The clock is ticking for the Buffalo Bills.
In under one week, the new league year begins in the NFL, and those with expiring contracts will become varying degrees of free agents. It all begins on March 9 at 4:00 pm, when the key free agents for the Bills will no longer be able to sign with only them.
In advance of the free agent period, Bills general manager Doug Whaley appeared on The Howard Simon Show on WGR Sports Radio 550 Thursday, basically going over the state of his team.
Ten things we learned from the Bills GM from his spot on WGR:
1) Bills, Incognito have had “continuous conversations”
- The top free agent the Bills are trying to work on at the moment is starting left guard Richie Incognito. There was a report earlier in the week that the Bills were growing frustrated with Incognito over him not agreeing to what the Bills were offering. For the first time since that report came out, Whaley spoke on the matter. The GM said that the Bills were “working diligently” on a new deal, and Jim Overdorf (Sr. VP of Football Administration) has had “continuous conversations” with Incognito’s agent, David Dunn. Whaley said that Incognito was “up there” on the offseason priority list, and that they have to be cognizant of Incognito’s age (will turn 33 in the summer) in respect to contract negotiations and the guard’s total value. The Bills have until March 7 at 4:00 pm before Incognito’s agent can start speaking with other teams.
2) Replacing Mario: Bills going with “traditional 3-4” defense
- Rex Ryan has made allusions to it all offseason: it will be his brand of defense in 2016, and Whaley confirmed as much today. The GM said that the Bills will be switching to a more “traditional 3-4 “ base defense in 2016, which means three heavier defensive linemen to hold at the point of attack, two inside linebackers — one to take on blocks, and the other to roam free — and two rush linebackers that have the ability to drop into coverage when asked. Whaley said so with the caveat that 60-percent of the time the Bills were in nickel or dime defense last season, but the message is clear: they’re waving goodbye to the Jim Schwartz philosophies that leaked into the game plan during the 2015 season. To replace Mario Williams, Whaley brought up Manny Lawson, Jarius Wynn, and late-season addition Max Valles as three in-house candidates to play that outside linebacker role. With that list of players — and an overall lack of depth at OLB — it makes it hard to believe that adding an additional pass rusher through the first three rounds of the draft isn’t a priority.
3) At this point, a Tyrod Taylor extension would be a “luxury”
- During the interview, Whaley reiterated much of what he did in Indianapolis at the NFL Scouting Combine. He said if the two sides can come to an agreement that benefits both, that he isn’t averse to striking an agreement ahead of the 2016 season. However, with the laundry list of things they need to do in the offseason, combined with Taylor lacking experience at the positions, and the crazy money being doled out all across the league for quarterbacks (see: Kirk Cousins, Sam Bradford, Joe Flacco), the Bills seem quite content with standing pat and only one year left on Taylor’s current deal. Whaley said that signing him to a new contract ahead of the season would be a “luxury,” adding that it would nice to get a deal done. Whaley then coyly added, “but everyone loves luxuries, correct?” Don’t hold your breath on a Taylor extension anytime ahead of the NFL Draft, it seems they want to let this thing play out.
4) EJ Manuel in the plans for 2016
- The former first-round pick EJ Manuel has been relegated to backup duty, and now has only one year left on his contract with the team. In his two starts last season, Manuel lost to a tough Cincinnati team, and then imploded in London against Jacksonville. The Bills committed to the fact that they’re going to add a quarterback this offseason, but also said that as of today, Manuel was in the plans for 2016. Similar things were thought of Ryan Fitzpatrick in the early stages of the 2013 season, before he was eventually cut, too. If the Bills were to add a quarterback in the first few rounds of the draft, those “plans” for EJ have a solid chance of shifting. It’s a fluid situation.
5) Good news on Seantrel Henderson
- Starting right tackle Seantrel Henderson had to sit out the final five weeks of the season due to a reported bout with Crohn’s disease, and his playing future came into question. The Bills have been in a wait-and-see mode with Henderson since the season ended, but that changed on Thursday. Whaley told WGR that the Bills received “some positive news” about Henderson’s health, and that he “may be able” to factor into the right tackle discussion in 2016 — which leads us to the next nugget of info…
6) Right tackle spot up for grabs in 2016
- With how Henderson bounces back still being an uncertainty at this point, Whaley called the right tackle spot a “competition” in training camp. At the moment, the Bills have three players that could factor into the discussion. Of course there’s Henderson, but there’s also former second-round pick Cyrus Kouandjio, and late-season starter Jordan Mills. Even when healthy, Henderson struggled mightily, Kouandjio has never been able to break through to the starting lineup even went Henderson missed the final five games, and the uninspiring Mills is a restricted free agent. The right tackle position is one very much in flux, and one that could certainly use an addition considering how poorly all three options played in 2015.
7) For the Bills “value trumps necessity” in the draft
- Donald Trump has his “Make America great again” slogan, John Oliver has his “Make Donald Drumpf again” slogan, and now the Bills have their slogan for the 2016 NFL Draft: “Value trumps necessity,” Whaley succinctly said near the end of the interview. Anytime Whaley was asked about drafting a certain position, he went to a similar refrain that they’re going to add the top person on their board — regardless of need. With the amount of defensive playmakers available in this draft, though, value and need will likely line up in the first round.
8) Plans for restricted free agents
- The Bills have six soon-to-be restricted free agents in defensive lineman Corbin Bryant, wide receiver Chris Hogan, defensive lineman Stefan Charles, linebacker Ty Powell, safety Bacarri Rambo, and right tackle Jordan Mills. The team already decided to walk away from restricted free agent and tight end MarQueis Gray, which means they’re approaching this group of players from a strategic viewpoint. Of the group, Bryant, Hogan, Powell, and Rambo should be the priorities as the players that can best impact the roster in 2016. On Powell, Whaley said that they have a “really good feel” for the linebacker, and that they’re working diligently on an agreement with him “as we speak.” The GM concluded the plan for the six RFAs is to get as many back as possible.
9) Aaron Williams would have played if they made playoffs
- Echoing the sentiments from last week at the NFL Combine, Whaley took it a step further on Thursday. “If we made the playoffs, he would have been out there,” Whaley told WGR. The starting safety has been cleared completely for the 2016 season, and they’re confident that he can play for them again, despite early concern that Williams may have had to retire. “This injury he had, there’s not a propensity for him to have it again.”
10) McCoy non-update
- The Bills GM was asked if there were any indications from the league if they would have to prepare for the beginning of the season without running back LeSean McCoy, along with if that would affect their draft plans at all. Whaley, as he did last week, alluded to the original team statement on McCoy and said “we’ll stand by that.” We’re still in limbo on the McCoy case, as no charges or arrest warrants have been issued in the case.