ORCHARD PARK – This time, Buffalo Bills general manager Brandon Beane wasn’t creating a smokescreen when he was asked about the team’s ability to make a sizable splash in free agency.
Beane warned fans through the media a couple weeks ago at the NFL Scouting Combine that the chances of Buffalo signing a big-money free agent were not good. Some of us rolled our eyes because at the 2022 Combine, Beane said the same thing and then a month later, Von Miller was in the house at a potential cost of $120 million with $51.4 million guaranteed.
But as the immediate rush of the first few days of 2023 free agency winds down, the Bills have indeed played it close to the vest with a a few mid-level signings and a string of re-signings of their own free agents topped by safety Jordan Poyer.
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“We want to be competitive every single year and some years, you’re not going to be able to add a big-ticket item,” Beane reiterated during a press conference at One Bills Drive Thursday.
He already executed four of the biggest salary restructures at his disposal with Josh Allen, Von Miller, Matt Milano and Stefon Diggs which combined to create about $43 million, enough to not only get cap compliant but to make the deals he’s already made.
However, all of those dollars will have to be accounted for in the future and he can’t keep pushing that type of money down the road because even with the annual increases to the salary cap, the Bills will continue to be strapped.
“We still have money, we just have to be smart,” Beane said. “If we spend too much of that, it means we’ll have to find more people to restructure. Not that I’m against it, but the more you do, the bigger that avalanche gets years down the line.”
As of Friday afternoon, sports contract website Spotrac.com had the Bills at about $14.9 million in available capital. However, Beane will need about $7 million to sign the 2023 draft class, around $3 million for the practice squad that will be put together when the regular season starts, and he’ll need to have something left over in case the Bills need to make in-season moves.
Thus, unless Beane is holding back on other salary cap moves – he used one Friday by cutting wide receiver Isaiah McKenzie and opening up around $2 million – the Bills probably aren’t going to sign any star-level players. The good news is this is still a very good roster, one that doesn’t need a major influx of talent, so Beane will continue to work the fringes in free agency, then look to add contributors in the NFL Draft.
Here is a breakdown of where the Bills stand, and what they might do to upgrade in certain spots:
Quarterback: Kyle Allen completes the room
Allen replaces Case Keenum as Josh Allen’s backup, and not only is he eight years younger than Keenum, he’s a better athlete, he costs less, and he has enough playing experience under his belt for the Bills to be comfortable if Josh ever got hurt.
Remember, Josh no longer needs an older mentor as his backup, and Beane said that fact played a role in signing Kyle.
“It’s not like it was two, three, four years ago with Josh,” Beane said. “We don’t feel it’s got to be a 30-some year old guy. We like (Kyle’s) skill set, I think he started close to 20 games … so he brings some experience with that. He’s athletic, he can make all the throws. Good to add him to the mix.”
Running back: A downhill runner would be nice
Nyheim Hines re-worked his contract to lower his cap hit by $1.4 million this year, and he and James Cook give Buffalo a nice pair of shifty runners with pass catching skills. What the Bills lack is a guy who can get the tough yards in short yardage and goal-line situations to take some of that burden off of Allen, and Beane admitted that Thursday. “Yeah, we’ll probably add somebody that’s a little heavier (than Cook and Hines) at some point between now and training camp,” he said.
The longer Devin Singletary remains unsigned makes me think a reunion is in the offing, but as much as the Bills loved him, returning all three backs from last season just isn’t wise.
Nor would be trading for Derrick Henry, or signing big-money guys like Ezekiel Elliott, Kareem Hunt and Damien Harris because spending that type of money on a running back is rarely worth it. And I’m not at all fond of drafting one in the first round.
Several free agents who would have fit the bill are already signed elsewhere (I loved Jamaal Williams and D’Onta Foreman), but someone like free agent D’Ernest Johnson of the Browns would work. Johnson was buried behind Hunt and Nick Chubb in Cleveland and hardly played his first four years, but when he got his one chance in 2021 due to injuries to those two, the 5-foot-10, 208-pounder averaged 5.3 yards per carry. Another benefit is that he has been a solid special teams player for the Browns with 733 career snaps.
Wide receiver: Deonte Harty doesn’t finalize the position
Harty will be an intriguing weapon given his speed and elusiveness, and the fact that he can line up in the slot or on the outside. It seems like he’s the replacement for McKenzie who was released Friday in a move that opened $2 million of cap space.
But the 5-6, 170-pound Harty isn’t built to play 900-plus snaps, and with Gabe Davis heading into his walk year, the Bills need to replenish on the outside. If they’re going to be priced out of the Odell Beckham Jr. market, or don’t make a trade proposal to acquire Denver’s Jerry Jeudy, I think the first round of the draft is the way to go. The cost would be cheaper, and with Davis still here, the time is right to get his eventual replacement ready.
Offensive line: Guard will be an interesting competition
The big-money signing so far is guard Connor McGovern, but unless I’m missing something, he’s going to have to win a job in a competition with his old Penn State teammate Ryan Bates and Ike Boettger, who the Bills re-signed to a one-year deal.
McGovern was a very good pass blocker for the Cowboys and not a very good run blocker so it’s not like he’s a slam dunk. I think drafting one in the first round is too high unless there’s a guard the Bills absolutely love, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see the Bills take a guard in the second or third round.
I know McGovern and Bates are locked up for three years each, but the Bills could get out of the Bates deal and have to eat just a $1.75 million dead cap hit in 2024, and Boettger can become a free agent in 2024. If the Bills can add competition, and that competition proves to be someone who could be a long-term starter, that’s a smart investment.
Defensive line: Could another high draft pick be coming?
The Bills have already poured plenty of recent draft capital into the line with players like Ed Oliver, Greg Rousseau, A.J. Epenesa and Boogie Basham. But Oliver and Epenesa will be free agents in 2024 and Basham has been nothing but ordinary in his first two seasons.
And then when you look to the inside, DaQuan Jones will also be a free agent in 2024 and behind him and Oliver as the 2023 starters there’s Tim Settle, Brandin Bryant and Eli Ankou. That’s it.
If Von Miller isn’t going to be available at the start of the season, the Bills may need to augment at edge rusher and while a first-round pick might be a reach, there will be several options available in the second and third round.
They could run it back and re-sign free agents Shaq Lawson and/or Jordan Phillips, but haven’t we seen enough of that show? There’s a case to be made that they need to spend an early-round pick on a defensive tackle as well.
Linebacker: The new No. 1 priority with Tremaine Edmunds gone
Getting Jordan Poyer back in free agency was a nice win for Beane because it filled what would have been a big hole. Now, the Bills’ secondary looks pretty good with Poyer and Micah Hyde at safety, and Tre’Davious White, Kaiir Elam and Taron Johnson at boundary and nickel corner.
But with Edmunds bolting for big, big bucks with the Bears, the Bills are in desperate need at middle linebacker. Beane said Matt Milano is staying put on the outside, and while he floated the idea that Edmunds’ replacement could already be on the team in the form of Tyrel Dodson, Terrel Bernard or Baylon Spector, is anyone buying that? Those are three special teamers in my view.
I like a couple linebackers who could be available when the Bills pick in the second round, but this is a vital position that might require a veteran signing. Unfortunately, the best options like T.J. Edwards, Alex Anzalone, Lavonte David and Devin Bush are gone and the rest of the market is pretty thin.
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