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Joe B: 5 Buffalo Bills thoughts heading into the NFL Combine

Posted at 3:52 PM, Feb 26, 2019

(WKBW) — With the start of the week, the National Football League -- for the first time in the true offseason -- will all be together in one place. Indianapolis is the home of the most influential event of the offseason every single year -- the NFL Combine.

It's the perfect blend of everything you love about the offseason. With all NFL team executives, coaches, and agents are all in the same place, in a relatively condensed city, bound to run into one another as the days and nights out pass. It's why when Combine week rolls around, and you often see little whispers pop up in regards to free agents and teams that may have interest.

When you zoom in from that macro-level look at the event, you stumble upon the individual issues facing the teams. And for the Bills, with such a crucial two months ahead between free agency and the 2019 NFL Draft, some of the problems facing them at the moment will start to gain some insight this week.

Along those lines, five things to track as the NFL Combine gets going for the Bills:

1) What makes sense for the Bills at WR in free agency?
- If you polled Bills fans that paid close attention during the 2018 season, the response to 'biggest need position on the roster' would garner quite a few votes for wide receiver. It's tricky, though, considering the incremental widening of the gap from college football to the professional level and the ensuing difficulty for young players to make a mark quickly. It makes it so the draft isn't as easily dependable as it has been in history to find an immediate high impact player -- which creates a bit of a problem for the Bills. They already have two young players in Zay Jones and Robert Foster that need additional development in the hopes that they become something to hang on to for the long-term, which doesn't make it as simple as just going out and drafting a couple of players to create a good, young core of four receivers. The trick is because dependable receivers are becoming harder to come by, and a team gets forced into the free agent realm, and they're likely going to pay a premium for players that might not warrant the price tag. And that's where we find the 2019 Buffalo Bills. The wide receiver free agent class is not spectacular, and we've known all along that the team's preference is to spend "judiciously." It makes me wonder if the Bills would be inclined to go after someone like Tyrell Williams. He fits the athletic profile they look for certainly, but still a relatively young player entering the prime of his career with no big asterisks next to his name, there's a chance he winds up with the biggest free agent contract for a wide receiver in March. That doesn't seem to fit the financial profile the Bills are looking for in free agency. That's where calculated risks come into play, with players that have some reason for hesitance with individual teams. The Bills also like to know what type of person they're getting by spending all that money, too. It's the reason why I keep coming back to the same name for the Bills because all of the stars seem to align with their positional, prototypical, and financial needs all becoming one. And it won't be all that popular for fans tired of the Charlotte-to-Buffalo express that's been happening since 2017. Regardless, Devin Funchess makes all too much sense for both the player and the team. Funchess had a miserable end to the 2018 campaign, held without a catch in two of his final three games and then the Panthers decided to scratch him from the lineup for the season finale. While some may see another Carolina castoff and malcontent wide receiver, Bills GM Brandon Beane may see opportunity. Funchess offers something no other Bills receiver does with his size, Beane will know the receiver's pros and cons on and off the field more than any other receiver available to them, and he's turning only 25 years old as of late May. When you consider the hesitation Funchess' end of the season provides to teams, that provides a clear opportunity for the Bills to strike on a potential short-term, within reason -- and dare I say "judicious" -- contract. Funchess will have a hard time finding another location in the NFL with a clear-as-day look as the top wide receiver on the team with an ascending quarterback willing to throw it all over the yard, along with a person that could believe in him as much as Beane might considering the history there. After all, the odds are against the Bills being able to gobble up the entirety of their copious cap space, so a prove-it contract for Funchess is a sound investment. If he hits and has a great season, they have an asset on their hand in which they could re-sign to a lucrative contract. Or, if they have to part ways, he could become a potential trade chip if they want to franchise tag him, or someone that will go to the free agent market still at only 26 years old that would elicit a sizable free-agent contract and thereby setting the Bills up for a solid compensatory pick. If he doesn't play well, the Bills can walk away and recalibrate at wide receiver for 2020. For the Bills' purposes, Funchess seems like a sound investment that wouldn't cost as much as the cleaner Tyrell Williams.

2) A potential new focus for the offensive line
- When Sean McDermott took over the Buffalo Bills in 2017, he made two key hires to his offensive staff that would define them that season. Rick Dennison -- a noted proponent of the zone-blocking scheme in all his stops -- and offensive line coach Juan Castillo who also managed to get the title of 'run game coordinator.' Those two entities had to work closely in their teachings and on who to bring into the fold. They brought in several offensive linemen in 2017 to help, it didn't work as well as they would have wanted, and McDermott elected to go in a different direction at offensive coordinator. Why is this important to the 2019 offseason? It's because the second man of that duo, Castillo, hung on for one season with Brian Daboll as offensive coordinator, perhaps with some different principles for the run game and blocking than Daboll may have wanted. There weren't many new faces added to the offensive line outside of the underperforming Russell Bodine and Wyatt Teller, and based on previous evidence in New England, Daboll doesn't come from a scheme that only looks for one type of lineman the way that Dennison and maybe even Castillo did. Now, Daboll is his own run game coordinator, he can install any blocking scheme he wants every week and has a new offensive line coach in Bobby Johnson to go along with what he values most -- versatility. That leads to the offseason, which means the trait above all else Beane and Daboll will want in offensive linemen is scheme intelligence to give multiple looks to a defensive line during a season. Daboll now has free reign and is fully responsible for getting the running game and offensive line back on track, which brings up the issue of Dion Dawkins. He was drafted for Dennison, by Sean McDermott, and worked with Castillo which means his hold on left tackle is there for the time being because there is no one else. I have little doubt that Dawkins will start somewhere along the offensive line, but with a changing of the guard this offseason in a couple of ways, I wouldn't write it in ink by any means.

3) The overhaul at tight end begins in Indianapolis
- A little over a week-and-a-half ago the Bills decided to move on from tight end Charles Clay -- a move that was as expected as the Bills keeping Josh Allen their starting quarterback. With him, the Bills can now start over with only one lowly salary attached to the position in the form of Jason Croom. In an attempt to revamp the tight end depth chart, it starts in free agency with a low-risk, high-reward type of player. And with all agents and front office people in one city at restaurants and bars throughout the downtown area, it's easy for the not-so-legal tampering to occur in face-to-face meetings. It's a commonplace that teams will declare some initial interest to the representation some of the potential free agents out there, which is why it would be wise to jump into the tight end discussions over the next several days. If there's one thing that stands out about this group of tight ends is that it features a lot of names entering the prime of their career with the potential to shine in more substantial roles. That group includes names like Maxx Williams, Nick Boyle, Jesse James, Jeff Heureman, Demetrius Harris, and Tyler Kroft among others. This way, if the Bills don't land a tight end in the draft to factor into the starting lineup, that player in free agency will always be there -- with Buffalo being an attractive destination for a potential unencumbered path to a top spot on the depth chart. It makes all too much sense for the Bills to get started on their casual conversations with agents that *just so happens* to be at the same establishment on a random night in Indianapolis.

4) Should the Bills consider dealing Shaq Lawson?
- Last offseason, the discussion around Shaq Lawson was a lot more common than it is now. Lawson, the former first-round pick of the Bills in 2016, just enjoyed the most productive season of his young career. He turned into a valuable role player that pushed Trent Murphy for a starting job when the latter struggled with getting back to 100-percent following injuries. Lawson appeared motivated after the Bills called him into question the previous offseason and delivered for the team -- which might make it the perfect time to gauge the market to see if they could move him. The usual reaction to the premise is one of disbelief. Why would the Bills consider dealing him if he was just a productive player for them? Well, it comes down to using your assets in the best way. The Bills know Lawson performed better last season than he ever has in his career, but still without much production in rushing the passer, it makes little sense for the Bills to commit themselves potentially to a ~$10 million contract for Lawson on a fifth-year option. By declining the option that makes 2019 into a contract year for Lawson, and since the current regime didn't draft him, it makes it unlikely at this point that the Bills issue him a long-term deal that would battle the type of money he'd receive on the open market. To take advantage of the current situation, still with Lawson under their control, gauging the trade market for Lawson could wind up being quite fruitful. If they're able to stumble upon a team that would give up a third or fourth-round pick for the Bills -- for a player that likely doesn't fit into their future plans -- would be a savvy move for a team looking for sustained success through the draft. From a logical perspective, seeing the potential trade market for Lawson makes all too much sense.

5) What to make of Jordan Phillips
- As the beginning of free agency approaches in mid-March, the only Bills name of note is defensive tackle Jordan Phillips. After the Miami Dolphins cut him, the Bills scooped him up from waivers and immediately made him their core rotational piece at three-technique defensive tackle. There are still many conversations to be had as the next two weeks occur, but just as the Bills are likely to speak with the agents of upcoming free agents, the representation for Phillips will likely be doing the same thing with other teams around the league. The big question about Phillips is how much of a workload he can handle while still being incredibly productive. I thought his role last season for the Bills was perfect, getting anywhere from 20-to-35-percent of defensive snaps and staying fresh all through the game to make some impact plays. The trouble is, that performance might warrant a team thinking he could go above that with a more prominent role and a more lucrative contract, which drives down the likelihood he re-signs in Buffalo. I think this will go one of two ways for Phillips and the Bills. Either his agent sees what the market might be for his client and decide its best to get to the open market, or they do the same and find there isn't a market which could make Buffalo a more attractive landing place. Either way, unless the Phillips camp meets the Bills at the team's price point, the best course of action for the team might be to let Phillips get to market and pick up the pieces if things don't go well enough. There's no need to over-commit to a solid rotational player.

Twitter: @JoeBuscaglia