The Buffalo Bills will not have a ton of cap space this spring, but general manager Doug Whaley would love to sign any of these five marquee free agents.
The 2016 Buffalo Bills stumbled to 7-9 and saw their former head coach Rex Ryan get fired after Week 16’s loss to the arch rival Miami Dolphins. Buffalo welcomes in former Carolina Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott as their new ringleader. Hopefully he can bring a healthy mixture of professionalism and defensive prowess as the new coach in town in Orchard Park.
Buffalo doesn’t have a lot of salary cap space for general manager Doug Whaley to navigate. Whaley will have roughly $26,012,670 to use to make his Bills roster better this spring. The Bills will have six picks in the 2017 NFL Draft, including the No. 19 overall selection.
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While Whaley will have to be pragmatic in his first draft with McDermott, maybe the best course of action in this year’s team building efforts is to make a few wise moves in free agency. Buffalo isn’t losing a ton of players this spring, but needs to carefully choose who the Bills bring back. Here are the five players that should be atop Whaley’s board heading into free agency.
Outside Linebacker, Buffalo Bills
During his 10th year in the league out of Cal, outside linebacker Lorenzo Alexander finally had his breakout season. Alexander had been little more than a rotational pass rusher and special teams player before arriving in Orchard Park in 2016.
In the Ryan Brothers defense, Alexander dominated as a pass rusher. He finished with career highs in starts (16), sacks (12.5), combined tackles (64), passes defended (six), and forced fumbles (three). Apparently the guy just needed some playing time. What took so long?
Anyway, at 33 years old Alexander is poised to have his last big payday as a professional athlete. He may have just had a career year, but being in his mid-30s already doesn’t make him a true beast when it comes to the salary cap.
Given that Alexander had his best season as a professional in Buffalo, he would probably be inclined to re-up with the Bills if he had his choice. The organization was good to him and Whaley will probably re-pay him for his contributions last season.
Though he may have been a product of the Ryan Brothers defense, Alexander could thrive playing under two strong defensive minds with the 2017 Bills: head coach McDermott and new defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier. Since Alexander made only $600,000 last year, $1 to $2 million might suffice to bring him back for another year in Whaley’s. Alexander’s 2016 production alone makes it worth the gamble.
One area of focus for the Bills this offseason has to be wide receiver. Robert Woods is hitting free agency and the Bills could lose their No. 2 wide receiver to often-injured Sammy Watkins for nothing. Buffalo needs to be pragmatic in addressing their wide receiver conundrum this offseason.
Should Woods walk, one guy that Whaley should target is Washington Redskins wide receiver DeSean Jackson. This year will be Jackson’s 10th NFL season out of Cal. He had three solid years with Washington, but is still best known for his three Pro Bowl seasons as the primary vertical threat for the Philadelphia Eagles.
Jackson is coming off his fifth 1,000-yard receiving season as a professional. In 2016, Jackson had 56 receptions for 1,005 yards and four touchdowns, a long of 80 yards. Even into his 30s, Jackson is proving that he can still stretch a defense with his blazing speed with the best vertical threats in the league.
The only issue with signing a player like Jackson is that his big receiving games come in bunches. For a franchise that has struggled to move the chains consistently through the air since Jim Kelly was under center, Buffalo probably needs a possession receiver more than it does a vertical threat like Jackson.
Given that Jackson made $9,250,000 last season, he could be out of Buffalo’s price range to begin with. However should the Bills lose Woods to free agency, Jackson for around $8 million could be worth looking into. It’s highly unlikely he’d take a pay cut to play for the Bills anyway.
Dec 13, 2015; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Buffalo Bills wide receiver Robert Woods (10) runs onto the field to begin a game against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field. The Eagles won 23-20. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
Wide Receiver, Buffalo Bills
Despite having yet another head coaching regime in Orchard Park, the Bills seem to be in decent shape in terms of roster makeup. Whaley seems to find good players at least on the defensive side of the ball. He’s even had a few good moves with offensive players, too, just not as many.
One guy that Whaley should seriously consider bringing back to the Bills in 2017 has to be Woods. Buffalo drafted Woods in the second round of the 2013 NFL Draft out of USC. Though he has never eclipsed 1,000 yards receiving in a season, Woods is a 50-reception No. 2 wideout that can give the Bills 600 receiving yards and three touchdowns annually.
One could argue that those numbers could improve should the Bills solidify their quarterback position. Tyrod Taylor has been decent, but Buffalo is considering moving on from him before this season.
Woods is not expensive, having only made $1,548,518 in 2016. He’s a good player, but nowhere closer to garnering the projected $15.7 million from the franchise tag for wide receivers. Buffalo is in great position to give Woods a slight pay bump to retain him, as well as exercise the franchise tag on bigger fish in Lake Erie.
New offensive coordinator Rick Dennison should recognize that Woods and Watkins have played well off each other as the one-two punch in the Bills passing game for a few years. Whaley will have to pay Woods $3-4 million, but shouldn’t really have an issue re-signing him at a reasonable deal if he feels so inclined.
Oct 24, 2016; Denver, CO, USA; Houston Texans cornerback A.J. Bouye (21) in the first quarter against the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports
Cornerback, Houston Texans
The Bills’ biggest dilemma this free agency cycle is what to do at cornerback. Stephon Gilmore has been a rock in their back-end since being their first-round draft pick in 2012. However, he will enter free agency this spring and wants to be paid like a top-five cornerback in football.
Gilmore is a gem in this relatively weak free agency class. He is a prime target for Whaley to slap the projected $14.3 million franchise tag on for a cornerback. That being said, there may be a younger and possibly cheaper option out there for the same level of productivity: Houston Texans cornerback A.J. Bouye.
Bouye had a breakout 2016 campaign for the vaunted Texans defense. He started 11 games in Romeo Crennel’s defense, defending 16 passes and registering 62 combined tackles in his best season to date as a professional.
However, he could have played his way out of Houston. The Texans may not be able to afford him and they already have a strong corner to counterbalance his loss in starter Kevin Johnson. Bouye could get slapped with the franchise tag, but that would be a massive pay bump from what he made in 2016: $1,671,000.
Since Houston only has a projected $26,716,388, Bouye may very well have played his last game for the Texans. If Buffalo cannot re-sign Gilmore, expect Bouye to be the best bet to replace him as the Bills’ No. 1 cornerback.
Oct 2, 2016; Foxborough, MA, USA; Buffalo Bills cornerback Stephon Gilmore (24) looks on before their game against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports
Cornerback, Buffalo Bills
Gilmore will emerge as one of the biggest names heading into NFL free agency. He is an elite cornerback of this free agency class. Gilmore has spent the last five seasons in Orchard Park, playing for an absurd number of head coaches in that span: Chan Gailey, Doug Marrone, Rex Ryan, and even Anthony Lynn for a game.
Once again, Gilmore will have a new head coach should he re-up with the Bills in 2017. This time, he could be coached by a guy that specializes in defensive backs in McDermott. Add in that McDermott is bringing in a former head coach/defensive coordinator/defensive backs coach in Leslie Frazier to be his defensive coordinator should only make Gilmore’s argument to stay with the Bills more compelling.
Whether or not he likes the coaching staff in place, it will come down to money more than anything for Gilmore should his stick with Buffalo. He is a prime candidate for the franchise tag at $14.3 million. Buffalo doesn’t have a ton of other needs to address, so Whaley could slap him at that price to keep Gilmore in Western New York for another year.
The major issue with that is that Gilmore was already the second-highest paid player on the 2016 Bills. He made $11,082,000 last season. Only defensive tackle Marcell Dareus made more at $12,691,176.
In short, Whaley is going to have to pay Gilmore at least $13 million annually or surpass the franchise tag amount to keep him with the Bills for the foreseeable future. He might have to make him a top-five paid cornerback in football. Choosing to re-up with Gilmore or settling for a suitable replacement like Bouye will be the most difficult task for Whaley to sort through this free agency period.