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Buffalo Bills’ free agents: Stephon Gilmore, Robert Woods lead a large group

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With 24 unrestricted free agents and a potentially huge scheme shift on both sides of the ball, turnover is coming.

The 2016 Buffalo Bills were made up of a tremendous number of players playing on expiring contracts. In all, the Bills have 24 unrestricted free agents, 8 restricted free agents, and 2 exclusive-rights free agents about whom GM Doug Whaley (and the yet-to-be-decided incoming coaching regime) will need to make a decision. With so much change at all levels, it’s difficult to determine who should stay and who should go; however, I’ve broken the list into groups of players based on their status and whether I think the Bills should consider retaining their services for the 2017 season.

UFA to let walk:

S Colt Anderson

RB Reggie Bush

WR Marquise Goodwin

WR Percy Harvin

QB EJ Manuel

S Jonathan Meeks

None of the players on this list made enough of an impact to warrant an offer on the open market. Manuel showed time and again that he was unable to shed the “over-drafted project” label, and the team would be wise either to bring in a veteran backup for Tyrod Taylor or to draft another player to sit behind him. Of course, it’s also possible that the Bills could be in the market for a new starting quarterback, but that’s for a different article.

While Goodwin was finally able to stay healthy for the majority of a season, his lack of production (29/431/3; 42.6% of targets caught) should seal his fate. Anderson played 27 snaps on special teams before going on IR. Harvin came out of retirement, was a non-factor, and should re-retire. Bush finished what literally may be the worst season in NFL history for a running back, so he should probably consider following Harvin off into the sunset. Meeks was generally terrible in coverage, and was not a particularly strong tackler, either.

UFA to consider re-signing:

S Robert Blanton

S Sergio Brown

TE Chris Gragg

LB Ramon Humber

S James Ihedigbo

LB Lerentee McCray

RT Jordan Mills

LB Brandon Spikes

WR-KR Brandon Tate

CB-S Corey White

The operative phrase here is “to consider.” Most of these players either had poor years or were limited contributors, but with so many holes to fill, it would be wise to at least consider retaining them until someone better is acquired. At worst, this sets up better competition during training camp.

Jordan Mills is a good example. Although he was in no way a strong tackle, allowing him to walk leaves Buffalo quite thin (especially if the other plan is to hope Seantrel Henderson regains his strength and health, and can avoid another suspension for marijuana use while managing Crohn’s Disease). Right Tackle is the most obvious spot to upgrade on the offensive line, but moving on from Mills without a clear plan is a little too risky for me, especially given all of the other potential upgrades needed on the roster.

All of the safeties listed above are limited, but with Aaron Williams mulling retirement, at least one from this group should be retained so that it doesn’t become a “we need to draft an instant-impact safety” situation (with Malik Hooker declaring for the draft, that scenario may be in play; however, planning only for him to be available is not a good plan). Blanton and Ihedigbo would seem to have the best track records of the crew, but they are both best served as roster depth at this point. An impact player will be necessary whether they are retained or not.

Chris Gragg is young enough and athletic enough that he’s at least worth a shot in camp to see how his ACL recovery is going. McCray and Humber are both scheme-versatile veterans who could help at what stands to be another thin position. Brandon Spikes is nothing more than goal-line depth at this point, but depending on the new DC’s scheme, he could be worth a veteran-minimum deal. Brandon Tate played a far larger role on offense than I’m sure the team would have wanted, and he was at least serviceable. He is worth a look at the minimum. Corey White may be someone who is a bit more than a “consider”; he was solid replacing Ronald Darby, and did fairly well playing safety late in the season. I would try to bring him back into the fold, especially if Stephon Gilmore walks.

UFA to attempt to re-sign:

LB-ER Lorenzo Alexander

LB Zach Brown

DT Corbin Bryant

DL Leger Douzable

FB Jerome Felton

CB Stephon Gilmore

WR Justin Hunter

WR Robert Woods

Unfortunately, I think a majority of the players from this pile might be gone. Alexander led the team in sacks (12.5) and was a revelation in making his first Pro Bowl. He may have played himself into one last big contract, and Buffalo may be unwilling to pay a premium for a player entering the “twilight” of his career (unless he really is Benjamin Button, of course). Zach Brown led the team in tackles (97 solo, 149 total) and was generally strong in coverage. His excellent season may have priced him out of re-signing. Both Alexander and Brown would make great additions to any team, so Buffalo should expect stiff competition in re-signing them.

Bryant only played in 8 games, and he started 6, but his versatility and fit in a 4-3 under scheme makes him a strong rotational player. The same goes for Douzable, who had a very strong season (43 tackles). He may be less likely to sign based on his loyalty to Rex Ryan and some tweets after Ryan’s firing, however, as he’s basically followed Ryan for his whole career as a player. Felton would be a candidate to stick around especially if Anthony Lynn were named head coach. He fits the system perfectly and is a valuable lead blocker.

Gilmore is a lightning rod, and the first half of the year he was pretty brutal, but he eventually settled in and had his best year statistically (5 INTs, 12 PDs). If the open market doesn’t net him what he thinks it will, he would be a wise re-signing; I’ve seen some suggest the transition tag for him, and that would also be a wise choice for Buffalo, especially if they determine that the franchise tag is too much money.

Robert Woods and Justin Hunter both warrant a second look, as well. Woods was excellent (51/613/1) for what was asked of him, and Hunter led the team in touchdown catches on only 23 targets (10/189/4). It’s more realistic that only one of them will be re-signed, but if both could be brought back into the fold at a reasonable price, it would leave Doug Whaley with fewer holes to plug.

RFA to let walk:

RB Dri Archer

I forgot he was technically on the roster.

RFA to consider:

TE Logan Thomas

P Colton Schmidt

DT DeAndre Coleman

CB Marcus Roberson

OT Michael Ola

I’d almost wager that the least likely returnee here is Schmidt. He had a down year, averaging a career-low 42.4 yards per punt. The others are really lottery tickets. Thomas is an intriguing athlete, Coleman is a mountain of a man who could help depending on scheme, Ola’s fate may depend on the team’s decision on Jordan Mills (or, if you prefer, maybe Mills’s depends on the team’s decision on Ola), and Roberson could be retained for cheap in a “you can’t have too many corners”-type move.

RFA to keep:

RB Mike Gillislee

OL Ryan Groy

I won’t even give the “try to re-sign” designation. These guys should stay. Gillislee is as good a backup RB as there is in the league (even if he’s a clueless kick returner). He carried the ball 101 times for 577 yards, scoring 8 touchdowns on the season. Groy performed admirably in Eric Wood’s stead at the end of the season. His versatility and performance make him an easy tender candidate.

ERFA:

WR Dez Lewis

S Shamiel Gary

Lewis has been the athletic question mark at the wide receiver position for the last couple of years. Keeping him around at a discount should happen. He has some physical tools, and it’s not as if the WR position is full of world-beaters in Buffalo. Gary may be retained merely because the team can do so for cheap. He played 60 special teams snaps towards the end of the season.