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Bills' free agent options dwindling

This morning, Brian broke down the holes the Bills could look to plug in free agency beginning Friday. But with the changes in the uncapped year, players with less than six accrued seasons are eligible for restricted free agency. As a result, players who normally would be free agents after four years of service are now able to be restricted by their former clubs, and it's leaving the Bills and the rest of the NFL with limited free agent options.

The Bills have a pretty glaring need at offensive tackle with the retirement of Brad Butler, and a starting tackle who would normally be a free agent is Chargers five-year veteran Marcus McNeill. Bills GM Buddy Nix was on the staff that scouted the tackle and would be pretty familiar with the pass protector, but McNeill won't be available to the highest bidder. Reports from San Diego say the Chargers haven't simply placed the original round tender on McNeill, which would have resulted in a second-round pick as compensation should another team sign him. The Chargers took it two steps further and slapped the first- and third-round tender on McNeill, meaning that unless a separate trade is worked out, San Diego can match any offer, or if they choose to move on, receive two high picks from the signing team.  The Ravens' Jared Gaither is another starting OT who is restricted but he was hit with the first-round tender today.

Also reportedly tagged by the Chargers were LB Shawne Merriman and WRs Malcolm Floyd and Vincent Jackson - three players that would certainly fill holes for Buffalo. Merriman, an OLB who has recorded 43.5 sacks since being drafted in the first round five years ago, would represent a solid piece to the Bills' new 3-4 puzzle, while Jackson was a top receiver in San Diego. Floyd had more receptions and yards than Lee Evans in 2009.

The quarterback position is another place where options are now off the table for Buffalo. Quarterbacks Kyle Orton, Jason Campbell, Tarvaris JacksonBruce Gradkowski, Matt Moore, and even J.P. Losman (sorry guys) are RFAs that would normally be UFAs and all have starting experience.  Add to those unusual RFAs Carolina's Matt Moore who may be the Panther's starter in 2010. Gradkowski has been tendered at the second-round level, while Orton and Campbell are both expected to be tendered at some level before tomorrow's deadline. [Ed. Note: Orton and Campbell were both tendered at the first-round level today.  Jackson was tendered at a third-round level and Moore received the highest tender possible for a first- and third-round picks.]

The centerpiece of the 3-4 defense will also be hard to come by in free agency this year, but not due to restricted free agency. Vince Wilfork of the Patriots was the highest-profile potential free agent in what could have been a stellar year for nose tackles in free agency. Wilfork was tagged a franchise player, though, resulting in a salary of $7M for him and the cost of two first-round picks to anyone who signs the big man. Also franchised were San Fransisco NT Aubrayo Franklin and Packers NT Ryan Pickett. The Steelers threatened to franchise their nose tackle as well, but Casey Hampton signed a three-year contract extension last week.

The fact that these players are tendered or tagged doesn't mean teams won't go after them, but the cost will be steep. Not only would you need to sign the player to a normal free agent offer sheet, but you must give up compensation to the player's current team - a double whammy. It will be prohibitive to a re-building team to give up both.

Buddy Nix has insisted he would like to build through the draft. I don't know if he's going to have much of a choice this year.