NFL free agency is going to be a tricky game to play this year. The pool of available players will dwindle as free agency rules change due to the (very likely) lack of a Collective Bargaining Agreement, making it difficult for teams to snag the young up-and-comer looking for his first big pay day. There will still be big-name talent available, without question, but the lack of younger, potential-laden alternatives to those big names will only drive up the asking price, in all likelihood.
The Buffalo Bills have a ton of holes to fill and a roster full of talent that, in many best-case-scenarios, only tangentially fit into what the team's new decision-making regime - led by GM Buddy Nix and head coach Chan Gailey - would like to do. This is especially true on the defensive side of the ball, as the team transitions to a 3-4 defensive alignment.
There are quality players to be had in free agency this year - players that could, in fact, help the Bills. I say let the other NFL teams bid on those players. Given the nature of the business this year, Nix's core belief that you get your best players - your franchise cornerstones - through the Draft, and the idea that frugality may be the best bet this off-season, I expect the Bills to focus on quantity instead of quality when free agency kicks off in early March.
We all know what Buffalo's biggest positional needs are. They need a quarterback. They need a left tackle. They need a nose tackle to anchor that 3-4 alignment, and they could stand to add as many pass rushers as they can. These are premium positions in this league, and the difference-making type of player the Bills need at those positions just won't be available via free agency.
That's not to say that the team couldn't add stop-gap options at any of those positions. Chad Pennington would be an excellent option as a one-year, short-term starter at quarterback in Buffalo. The team could experiment with unheralded veteran linemen such as Artis Hicks and Tony Pashos; at the very least, that type of lineman would be good to have to push the likes of Demetrius Bell. Bryan Robinson has some nose tackle experience and would be a good stop-gap option at that position. There are plenty of high-priced, aging pass rushers available, with Joey Porter topping the list there.
A lot of those names will be rather expensive to sign, however, given the depleted pool of talent this off-season. Aside from Pennington and perhaps Hicks (who can play guard), I don't expect the Bills to seriously sniff around any of those players (and, for the record, I only think those guys could be targets). Instead, I expect them to address depth issues via free agency - again, with quantity as opposed to quality.
Perhaps the team's biggest depth need is at linebacker, where the team has two guys that can start, but absolutely nobody to back them up. There are a ton of cheap, run-of-the-mill inside linebacker options on the market that can play tough for you inside and help you out on special teams. Larry Foote is the big name there, but even if the Bills are outbid for his services (and don't discount Foote's familiarity with Doug Whaley), guys like Matt Wilhelm, Nick Greisen, Monty Beisel and even a 4-3 option like Tony Gilbert would be suitable signings.
The team could also use some 3-4 defensive linemen. Again, nose tackle options are scarce - big names like Casey Hampton and Vince Wilfork will almost certainly get fat contracts thrown their way - there are some serviceable end options available. Baltimore's Dwan Edwards is a name I hear quite a bit, but don't forget about former Bill Justin Bannan, either - it'll be hard for Baltimore to re-sign both, though I'm sure they'll try. Whaley is familiar with Nick Eason, who played for Pittsburgh last year. Same goes with Travis Kirschke. Heck, even a guy like New England's Jarvis Green would look good here.
After yesterday's release of Derek Fine, tight end is suddenly a need area as well. Buffalo's current depth there includes a second-year receiving option, a fourth-year receiving option, and not much else. (Sorry, Jonathan Stupar fans.) I expect the Bills to try to get bigger and more physical at the tight end position to improve their run blocking and to complement Shawn Nelson, who I anticipate will be a key member of Gailey's passing attack. Brandon Manumaleuna is my early favorite free agent target here, but guys like Ben Hartsock, Reggie Kelly, Sean Ryan, Will Heller and Dan Campbell will get the job done, too.
You get the point I'm trying to make. It wouldn't shock me to see the Bills pursue a guy like Pennington, or even a big-name nose tackle like Hampton. "Shock" implies being floored, however; I would be surprised to see them chase the big names. Pennington's a unique case because of the importance of the quarterback position; I think you can pretty much forget about the rest of the big names. There won't be any Terrell Owens-like flash from this year's free agent crop. But the Bills are in good position to add valuable depth to their roster this season, and they should be able to do so rather cheaply. Rome won't be built in one off-season, but the team can lay its schematic foundation and get a little tougher in the process starting this March.