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Joe B: Ranking the top 5 Buffalo Bills needs in free agency

Posted at 2:43 PM, Feb 04, 2019

(WKBW) — When the New England Patriots wrapped up yet another world championship on Sunday night, it signaled to the rest of the league that the offseason is officially here for the rest of the NFL. Most teams have been in offseason mode for over a month now, but now the league will operate with the impending deadlines.

Once teams issue their franchise and transition tags by March 5, that paves the way for the official start to free agency -- and for teams to begin speaking with free agents on other teams at noon on March 11. Then, the free agent period officially opens for players to sign with teams on March 13 at 4:00 pm.

So, now is the time to make plans and free agent boards for how each team wants to approach free agency. For the Bills, the big difference is in the potential volume they'll have to deal with in free agency.

If you followed along with the All-22 in review series in January, you'd come to a mutual feeling that the Bills have a copious amount of needs to address in the offseason. The good part, though, is they also have over $70 million in cap room in 2019, and without any real worry that their spending will cost them a compensatory draft selection in the 2020 offseason.

So, for general manager Brandon Beane and head coach Sean McDermott, they can shape the offseason through free agency however they'd like, though the buzz word they used after the season was "judicious spending," likely to suspend hope that they would cash in all of their newfound cap freedom on two or three big-ticket players.

So, with all of those needs and all that cap room -- and an inherent desire to stay away from crazy spending -- what can we expect the Bills to focus on above all else?

As we prepare to find out, first some (hopefully) educated guesswork on what the Bills would value the most in free agency:

1) Center
- Among all the positions available that the Bills need to upgrade, the center position is the runaway top position I think they'd want to address in free agency. When you consider all the different factors over the last two years, it makes it tough to beat. First, from the historical perspective, the Bills tipped their hand with how much having a rock solid, veteran center meant to their roster. Even on the precipice of an enormous teardown in the 2018 offseason, the Bills issued a lucrative two-year contract extension to the then 31-year-old Eric Wood -- just four months ahead of finding out that a neck injury would end his career prematurely. Regardless, they sent the message that the Bills value a dependable veteran center quite highly. You can pair that evidence with a quote from Beane about the center spot, who told Matthew Fairburn of The Athletic "It’s probably easier to sleep at night if you have a veteran who you’ve seen do it at this level." Why a veteran over a rookie? It has become increasingly more difficult to find impact college players along the offensive line, and at a position as complex as center -- a player that needs to be the point man of that unit, it dissuades teams from using the draft that needs a dramatic upgrade in that same offseason. And you can lump the Bills into that distinction because the center position was the worst on the team -- let alone the offensive line -- by a wide margin. Ryan Groy is a free agent, and the Bills could quickly get out of Russell Bodine's contract and save an additional $2.3 million that they could put towards a free agent center. And with only a pair of names that could potentially hit free agency, while being worthy of a big contract, this could be the Bills' most significant swing ahead of the draft.

2) Edge Rusher
- In 2019, the Bills don't have an extreme need for a pass rusher. After all, they still have Jerry Hughes, Trent Murphy, and Shaq Lawson all under contract for the 2019 season. However, once next year is over the Bills have the potential to lose two of those three players, as both Hughes and Lawson are slated to become free agents. And with the likelihood that if they sign elsewhere, given how much money pass rushers frequently make on the open market, it would put the Bills right in the mix to gain compensatory picks for the 2021 NFL Draft. The only way I could see the Bills making a big swing at an edge rusher this offseason would be for someone that could help them as a bit of a hybrid player that can help in a few different functions. The one that jumps to mind would be Anthony Barr, a linebacker on paper, but one that Sean McDermott would find a unique role for in his defense at both defensive end and strongside linebacker. Even if that doesn't happen, don't rule out the Bills taking a middle-tier swing on a younger pass rusher just coming off their first contract that hasn't had a ton of first-team snaps, but showed enough in small samples to think they could turn the corner in a more prominent role. For how good the defense was in 2018, they did not bring the quarterback down nearly enough -- and that's something that needs to change moving forward.

3) Wide Receiver
- The somewhat emergence of the two young wide receivers Zay Jones and Robert Foster in the second half of the 2018 season certainly helped the team. However, outside of those two, you can't count on anyone else on the roster to take a big step forward and become a constant contributor, which brings on the need to add considerably to the position. Now the wide receiver spot lacks two things glaringly, a dependable veteran receiver that is a proven contributor, and a slot receiver. The Bills could address both of those in one fell swoop by trying to ink a slot receiver to a free agent deal, and in hoping that the player could turn into a dependable target for Josh Allen to continue his development. The other option is to add a veteran boundary receiver that can become a complementary piece to the offense, and then find a slot receiver in the draft to form a top four on the depth chart with Jones and Foster. However, the money with wide receivers often gets a bit crazy in free agency, and you can get yourself into trouble by going overboard at the position for just an above average player -- which could, in turn, make it more difficult in the future to keep players that you'd want to keep around. I don't think Beane will let the free agent wide receiver market take him out of his "judicious" spending mindset.

4) Offensive Tackle
- The state of the offensive line for the Bills in 2018, in general, was awful. That includes the offensive tackle position, where Jordan Mills struggled for another season as the starting right tackle, and Dion Dawkins took a step back from the progress he made as a rookie at left tackle. It will be necessary for the Bills to add an offensive tackle at some point in the offseason -- whether it be at left or right tackle. They need to find the best player available and then figure out where Dion Dawkins fits in after they get that other player on board. However, in free agency -- like wide receiver -- the money for offensive tackle gets extreme in a hurry for merely average to above average players. It speaks to the crying need in the NFL for more talent at the position but also turns the idea of finding one in free agency a bit of a sticker shock phenomenon. We saw the Bills, in the 2017 offseason, be right in the thick of the race to land free agent right tackle Ricky Wagner -- who ultimately chose to sign in Detroit. So, at least, we know that the head coach values offensive tackles at that level. However, Beane was not around in Buffalo for that free agent period, which could change the approach in free agency for right tackles completely. I think Beane and the Bills could make an exception if the player they're getting becomes their long-term left tackle. If not, much like pass rushers and wide receivers, signing an offensive tackle to a middle-to-low-tier contract is very much within the realm of possibilities -- if not an outright likelihood.

5) Tight End
- Tight end is a huge need on this roster, with it reeking of desperation to turn it over almost entirely. I think there's a spot for Jason Croom on the roster, though finding an upgrade at both starter and with the primary backup would be the preferred option. In free agency, though, you just aren't going to find an impact starting tight end that has enjoyed success and is still in the prime of their careers. Teams hang on to those players while letting the other 'lottery ticket' types hit free agency after underwhelming through their initial rookie contracts. I think the latter is the area that the Bills should focus on, and what makes the most sense to their free agent approach given how many quality tight end prospects there are in the 2019 NFL Draft. The goal would be to take a shot on someone that is similar to Eric Ebron. Of course, he signed for a modest salary in today's NFL mainly on a one-year prove-it deal. When the Colts signed him to a two-year, $13 million contract, the only guaranteed money in the deal was in 2018 -- and if the Indianapolis Colts wanted to release him ahead of the 2019 season, they could have done so without a single penny in dead cap hitting them this year. That's the type of low-cost swing the Bills should look to make on an athletic pass-catching option that still has some upside, even if -- like Ebron -- they hadn't done much of anything in their previous stop. That way, if the Bills get frozen out of the tight end market in the draft, they have a clear fallback option that still has some upside.

Twitter: @JoeBuscaglia