agent moves can elicit, but as that team makes more moves, the line of thinking is easier to see. The Buffalo Bills earned that reaction for some of their moves over the past couple of weeks since free agency began, but now that the dust has settled, the picture has become much clearer.
If you believe in building through the draft, the Bills' free-agent philosophy is right for you. Instead of making one or two splash signings that send shockwaves through the depth chart, the Bills made several smaller signings to supplement the depth on their roster.
Now, with free agency out of the way, the Bills can turn their attention to finding the best players in the NFL draft.
Here's a look at why the Bills' strategy worked out so well.
Checking Off The Boxes
It's a phrase you often hear from NFL Network's Mike Mayock about draft prospects during the scouting combine, but it could also apply to the Bills' strategy in free agency.
One by one, the Bills went down their list of needs—middle linebacker, outside linebacker, guard, cornerback—by bringing in players from outside the organization. Meanwhile, they were checking off other boxes—kicker, strong safety, tight end—by re-signing or extending their own players.
Even at free safety, where the Bills lost Pro Bowler Jairus Byrd, there's already a contingency in place. Da'Norris Searcy played the free safety spot while Byrd was out at the beginning of the season, and the Bills drafted safety Duke Williams in the fourth round last year and could ask him to play a bigger role on defense.
By making those moves, the Bills were able to clear the board of needs, so they can focus on drafting the best players available on the board of draft prospects instead of worrying about which players fit specific needs.
Chris Williams, LG
The Bills let former starting left guard Andy LeVitre head to the Tennessee Titans last year in free agency. That left them with a hole at left guard last year.
They could have done better than former Rams guard Chris Williams, but there weren't many big-name free-agent guards on the market. Geoff Schwartz, Jon Asamoah and Zane Beadles were the only ones, and each was scooped up (by the New York Giants, Atlanta Falcons and Jacksonville Jaguars, respectively) shortly after free agency kicked off.
On the surface, Williams is an awful signing. He has been ranked among the worst guards in the league by Pro Football Focus, via Evan Silva of Rotoworld.
Still, at roughly $3.375 million per year, the Bills didn't have to pay a hefty price to fill the position of need with a player who has plenty of starting experience (54 career starts).
They would have had to pay nearly twice that much for Beadles ($6 million per year), and Schwartz and Asamoah were both bigger financial burdens for the teams that signed them than Williams is for the Bills. Plus, the Bills can cut Williams after this season and still get some (though not all) of their money back.
Corey Graham, CB
The Bills have spent heavily on the cornerback position over the past few years, with a first-round pick on Stephon Gilmore in the 2012 draft and a four-year, $17 million contract for Leodis McKelvin in 2013.
Graham's four-year, $16 million contract is another investment, and it may seem particularly redundant after Nickell Robey's solid rookie season in the slot. Graham is also considered a slot corner.
|Buffalo Bills slot cornerbacks, 2013|
|Player||Cov snaps||In slot||Slot %||Tgt||Rec||%||Yds||Cov snaps/tgt||Cov snaps/rec||Rate|
The two could compete for snaps in the slot, but there's another possibility: The Bills are loading up on cornerbacks capable of covering the slot in response to the Patriots loading up on slot receivers. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has a penchant for riding his slot receivers to big numbers. There could be an increased importance on covering receivers over the middle.
Brandon Spikes, MLB
Brandon Spikes has been criticized for years as a run-thumping middle linebacker who lacks coverage ability. That may be true, but there may be no role the Bills needed to fill more desperately than at linebacker.
The Bills spent 8.25 percent of their defensive snaps in a dime package, which helps explain their trouble against the run (allowed 4.4 yards per rush attempt, 10th most in the NFL in 2013), at least to an extent.
With yet another change at defensive coordinator, the Bills probably won't spend that much time in their dime defense. Spikes is not seen as an exceptional linebacker in a nickel defense because he lacks speed, but his presence could help prevent teams from having long runs against the Bills defense when it goes small.
Even when it comes to the base defense, signing Spikes brings some clarity to how the linebacker group will take shape: Kiko Alonso moving to the weak side, Spikes in the middle and a combination of Keith Rivers and Manny Lawson at strong-side linebacker.
Keith Rivers, OLB
The Bills needed to revamp the linebacker spot for two reasons:
- Turnover at the position, with Arthur Moats set to become a free agent.
- Turnover at defensive coordinator, switching schemes for the fourth time in the past five years, going from a 3-4 to a 4-3 under Schwartz.
Adding Keith Rivers gives the Bills one more option on the strong side, where neither Moats nor Nigel Bradham were providing a legitimate answer at the position last year. As the former No. 9 overall selection in the 2008 draft, the Bills think Rivers has untapped potential.
"He's a four down linebacker," said Whaley of Rivers, via BuffaloBills.com. "He can play the first and second downs, the typical run downs. He can stay in on third down and cover because he's got athletic ability and then he contributes on teams. So that's an incredible value pick for us with a guy who can play four downs. He's going to compete for that starting spot."
Manny Lawson plays into the picture on the strong side as well. His combination of abilities as a pass-rusher, stuffing the run and in coverage gives him potential as a movable chess piece in the Bills defense, assuming a different role for different matchups.
Scott Chandler, TE
Bringing Scott Chandler back on a two-year, $4.75 million deal makes sense. With Chandler, the Bills have a tight end who has built some familiarity in the system. They also have a good red-zone target with rare size at 6'7" and 260 pounds.
At 28 years old, the Bills are likely to get the best Chandler has to offer—assuming he stays healthy, which hasn't exactly been a given for him (last year was the first full 16-game season of his career).
That being said, Chandler doesn't answer the Bills' problems at tight end. He has a nice frame for an in-line blocking tight end, but he hasn't yet mastered the craft.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), he has graded negatively as a run-blocker in each of his three years in Buffalo. He also isn't considered a good downfield threat at tight end. He caught 36 of his 51 receptions within nine yards of the line of scrimmage last year.
Like any player, he has his flaws, but at least now the Bills don't have to feel obligated to draft a tight end or suffer the consequences of not having a passable starter at the position.
Aaron Williams, SS
With all the above moves avoiding short-term ramifications, re-signing Aaron Williams helps give an answer at a position before it becomes a question.
Williams moved to safety last year after struggling at cornerback for the first two years of his career. It didn't take long for him to turn his career around from that point. Williams finished the season as the 28th-best safety in the league, according to Pro Football Focus' grading system.
If the Bills believe Williams is an ascending player, signing him to an extension is a brilliant move, especially with Jairus Byrd on his way out. Williams played primarily the strong safety position last season, but he filled in as a free safety at times while Byrd was out during the first six games of the season.
His positional flexibility means the Bills will have an answer at one spot or the other and will have some consistency on the back end, even though they won't have as much consistency as they could have.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases. All salary-cap and contract information provided by Spotrac.