At present, the Buffalo Bills are scheduled to have 25 free agents heading into the 2021 offseason. Granted, the 2020 regular season hasn’t even begun, so this could change greatly between now and next year. Who would have thought the world would be in the midst of a pandemic at this time in 2019?
Of those 25 free agents, there are some incredibly important parts of Buffalo’s resurgence over the past three seasons. While the team’s success has been modest, their 25-23 regular season record over the last three seasons stands as the franchise’s best three-year stretch since the Wade Phillips-coached Bills went 29-19 from 1998-2000.
Keeping the band together is going to be one of the major goals for general manager Brandon Beane. As the team continues to draft and acquire talented players, that goal will become more difficult.
Here is our way-too-early attempt at prioritizing the players the Bills should keep, which players the Bills should let walk, and which players the Bills will want to evaluate closely throughout the next calendar year.
DE Mike Love
WR Duke Williams
This is easy—any time you can re-sign a player for the minimum salary and that player doesn’t have the ability to negotiate a contract, you retain his services at the very least. These two should be re-signed barring some sort of issue behaviorally or a catastrophic injury. At worst, they provide solid depth through training camp. They should not be re-signed for anything other than their ERFA tender.
CB Levi Wallace
WR Robert Foster
TE Jason Croom
P Corey Bojorquez
G Ike Boettger
LB Corey Thompson
This is an interesting group, as there are a few players here who may not make it through the 2020 season with the club. Foster’s fall from grace is well documented, as he went from one of quarterback Josh Allen’s favorite targets in 2018 to an afterthought in 2019. With Stefon Diggs added to the wide receiver room along with John Brown and Cole Beasley, his role will diminish even more. Bojorquez has been maddeningly inconsistent, and the team could very well replace him with Kaare Vedvik as early as this year. Croom’s athleticism coupled with the expiring contract of a veteran tight end might give him a shot at sticking on the roster beyond this year, though his spot in 2020 is anything but safe. Thompson and Boettger are sound depth options, with the former contributing on special teams. Wallace is a good bet to stay on, as he has earned starter’s reps at CB2 over the last two seasons. He’s likely the only one Buffalo would tender at the RFA mark.
UFAs, Part I—“Let ‘em Walk”
DE Trent Murphy
TE Tyler Kroft
CB Josh Norman
RT Ty Nsekhe
CB E.J. Gaines
WR/KR Andre Roberts
FB Patrick DiMarco
RB Taiwan Jones
RB T.J. Yeldon
DT Vincent Taylor
There are a lot of “just another guy” types in this grouping, some of whom may not even make it to the start of the 2020 season with the team. While Kroft restructured his contract, eliminating the third year essentially to guarantee his second year on the squad, a player like Murphy, whose $9.775 million cap hit is the fourth-highest on the roster for 2020, may be a veteran cut this year. Nsekhe is a solid veteran, but he’ll turn 35 this season and the Bills have a player they think is the future of the right tackle spot in Cody Ford. Norman is a one-year reclamation who will presumably either seek a larger payday with a solid season in head coach Sean McDermott’s defensive system or play himself out of the league if he proves unable to rebound at 32 years old. Gaines is a nice veteran depth option, but his injury history doesn’t give me much confidence that he’ll make it to September 2020, let alone March 2021, as a member of the Bills’ roster. Roberts, DiMarco, and Jones are all big parts of special teams, but Buffalo has bigger priorities. Yeldon very well may have been replaced by Zach Moss in this year’s draft, and even if he remains with Buffalo as the veteran in the room for 2020, he will likely be elsewhere in 2021. Taylor probably won’t make it through camp this year, barring injury to some of the players in front of him on the depth chart.
UFAs, Part II—“Re-sign at the Right Price”
G Jon Feliciano
G/C Spencer Long
OL Darryl Williams
QB Matt Barkley
“Mongo” was a revelation for the Bills at guard last season—an example of the kind of success Beane has had with middle-tier free agents over the last two seasons. Continuity in front of quarterback Josh Allen will help tremendously with his growth, so if the team wants to keep the same unit together, it will need to pony up some money to re-sign Feliciano, who outplayed his modest contract (two years, $7.25 million) last season. If they can sign him for something similar to the deal that teammate Quinton Spain signed this offseason (three years, $15 million), then they should do it.
Long is an expensive insurance policy, but he is solid depth for the Bills. If they can maintain their good standing in terms of managing the salary cap, it may be worth exercising his $4.2 million club option. Long is also a trade candidate as early as this season, given Beane’s penchant for turning depth offensive linemen into draft capital over the last two seasons.
Williams is another former Carolina Panthers reclamation project who, if given the chance to show he’s healthy, could move on to a bigger payday and a starting role somewhere else. However, I expect that he’ll spend the duration of this season as a backup to Feliciano and Ford on the right side, giving him little chance to audition for that larger role. That should allow the Bills to re-sign him next year at a reasonable price if they so choose.
Barkley is a bit more complicated. Could the Bills sign a better quarterback than the seven-year veteran? Probably. Will they want to spend the money on bringing in a new clipboard holder for Allen to meet? Probably not. Barkley’s relationship with Allen is a key part of wanting him back, and while I’ve advocated for replacing Barkley in the past, I’m okay with the Bills re-signing him at the right price to ensure continuity.
The UFAs, Part III— “The Cornerstones”
LT Dion Dawkins
LB Matt Milano
These are the two free agents next year that the team must retain.
Dawkins has had an up-and-down career, as he performed well above expectations at left tackle during his rookie year in 2017, only to have a miserable 2018 campaign followed by a so-so season in 2019. Re-signing him should obviously be a priority, but I’d argue that of the two draft picks that fall into this category, Dawkins has been the least effective player overall. The team should absolutely try to bring Dawkins back, but he would be my lowest priority among these two. I may live to regret that, especially since I believe in keeping continuity among the offensive line. However, if you tell me that I can only re-sign one of these two, Dawkins is the one I’m letting walk (while grimacing and trying very, very hard to bend the rules and keep both regardless).
Milano is the one that I’d try to lock down right now. As for the modern NFL, three-down linebackers who can stay with running backs and tight ends in man-up situations are incredibly valuable, and Milano has been fantastic for the Bills in his three seasons in the league. Pairing him with Tremaine Edmunds for the foreseeable future sounds like a good way to keep an elite defense performing at an elite level. Linebackers like Edmunds and Milano give the Bills a ton of flexibility in terms of the coverage combinations they can run. Remove Milano from the defense and replace him with a lesser talent, and the team won’t have nearly as much success. Ever the minimalist, hopefully the Bills can sign him for less than his projected market value, which Spotrac has pegged at $52 million over four years.