The Buffalo Bills finished their 10-6 season in heart-breaking fashion with an overtime loss to the Houston Texans in the AFC Wildcard, but the team has a bright future ahead of them. With plenty of cap space and a healthy collection of draft capital, general manager Brandon Beane has all the tools to make this roster even stronger than it was in 2019. There is no way of knowing how Beane will build the roster this spring but here is what I would do if I was the Bills general manager.
Before we dive into which moves will be made, we must first know what we are working with.
The Bills will start the offseason with over 89 million dollars in available cap space, following only the Indianapolis Colts, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Miami Dolphins. Although that seems luxurious, the Bills have to be cautious with their spending, as they have several stars in line for hefty extensions in the next year or two.
Buffalo will start the 2020 draft picking 22nd overall in the first round and has all of their respective picks except their seventh-rounder. The Bills also have the Cleveland Browns’ fifth and sixth-round picks and New England’s sixth-round selection. That is a running total of nine draft choices in 2020, leaving us plenty of room to build with solid rookies or to make a trade.
Now lets look at all of Buffalo’s players set to hit the open market come March’s free agent period.
Jordan Phillips, DT, UFA
Kevin Johnson, CB, UFA
Shaq Lawson, DE, UFA
Quinton Spain, G, UFA
LaAdrian Waddle, T, UFA
Frank Gore, RB, UFA
Julian Stanford, OLB, UFA
Maurice Alexander, LB, UFA
Kurt Coleman, FS, UFA
Corey Liuget, DT, UFA
Senorise Perry, RB, UFA
Isaiah McKenzie, WR, RFA
Dean Marlowe, SS, RFA
Jason Croom, TE, ERFA
Levi Wallace, CB, ERFA
Robert Foster, WR, ERFA
That is a long list of free agents with a lot of significant players who are looking for a new deal. Now that we’ve seen who may be heading out the door, we can start the first step, re-signing significant players.
To Re-Sign Or To Not Re-Sign
There are a lot of tough decisions to be made regarding who should get a contract extension before hitting the open market or who should get an extension at all. Choosing who to keep and who to let go is a delicate matter and is way more than a price tag, you also have to think of a player’s impact on the locker room. Many of Buffalo’s free agents will be premier players on the market that will garner a lot of attention in March. A majority of my spending as acting general manager will be re-signing players who have already been with the club. That being said, lets dive in.
Re-sign Quinton Spain: Buffalo completely remodeled their offensive line after 2018, with only starting left tackle Dion Dawkins and second-year guard Ike Boettger returning for 2019. After the Tennessee Titans let Spain walk last March, Beane swooped in to give the 2015 undrafted free agent a 1-year 2 million dollar contract. Spain quickly edged out second-year man Wyatt Teller for the starting left guard spot and didn’t look back. Spain made Beane look like a genius all season long, playing every offensive snap for the team in 2019 and managing to not give up a single sack. After biting on the prove-it deal, Spain wants to get paid and fast. In his exit interview, Spain mentioned that he told his agent that he hopes that if the Bills want him back, they won’t let him hit the open market in March. Spain established a deadline and now the ball is in our court.
Spain will be 29 by the start of the 2020 season so a 3-year 18.5 million dollar contract doesn’t seem horrible to me. To sweeten the deal, we will make the contract very front heavy in the first two years, making it easier to move on from Spain if he starts to regress. Making the deal front heavy will probably result in a 9.2 million dollar cap hit for the 2020 season, so we are left with 80 million after securing Spain.
Re-sign Kevin Johnson: A former first-round pick of the Texans with an extensive injury history, the Bills took a low-risk high-reward chance on Johnson and won. Finishing with 36 total tackles and a sack, Johnson proved to be a solid rotational player in Buffalo’s secondary and a cost effective one at that.
Johnson turns 28 just before the 2020 season, making a 2-year 6.5 million dollar deal reasonable. With that contract, Johnson would only have about a 3.25 million dollar cap hit this season, putting us a tad under 77 million dollars left in the budget.
Tender Wallace and Foster: The two standout undrafted free agents of the 2018 class become exclusive-rights free agents this spring, meaning if the Bills extend a qualifying offer, their only choices are to sign with the team or sit out for 2020. Wallace carved out a role as the primary starting corner opposite of Tre’Davious White but had some rough patches throughout the year. Foster, who exploded onto the scene in Buffalo’s final six games 2018, completely vanished in 2019, tallying only three receptions for 64 yards and being demoted to special teams. While these two have loads of potential, they have much to learn and the team will certainly take advantage of stashing them for another year.
Tendering both players would likely come out to be about $654,000 each, leaving us just above 75 million dollars.
Re-sign Shaq Lawson: The 2016 first-round pick and one of only three players left from the Rex Ryan era is looking for a payday. Saying Lawson has been a late-bloomer may be an understatement, only recording 76 total tackles and 10 sacks in his first three years in the league. After the Bills declined his fifth-year option last spring, Lawson played with a chip on his shoulder, tallying career-bests in sacks (6.5), solo tackles (21), and QB hits (18). Jerry Jughes (31) and Trent Murphy (29) are getting older and Murphy isn’t even under contract after the 2020 season, making Lawson, a solid rotational player (with potential to start), a necessary signing.
Lawson will be young 26 starting the 2020 season so a two-year 11.5 million dollar deal would work nicely if Lawson agrees. This likely isn’t the payday Lawson was hoping for but if they Bills riddle the deals with incentives, Lawson may be inclined to oblige. With that contract, Lawson will have about a 5.75 million dollar cap hit this season, taking us down to a hair under 70 million.
Test the waters with Jordan Phillips: Jordan Phillips came to Buffalo and instantly provided juice to the defensive line in 2018 and only improved in 2019. Snubbed from the Pro Bowl, Phillips was among the top defensive tackles in sacks with 9.5. Phillips wants to get paid and that has been crystal clear for a while if you follow his social media or listen to any of his post-game interviews. Buffalo gave him a prove-it deal for the season and he delivered but the Bills seem to be in a position to not overspend on Phillips if they don’t want to. 2019 first-round selection, Ed Oliver, finally came into his own towards the end of the season and Buffalo will be re-gaining the assistance of Harrison Phillips who was lost for the season with an ACL tear. With Oliver, Harrison Phillips, Star Lotulelei, and Vincent Taylor currently under contract, the Bills aren’t desperate for Jordan Phillips’ services.
If Phillips is willing to sign for a season or two more for about 8 million dollars per year, the Bills should consider bringing him back. That might be tough sell for Phillips who is likely looking for north of 10 million dollars per season. If that is the case Buffalo should let Phillips walk and wish him the best.
Bring back special teamers and veterans: Special team studs like Julian Stanford, Maurice Alexander, and Senorise Perry would certainly be welcomed back with open arms for the right price. Sean McDermott takes pride in playing sound football in all three phases and other than the actual specialists and Siran Neal, I couldn’t think of more important special teamers than Stanford and Perry. If these three are willing to come back for a year or two on minimal salaries, they would be worth the investment. If they demand more, the Bills may have to search for new special teamers in free agency or the draft.
Players like Corey Liuget, Frank Gore, and Kurt Coleman would also be welcomed back under similar circumstances. All three of these veterans had very small contracts in 2019 and contributed on and off the field. No matter how hard a coach tries, he can never recreate veteran presence so keeping these players could be crucial. All three of these players will all be over 31 by the start of the 2020 season and they are all likely considering retirement (especially Gore). Their personal decision on whether they will keep playing is obviously the biggest factor in whether they return to the roster.
If all six players agreed to return for about one million each, we would still have 64 million dollars in the budget.
Re-sign LaAdrian Waddle: Waddle looked like a solid signing for the Bills before an injury in training camp derailed his 2019 season. There is no doubt that Waddle would provide great depth for Buffalo’s offensive line as well as veteran leadership.
A deal similar to Waddle’s 2019 contract of 1-year 2 million dollars would work quite well. After Waddle’s contract our cap space stands at about 62 million dollars moving forward.
Re-sign Isaiah McKenzie: Our last re-signing of many would see McKenzie get a new deal. McKenzie joined the Bills in 2018 after being cut by the Denver Broncos. McKenzie looked raw but performed well as a solid gadget player. In 2019, McKenzie morphed into a solid third option for the Bills receiving game as he pulled in 27 catches for 254 yards and a touchdown.
McKenzie is a restricted free agent, so even if we waited until March, we could still match any offer another team gives him. McKenzie shows a lot of upside and I wouldn’t give other teams the chance to outbid for him so I would give him a 2-year 4 million dollar deal before March. That cap hit would take us down to 60 million dollars before the actual free agency period but we would lock down a lot of our key players.
Accept Tre White’s fifth-year option: Although White isn’t technically a free agent till after the 2020 season, the Bills have a chance to lock him in for a fifth-year the option should be accepted without hesitation. White has become one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL and keeping him in Buffalo should be a top priority.
That leaves only Jason Croom and Dean Marlowe as free agents that will hit the open market and both have restrictions to their free agency.
Re-signing these players took a big chunk out of the available cap space for 2020 but that doesn’t mean we won’t try to lure a few free agents to Buffalo. Be sure to read the next installment of “Unfiltered GMs” to see what I do in free agency and the draft and be sure to check out what the other Unfiltered general managers do!