Heading into the 2019 NFL season, the Buffalo Bills have 15 players with expiring contracts. Those 15 free agents have varying ability to test the free market, and two of those players have already announced their retirement from football.
With nearly $84 million in free salary cap space at present, the Bills definitely have financial flexibility for the first time in a few years. With plenty of positions in need of upgrading, that financial flexibility will be tested quickly.
Of the Bills’ free agents, which should the team consider bringing back into the fold? Often, re-signing players becomes an off-season priority; however, on a 6-10 team, it’s possible that general manager Brandon Beane and head coach Sean McDermott will want to go in a different direction at multiple positions. Even with that in mind, the Bills do have a few free agents worth re-signing.
Here is an informal ranking of those 15 players who hit free agency this off-season.
The Not-Quite-Free Agents
DE Eddie Yarbrough
LS Reid Ferguson
Both of the aforementioned players are exclusive-rights free agents (ERFA), meaning that they only become free agents if the Bills choose to non-tender them. Given the fact that the tender is equivalent to the league-minimum salary for the player’s age, it’s rare that teams don’t tender their own ERFAs, as they at least serve to fill rosters and offer good competition in training camp. Both Yarbrough and Ferguson offer more than that, and while Yarbrough’s job is one that might be up for grabs, Ferguson is safe. Both should be tendered contract offers, which they will then have to sign.
CB Lafayette Pitts
P Matt Darr
TE Logan Thomas
These three are restricted free agents (RFA), which is a bit different than an ERFA. Restricted free agents are players with exactly three years of NFL service time (service time is at least six games on a 53-man roster; practice squad time does not count). These players can be tendered contracts by their teams, and if they choose to sign a deal with another team, their former club has the right to match the deal or let them go. If the player leaves his old team, then draft-pick compensation goes from the player’s new squad to his old one.
There are three levels of tenders for restricted free agents. A first-round tender (estimated at $4.429 million by OvertheCap.com) means that the player’s new team gives his old one a first-round pick in exchange for signing him. A second-round tender ($3.11 million) and an original-round tender ($2.035 million) mean what their names suggest, as well.
Given the level of production, or lack thereof, from all three players, offering even an original-round tender seems wasteful on Buffalo’s part. Pitts is a solid special-teams player, but he isn’t worth $2 million, and since he entered the league as an undrafted free agent, there would be no draft pick compensation coming to Buffalo if he were to sign elsewhere. The same goes for Matt Darr, who was pretty dreadful in a short stint in Buffalo. Logan Thomas was initially drafted in the fourth round as a quarterback, but I doubt that a team would forfeit a fourth-round pick for him as a tight end, and I don’t think the Bills should pay him $2 million to be the team’s third tight end. All three of these players should be elsewhere in 2019.
As a note of clarification, Spotrac lists Logan Thomas as an unrestricted free agent, but we believe this to be an error. Thomas has only appeared on a game roster in three seasons—2014, 2017, and 2018—so he is not unrestricted, even though he has technically been in the NFL since the 2014 NFL season. He spent 2015 and 2016 on practice squads (with the Miami Dolphins, Detroit Lions, and Bills) or inactive on game days (with the Dolphins in 2015 and the Bills in 2016), but did not accrue enough time in either season to add an extra year to his service time.
CB Vontae Davis
Spotrac still lists him with the Bills, which makes—
(In Vontae’s honor, I quit halfway through writing that sentence. I just didn’t think I could write it to my full capability. I hope you’ll understand. Meanwhile, I will look to capitalize on it via FanDuel).
G-C Ryan Groy
G John Miller
T Jordan Mills
Yes, I’m suggesting plenty of turnover with the offensive line, a group that usually functions best when playing as a cohesive unit. That cohesion takes time to build, so advocating for so much change may seem foolish. However, there is one thing more important than cohesion, and that’s talent. Buffalo needs a serious upgrade up front, and none of these three played well enough in 2018 to justify coming back in 2019.
Mills has started 48 consecutive games at right tackle for Buffalo (49 if you include the Wild Card playoff game against the Jacksonville Jaguars last year), but he has never graded out as better than average. He struggles in pass protection, often losing against quicker rushers on the edge, and he was part of a unit that saw a massive dip in rushing effectiveness this season.
Miller lost his starting job last season to Vladimir Ducasse, only to gain a starting gig this year thanks to Richie Incognito’s release. After a terrible rookie season, Miller bounced back to have a solid second year. His third and fourth seasons have been plagued by inconsistency. It’s time for Buffalo to move on.
Groy played well in relief of Eric Wood during the 2016 season, well enough to earn a two-year contract extension after the Los Angeles Rams signed the restricted free agent to an offer sheet. Buffalo matched the deal and used Groy as a backup. He was far less effective this season in relief of the injured Russell Bodine than he was playing in Wood’s place. I expect that the Bills will allow the veteran to leave this year.
WR Deonte Thompson
Brought back mid-season for his third stint with the Bills, Thompson was ineffective when in the lineup, catching only three of ten targets on the year. The 30-year old receiver could not crack the lineup when it was full of veterans like Andre Holmes and Kelvin Benjamin, and when the team decided to go young at the position, it was clear that Thompson is not in the team’s future plans.
Think About It
RB Taiwan Jones
The special-teams captain suffered a gruesome injury in a Week 2 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers, and he was placed on injured reserve a few weeks later. Jones does little for the team offensively, and his contributions on special teams are replaceable. However, the coverage unit definitely suffered this season, and if the coaching staff decides that his absence was a big part of that, he may come back. We’ll have to wait and see.
OL Jeremiah Sirles
With Groy set to depart via free agency, the Bills could make use of a competent, versatile veteran such as Sirles, who slotted in as the team’s sixth offensive lineman for much of the season. Just as Groy was, Sirles is a jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none type of offensive lineman who is best in a reserve role. If he can be had for the veteran’s minimum, he would be worth keeping around for next season. If the Bills decide that they’d rather turn the page and go with a full-on youth movement at the position, then Sirles is gone. However, he’s at least worth considering.
Sign Me Up
DT Jordan Phillips
The former second-round draft pick by the Miami Dolphins was a bust in South Beach. After his release, the Bills claimed him on waivers, and he added depth to an already solid interior defensive line. With veteran Kyle Williams set to retire, retaining Phillips should be a priority. Keeping him with Star Lotulelei and Harrison Phillips would give the Bills a solid trio on the inside, thereby mitigating the need to add to that position via the draft. If the team can spend its draft capital on other areas of greater need (offensive line, wide receiver, tight end), it will be tremendously helpful. Phillips had 19 tackles, two of which went for a loss, and three passes defended. He played no fewer than 17 snaps in a game this season and no more than 34, so he performed fairly well given his limited role. Having Phillips around to maintain a similar snap count into next season would be worth it for the Bills.
LB Lorenzo Alexander
The venerable veteran proved that he still has plenty left in the tank in 2018. Alexander played in all 16 games, combining to make 74 tackles. He also added 6.5 sacks, ten quarterback hits, 11 tackles for loss, one fumble recovery, two fumbles forced, nine pass breakups, and two interceptions. He played linebacker, he played on the defensive line, he covered kicks, and he led the locker room. A one-year deal that’s fair for both sides (maybe a slight raise from his 2018 cap number, which was $3.6 million) should be sufficient to keep one of Buffalo’s defensive leaders in the mix. He’s definitely worth it, and he wants to be back. Management wants him back, as well. Make it happen, One Bills Drive!
DT Kyle Williams
Ah, we can dream. Good luck in retirement, Meatball—thank you for representing the organization in a top-notch way for 13 seasons, and thank you for giving your all. As a fan, it was a joy to watch your career!