2014 NFL free agency does not begin until 4PM ET on Tuesday, March 11. However, teams can begin contacting agents about players and talking contract numbers this weekend, and since the Buffalo Bills are already bringing in released veterans that can sign new deals immediately, it's probably time to formalize our thoughts on where, exactly, the Bills need to focus on bolstering their roster in the coming weeks and months.
Typically, when team needs are the topic of discussion, fans almost universally feel the need to establish a priority order for those holes. What follows is a different and, arguably, more prudent approach: rank every position, need or not, by that position's inherent value, and then assess the team's situation at each spot. That helps to eliminate the narrowing thought processes that lead to people believing guard is the team's top need; it's an issue, without a doubt, but if the Bills are ever in a spot where guard is their top need, we'll also be in the midst of enjoying their dynamic run of several straight Super Bowl titles. Which is to say, guard will never be their top need, because it's not a position of high enough value.
We've taken a look at positional value as it pertains to the team's past draft habits before; now it's time to apply it to a needs list. We use franchise tag values to determine the value order of positions, as determined by how much teams are willing to spend to ensure quality at the positions, and then assess the Bills from there.
1. Quarterback ($16.912M)
EJ Manuel has already been named the starting quarterback for the 2014 season, and the Bills have repeatedly expressed optimism about Thad Lewis serving in the backup role in his contract year, as well. It's no secret that the Bills need a much higher level of production out of this position, but it's also looking like Buffalo is comfortable rolling with Manuel and Lewis into the new year.
That is a massive gamble from the outside looking in (and probably from the inside looking in), but it's one the team appears to be willing to make. It also doesn't mean that the team won't explore other options at the position, but they've laid the groundwork for standing pat here. If they're not as confident in their current personnel as they seem publicly (and they probably shouldn't be), the bold thing to do would be to grab a veteran that they believe could leapfrog Manuel at some point.
2. Defensive End ($13.116M)
With the expected move back to a 4-3 defense under new coordinator Jim Schwartz forthcoming, the Bills have work to do here. Of the players that saw significant playing time on defense last season, only two can be considered capable of playing 4-3 end: Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes. And Hughes shouldn't be considered an every-down player; he's a pass rush specialist.
Buffalo needs at least two bodies (but perhaps more) to build out their depth and competition at this position, but more importantly, they also need a contributor - a guy that can come in and platoon with Hughes on one side as an early-down complement, while Williams mans the other side. Depth can be addressed from there.
3. Wide Receiver ($12.312M)
The team has three players capable of a lot of playing time and a quality level of production in their specific roles: Robert Woods, Stevie Johnson and Marquise Goodwin, who will almost certainly see an expanded role in his second season. What the team lacks in that group is size, and the ability to make tough catches in traffic; that ability could help Manuel develop more than any single external factor. Ideally, the Bills are able to find a receiver with size that can contribute right away, pushing the oft-used T.J. Graham out of the top rotation, as he has simply not produced with ample opportunities. Short of that, Graham will likely continue to play a lot, and the Bills will develop a package or two for specialists with size.
4. Cornerback ($11.834M)
Stephon Gilmore and Leodis McKelvin have earned starting jobs on the outside heading into the 2014 season. Nickell Robey was a surprise at the nickel spot as an undrafted rookie last season, but his size (5'7") will diminish his value in the transition to a new system. Ron Brooks remains a worthwhile athletic project, but has missed large chunks of playing time with two separate foot injuries in his first two seasons. Buffalo also only currently employs six cornerbacks. Depth is a major concern here, and ideally, the Bills can find a player that can push Robey for playing time and provide quality depth on the outside. Maybe that player is Brooks; maybe it isn't.
5. Offensive Line ($11.654M)
The team is set at left tackle (Cordy Glenn) and center (Eric Wood) for the foreseeable future, and right guard (Kraig Urbik) is in an acceptable state as well, especially considering Urbik was signed to a four-year extension not too long ago. Upgrades at right tackle and left guard are necessary, where veterans Erik Pears and Doug Legursky are the incumbents, respectively.
The organization's philosophy is to work from the outside in, so we should fully expect them to prioritize right tackle over guard. Don't forget, also, that while there is a dearth of quality depth at tackle (unless you want to count Chris Hairston, whose year off due to an unannounced medical issue makes him a complete unknown at this point), the team has a project guard that they are intrigued with in J.J. 'Unga.
6. Linebacker ($11.455M)
Kiko Alonso is obviously a mainstay, but the team has hinted that they'd like to move him to the weak side on early downs to keep him fresher and healthier throughout the course of a 16-game (or more) season. The only other linebacker on the roster that played more than a third of the defensive snaps last season is Manny Lawson, and with that 4-3 transition in the pipeline, no one is sure how he fits into the team's plans moving forward. Nigel Bradham, who did have a small role a year ago, is a prime candidate for an expanded role in 2014, as his skills better fit into the Schwartz defense.
Depth is an issue here, and the team needs, at bare minimum, that early-down inside linebacker that can allow Alonso to kick outside. Ideally, they find another three-down player and forget about this position for the next few years.
7. Defensive Tackle ($9.654M)
Buffalo is in great shape here. Kyle Williams, Marcell Dareus and Alan Branch form a productive and versatile rotation of players that should continue to excel in the Schwartz defense. Additionally, the team developed Corbin Bryant into a worthwhile rotational player last season, and they also have an intriguing project in Stefan Charles. If the team is able to re-sign Alex Carrington (which might not even be necessary, unless they think he can be a base 4-3 end), they'll be swimming in quality depth here.
8. Running Back ($9.54M)
For the short term, the Bills will be just fine rolling with Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller at this position, as that duo has been productive for years (though, obviously, fans and coaches alike would prefer to see even more production, particularly from Spiller). Jackson turned 33 in late February, however, and is in a contract year - and Spiller has an opt-out clause in his contract, meaning that both Jackson and Spiller could be free agents this time next year.
What that means is that while the Bills are okay for 2014, they need to develop and put a plan into action at this position for the long haul. (They could also use a power back for short-yardage and goal line situations in the short term.)
9. Safety ($8.433M)
Aaron Williams was just signed to a lucrative four-year extension this week; if Jairus Byrd leaves via free agency as expected, Williams becomes the face of this position in Buffalo.
Byrd's status is the big story here. Buffalo will desperately need a short-term fill-in if (when?) Byrd departs, as the only other non-free agent safety with significant playing time, Da'Norris Searcy, isn't athletically capable of filling Byrd's role. (Think of Searcy as the new version of Bryan Scott - an in-the-box safety that will see most of his playing time as a nickel and dime linebacker.) Project players Duke Williams and Jonathan Meeks don't have Byrd's skill set, either, and may not be ready to contribute.
10. Tight End ($7.035M)
Taking free agents out of the equation, the only player at this position that saw significant reps in 2013 is Lee Smith, who is a blocking specialist. Unless the Bills are comfortable rolling the dice on Tony Moeaki, who is attempting a career comeback following an injury-filled career in Kansas City, the Bills will need a contributor at this position.
Re-signing veteran Scott Chandler might seem prudent, but that may only be a short-term solution. The Bills have desperately needed a boost in overall athleticism at this position, so it would not be surprising if the team targeted a different type of athlete than Chandler that can contribute, as well. Chris Gragg, a 2013 seventh-round pick, is a worthwhile project, but can't be counted on to grow into a more prominent role next season.
11. Kicker/Punter ($3.556M)
The Bills simply need to ensure that they have competition at these two positions. Dustin Hopkins missed his rookie season due to injury, but was a fairly major draft day investment at the position. Dan Carpenter had a career year in his place, and it would be mildly surprising if the Bills allowed him to move on to another team this spring.
At punter, the Bills have already brought back Brian Moorman on a one-year deal. They will find someone to compete with him for the job this summer, though that ultimately could end up being an undrafted free agent or a tryout player.