Buffalo Bills: A Position-by-Position Primer to Free Agency
A year ago, the Buffalo Bills' new regime made a handful of heady moves necessary to complement the team's "building through the draft" mentality. None of the free-agent signings took the world by storm at the time, but players like Leodis McKelvin, Manny Lawson and Alan Branch were valuable assets both last season and moving forward.
The Bills know their future relies on drafting well at the top of the draft, but crafty moves in free agency will be just as important to move them closer to their first division title in well over a decade.
For some positions, the solution is as simple as re-signing a guy who is already familiar with the schemes, while other spots will need some fresh blood.
Over the next few slides, we will take a look positions that need attention in free agency and others that should be just fine moving forward.
The Bills' quarterback play was far from great in 2013, but both guys who started multiple games had their moments of excellent play.
OK, maybe "excellent" is a bit of a stretch.
However, the Bills would be unwise to move on from EJ Manuel after spending the 16th overall selection on the Florida State quarterback a year ago. Manuel's rookie season was a roller-coaster ride full of injuries and fascinating improvisations. The consistency sported by the 2012 quarterback class wasn't there, but Manuel did not have the same expectations coming into the league.
If another full offseason doesn't improve his play in 2014, then the Bills could add another young quarterback next year. But they already have three young guys at the position on the roster.
Thad Lewis played well enough in a few spot starts to guarantee himself an appearance on the Bills' 2014 roster, especially considering his cap number is well south of a million bucks. The question with Lewis, is would the Bills front office consider bringing in a more seasoned veteran to handle the main backup duties behind Manuel?
Unfortunately, the free-agent market for quarterbacks is not in the best shape. Michael Vick and Josh Freeman are the most talented options. Thanks, but no thanks.
Running Back: None
The Bills' two-headed rushing attack didn't fulfill its lofty expectations in 2013, but neither C.J. Spiller nor Fred Jackson will be going anywhere before next season.
Buffalo's porous offensive line exacerbated the injuries to both backs, but still, Spiller and Jackson finished with impressive stat lines. Spiller finished just short of 1,000 yards rushing and above the league average with a 4.6 yards-per-carry average. Jackson rushed for 890 yards on a handful of carries more. The Bills boasted one of the better rushing attacks despite their glaring offensive issues.
Tashard Choice's cut toward the end of the season is a sign the Bills are comfortable running with Jackson and Spiller.
Wide Receiver: Kenny Britt
I know what you're thinking: Kenny Britt has done virtually nothing to fulfill his status as Rutgers' first and only first-round selection. In fact, Britt has probably caused the Titans' front office more headaches than he has catches during his first five seasons in the league.
Put Britt's off-the-field issues aside for a minute and assess the talent versus the type of contract he will likely garner in the open market.
As a player who has obvious injury concerns and the off-field antics added in, Britt's second professional contract will have a low base and plenty of incentives for performance or good behavior.
The Bills aren't going to be in the running for guys like Eric Decker or Hakeem Nicks because of their price tags. Even Jeremy Maclin—who will likely remain with the Philadelphia Eagles—will price himself out of what the Bills probably want to spend at wide receiver this offseason.
A guy like Britt, who does have plenty of baggage, would make more sense on a contract with little money guaranteed. Bring him in, see what he can do and either keep him or cut bait.
Tight End: Scott Chandler
It would be easy to read into the Bills not coming to an agreement with Scott Chandler on a new contract, but he remains one of the team's most important free agents.
His familiarity with the organization and what Doug Marrone likes to do on offense should put him above almost any other free agent tight end available this offseason.
Adding guys like Greg Olsen or Dennis Pitta sounds nice in theory, but they aren't providing much more than what Chandler already offers the team. A 53-catch season isn't going to wow anyone the way Jimmy Graham does, but Chandler did finish in the top 10 in the NFL in receptions at tight end. Also, his 655 yards were 12th for the position—just behind Jared Cook and Charles Clay.
The only two players available as unrestricted free agents with better numbers than Chandler are Olsen and Graham. The price tags on those players makes Chandler a better fit for the franchise moving forward.
Offensive Line: Joe Hawley
If the Bills really want to spend money in free agency this offseason, splurging on one of the big offensive lineman available would be a good start.
As I will explain in a few slides, I think the Bills would be wise to put all their effort into re-signing Jairus Byrd, rather than splurging on other teams' free agents. However, if Byrd is truly not a possibly re-sign candidate, the offensive line could use a guy like Zach Strief or Jon Asamoah.
The cap is wide open again for the Bills, but value is the name of the game for a small-market team, which is why unheralded Joe Hawley might make some sense.
Hawley is a former mid-round pick out of UNLV and has started at three different positions on the line for the Atlanta Falcons during his four-year career. Hawley began his career as a run-blocking guard, but he took over as the Falcons' starting center with Peter Konz struggling in 2013.
Not a big splash by any means, Hawley is another player who would command a low salary and who brings much-needed versatility to the Bills' offensive line. Even if he didn't end up being a full-time starter, depth was seriously lacking for the Bills up front this past season.
Defensive Line: Arthur Jones
While the defensive line made huge strides with the pass rush under Mike Pettine, run defense remains a glaring issue in Buffalo. The Bills were smart to extend the contract of run-stuffer Alan Branch, but the team could still use more beef on the line for a rotation.
Arthur Jones' great season in Baltimore might price himself out of contention for such a rotation, but he is the type of player the Bills would be smart to add. Jones offers none of the pass-rushing ability his younger brother Chandler possesses, but the Syracuse alum is stout against the run with a plus-12.9 rating according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
The Bills already possess two of the best run-stoppers in the league with Kyle Williams and Alan Branch, but another player in the mix could mask some of the deficiencies of the linebacking corps behind them.
Linebacker: Brandon Spikes
Bills fans have seen plenty of Brandon Spikes over the last few seasons, and he has drawn their ire for questionable plays on more than one occasion.
However, it is hard to deny how well Spikes fits a need for Buffalo.
Pure and simple, Spikes is one of the best linebackers against the run in the NFL. He was consistently one of the best Patriots players in analyzing lanes, even better than teammate Jerod Mayo.
Spikes is a liability in the passing game—which makes him a two-down player—but he is the type of player who would complement rookie Kiko Alonso well. Alonso had a fantastic first season dropping into coverage and matching up with opponents' tight ends, but he struggled to adjust to the run game and often overran plays.
Playing a run-stuffing linebacker next to Alonso is a dream scenario for the Bills. Considering Spikes looked to fall out of favor with the Patriots toward the end of the season, he will probably be allowed to hit the open market.
Cornerback: Captain Munnerlyn
The Bills' secondary movement is one of the biggest stories to watch leading up to the draft. Cornerback is a position which will probably be addressed during the draft rather than through free agency, but adding more depth at the position certainly isn't the worst idea.
Captain Munnerlyn was an underrated part of Carolina's top-notch defense this season. The secondary was consistently picked on because the front seven was so tough to run against and Munnerlyn consistently held his ground in an NFC South full of great receivers.
Munnerlyn would be smart to continue his career with the Panthers, but adding a strong corner like the former Gamecock would allow Pettine to move Nickell Robey all around the field.
Safety: Jairus Byrd
If the fans had their choice, Byrd would have been signed to a big contract long ago.
The then-fourth-year safety was looking for a big payday last offseason before getting the franchise tag, and now Doug Whaley has had an entire offseason to think about submitting another offer to Byrd.
The ball-hawking safety is arguably the most important piece of Buffalo's improving defense. Losing him after a stellar season seems like a typical step backward for the franchise. The Bills have let their big-name free agents leave town before, and many times the losses have come back to haunt them.
The ball was in the Bills' court last offseason, but they decided against making Byrd one of the highest-paid safeties in the game. He should be their top priority again this offseason, but Byrd may want to leave for greener pastures now that he has better options.
Re-signing Byrd trumps anything else the Bills could do this offseason. Anything.