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Buffalo Bills’ free-agent strategy leaves them a barren roster in 2017

The Bills can barely field a nickel defense with their signed players for 2017.

The Buffalo Bills were strapped for cash in the 2016 offseason. It may seem like a long time ago, so let’s jog your memory:

  • The team converted a roster bonus into a signing bonus for Charles Clay, saving them $7.5 million on his contract but locking him onto the team for the next few seasons.
  • Mario Williams was cut to save $12.9 million and to improve Buffalo’s pass rush.
  • Kraig Urbik, Boobie Dixon, and Leodis McKelvin were cut to save around $6.8 million.
  • Chris Hogan was given a free agent tender, but the team let him walk when he signed a deal averaging $4 million per year with the Patriots.
  • Corey Graham, Dan Carpenter, and Kyle Williams all restructured their contracts, to buy the team more breathing room under the salary cap.
  • Ron Brooks and Nigel Bradham were allowed to depart and sign mid-sized contracts with the Eagles.

All of this was necessary in order to create cap space to re-sign Richie Incognito, Cordy Glenn, and Tyrod Taylor during the 2016 offseason. And it worked - these three important players are locked up. But it left the Bills with very little flexibility under the salary cap. So what did the team do? To fill up the holes they created with those departures, they signed a (huge) number of players to one-year, veteran-minimum deals. It may come back to bite them next year.

All told, the Bills have 24(!) free agents heading into the 2017 season, per Spotrac. That’s the most in the league, and it’s ten more than the average of 14 players among the other 31 teams. 14 of those names are players on one-year contracts. Most of them are playing for the veteran minimum.

What does Buffalo’s depth chart look like if these players depart in free agency? Well, it isn’t pretty. Here’s the offense, sans the 2017 free agent class:

QB: Tyrod Taylor, Cardale Jones

RB: LeSean McCoy, Mike Gillislee, Jonathan Williams

TE: Charles Clay, Nick O’Leary

OT: Cordy Glenn, Cyrus Kouandjio, Seantrel Henderson

OG: Richie Incognito, Ryan Groy, John Miller

OC: Eric Wood, Patrick Lewis

WR: Sammy Watkins*, Walter Powell, Kolby Listenbee^, Marcus Easley^

(* - currently on injured reserve, ^- currently on PUP)

Fortunately, most of the core remains intact, thanks to recent contract signings. This highlights why the Bills are almost forced to retain Tyrod Taylor on his new contract, however: EJ Manuel is a free agent, and Cardale Jones is not ready to start an NFL game. The team either pays Taylor $16 million next year, or they punt on the season by signing a Brian Hoyer type to guide them toward a top pick. Don’t count on Manuel returning, either: Obviously, he’s on his way to Jacksonville, to reunite with future head coach Nathaniel Hackett, replace the disastrous Blake Bortles, and guide the Jaguars to the AFC South title.

There is a massive hole at wide receiver on Buffalo’s roster. Sammy Watkins is a star, lest you forget: He hauled in seven touchdowns and 900 receiving yards over the final nine games of the 2015 season. Still, he’s dealing with a foot injury that has shut him down for the whole season. His status has no guarantees. The remaining two players in that position group are essentially afterthoughts at the moment.

And the defense:

DL: Kyle Williams, Marcell Dareus, Adolphus Washington, Jerel Worthy

ER: Jerry Hughes, Shaq Lawson

LB: Preston Brown, Reggie Ragland*

CB: Ronald Darby, Nickell Robey-Coleman, Kevon Seymour

S: Corey Graham, Aaron Williams*

(* - currently on injured reserve)

That’s right: The Bills can barely field a nickel defense with the remaining names on the roster. And some of those names should be concerning: Aaron Williams suffered another brutal neck injury this season, and it would probably be in his best interests to retire. Corey Graham will be 32 years old heading into next season, and has lost a lot of his range. Ragland tore his ACL this season and has yet to play an NFL snap (even though coaches and analysts are bullish on his potential).

Re-signing players? It’s more likely than you’d think

Yes, the Bills have a massive number of players to with no contract status. But you can and should expect the team to bring more than a few of them back.

Receiver is the obvious candidate. You should expect one or two names like Justin Hunter and Greg Salas to return to the team, probably on one-year deals. Marquise Goodwin could also make a return to the team on a contract between $1 million and $4 million per year, depending on market rates. Robert Woods is going to be looking for a contract that pays between $7 million and $10 million per year, and the Bills do have the cap space to make that happen, if they agree with the value.

Jordan Mills, Jerome Felton, Corbin Bryant, and Brandon Spikes are all potential re-signings. They’ve all signed mid-level contracts with the Bills in the past, and the team may be comfortable keeping them around for another few years.

It wouldn’t be a surprise if the Bills bring back an outside linebacker or two. Lerentee McCray could be one option; the backup edge-rusher is playing out a cheap deal and has found a niche on special teams and as a situational defender. IK Enemkpali remains a favorite of the coaching staff, and would be playing out a cheap deal coming off of his ACL injury.

The secondary should also see a few returnees. Stephon Gilmore may not be one; his 2016 play doesn’t back up his offseason contract demands from 2015. But Corey White, Robert Blanton, and Colt Anderson have all contributed decent backup-level play to the team, and from a numbers perspective, the Bills could use their help.

For everything else, there’s a compensatory pick

And if Buffalo doesn’t manage to bring back most of these names? Well, there’s always the compensatory pick system. Back when the Bills began the process of making these signings, we knew the team was targeting future compensation. The veteran-minimum deals benefited in a twofold way: They didn’t affect the formula for free agent signings during the offseason due to their low cost, and they presented a potentially high payoff if any of the signings translated into an effective performance.

Well the Bills got just that out of two of them. Lorenzo Alexander was the AFC Defensive Player of the Month in October, while Zach Brown has played like a Pro Bowler in collecting 89 tackles, three sacks, and two forced fumbles during the first nine games of the season.

Will either player re-sign with the team? It’s unclear. Brown’s speed has meshed beautifully with this defense, but with Ragland waiting in the wings, the team may not be able to offer him the playing time and contract value he desires.

Alexander is a wildcard. At 33, and with a career reputation built on his standout special teams play, he doesn’t fit any particular template for a free-agent signing. In fact, the largest contract he ever signed was three years, $4.62 million. Would he be willing to return for a one or two-year deal averaging $3 million per season? Even if he loses a step as a pass rusher, Alexander’s special teams play has been roughly equivalent to Marcus Easley’s peak performance, so he’d be worth a decent chunk of change. But he could also argue that an even greater value is justified; after all, his sack performance this year hasn’t solely been built on flukes, but rather one-on-one skill.

After everything is sorted through, expect the Bills to have a free agent “deficit” - that is, more free agents to leave, than to sign. And between Gilmore, Woods, Brown, and Alexander, it’s more than likely that the team will be in line for a third or fourth round pick, plus a late rounder or two. Doug Whaley will be happy to have some draft ammunition in the future. But he has a tall order ahead of him as he tries to build back Buffalo’s roster depth for the next season.