ORCHARD PARK – The number looks daunting on the surface. Twenty-four players on the Bills roster will be eligible for unrestricted free agency when the new league year begins March 11, the most of any team in the NFL.
When you consider a 53-man active roster, that signals a potentially massive overhaul coming in Buffalo, but here’s two key points to remember: There are only a handful of players on the list who were significant contributors during the 2016 season who the Bills would miss if they move on; and, if the majority couldn’t be significant contributors for the 7-9 Bills, is it worth lamenting any of those guys walking out the door?
Here’s the list of unrestricted free agents: quarterback EJ Manuel; running back Reggie Bush; fullback Jerome Felton; wide receivers Robert Woods, Marquise Goodwin, Percy Harvin, Justin Hunter, and Brandon Tate; tight end Chris Gragg; offensive lineman Jordan Mills; defensive linemen Corbin Bryant and Leger Douzable; linebackers Zach Brown, Lorenzo Alexander, Lerentee McCray, Brandon Spikes, and Ramon Humber; and defensive backs Stephon Gilmore, Robert Blanton, Corey White, Colt Anderson, James Ihedigbo, Jonathan Meeks, and Sergio Brown.
There are also seven players who will be restricted free agents: running back Mike Gillislee; tight end Logan Thomas; offensive lineman Ryan Groy and Michael Ola; defensive lineman DeAndre Coleman; defensive back Marcus Roberson; and punter Colton Schmidt.
“We have a lot of work to do this offseason,” general manager Doug Whaley acknowledged during a mid-December radio appearance on Buffalo’s WGR 550, pre-playoff elimination, pre-Rex Ryan firing, and pre-regrettable press conference. “It could be that we have a whole new team next year, when you think about it. You’re going to have a lot of new faces coming in.”
Again, that might not be a bad idea. However, can we trust Whaley and the Bills’ current college and pro personnel staff to pick those new faces who will be part of the latest Bills remake?
Monday, Whaley pointed to the Bills’ 7-9 record and said it wasn’t good enough, a true statement. He also said the Bills are “close” to breaking through and earning a playoff spot. That’s certainly debatable.
“We did some really good things, (but) we weren’t consistent,” Whaley said. “If you look at the Seattle game, if you look at going out in Oakland. We were in a lot of games. The New England game (at home) is the one we really got blown out. Other than that we were highly competitive, and then this last game (the embarrassing blowout loss to the Jets). We are not a 4-12 team, we are a 7-9 team.”
You can draw your own conclusion on that, but mine is this: I saw a team that went 1-6 against teams that made the playoffs (the one win against the Jacoby Brissett-led Patriots in Week 4) and piled up six other victories against the bottom feeders of the NFL who had a combined record of 23-71-2. “A lot of work to do” not only is a true statement, it’s an understatement.
The top tier of unrestricted free agents is clear: Gilmore, Woods, Alexander and Brown. Unfortunately for the Bills, the only player who might agree to return is Alexander.
Gilmore will most likely only be in Buffalo if the Bills choose to franchise tag him for 2017 because it’s tough to see them ponying up the huge long-term money he will demand, nor should they. Woods has insinuated that he’s looking to move on from a team that simply doesn’t pass the ball very well, and he’ll get some pretty good offers, likely beyond what the Bills would be willing to pay.
Brown and Alexander both signed one-year prove-it deals with Buffalo in 2016, and they sure proved it. Brown finished second in the NFL in tackles with 149 and will probably get plenty of looks. Alexander finished third in the NFL in sacks with 12.5, but he’ll be 34 in May and his market will be limited, so the Bills might be able to re-sign him to a cap-friendly contract.
At the next level, there are a few players the Bills should consider keeping. Felton had a solid year and is one of the NFL’s best blocking fullbacks, but his services may not be coveted by the new coach, so it’s tough to gauge whether the Bills will push to bring him back. Douzable and Bryant have been solid rotation linemen who will likely have limited offers. It certainly wouldn’t be a bad thing if the Bills could re-sign either or both to reasonable deals. And kick returner Brandon Tate was a nice find by Whaley and worth a look.
The rest of the UFA crop are players the Bills would not miss, and should only be considered for re-signing if they come back on the cheap. Blanton and Anderson are two veteran backup-type safeties who could also play special teams; White showed a little – emphasis on little – potential as a corner/safety backup; and Mills was the weak link on the offensive line, but he was a starter who played more than 90 percent of the snaps.
Manuel, Bush, Harvin, Meeks, Brown, Goodwin, Gragg, Humber, Ihedigbo, McCray, Spikes, and Hunter? Nice knowing you.
Now for the RFA group. If the Bills tender qualifying offers to any of these players, they would have the right to match any offer they receive on the market. For instance, in 2015, tight end Charles Clay was an RFA for Miami, and the Dolphins declined to match Buffalo’s bloated five-year, $38.5 million offer. Similarly, the Bills decided against matching wide receiver Chris Hogan’s three-year, $12 million offer sheet from the Patriots in 2016.
Gillislee and Groy seem like slam dunks. Gillislee has been an excellent No. 2 back who averaged a league-best 5.7 yards per carry (among backs with at least 100 carries). Groy stepped in and started the final seven games at center after Eric Wood injured his knee and the Bills did not miss a beat.
Schmidt has been the Bills’ punter for three years, but 2016 was his worst season as he ranked 30th in the NFL in net punting (42.4 yards). The Bills could tender him, but would be wise to bring in someone to compete for the job. The only other RFA to consider might be Thomas, the quarterback-turned-tight end who joined the team late in the year and possesses an intriguing skill set at a position where the Bills really lack depth.
Obviously, this is going to be an extremely interesting offseason, starting first with the new coach hire, then the search for a quarterback, and then the rebuilding of a roster that certainly could use one.
“Do we need to get better? Absolutely,” Whaley said. “But we are not that far away, we don’t believe.”