The Buffalo Bills are entering a crucial point in the franchise’s rebuilding timeline. There’s rumblings of discontent between General Manager Doug Whaley and Rex Ryan’s coaching staff, due to a myriad of decisions (trading Matt Cassel being the most disruptive) that’s caused a rift in an organization looking to right the ship.
Heading into the 2015 season, the Bills had one of the most exciting and talented rosters from top to bottom on paper. The problem is that games are played in real life and not on paper, so heading into the team’s eighth game with a 3-4 record, while they still are well in the playoff mix, they’ll have several key decisions to make during the 2016 offseason.
Following the 2015 season, quality starters at key positions in which the team lacks depth—left tackle Cordy Glenn, left guard Richie Incognito and linebacker Nigel Bradham—will become unrestricted free agents.
While Glenn and Bradham are the big name free agents, there’s a handful of valuable role players and reserves that are set to hit free agency. Below is a depth chart featuring the Bills starting roster without it’s free agents. Those highlighted in yellow are “Restricted Free Agents” while those highlighted blue are unrestricted. Percy Harvin’s contract is likely to be voided following the season which will save the team $10 million in 2016 salary cap charges.
Bills Free Agents
Salary Cap Situation
As of November, 5, 2015, the Buffalo Bills have $138.939 million committed to their 2015 adjusted cap number of $149.88 million, due to the $2.6 million of unused 2014 cap money they rolled over. Since the new Collective Bargaining Agreement of 2011, the NFL’s salary cap has risen at a rate of 8.1-percent per season, which has the 2016 season projected to be at $154.88 million.
When contracts expire at the conclusion of the league year, the Bills will have roughly $149.8 million allocated to the top 51 contracts on the roster in order to retain and sign unrestricted free agents. With the team likely to roll over the $6.28 million of unused salary cap space, that should leave the Bills with about $11.36 million, before making decisions on players like Glenn, Incognito and Bradham.
It doesn’t seem realistic for the Bills to not use the opt-out clause in wide receiver Percy Harvin’s contract that would save the team $10 million, bringing their available space to a more flexible number of roughly $21.3 million.
Right now, Glenn should be the Bills’ biggest priority in free agency. The 2012 second-rounder is a solid player that gets the job done on a regular basis. He’s not the most athletic or dominant player at his position, but with offensive line play at it’s worst throughout the league, retaining Glenn is extremely important, especially when you consider the lack of expected development from 2014 draft picks Cyrus Kouandjio and Seantrel Henderson.
Tyron Smith is the highest paid tackle in the NFL with a $99 million deal, but Glenn isn’t near that tier of talent. To find a reasonable contract for Glenn, I thought it best to compare him to players of similar talent and situation at the time of their free agency.
Contracts can be structured in different ways to give the team and player flexibility, as you can see by the variance in signing bonuses and guaranteed money received by the players that recently signed deals.
I think the Bills would like to keep Nigel Bradham, who had an incredible 2014 season but he looks out of place in Rex Ryan’s defense and his price tag would likely be more attractive to a team that runs more of a traditional 4-3 scheme.
MarQuies Gray, Ty Powell, Stefan Charles and Baccari Rambo, along with Chris Hogan are also players that I’d expect the Bills to tender as restricted free agents, and I’d assume Richie Incognito returns, although the team does need to find someone who can take over for him within a season or two.
A reality of the NFL is that it can often stand for “Not For Long.” With the unexpected Pro Bowl caliber play of rookie cornerback Ronald Darby, do the Bills look to move on from Leodis McKelvin’s $4.9 million cap hit that would net them $3.9 million in cap savings? Even with a lack of depth at the linebacker position, Buffalo’s front office may not be able to justify paying $3.4 million to a 31-year old rotational player in Manny Lawson. Moving on from Lawson saves $2.65 million.
There’s also that interesting Charles Clay contract that the Bills may want to re-work to free up more cap money after structuring his deal in a way that the Dolphins couldn’t match it.
Clay is due to earn a $10 million roster bonus in 2016, but it would be wise of the Bills to convert that roster bonus into a signing bonus that would prorate over the remainder of the four years left on the deal. This would save $7.5 million in 2016 and lower his $13.5 million cap hit to a more modest $6 million.
Let’s assume the Bills re-sign Glenn, Incognito, Gray, Powell, Charles, and Rambo for an estimated 2016 combined cap hit of about $13 million, while restructuring Charles Clay’s contract and releasing Leodis McKelvin and Manny Lawson to head into free agency with around $22.35 million.
Let’s go shopping!
After potentially losing Nigel Bradham and Manny Lawson, the Bills linebacker group is a bare cupboard stocked with Preston Brown, Tony Steward, AJ Tarpley and Randell Johnson. The coaching staff reportedly likes all four in varying degrees, but finding an every-down player that fits within Ryan’s exotic scheme is crucial to the team’s defensive success.
Vincent Rey, Bengals, 28
Vincent Rey has a steady presence in the Cincinnati Bengals’ defense over the last 2 ½ seasons, recording 243 tackles, four sacks, a forced fumble, three interceptions, 13 pass defenses and five tackles for loss. At 6’0” 255 pounds, Rey is a fantastic athlete, running a 4.58 40-yard dash with 38.5” vertical leap and a 10’6” broad jump at his pro day. His athleticism and strength has allowed him to play all three positions (Will, Mike, Sam) in the Bengals’ defense where he’s performed at a high level.
A quality run defender, Rey ranked No. 14 in ProFootballFocus’ “Run Stop Percentage” statistic in 2014, racking up 46 tackles (2nd-most) and 20 “stops” in 252 snaps defending the run from the weak-side linebacker position. In 2014, playing middle linebacker, Rey ranked No. 8 in this category with 17 tackles and 11 stops in just 94 snaps versus the run.
He’s reliable in coverage as well, holding opposing receivers/tight ends to a 6.8 yards-per-reception average despite allowing a 75.3-percent completion rate.
Rey’s ability to play multiple positions coupled with his dynamic abilities against the run would make him an attractive prospect to line up alongside Preston Brown within Buffalo’s defense.
Another option is DeMario Davis, who played for Rex Ryan with the New York Jets. While he’s a stout run defender, he’s awful in pass coverage and is consistently among the league’s leaders in missed tackles. Being familiar with Ryan’s system is a positive, but unless he can prove that he’s not a liability in coverage, his value doesn’t exceed that of a rotational player.
RT Joe Barksdale, 26, Chargers
The Bills invested a second-round draft pick in Cyrus Kouandjio during the 2014 NFL Draft with the hopes of him becoming an immediate starter at the right tackle position. Instead, it was fellow rookie, seventh-round pick Seantrel Henderson who has started nearly every game since. Henderson has been wildly inconsistent both as a run blocker and in pass protection, while Kouandjio has only seen the field as a swing tackle or as the result of an injury.
Joe Barksdale is a player that fits the mold of what the Bills appear to covet in their offensive linemen—size, physicality, and the ability to move defenders off the ball in the run game, as noted by the 961 yards and three touchdowns gained on the 209 carries (4.5 yards-per-carry) his running backs have gained when rushing behind him since 2013.
Barksdale, who stands 6’5” and weighs 326 pounds is a bit inconsistent in pass protection, surrendering 13 sacks, 13 QB hits and 70 hurries over the last three seasons, but with the Bills looking to become a run-oriented offense, he’d be a clear upgrade over the talent on hand within the Bills’ offensive line.
Courtney Upshaw, Ravens, 26
Wherever Rex Ryan has been, he’s always had a big, powerful outside linebacker that could set the edge and provide a force against the run. Courtney Upshaw had huge expectations as a first-round draft pick coming out of Alabama as a pass rusher, but while he hasn’t gotten after the quarterback in the way people expected, he’s been stout against the run during his time with the Baltimore Ravens.
Due to playing behind Terrell Suggs, Elvis Dumervil and Pernell McPhee, Upshaw’s never played more than 50-percent of the Ravens’ defensive snaps until this season, as McPhee signed with the Chicago Bears as a free agent and Suggs suffered a torn Achilles.
In 2014, Upshaw saw 239 snaps against the run. He recorded 17 stops 25 solo tackles, the 11th most among 3-4 outside linebackers, an impressive feat considering nine of the players with more tackles played at least 300 snaps. This season he’s off to a similar start, recording 13 stops (3rd-best) and 15 tackles against the run (3rd-most). Upshaw, who stands 6’1” and is a bulky 275 pounds, is physical at the point of attack and rarely surrenders ground in the run game.
His lack of a presence as a pass rusher will put a cap on Upshaw’s market value, but he’d be an ideal rotational defensive end/edge linebacker in Rex Ryan’s defense.
Leonard Hankerson, Falcons, 26
Without retaining Percy Harvin and Chris Hogan, the Bills will need to focus on the depth of their wide receiving corps, as Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin are both scheduled to become unrestricted free agents following the 2016 season.
Leonard Hankerson is a bigger receiver that the Bills offense lacks, standing 6’2” and weighing 215 pounds. He’s a freak of an athlete, running a 4.4 40-yard dash with a 1.51 10-yard split, posting a 36” vertical leap and a 6.94-second three-cone time. These measurables put him on par athletically with Demaryius Thomas, Larry Fitzgerald, Josh Gordon and Stefon Diggs.
A third-round pick of the Washington Redskins in 2011, he didn’t see the field much as Santana Moss, Jabar Gaffney and Fred Davis were the team’s top three receiving options. They signed Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson in the following seasons, so he was a rotational player. However, when he did get on the field he was able to make plays, catching 68 passes for 918 yards (13.5 yards-per-reception) and six touchdowns in his final two seasons in Washington.
This year, Hankerson has gotten more opportunities to showcase his ability after he signed a one-year deal with the Atlanta Falcons. Playing the flanker and the slot, he’s caught 22 passes for 291 yards and two touchdowns in six games.
Hankerson is a talented player that has the potential be a borderline No. 1 wide receiver, but he’s never had the chance to showcase that. With the instability within Buffalo’s receiving group, I think Leonard Hankerson is an ideal fit for the Bills’ offense.
S Tony Jefferson, 23, Cardinals
Undrafted out of Oklahoma in 2013, Tony Jefferson has established himself as a key player within the Arizona Cardinals tough defense at the strong safety position. Since the start of the 2014 season, Jefferson has recorded 127 tackles, five for a loss, one sack, three forced fumbles and four passes defensed.
Due to his lack of elite speed (4.71 40-yard dash), Jefferson is limited to the strong safety position, but is physical and has enough change of direction ability to line up deep, in the slot or as a nickel linebacker. Standing 5’11” and weighing 215 pounds, he’s a bit undersized, but he’s got good instincts and is reliable against the run, as well as defending underneath and intermediate passes.