Thank you, Kim and Terry, for naming me your czar of football operations. Now, let’s get to work!
Long time Bills followers know that:
- the greatest periods of franchise success has been driven by football men who were not part of the Ralph Wilson inner circle- Lou Saban, Chuck Knox, Bill Polian, John Butler, etc.
- all of those football men had a shelf life beyond which they could not continue to exist with the Wilson inner circle, eventually leaving Buffalo out of frustration
- the frequent and painful periods of franchise history where the Bills have not been successful coincide with times when the Wilson circle was firmly in control.
As a result, my first move as football czar to signal the new era of Bills football is to say goodbye to Jim Overdorf (here since 1986), Scott Berchtold (1989) and Russ Brandon (1997), since we already separated with Jeffrey Littman (1986) after the team purchase was completed.
The next step is to evaluate whether Doug Whaley is the right choice to head up personnel. He has had his misses (Mike Williams, Chris Williams and Keith Rivers), but has successes as well: free agents (Dixon, Graham, Spikes), draftees (Watkins, Preston Brown), contract extensions (Fred Jackson, Eric Wood, Aaron Williams), low level signings to improve depth and special teams (Gray, Dean, Wynn, Charles, Powell and Carpenter).
Whaley made the absolute right call in handling the Byrd situation in the face of persistent criticism from the fans and the media. He has a scouting perspective, is on the growth part of his career trajectory, is not afraid to be aggressive (see Watkins, Sammy) and is well respected within the NFL community. Decision: keep him in place.
After interviewing the entire list of potential head coaching candidates, we go with Rex Ryan as the right choice. Aggressive, charismatic, good with players, fans and media, and with an outstanding defensive reputation (and with a passionate dislike of all things New England), we give Ryan the opportunity to work with a GM who will support him rather than his past situation with John Idzik in NY.
Understanding that Dennis Thurman is a package deal with Rex, that means we have to let Jim Schwartz and his staff go, despite the outstanding year they had in 2014.
For offensive coordinator, Rex recommends Greg Roman, a solid choice known more for his power running game and creative personal match-ups than for his work with the passing game and quarterbacks. But this is the new Bills, and we hire Adam Gase instead, after initially interviewing him for the head coaching job.
Gase is motivated to get out from under Peyton Manning’s shadow, and at 36, is one of the top up and coming offensive minds in the NFL. Known for his pre-snap motion, personnel groupings, bunch receivers, bubble screens- it’s about getting playmakers in space, a perfect match for Sammy Watkins. In addition, his roots are as a QB coach in Detroit and Denver, and we need a specialist to work with E.J.
After the signing of Richie Incognito and the release of Keith Rivers, the Bills sit at $114.2 million, which leaves us with a little over $30 million in 2015 cap space. That’s not enough to do what we need to get done, so we release Chris Williams and Kraig Urbik, freeing up an additional $4.5 million, while giving reserve Manny Lawson the choice of taking a pay cut or being released. With Lawson agreeing to a $1 million reduction, the combined impact of these moves saves the Bills $5.5 million against the 2015 cap.
Finally, we need relief from the $19.4 million dollar cap hit in 2015 from Mario Williams, so we take part of his 2015 $12.1 million salary and convert it into a signing bonus, spreading that cap hit across the remaining three years of his contract and freeing up $5 million in additional cap space.
Putting all of these moves together, the Bills enter the free agency period with $40.5 million in cap space, and with $3 million reserved for draft choices, we have $37.5 million left for contract extensions and free agency.
The strategy is simple: keep the defense intact for 2015. Rex desperately wants Jerry Hughes and his ability to be a significant pass rushing weapon as part of his new team defense. With Mario Williams and Kyle Williams both on the wrong side of 30, it is important to lock up both Hughes and Dareus now.
For Hughes, that takes a 5 year, $45 million deal with $21 million guaranteed, which puts him 8th among NFL defensive ends in average salary. For Marcel Dareus, we make him the 2nd highest paid DT in the NFL, with a 6 years, $84 million, with $51 million guaranteed.
In addition, we sign Da'Norris Searcy- while our value is at $4 million and he is looking for $5 million, we split the difference and bring him back on a 3 year, $13.5 deal with $5 million guaranteed.
The cost of Hughes, Dareus and Searcy takes a big chunk of our available salary cap, leaving $18 million left for free agency- but our defense is intact in 2015 and now it is time to invest in the offense.
While Spiller has been a solid team player, running backs are cheap and he has priced himself out of the Bills budget. Brandon Spikes no longer has a starting role on the team and is gone as well, as are reserves Stevenson Sylvester, Lee Smith and Chris Hairston. We also say goodbye to Erik Pears and his negative (-25.0) Pro Football Focus 2014 grade.
We resign special teamers Jarius Wynn, Larry Dean and Marcus Easley for a total cost of $2.3 million, and tender RFAs Hogan and Bryant at the minimum $600k level, while allowing Thigpen and Jordan Gay to leave. That leaves us about $15 million left for free agents.
With the defense already in excellent shape, the Bills focus on offense in free agency:
Orlando Franklin, OL, Denver. Denver selected him as a 2R draft choice in 2011, Franklin is 27 yrs old, in his prime, and is 6'7", 320. Mike Iupati gets a lot of the publicity, but the player the Bills need is Franklin, who graded out at +15.5 in 2014 by Pro Football Focus, his 3rd consecutive year earning a positive double digit score. Playing on almost all of the Broncos offensive snaps, Franklin gave up only 11 QB pressures all year, and grades out as a plus run blocker as well. Capable of playing on the left or right side, guard or tackle, Franklin's versatilty allows Ryan to play his best 5 offensive lineman in 2015. 4 yrs, $24 million contract.
Virgil Green, TE, Denver. Four year veteran used primarily by Denver as a blocking TE- immediately is a significant upgrade to Lee Smith, but with serious untapped receiving ability that he showed off in college. Green is a hot sleeper name on several team's free agent lists, and he has potential that new OC Adam Gase is very aware of at a price much lower than the more well known free agent TEs like Thomas, Cameron and Clay. 4 yrs, $12 million contract.
Matt Moore, QB, Miami. Jake Locker is tempting, but constant injuries that have forced him to miss half of his starts and a four year stats line that includes 57% completion rate and a quarterback rating of 79 is too risky to invest in. Matt Moore is the safer choice- an 8 year veteran who has shown flashes with Carolina and Miami, capable of stepping in for Manuel if needed, and if not, can serve as the Bills veteran QB for the next several years. 3 yrs, $10.5 million.
Roy Helu, RB, Washington. Replacement for Spiller and alternative to Bryce Brown, four year veteran who had an outstanding collegiate career at Nebraska but was only used by Washington as a change of pace back to Alfred Morris. Averaged an outstanding 11.4 yards per catch out the backfield in 2014 while also ran for an average of 5.4 YPC, Helu has been lightly used and is a great bargain addition to the Bills backfield. 2 years, $5 million.
Without a 1st and 4th round draft choice, the Bills need an immediate starter with the 2nd round pick. While many mocks will go TE or RB, the Bills instead get an immediate starter at OL while also adding their badly needed developmental QB as well as adding upside players at RB, TE, S and DE.
2R: Jake Fisher, OL, Oregon. Smart, competitive lineman who protected Mariota at Oregon. 6'6", 306 pounder who just finished the combine with first or second finishes in 4 speed and agility categories, Fisher cements the rebuilding of the Bills offensive line.
3R: Garrett Grayson, QB, Colorado State. Ranked the #3 QB prospect in the draft by Daniel Jeremiah, Grayson has a significant advantage in that unlike most other college QBs, he played in a NFL style offense at Colorado State. Not an outstanding athlete, but does everything well and has good touch and accuracy, and immediately supplants Jeff Tuel while posing as an eventual competitive alternative to Manuel and Moore.
5R (1st pick): Matt Jones, RB, Florida. 6'2", 231 pounder who ran a 4.6 at the combine and has drawn comparisons to a young Marshawn Lynch for his tremendous ability to run through tackles. Jones is the #5 highest rated RB by Football Outsiders in their SpeedScore predicitive model, and would make an excellent committee partner to Helu.
5R (2nd pick): MyCole Pruitt, TE, Southern Illinois. 6'3, 254 pounder who has emerged as a sleeper pick after the NFL combine- among a weak TE class, he is the 2nd best athlete in the TE group after Maxx Williams. Beyond athleticism, has soft hands and caught 81 passes last year, and together with Virgil Green, prepares Bills for the post Scott Chandler era.
6R: Damarious Randall, S, Arizona. Value pick singled out by both McShay and Mayock in a thin class for safeties, Randall is a free safety with speed (4.46), range and a reputation for hard hitting.
7R: Frank Clark, DE, Michigan. A risky pick, Clark was kicked out of Michigan after a violent altercation with his girlfriend. 6'3", 275 lbs, was considered the top DL recruit coming out of high school and is tremendously athletic. If he commits to changing his past behavior, would be a significant sleeper pick, similar to Seantrell Henderson in 2014.
1. Time to change the culture: definitively end the "old Bills" era by cleaning house in the front office, and giving Doug Whaley and Rex Ryan the ability and resources to take the next step towards the playoffs.
2. Keep the 2014 defense intact at least one more year by locking in Jerry Hughes, Marcel Dareus and Da'Norris Searcy to new deals.
3. Add Matt Moore and Garrett Grayson to QB competition, and a highly respected, young OC in Adam Gase to help sort them out and develop Manuel and Grayson.
4. Completely rework and upgrade the OL, replacing Urbik, Williams and Pears with Orlando Franklin, Jake Fisher and Richie Incognito. Significant upgrading of the TE position by adding high potentials Virgil Green and MyCole Pruitt.
5. Set the Bills for future running back success post Spiller and Fred Jackson with the "thunder and lightning" duo of Roy Helu and Matt Jones.
6. Add rookie depth at S and DE with upside draft picks.