NFL free agency is right around the corner, as teams can begin negotiating with available players from other teams tomorrow (Saturday), and deals can be signed starting Tuesday, March 12 at 4PM ET. As we head into a weekend that could overflow with reports and rumors, we thought it'd be prudent to take one last look at the Buffalo Bills' situation heading into the free agent signing period.
What of Ryan Fitzpatrick?
Ironically, the big story for the Bills entering free agency is what will happen with a player that's currently under contract. Three-year starting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick is due a $3 million roster bonus on March 13, and the general consensus amongst outside observers of the team is that if Fitzpatrick doesn't re-structure his contract, the team will strongly consider cutting him to save that signing bonus and his $4.25 million salary, regardless of the minimal cap savings (he'll still count for $10 million in dead money if released).
Buffalo hedged its bets in February when they re-signed veteran Tarvaris Jackson to a modest contract; either way, they have a veteran quarterback on the roster heading into the 2013 season. Whether or not Fitzpatrick will be around at a reduced salary to compete with Jackson for a starting job, however, remains to be seen.
Bills free agents
At the time that this article was published, the Bills had 10 unrestricted free agents from their 2012 squad. Of those names, we've only seen reports indicating ongoing negotiations with one of them - cornerback Leodis McKelvin (link here) - but that, of course, is not indicative of the team's plans.
The big name on the list, of course, is left guard Andy Levitre, who as of a week ago had not received a contract offer from the Bills and is expected to be one of the most coveted offensive linemen on the open market this year. At least one team (the Tennessee Titans, as reported here) is already interested, and today, it's looking far more likely than not that Levitre will be playing elsewhere in 2013.
Two other free agents that the Bills are reportedly interested in re-signing are defensive end Kyle Moore and fullback Corey McIntyre. (McIntyre, at least, is expected to test the open market.) The team's six remaining unrestricted free agents are quarterback Tyler Thigpen, running back Tashard Choice, wide receiver Ruvell Martin, guard Chad Rinehart, defensive tackle Spencer Johnson and linebacker Kirk Morrison. Of that group, Rinehart may be the most likely to return.
For a full briefing of what the Bills have already done roster-wise this off-season, make sure to check out this StoryStream.
Another "big fish"?
The Bills were rather quiet in free agency in 2010 and 2011 under the watchful eye of GM Buddy Nix, but blew the barn doors open last season when, in the first wave of free agency, the team wined and dined Mario Williams for 48 hours before making him the richest defender in NFL history. That was in the third year of a coaching staff under fire, however; it remains to be seen if the team will be as aggressive with Doug Marrone and his new coaching staff in town.
If the Bills do decide to stay aggressive and pursue a big-name free agent, the most likely targets include a pair of star receivers (Mike Wallace or Greg Jennings), or one of a pair of Baltimore defenders that could be every-down defenders in Mike Pettine's hybrid defense (pass rusher Paul Kruger and linebacker Dannell Ellerbe). Of those names, Ellerbe might make the most fiscal sense - Buffalo's need at linebacker is dire - but he's also the least likely to hit the open market. The receivers may be too pricy for Buffalo, as well; Wallace, in particular, is reportedly seeking $12 million per season.
In short, there won't be anything close to a Mario Williams splash made this season, but don't be surprised if the Bills stay aggressive and pursue established talent at one of their biggest need areas.
Five need areas
Buffalo has more than five positional needs, but let's face it - they're not going to address them all in free agency. Here are the five positions we expect the team to focus on over the next couple of weeks:
- WR: The team has been gutting this position, letting restricted free agents Donald Jones and David Nelson walk. The only established player on the roster is Stevie Johnson, and the only long-term investment aside from him is 2012 third-round pick T.J. Graham. The Bills have coveted a bigger receiver that can make plays in traffic and over the top for a number of years now, and they've got designs on moving Johnson into more of a slot role, as well.
- LB: After the release of Nick Barnett, the team has two young linebackers penciled in as starters (Kelvin Sheppard and Nigel Bradham), and they re-signed nickel linebacker Bryan Scott earlier this week, as well. It can be very reasonably argued that there isn't a three-down player in that trio, and there's little question that linebacker is by far the team's biggest need - and may not just defensively.
- OG: If the Bills lose Levitre, it's possible that they'll try to find a plug-and-play replacement (possibly Rinehart, or potentially a player from another team) rather than promoting from within (Colin Brown would be the leading candidate today) or spending a draft pick on a starting-caliber guard.
- TE: Nix has repeatedly brought this position up in recent weeks, as the team's only receiving threat at the position, Scott Chandler, is coming off of a late-season ACL tear that required surgery. Buffalo has needed a quality "move" tight end for years - a player that can split out wide and cause matchup problems - and it's possible that they could try to add that type of player in free agency, if only to hedge their bets when it comes to Chandler's knee.
- CB: The Bills are trying to bring back McKelvin, and for good reason - he's an elite punt returner - but they're also touting him as a potential starting cornerback, which is laughable considering the number of times he's been benched in recent seasons. Buffalo needs some clarity across from second-year pro Stephon Gilmore, and right now, Aaron Williams doesn't provide that (nor does McKelvin if he returns).