(WKBW) — With the finishing touches on the 2019 NFL Scouting Combine on Monday, the clock has officially started on the final approach to the start of NFL Free Agency. As we well know by now, with the draft coming well after the free agent period, what happens in mid-March can dramatically shift how teams approach adding youth to their rosters.
For the Buffalo Bills, the free agent market is a significant piece to the puzzle in making the strides they so desire from a 6-10 team with a weak roster. Although the exact total isn't officially known, the Bills have just under $80 million in estimated cap space -- enough to do some damage with a bigger name or two.
Especially with how Brandon Beane denied the notion that being "judicious" is the same as being prohibitive to signing the bigger fish in free agency, all options are still firmly on the table for the Bills. Over the next week, 7ABC will outline five free agents that make logical sense as additions to the Bills roster.
And when it comes to Minnesota linebacker Anthony Barr, while he might not be someone people immediately consider for the Bills, after you add all the factors up, it makes far too much sense for the Bills to make a serious run.
I'm sure many will look at the name and position and think to themselves, 'Come on, a linebacker?! They need offense!' I won't debate that the Bills need several offensive pieces in free agency, but Brandon Beane and Sean McDermott still has two or three more holes on the defensive side for them to become one of the better defenses in the NFL for the long-term. With all that cap space, it would be a bit foolish to use all of it on the offensive side of the ball.
How Barr would fit the Bills roster:
So, why Barr? It's pretty simple. He's the versatile chess piece that both Beane and McDermott covets, he's entering the prime of his career, and he helps fill two needs in one signing.
Let's start with the simple part of it. Barr, in McDermott's defense, would line up as the starting strongside linebacker. We'll get to what that means for Lorenzo Alexander in a bit, but Barr is a dream fit in that role.
As the strongside backer in the Bills' defensive scheme, the usual responsibilities are for the bigger bodied player to fight through the traffic of blockers, shed them to bring down the ball carrier while also to set the table for their free-roaming teammates, and to be a dependable athlete with some difficult assignments in coverage.
It's a position that is extremely difficult to equip considering the type of size and athleticism that is necessary, and teams have responded by taking the strongside backer off of the field when opponents go into three wide receiver sets. With Barr on the Bills roster, his incredibly unique skill-set to the position makes it so that he rarely has to come off the field.
Coming out of UCLA, Barr (6-foot-5, 255-pounds) had the reputation as a long, lean player with the potential to take off as a pass rusher in the right system. Though in Minnesota, he slotted into more of a traditional linebacker role in their 4-3 defense, which limited his production as a pass rusher.
In the Bills' defense, all those opportunities open right up. Consider how the team used Lorenzo Alexander during the 2018 season. While he didn't collect many defensive snaps when the linebacking unit was at full health, they integrated him into the pass rushing efforts because that was a strength of his game. All to keep the offense guessing, they lined him up at defensive end, defensive tackle, and even rushing him off the edge standing up.
Barr has the same versatility so that he can stay on the field to help the Bills struggling pass rushing efforts from the 2018 season. And, he's so athletically gifted, that he can stay on the field in coverage even when teams bring their third receiver into the game.
A staple of McDermott's defense in Carolina was a strategy known best as 'big nickel.' The Bills used backup safety Rafael Bush in the role during some games, but considering the poor results, the Bills didn't utilize it as much as the head coach might have liked.
Barr has shown the ability to cover the slot and has the fluid hips to change direction quickly. He can cover up running backs and run with them. Not to mention, his height-weight-length-athleticism combo makes him a headache for opposing tight ends to make an impact on the game.
All of it leads to Barr being a multi-tool player, at a traditional position that the Bills need a long-term answer with, that fits into the culture that the head coach and general manager are trying to establish.
In my eyes, it's an absolute home run for how McDermott would utilize his skill-set.
How Barr would fit the salary cap structure:
With Barr, the Bills could add a multi-use, three-down defensive asset that makes life extremely difficult on the offenses. Because of that, Barr won't come cheaply. He is a premium free agent -- but one that makes sense for the Bills to approach.
The Bills top three linebackers on the roster are Lorenzo Alexander, Tremaine Edmunds, and Matt Milano. Alexander is on the books with a $3.75 million cap hit for the next year, but as it stands now is likely to retire following the 2019 season.
As for Edmunds and Milano, the exciting and young starting duo are on extremely cheap and manageable contracts past the 2019 season. Edmunds has three years remaining on his rookie deal with cap hits of approximately $2.8 million, $3.5 million, and $4.0 million. Milano has two years remaining on his rookie contract and doesn't eclipse much more than $800,000 in either of them.
For the foreseeable future, the Bills have a low amount of cap room tied to the position, and by the time both of their young linebackers would be due for significant pay raises, Barr's deal could be entering the realm where the Bills could get out of it. In Minnesota, they utilized Barr as more of a traditional linebacker which could mute his cost compared to some pass rushers on the open market, while not destroying the team's versatile vision for how they want to use him.
As long as a team doesn't come in and give him $3 to $4 million per year more than the team's set value for Barr, he has all the traits and upside for the Bills to make a big swing.
How Barr makes the Bills better for the short and long term:
Later in March, Barr will turn 27 years old which means he is entering the prime of his career, and conceivably has three to four seasons more of a high-end level of production. Bringing him in would enable the Bills to improve their pass rush while still having both Shaq Lawson and Jerry Hughes on the roster, while significantly addressing a long-term need at a position of vital importance to McDermott's scheme.
The Bills are always looking for leadership to add to their locker room, and Barr was named a team captain ahead of the 2018 season. Despite being less of a vocal leader, Barr is of the 'lead by example' variety which would pair well with Edmunds who started to find his leading voice late last year.
In the short-term, this allows the Bills to use Alexander in the role where he made an impact almost every single week -- as a situational pass rusher. Entering the 2019 season Alexander will be 36 years old, and the Bills must be prudent in maximizing his reps with what he's best at -- and at this point of his career, he is still a tremendous asset in getting after the passer.
The Bills didn't get much outside of Hughes from their defensive ends with pressure on the quarterback, which is why it wouldn't shock me to see Alexander become more of an end if there was a suitable upgrade at strongside linebacker.
That's where Barr comes in for 2019, and well into the future, too.
Considering how much McDermott covets multiple-use defenders and athleticism in linebackers, the case for the Bills going after Barr is a strong one. Now it's just a matter of finding the right price point, and for Beane, not veering too far from it.
Anthony Barr, provides dual ability of playing off ball linebacker and pass rusher the Bills desperately need to find. Provides the flexibility needed in the NFL today. Means Bills can concentrate on the lines in the draft.— Dai Summers (@daisummers) March 4, 2019
Anthony Barr, he’s the perfect guy to replace and rotate with Lorenzo and he’s young and UBER athletic. Him and Tremaine side by side makes me swoon— Dominik Barabasz (@DominikBarabasz) March 4, 2019