I have a scoop for you, sort of.
Free agency for the Buffalo Bills this year will be considerably different than it was in 2012. At about this time last year the Bills were putting all their eggs in one basket, enticing Mario Williams to a visit they wouldn’t let end without an autographed contract. When it was over the Bills signed Williams to a six-year deal potentially worth nine digits that contained $50 million guaranteed.
Between that, re-signing Stevie Johnson (five years at $36.25 million) and Mark Anderson (four-year deal for $27.25 million) among others, the Bills shattered Ralph Wilson’s piggy bank in several million pieces.
Buffalo won’t be singing that same melody beginning next week. The Bills journey into the open market with a ballpark figure of $16 million to employ. Studs like Mike Wallace, Cliff Avril, Dashon Goldson and Jake Long would look splendid in Buffalo red, white and blue— but Buddy Nix won’t be taking that kind of approach.
Instead the Bills are going to mostly fill holes around the building blocks already in place. Even though last season’s 6-10 record under Chan Gailey was an unmitigated fiasco, the team feels they have enough talent to be a winning team now.
From what I hear and backed by salary cap economics, they’ll be on the lookout for a few mid-priced, under the radar starters or effective role players that can push them over the hump and into the playoffs.
Of course, free agency is only part of the offseason process. This team won’t get all the tasty pieces they want just by bringing their wallet to the candy store. The draft in April will be enormous, particularly because they need to find a sustainable quarterback.
If free agency went something along the lines I project below, they’ll still be looking at linebacker, tight end, safety and another wide receiver come draft weekend and beyond.
Last point—I unequivocally have no doubt the Bills would love to get their hands on Baltimore free agent linebacker Danelle Ellerbee. Unfortunately it’s an aspiration I don’t anticipate coming to fruition.
Here are five free agents I think the Bills could have their eyes on come next week:
Donald Thomas, G (New England): By even mentioning Thomas, I’m conceding the Bills letting Andy Levitre walk for bigger dollars elsewhere. Buffalo may or may not bring back Chad Reinhart but even if they do I’m not convinced they see him as a 16-game starter. The 27-year old Thomas played in every game for New England last year, including seven started at left guard in place of an injured Logan Mankins. He played well and his best football could be ahead. The Patriots already have sizable guard investments in Mankins and Dan Connolly, so they’ll let Thomas see what’s out there in free agency. Buffalo would be well-served to take a reasonable run at him, as people I’ve talked to consider him a plug-and-play starter.
Brandon Gibson, WR (St. Louis): I’m not saying this because Stevie Johnson is recruiting him. I’m not saying this because there’s a growing buzz about him either. I think the Bills can, and will take their shot at Gibson because he’s a great fit and a far more feasible price than WR big shots like Wallace, Greg Jennings and Wes Welker. At six feet and 205 pounds Gibson has good size, can play on the outside and has plenty of ability, particularly in the red zone. Gibson had 48 catches for 646 yards and five touchdowns with the Rams in 2012, and caught six balls for 100 yards and a score against Buffalo last season. On that game alone, it’s safe to say the Bills front office knows him sufficiently.
Phillip Wheeler, LB (Oakland): There are a handful of bigger names, but not many linebackers better in this market than Wheeler. After toiling in Indianapolis for two years Wheeler signed a one-year contract with Oakland in 2012. He played outside linebacker in their 4-3 defense but is also equipped to play in a 3-4. Word on Wheeler I hear is he can play the role Bryan Scott played last year, but better. And yes, I know the Bills re-signed Scott on Wednesday. Bottom line: Buffalo sorely needs linebackers and Wheeler is a guy that can give them a lot of quality snaps.
Chase Daniels, QB (New Orleans): This is my potential sleeper right here. It must be said Daniels or any other quarterback drawing interest from the Bills is contingent on Ryan Fitzpatrick not being on the roster. If he’s gone, I can see the Bills seeking a veteran alongside Tarvares Jackson to go with a rookie they’ll surely draft in April regardless of who’s on the roster. Daniels has been groomed behind Drew Brees the past four years and has learned from Sean Payton. It’s not unrealistic for Daniels to be interested in a team where he’d at least have a fair opportunity to compete for a starting job. Buffalo fits that bill. Doug Marrone said they’ll be competition at every position, no?
Keenan Lewis, CB (Pittsburgh): I’ve talked to several people more ingrained in distinguishing “under the radar” guys than myself and to a man, Lewis is the name that kept coming up. He doesn’t wow you with stats; in fact Lewis didn’t have an interception last season and only has one in four seasons. He did, however, lead the NFL in passes defended and as Pro Football Focus pointed out, teams only had an 80.7 passer rating when throwing his way. Lewis is physical, played in a good system in Pittsburgh and could instantly become the number two corner in Buffalo behind Stephon Gilmore. I don’t see the Bills paying big money for a big ticket cover guy, and Lewis by far is the best of the next tier of corners. Pittsburgh would like him back but won’t overpay. This may be one case where the Bills do—at least to a point.