With the 2008 NFL Draft taking place less than two weeks from today, draft chatter is taking place at a more frequent pace than ever. In the case of the Buffalo Bills, we have already ironed out the team's biggest needs heading into the draft. But this time of year is more than about building a winning team - it's about planning for the future, as well. No, we're not talking about player age - we did that yesterday - instead, we're talking about contracts.
Over the next two years (2008-09 and 09-10), the Bills have several key starters and depth players who are scheduled to become restricted or unrestricted free agents. Whether or not the Bills plan on making an attempt to re-sign these players, their uncertain futures after a year or two may force the Bills to build an unusual amount of depth at those positions. Here's a breakdown of prominent free agents - starters and key reserves alike - over the next two seasons:
2009 Free Agents
FB Darian Barnes, UFA - Signed to a one-year contract this past January.
LB Angelo Crowell, UFA - Buffalo's most experienced and productive linebacker is entering the final year of his deal. Strong chance the team will try to re-sign him.
LB John DiGiorgio, RFA - One of the Bills' best reserve players and special teamers, if DiGiorgio sees significant (productive) playing time in 2008, the Bills will tender him high and keep him in town. Could become a fan favorite.
LB Keith Ellison, RFA - Top reserve weak-side linebacker with starting experience. That's tough to find in a third-year player.
WR Lee Evans, UFA* - Evans is technically signed through the 2010 season, but has an option to opt out of the final year - an option he'll certainly take advantage of. He's the "big" name on this list.
C Melvin Fowler, UFA - Widely regarded as the weak link on an otherwise stellar Bills O-Line.
CB Jabari Greer, UFA - Signed a 2-year contract for '07 and '08. If he continues to start this coming season, he'll want a bigger deal next off-season.
QB J.P. Losman, UFA - Despite his trade demands, it looks like Losman will be spending '08 as Trent Edwards' backup. He'll then walk as a 2009 free agent.
OG Duke Preston, UFA - Young reserve with starting experience, but comes from an era of poor line play in Buffalo.
OG Jason Whittle, UFA - Signed a one-year deal this past March. Oldest player on the roster (33).
OG Brad Butler - 2006 5th-round pick signed a four-year deal that expires after 2009. Entrenched himself as starting right guard for foreseeable future.
DE Ryan Denney - Four-year deal signed in 2006. At age 30 and recovering from a serious foot injury, Denney may be playing out his final Bills contract.
CB William James - The newest Buffalo Bill, signed within the past month, is working on a two-year deal.
CB Terrence McGee - Will be 29 when his current deal expires. Four-year starter in Buffalo.
WR Josh Reed - Signed a four-year deal prior to 2006 season. Slot receiver in Buffalo since his career started in 2002.
TE Robert Royal - Signed a four-year deal prior to 2006 season. Will be 31 by the time his contract expires.
FS Ko Simpson - 2006 starter may not regain that role after serious ankle injury to start '07. If he's a reserve when his contract expires, he's almost certainly a goner.
DT Kyle Williams - Another 2006 draft pick whose four-year deal expires in 2010. He joins OG Butler, S Simpson and CB Youboty (see below). Keith Ellison belongs on this list as well.
CB Ashton Youboty - Once thought of as the future replacement to Nate Clements, Youboty has struggled with injuries and family issues in trying to get playing time. May not get a second contract in Buffalo.
The Big Decisions
Clearly, the biggest decisions the Bills face right away are decisions on contract extensions for Lee Evans and Angelo Crowell. But the big decisions don't stop there. The team has four interior offensive linemen (Fowler, Whittle, Preston, Butler) hitting free agency over the next two years, so something clearly needs to be done there. Add linebacker to the list, where the RFA status of both Ellison and DiGiorgio does nothing to ease the mind if Crowell is let go. Cornerback is a clear problem area too, where all four of the team's top corners are set to become free agents over the next two years.
This is how business operates in today's NFL. There is no guarantee that the Bills will be able to re-sign a quarter of the 19 key players listed above. With ten draft picks this year - and the probability of trading down higher than ever - it's time to start planning for the eventual loss of most of these players.