With the seemingly endless NFL lockout finally settled, it is now safe for football fans to begin speculating about actual football-related issues. Of course the main event on the docket this week is free agency.
Considering the fact that free agency normally begins just a couple weeks after the Super Bowl and continues throughout the offseason, this is sure to be the wildest free agency period ever.
One team that would certainly benefit from getting involved in the free agent frenzy is the Buffalo Bills. Not only did the Bills finish 4-12 last season, but they are also $38 million under the salary cap.
With the cap floor being 99 percent of the total cap, the Bills obviously have some spending to do. That may largely involve re-signing some of their own players, but they’ll almost have to become players in free agency by default.
It may seem unlikely that the Bills would pursue any of the bigger name free agents, but with many of the higher-caliber teams already over the cap, the Bills have one thing that plenty of teams don’t, and that’s money to spend.
In the end, Buffalo will probably take care of its own players and go bargain hunting in free agency, but it’s fun for Bills fans to think about what the Bills could do if they were to exhaust all their resources.
Here are the Buffalo Bills’ top offseason priorities.
Make no mistake that Ryan Fitzpatrick is firmly entrenched as the Buffalo Bills’ starting quarterback at the moment. It’s quite clear that the Bills have no interest in another quarterback controversy as evidenced by the releasing of Trent Edwards last season.
Brian Brohm and Levi Brown are Fitzpatrick’s current backups, and while they pose no threat to Fitzpatrick, they also can’t be trusted should Fitzpatrick get injured for any period of time. With that in mind, the Bills will be in search of an established veteran backup who can be trusted in a pinch.
Luckily for the Bills, there is no shortage of that type of quarterback available on the market. Some of the more likely names include Marc Bulger, Matt Leinart, Billy Volek and Tyler Thigpen. Bulger has the most past success of the group, but his skills seem to be eroding and it’s a possibility that a quarterback-starved team could tab him as a starter for some strange reason.
Leinart would be a good fit since he may still have some untapped potential. He has obviously been a huge disappointment to this point of his career, but he would make a capable backup. Volek has proven to be the quintessential backup as he has stepped in and thrived on numerous occasions for the Tennessee Titans and San Diego Chargers.
The most likely option, however, is Thigpen. As offensive coordinator for the Kansas City Chiefs in 2008, Bills head coach Chan Gailey had an excellent rapport with Thigpen. Thigpen accounted for nearly 3,000 total yards and 21 touchdowns that season in just 11 starts. Thigpen’s mobility meshes well with Gailey’s affinity for the spread offense, so he should be considered the leader in the clubhouse at this point.
The most important position on a 3-4 defense is arguably the outside linebacker. Obviously it’s vital to have a nose tackle that can eat up blockers, but without a good group of outside linebackers, the pass rush is non-existent in a 3-4 defense. That was the case for the Bills last season as they transitioned to the 3-4 with little success.
The Bills were 27th in the NFL in sacks last season with just 27. In turn, the Bills were 28th in the league interceptions as well, meaning the pass rush was unsuccessful in making life miserable for opposing quarterbacks. Buffalo’s stable of outside linebackers currently includes Shawne Merriman, Aaron Maybin, Chris Kelsay, Arthur Moats and Reggie Torbor.
That list is littered with has-beens and never-weres, and certainly needs to improve if the Bills hope to compete this season. If Merriman can get back to being even half the player he once was, he should be able to be a solid contributor. Maybin is essentially on the way out if he doesn’t show some sort of spark soon. Kelsay is a nice player, but it is quite clear that he is a 4-3 end, not a 3-4 linebacker.
Moats has the most potential of the bunch, but he seems to be more of a situational pass-rusher. Torbor is nothing more than special teams fodder at this point. Unfortunately for the Bills, there is a severe lack of legitimate pass-rushing linebackers on the free agent market. Despite that, there are some decent players who will provide the Bills with some good depth at linebacker.
Manny Lawson would be the best option for the Bills, but if they can’t sign him, Matt Roth, David Bowens and Travis LaBoy would all be decent signings. If Buffalo truly wants to improve its pass rush, making a trade may be the best route.
If that doesn’t happen, though, the Bills will probably have to make do with a mediocre pass rush again this season.
As obsessed as the Bills often seem with locking up their own average players, it seems as though they’re ready and willing to let safety Donte Whitner leave via free agency.
Whitner has been a big disappointment since the Bills selected him eighth overall in the 2006 draft in what was widely regarded as a major reach.
Whitner is steady if nothing else, but he has failed to make the impact that a top-10 draft pick is expected to. Whitner has been the beneficiary of high tackle tallies due to the weakness of Buffalo’s front seven over the past few seasons. Because of that, he is incorrectly viewed as a top safety by some supposed NFL experts.
The false perception that Whitner is an elite safety has prompted him to ask for a ridiculous contract that would put him among the highest-paid safeties in the league. The fact of the matter is, with a fairly loaded free agent class in terms of safeties, the Bills can get an equally talented safety at just a fraction of the price.
Dawan Landry, Danieal Manning and Quintin Mikell are all excellent options who would undoubtedly outperform Whitner. Roman Harper, Bernard Pollard and Atari Bigby would all make for solid acquisitions as well and certainly wouldn’t be any worse than Whitner either.
When it comes to the Bills, it is natural to worry that they’ll ultimately make the wrong decision since they have so many times over the past decade. With so much money to blow, the Bills could very well to play it “safe” and give in to Whitner’s demands, embracing the status quo in the process.
That money can be spent much more effectively elsewhere, though, and I truly think that Bills realize it this time.
When it comes to top draft picks, it traditionally takes teams a decent amount of time to reach a contract agreement with them. With training camp just days away from commencing, there is plenty of urgency to get draft picks locked up quickly. The fact that negotiating wasn’t allowed during the lockout has put a lot of teams’ backs against the wall.
Some of the more stubborn draftees could potentially miss huge chunks of training camp, and even some regular season game. With that said, the Bills need to act quickly with regards to the signing of former Alabama defensive lineman Marcell Dareus. In all likelihood, Dareus will be a key cog in the Bills’ defense this season, and getting into training camp early is an absolute must.
With the Bills so far under the salary cap, money really shouldn’t be an issue when it comes to negotiating with Dareus, so they should be able to sign him fairly quickly compared to other teams. This goes for the other Bills draft picks as well since many of them are going to be counted on to make an immediate impact.
While the Bills may be at a large disadvantage in terms of talent, they can get a jump on their opposition by getting their rookies signed right away. The sooner these rookies are signed, the sooner they’ll be able to get integrated into the team’s offensive and defensive schemes. This will also ensure that the learning curve won’t be quite so steep by the time the regular season rolls around.
As vital as it is for the Bills to make some improvements to their roster, they also have to identify which players are worthy of being re-signed. Luckily, the Bills don’t have many high-profile players entering free agency. Perhaps the biggest free agent is inside linebacker Paul Posluszny.
Although Posluszny may not be the most talented player, he is extremely consistent and has anchored the Bills defense for the better part of the past few seasons.
Another player whom the Bills should consider re-signing is cornerback Drayton Florence. Like Posluszny, Florence isn’t a big name, but he is exactly the type of player that winning teams have on their roster. He is an excellent nickel corner who is plenty capable of starting in case of injury. With injury-prone corners like Terrence McGee and Leodis McKelvin on the roster, it’s paramount that the Bills have plenty of depth at the position.
With so much cap room, the Bills should no problem re-signing Posluszny and Florence if they have identified them as key contributors. Clearly Posluszny will command more money, but with such a lack of depth at inside linebacker, Buffalo can ill afford to let him walk. He has been criticized in the past for making tackles down field and not being a truly impactful player, but much of that hasn’t been his fault.
Buffalo’s front seven has been atrocious during Posluszny’s tenure in Buffalo, and it has made it difficult for him to make plays because of it. With Marcell Dareus and the quickly-improving Kyle Williams on the defensive line, there should be significantly more lanes opened up for Posluszny this season. I think the Bills will surely see an improved Posluszny as his supporting cast continues to improve.
The new regime of general manager Buddy Nix and head coach Chan Gailey seems much more competent than what the Bills have employed for much of the past decade. For the first time in years, Bills fans can start to feel confident about some of the moves their team is making. Locking up Posluszny and Florence would certainly be a good start.