The NFL’s free agency “tampering period” is right around the corner. With fans refreshing their Twitter and rumor mills churning out sourced info, it’s an exciting time in the NFL. It’s even more exciting when your team has more than $80 million in cap space.
Knowing full well the Buffalo Bills have players of their own to re-sign to extensions, I wouldn’t expect a 2011 Philadelphia Eagles-level expenditure in unrestricted free agency, but the team does have money to spend and when looking out across the areas of opportunity for it, two position groups stand out: offensive and defensive line.
General manager Brandon Beane did incredibly well in free agency during the 2019 offseason, adding players like running back Frank Gore, wide receivers John Brown and Cole Beasley, and offensive linemen Ty Nsehke, Mitch Morse, and Jon Feliciano to the offense. Only Morse was considered a “marquee” signing, and the team instead targeted the second level of free agency, with players who had shown ability but had lacked sufficient opportunity. The 2020 offensive line free-agent class has players in that vein.
Although a singular splash like offensive linemen Joe Thuney (New England Patriots) or Jack Conklin (Tennessee Titans) wouldn’t be completely out of the realm of possibility, players like Indianapolis Colts linemen Joe Haeg and Le’Raven Clark are Feliciano-type signings that could surprise fans with more playing time. The fact that Buffalo Bills offensive line coach Bobby Johnson is familiar with both from his time coaching them at Lucas Oil Stadium doesn’t hurt, either.
Tennessee's Dennis Kelly is a 30-year-old offensive lineman with a good amount of starting experience in the NFL and played behind Conklin for the Titans. He has shown the versatility the Bills’ coach staff craves, with starts at right tackle, right guard, and left guard over the course of his career. Given the likely price point difference between Kelly and Conklin relative to the quality of play, Beane could decide picking up Kelly is the better value.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers tackle Jerald Hawkins found himself on the outside looking in within the Pittsburgh Steelers’ offensive line room last year and he was traded to the Buccaneers before roster cutdown day. Still only 26 years old, the former fourth-round pick has the requisite physical tools to be an interesting depth option at tackle.
It appears defensive end Shaq Lawson and defensive tackle Jordan Phillips will both have an opportunity to test the market and determine their worth. Whether they both sign elsewhere or not, defensive line remains a need for this team. Luckily, there are some free agents on the defensive line to replenish the ranks for Buffalo.
Jason Pierre-Paul (Tampa Bay) was overshadowed this year by Defensive Player of the Year candidate Shaq Barrett, but JPP still posted 8.5 sacks and showed the ability to rush the passer even at the age of 31. Minnesota Vikings defensive end Stephen Weatherly, with his ideal frame but less-than-ideal production, feels like a Feliciano-type signing, with fellow linemates Everson Griffen and Danielle Hunter sitting in front of him on the depth chart. There are sometimes reasons for lack of opportunity and one of the ways to get good deals in free agency is to look out for underutilized players who could shine more if given more snaps.
The splashiest of the defensive end options may be Robert Quinn from the Dallas Cowboys. Quinn had a career resurgence after being traded to the Lone Star state from the Miami Dolphins and is estimated to receive a $11.7 million-per-year contract per Spotrac. If the Bills don’t want to be forced into taking an edge rusher high, they may choose to pursue Quinn after his 11.5-sack season.
If the Bills are looking to replace Shaq Lawson directly, Indianapolis has an older version in defensive end Jabaal Sheard. He might not command the money Lawson does on the open market due primarily to his age and the fact that he may not be viewed as someone with yet-untapped potential, but the consistency of his game against both the run and the pass would provide a good veteran rotational piece. On the defensive tackle front, the Bills have already been linked to D.J. Reader (Houston Texans), but Maliek Collins from the Cowboys could provide good depth at three-tech defensive tackle without the need to go as high as Reader’s projected $11.9 million-per-year salary (per Spotrac).
Why did I specifically choose these two positions as targets for the Bills in free agency? The presence of a secondary wave of players after an elite tier helps spread supply out among teams and doesn’t create imbalanced value as may be present in the wide receiver and tight end market. Simple supply and demand concepts may drive prices at those positions above and beyond what Beane is willing to pay. In addition, the signing of cornerback Josh Norman may prevent the Bills from paying further at the cornerback position in free agency, choosing instead to add youth through the draft.
...and that’s the way the cookie crumbles. I’m Bruce Nolan for Buffalo Rumblings. You can find me on Twitter @BruceExclusive and look for new episodes of “The Nick & Nolan Show” every week on the Buffalo Rumblings podcast network!