The Buffalo Bills have taken care of free agency for 2021, but general manager Brandon Beane’s work is never finished. Already, the team could begin making headway on the 2022 class of free agents. For instance, they signed Dion Dawkins to a $58 million contract extension in August 2020—months before their left tackle would’ve hit the open market.
The most important players without new contracts are Josh Allen and Tremaine Edmunds, but neither will be free agents in 2022. That’s because the Bills picked up the fifth-year option on each of their contracts.
Still, dozens of players will be entering free agency next year unless the Bills negotiate a new deal. Here they are, ranked by how valuable they are to the team’s roster:
To note: this list includes all of Buffalo’s unrestricted free agents and restricted free agents (there are two: Joe Giles-Harris and Ryan Bates). It does not include any exclusive-rights free agents, since those represent zero-risk signings for the Bills.
Tier Zero—Franchise cornerstones
Nicely done, Mr. Beane. Thanks to recent re-signings, the Bills are already set up without any critical players becoming free agents in 2022. Of course, it’s still possible that a player like Levi Wallace or Taron Johnson could make the leap into this tier by next year.
Tier One—Solid starters
Jerry Hughes, Emmanuel Sanders, Levi Wallace, Taron Johnson
If any of these four players signed a contract extension, it would be hard to complain. Hughes turns 33 this year, and might hang up his cleats after the season, but is one of the team’s most productive defensive linemen year after year. Even with all the new faces in the room, Hughes is worth bringing back until he demonstrates otherwise. Sanders will be 34, but has been a productive starting receiver for years and years. Like Hughes, he’s worth signing until he isn’t.
The two cornerbacks, Wallace and Johnson, have their fair share of doubters—but each steps up with big plays on occasion. Part of their value stems from the reality that the Bills don’t really have any backup plans behind them, unless you count late-round picks like Dane Jackson and Rachad Wildgoose Jr.
Tier Two—Rotational starters
Mario Addison, Ike Boettger
These two players landed here but for opposite reasons. Addison has been a dangerous edge rusher for years, but 2020 was a step down for him. He turns 34 this year, and the Bills have a youth movement in the room between A.J. Epenesa, Gregory Rousseau, and Carlos Basham Jr. For that reason, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him move on (or retire).
Meanwhile, Boettger finally started the first games of his career in his third season. He’s strictly a guard, and he’ll be fighting for a starting job against incumbents Cody Ford and Jon Feliciano, but he might have the upside to deserve playing every down. He certainly acquitted himself well down the stretch of the team’s playoff run.
Tier Three—Important backups
Mitchell Trubisky, Harrison Phillips, Siran Neal
We can call this a “take best served cold,” but signing Mitchell Trubisky was a fantastic move for the Bills. Hopefully he never plays a down, but he was a much more productive quarterback than Matt Barkley ever was, and gives the Bills a real chance to win games if Josh Allen goes down.
Phillips is facing a major gut check this season. Returning from a torn ACL in 2020, he had a slow start to the season and ended up on the sidelines by the middle of the year. He returned to action before the season’s end, looking more effective, but that improvement needs to continue into 2021. Can the former third-round pick show he’s worthy as a long-term starting tackle?
Neal lands up here purely for his special teams prowess. He leads the team in special teams tackles since joining the NFL. It would be nice to see him show some skills on defense, but that can be hard to do when Hyde, Poyer, and Johnson play so many snaps. Regardless, the special teams value is real, and you absolutely want to keep those players around—when you can.
Tier Four—Effective backups
Vernon Butler, Isaiah McKenzie, Jacob Hollister, Matt Breida, Tyrell Adams, Efe Obada, Forrest Lamp, Bobby Hart, Ryan Bates, Justin Zimmer
Each of these players has value as a backup on the roster with the talent or experience to be a starter in a pinch, if the Bills needed it. They didn’t show up in the previous tier either because there are other players on the roster who can fill their role, or because they aren’t a high-impact player when on the field, or because we don’t quite know if they’ll mesh well as a one-year signing with the Bills.
Butler was a rotational starter in 2020, but largely disappointed. With Star Lotulelei returning, hopefully Butler finds a niche that works for him, or the team will look for a new tackle in 2022. McKenzie is electric with the ball in his hands, but a victim of the top-tier talent at wide receiver on this roster. Similarly, Hart, Breida, Adams, Obada, and Lamp all have starting experience, but may not have much room to earn playing time on this roster.
Hollister has the easiest path to playing time outside of Butler, with Dawson Knox as his main competition. But to this point in his career, he hasn’t been a distinguished tight end in the league. Same goes for Zimmer. He has an opening to build upon the 2020 foundation, which featured a few memorable moments like his fumble recovery against the New England Patriots. So he could graduate this tier. But by and large, he’s bounced around practice squads before the 2020 season took place—so the expected value loss is low.
Finally, Bates is a versatile backup lineman for the Bills, but he hasn’t been able to claim more than a handful of snaps so far in his career. Would the Bills like to re-sign him next season? Sure. Will they be upset if they can’t? It won’t rock their world.
Tier Five—Replaceable players
Marquel Lee, Jamil Douglas, Davis Webb, Joe Giles-Harris, Treyvon Hester, Brandon Powell, Jordan Devey, Taiwan Jones
Our final tier covers players who are, essentially, an emergency plan for the Bills. If things go well, these players won’t just see the field for the Bills, they wouldn’t even make the final roster. But every training camp wants a few of these players just in case things go downhill all of a sudden.
Lee has some starting experience, but an extensive injury history. Douglas is a long-term backup with a handful of starts in his career, and the same goes for Devey. Webb is essentially the team’s extra quarterbacks coach. Giles-Harris, Hester, and Powell don’t have as much league experience, but will get their shot to stick with the team. And finally, Jones has been a long-term special teams ace in the league, but he’ll be 33 years old this year. It’s more likely that the Bills would prefer him to be the role model for their younger special teams core during training camp.