While the Buffalo Bills weren’t able to achieve their playoff goal in 2015, the team yielded several positives that bode well for the future. First-year head coach Rex Ryan and his coaching staff have to build upon the momentum key contributors established. The problem is two of the Bills’ best offensive linemen are unrestricted free agents next month.
Left tackle Cordy Glenn and left guard Richie Incognito were elite players at their respective positions last season. Free agency is about paying for what will happen in the future, but both players should be considered building blocks to varying degrees. We’re going to focus on why Buffalo must re-sign Glenn and Incognito.
We’ll break down each individual and his value to the Bills in a little bit, but taking a look at what the 2016 Bills could look like is important.
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman was the architect of the Bills’ improved offense. Buffalo increased offensive production significantly in Roman’s first year with the team. His offense ranked 13th in the NFL with 361 yards per game and 12th with 23.7 points per game.
That production was considerably better than what Bills fans had seen in previous seasons. Even in 2014, with a different staff and starting quarterback but similar talent elsewhere, Buffalo was among the worst offenses in the league. The 2014 Bills offense ranked 26th in yards per game with 318.5. The Bills also had the 18th-best scoring offense with 21.4 points per game.
Roman brought his physical, power-gap run game and movement-based pocket to Buffalo. It worked not only because Roman had a clear plan and strategy but also because he maximized the talent Buffalo had in place. Buffalo's improved quarterback position helped as well.
Buffalo found itself a potential franchise quarterback in Tyrod Taylor after he stepped up to the challenge of starting at quarterback with solid results. He is entering the second year of a two-year contract and could be in line for a considerable extension in 2017 if he can continue his evolution in 2016. Buffalo may need to structure contracts with this in mind to allow flexibility with Taylor.
The Bills also had great success with running backs LeSean McCoy and Karlos Williams. Each has a unique skill set that complements the other back. McCoy is shiftier and creates more yards with his elusiveness. Williams attacks the line of scrimmage relentlessly and is a powerful force to tackle.
The good news for Buffalo is most of its offensive core is locked under contract through 2017. The bad news is the Bills have several significant decisions to make this year to afford Glenn and Incognito. Over the Cap projects the team to be carrying almost zero cap space before any veteran cuts or extensions.
If the team opts to do so, releasing defensive end Mario Williams, cornerback Leodis McKelvin and defensive tackle Kyle Williams will open up $20 million. Extending cornerback Stephon Gilmore can open another few million, as his cap hit can be reduced from $11 million if structured properly.
Assuming Buffalo makes several, if not all, of these moves, it can afford to retain Glenn and Incognito. Let’s take a look at why each player must be retained.
Just one year ago, Incognito was a 31-year-old guard who hadn’t played football since 2013. The Bullygate scandal in Miami had prematurely ended his football career for the time being despite the fact that he was a darn good player when he was on the field. Teams treated him as radioactive even though numerous teammates had gone to bat for him.
As Incognito mentioned to ESPN.com's Mike Rodak, most of his teammates enjoy having him in the locker room:
Just from comments from guys that I've played with -- I've talked to a lot of guys I've played with and a lot guys I'm playing with right now -- they love having me around the locker room. I keep it light, but they know on the field, I'm going to bring it. It's going to be intense. I'm gonna take it up to a whole other level of intensity. So playing physical on the field is one thing and being a good dude off the field is a completely different thing.
The Bills gambled on Incognito, and he fit wonderfully into the culture Ryan wanted to build in Buffalo. He signed a one-year, $1.45 million deal before free agency started. Incognito’s on-field toughness and nasty demeanor were never lost, and he responded with a terrific 2015 campaign.
At 32 years old, Incognito had the best season of his career. Whether it was the scheme or the scandal that spurred his success, the Bills had one of the top left offensive line duos in the NFL. Incognito was a force in both run blocking and pass protecting.
According to Pro Football Focus, Incognito allowed just two sacks, five quarterback hits and 12 quarterback pressures. His overall grade of 35.0 was the second-best cumulative mark among all NFL guards and the best of any left guard. His run-blocking grade of 24.6 was also the second-best of any guard.
Roman had similar success with Mike Iupati while both were in San Francisco. The Bills should feel comfortable approaching Incognito with a short-term deal that ensures he goes nowhere for the next two seasons.
Spotrac’s "market value" tool estimates Incognito’s worth to be about two years, $10 million. That factors in his age and standing in the NFL. The Bills should be happy with that deal, as it keeps a top performer under a team-friendly structure.
Glenn is one of the best overall players on the free-agent market this offseason. The former second-round pick from Georgia has developed into a premier edge-defender and quality run-blocker. Like Incognito, he fits perfectly into Buffalo’s power-gap offense.
At 26 years old, Glenn is one of the best young tackles in the NFL. He's developed from a massive and powerful body into a good technician who blends his physical gifts with strategy. The Bills cannot realistically replace him in the next two years through the draft, as tackles rarely enter the league as good as he is.
This gives Glenn massive negotiating power with the Bills.
While Buffalo has financial limitations right now, there are 12 teams projected by Spotrac to have at least $30 million in open cap space. Six of those teams should view Glenn as an upgrade, including the Oakland Raiders, New York Giants, Tennessee Titans, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Los Angeles Rams and San Diego Chargers.
Glenn was one of the best pass-blockers in 2015. According to Pro Football Focus, he allowed just two sacks, two quarterback hits and 23 hurries. He ranked as the fifth-best left tackle with a grade of 11.9.
Part of the reason Taylor had such success as a passer was Glenn’s reliability keeping the pocket clean. Glenn was susceptible to outside speed rushes when he entered the NFL but has greatly improved his balance and timing. Buffalo must reward its in-house free agents who show work ethic and talent like Glenn has.
Projecting Glenn’s value is tricky because of his age and the booming cap. Washington Redskins left tackle Trent Williams inked a five-year, $68 million deal last year, and that should be what Glenn uses as his floor if he hits the open market. If he wants to stay in Buffalo and take the security, then this is a great deal for both parties.
Although Glenn isn’t quite as good as Williams overall, the influx of revenue has left the market flush with cash to spend. As we saw with Ndamukong Suh last season, bidding will get to intensive levels. The player almost always benefits in the form of a bigger contract.
Both Glenn and Incognito are near the top of their respective positions. Buffalo is closer to making the playoffs than it has been in recent years, so letting two elite talents walk away for nothing shouldn’t be an option.
The Bills lack any type of quality backup plan if either player leaves. Kraig Urbik is their best backup interior lineman, but he hasn’t proved to be a quality starter in his 57 spot starts. Backup left tackle Jordan Mills is merely a project who was poached from the Detroit Lions practice squad.
Whether Buffalo has to use the franchise tag to ensure Glenn stays one more year or the team can hammer out a long-term contract, the Bills must be aggressive with their two best free agents. Glenn and Incognito should find multiple suitors willing to reward their talents if the Bills let them hit the market. This franchise simply cannot lose them as it works to become a Super Bowl contender.
All stats used are from Sports-Reference.com.
Ian Wharton is an NFL Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.