Buffalo Bills Offseason Previewby Christopher Gallagher February 26, 2021 1 comment
Earning an opportunity to host a home playoff game for the first time in over 20 seasons as a result of their first AFC East title since 1995, the Buffalo Bills won 13 games in 2020 behind a breakout season from quarterback Josh Allen. He finished third in the league’s MVP voting behind Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and Kansas City Chiefs signal-caller Patrick Mahomes.
The former seventh overall pick passed for a franchise-high 4,544 yards and 37 touchdowns. In addition to this, the team’s wide receiver core enjoyed a much-needed boost from offseason acquisition Stefon Diggs. Establishing a connection with Allen from the start of the season, the 27-year-old earned both Pro Bowl and First-Team All-Pro honors after hauling in 127 receptions for 1,535 yards.
Ending the regular season on a tear, the Bills won their last six games after a heartbreaking last-second loss to the Arizona Cardinals in Week 10. Backed by an improved performance from Leslie Frazier‘s defense, the group held their opponents to an average of just 18.3 points per game. Ultimately, Buffalo advanced to the AFC Championship game after victories over the Indianapolis Colts and Baltimore Ravens in the NFL’s wildcard and divisional rounds. The team failed to get back to the Super Bowl following a 38-24 loss to the Chiefs.
Expected by many to remain one of the premier contenders once again in 2021, the franchise was able to retain both Frazier and offensive coordinator Brian Daboll after they were both tied to head coaching vacancies around the league.
Pending Free Agents
Currently projected to have 22 free agents according to OverTheCap.com, the team will have their work cut out for them as they remain one million dollars over the league’s $180 million salary cap. Multiple contributors on defense are set to hit the open market. General manager Brandon Beane will also need to get creative in maneuvering money if he hopes to keep the group’s offensive line intact, with both starting right tackle Daryl Williams and guard Jon Feliciano on expiring deals. Two major contributors to the league’s 11th-ranked special teams unit in 2020 are without deals as Pro Bowl return man Andre Roberts is set to hit free agency. Punter Corey Bojorquez will be a restricted free agent.
Matt Milano, Linebacker
As steady as they come when healthy in 2020, Milano appeared in ten games for the Bills defense, leading to a career-high 3.5 sacks, nine quarterback hits, and 45 tackles. The former fifth-round pick added 25 more tackles and three passes defended during the team’s playoff run. Rumored to be intent on testing the free-agent market with the Bills in salary cap peril, Milano is seen by many as the best linebacker available around the league this offseason. Currently expected to earn a deal of over $13 million annually, look for him to suit up elsewhere in 2021, signaling the end of his tenure in Buffalo.
Daryl Williams, Offensive Tackle
A year ago, landing in Buffalo after signing a one-year $2.25 million deal with the team, Williams enjoyed a standout 2020 campaign. Appearing in all 19 games, the 28-year-old allowed just three sacks on over 1000 offensive snaps played. In addition to this, the former fourth-round pick also committed just nine penalties all year long while earning standout run and pass blocking grades, according to Pro Football Focus. Expected to earn an average annual value of 7.8 million dollars on the open market this offseason, Williams will likely remain a priority for the Bills front office. However, with both him and right guard Feliciano both set to hit the open market, look for the team to be forced to choose between the two.
Jon Feliciano, Guard
Winning a starting job along the offensive line after signing with the Bills in 2019, Feliciano enjoyed one of the best seasons of his six-year NFL career in 2020. Playing over 570 snaps on offense, the longtime Oakland Raider was most dominant in the run game. Earning a grade of 76.1 from Pro Football Focus, the Florida native ranked among the top 15 in guards in the NFL. However, after missing the first seven weeks of the season, Feliciano often struggled in pass protection, leading him to rank 72nd out of 81 qualified guards. Likely to command a substantial raise in free agency after arriving in Western New York on a bargain deal, the veteran lineman will hope to return to the team in 2021 after voicing his love for the city recently.
Andre Roberts, Wide Receiver
The primary kick and punt returner for the Bills over his two years in Buffalo, Roberts led the NFL in 2020 with over 30 yards averaged per kick return. In addition to this, the 32-year-old also averaged 9.9 yards per punt return with 29 returns for 286 yards. Chosen to the all-pro team for the second season in a row, he remains low on the team’s offensive depth chart with just seven receptions combined over his last two seasons. After signing a two-year $4.6 million deal before the start of the 2019 season, look for the veteran to command a raise as he hits the market next month. This makes it unlikely he will return to a Bills team looking to find ways to shed money.
Josh Norman, Cornerback
Landing in Orchard Park largely due to his connection with head coach Sean McDermott after being released by Washington, Norman appeared in nine games for the team this season. Racking up 24 tackles, four passes defended, and one interception, the 33-year-old will likely not receive the type of dollar value he got in Buffalo after signing a one-year six-million dollar contract. With Levi Wallace likely to return behind star cornerback Tre’Davious White, the Bills will likely turn to young defensive backs, Dane Jackson, Taron Johnson, and Cam Lewis. Furthermore, look for them to address cornerback in the draft to fill the voided number two spot, making Norman the odd man out in the defensive backs room.
Levi Wallace, Cornerback (RFA)
Set to hit restricted free agent status after signing a one-year deal as an exclusive rights free-agent contract with the team a season ago, Wallace has endured an up and down first three seasons with the Bills. Booted from the starting cornerback number two job in favor of Norman, Wallace appeared in 12 games for Buffalo this season after missing three due to an ankle injury and one due to Covid-19. Recording 48 tackles and eight passes defended, expect the former undrafted free agent to receive an RFA tender from the franchise, granting them the right to match any offer he may get on the open market.
Potential Cap Casualties
Faced with tough decisions due to the lowered salary cap, the Bills will need to explore all avenues to get under the proposed lowered cap. With the team expected to have just under three million dollars of room if the number from the league is indeed 185 million, multiple contracts on the roster allow Beane and company to get out from underneath them while taking minimal dead money hits. While the opportunity for a restructuring always exists to keep players on the roster, here are six potential cap casualties the franchise could explore this offseason.
Mitch Morse, C ($4.8 Million Saved)
Projected to have the fourth-highest cap hit on the team in 2021, according to Over the Cap, the Bills could look to move on from Morse two years early after he missed time with his fifth concussion earlier on this season. Failing to play up to the four-year $44.5 million contract he inked before the start of the 2019 season, the former second-round pick became a healthy scratch in week ten against the Cardinals. In addition to this, the former second-round pick also remains the fourth highest penalized center across the league. With Feliciano’s ability to play center and with both he and Williams set to command substantial raises next season, the Bills could choose to move on from the 28-year-old Morse with a dead cap hit of just 5.5 million dollars.
Jerry Hughes, DE ($7.35 Million Saved)
One of the longest-tenured members of the Bills, Hughes remained productive during his eighth season with the team in 2020. Starting in 15 games for Frazier’s defense, he racked up 29 tackles, 11 quarterback hits, and 4.5 sacks. However, with the 32-year-old set to enter the final year of his deal in 2021, his cap hit remains substantial at over nine million dollars. Rumored to be one of the teams heavily involved in the J.J. Watt sweepstakes, the team can choose to walk away from the former first-round pick this offseason and save over seven million dollars against the cap. However, with continued production over the last few years, expect a contract restructuring rather than a cutting of ties between the two parties.
Mario Addison, DE ($6.2 Million Saved)
Inking a three-year $30.45 million deal with the team last offseason, Addison led the Bills with five sacks in 2020 while also pitching in 11 pressures and three quarterback hits. However, the soon to be 34 years old saw his snap count fall significantly to 56 percent from over 65 percent the last two years. One of the biggest question marks on the active roster due to his significant cap hit of over 10 million dollars next season, releasing Addison would save Buffalo over six million dollars. It would also allow Beane to dip into the free-agent pool while also freeing up playing time for second-year player A.J. Epenesa.
John Brown, WR ($7.9 Million Saved)
Hindered by injuries this past season, Brown appeared in just nine games for the Bills during the regular season, the lowest total of his career. Set to turn 31 early on in the offseason, the speedster is entering the final year of his deal while carrying a cap hit of 9.5 million dollars. Loaded at the receiver position after the acquisition of Diggs a year ago to go along with veteran Cole Beasley, the team also enjoyed the emergence of rookie Gabriel Davis. Hauling in 62 passes for 599 yards and seven touchdowns, the fifth-round pick should be in for an extended role in the offense next season. This makes Brown an expendable option with 7.9 million dollars in cap savings available.
Vernon Butler, DT ($6.8 Million Saved)
Set to count as 7.8 million dollars against the cap in 2021 after signing a two-year deal with the Bills last offseason, Butler underperformed mightily during his first season in Western New York. Forced to play as a one technique defensive tackle after Star Lotulelei opted out of the season due to Covid-19 concerns, he failed to register a sack while racking up just 18 tackles. Furthermore, the former first-round pick posted a grade of just 56.1, according to Pro Football Focus. With both Lotulelei and 2018 third-round pick, Harrison Phillips set to return next season. Ed Oliver and former undrafted rookie Justin Zimmer‘s emergence makes Butler an expected cap casualty.
Quinton Jefferson, DT ($6.5 Million Saved)
In a similar situation to Butler after landing with the Bills on a two-year $13.5 million deal, Jefferson recorded 23 tackles and three sacks as a rotational defensive lineman. Offering upside as a pass rusher from the defensive tackle spot, the 27-year-old has recorded nine sacks, and 31 quarterback hits over his last three seasons. Although, with a logjam created with the return of Lotulelei and Phillips next season and the emergence of younger, cheaper options, Jefferson would save the team 6.5 million dollars in cap space with his release. Lastly, combining both his and Butler’s releases would save the team over $13 million in space, with just $2.5 million incurred in dead money.
Open Market Free Agent Targets
Fresh off their highest win total since the 1993 season, the Bills ultimately advanced to the AFC Championship game before coming up short against the Chiefs. With needs still present on the roster, if the team hopes to take the next step among the NFL’s elite in 2021, the group will face challenges to navigate the free agency market with limited cap space available. While they will likely be unable to land top dollar value players, Beane and his staff possess both the smarts and opportunity to add targeted players on value contracts. Entering the offseason with needs along both the defensive and offensive lines, along with at the tight end and running back positions, here are five players the team could look to target.
J.J. Watt, DE, Houston Texans
Reportedly among the top three preferred destinations of Watt, according to ESPN’s Jon Clayton, the three-time defensive player of the year would provide a much-needed boost along the defensive line. Remaining productive for the Texans in 2020, the five-time first-team all-pro recorded 52 tackles, 17 quarterback hits, and five sacks in 16 games for the team. In addition to this, the 31-year-old still remains a premier run defender while ranking 15th out of 119 pass rushers in pass rush win rate, according to ESPN stats and information. Said to be looking for similar value to the 17.5 million dollars the Texans were set to pay him this season with multiple teams vying for his services, landing Watt would require some maneuvering financially from Beane and company.
Jonnu Smith, TE, Tennessee Titans
One of the positions the Bills are set on upgrading on this offseason, the team failed to receive consistent production from either Dawson Knox or Tyler Kroft in 2020. Enter Smith, who enjoyed his best season as a pro in 2020, hauling in 41 passes for 448 yards and eight touchdowns. Along with this, the former third-round pick also remains as solid as they come with his hands, leading to just six drops combined over his last two seasons. A much-improved run blocker since arriving in the league after playing in a heavy rush attack in Tennessee, Smith posted a 62.8 grade from Pro Football Focus in 2020, the highest total of his career. Likely in for a substantial raise from his two million dollar AAV this season, Smith is currently projected to earn over eight million dollars on the market.
Kawann Short, DT, Carolina Panthers
Recently released by the Panthers after eight seasons with the team, the former second-round pick was placed on the season-ending injured reserve list by the team after undergoing shoulder surgery. A key element of the defensive line in Carolina over his tenure with the team, Short racked up 280 tackles, 88 quarterback hits, and 32.5 sacks as a pocket collapsing defensive tackle. Needing an upgrade along the interior of their defensive line, the Bills struggled to generate consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks this year, leading to just 38 total sacks. Furthermore, Kawann also possesses knowledge of the Bills scheme on defense after spending four years under Mcdermott and defensive line coach Eric Washington in Carolina. A strong fit if they are able to land the veteran on a short-term, low-cost contract, he would provide an instant upgrade to the interior of the defense.
Troy Hill, CB, Los Angeles Rams
An unsung hero of the league’s number one overall defense from a year ago, Hill recorded 77 tackles, ten pass breakups, three interceptions, and one forced fumble in 16 games started for the Rams. Operating primarily as a slot corner after struggling on the outside early on, he constantly found himself around the ball and in position to make plays, leading to two pick-sixes and a fumble returned for a touchdown. In addition to this, the 30-year-old has also remained extremely durable over his last three seasons, missing just two games. In need of added depth at the defensive back position with both Wallace and Norman set to hit free agency, Hill would provide the Bills with positional flexibility at a low cost with a projected six million dollar AAV.
Curtis Samuel, WR, Carolina Panthers
After a breakout year in Carolina in which he hauled in a career-high 77 passes for 851 yards and three touchdowns, Samuel remains one of the most versatile players on the market. Pitching in 41 rushing attempts for 200 yards and two touchdowns, the Ohio State Buckeyes alumn has continuously improved over his four-year NFL tenure. One of the most elusive pass catchers in the game, the 24-year old forced 16 missed tackles in 2020 while racking up over 320 yards after the catch. With multiple teams expected to pursue Samuel as a result of his gadget-like skill set, look for him to land a contract in the $10-12 million range. This makes it less than likely that Beane and company would pull the trigger on signing him.
Previewing the Draft
Set to draft during final five picks on the first round for the first time since making White the first selection of the McDermott era in Buffalo, the Bills hold the 30th selection in the first round. With multiple needs across the roster, they will hope to cement their status atop the AFC East once again next season. As aggressive as they come to land a player he covets, look for Beane to make a move up the draft board if he has his eyes on a specific target. Adamant on improving their rushing attack in 2021 after nearly abandoning it late in the season, look for the team to focus on adding to their offensive line, along with adding a cornerback to compete for the number two spot across from White.
Round 1, Pick 30: Offensive Tackle
Among the biggest needs for the Bills heading into the draft with three starters and two reserves set to hit free agency, look for them to address tackle early on in the draft. Needing to sure up their protection of Allen after ranking 21st in pressure rate, the team also needs to run the ball better after finishing 24th in the NFL with just over 104 yards on the ground averaged per game. Setting up as one of the best offensive tackle classes in recent memory, and with Williams set to hit free agency after starting at right tackle in 2020. Potential options at pick number 30 include Michigan’s Jalen Mayfield, Alabama’s Alex Leatherwood, or Texas’ Samuel Cosmi.
Round 2, Pick 61: Tight End
Failing to garner any production from the tight end position again in 2020 after searching for a consistent contributor over the last few seasons, tight end remains a priority for the group to address. Ranked 29th in the NFL in receptions by the position a year ago, the tight ends combined to haul in just 42 receptions for 442 yards. Reaching new heights in their passing attack in 2020, look for Buffalo to be aggressive in adding a dynamic pass-catching option for Daboll and Allen to create more stress on opposing defenses. While they will likely remain in on free agent options like Smith, Hunter Henry, and Gerald Everett, potential options at pick 61 include Penn State’s Pat Freiermuth, Miami’s Brevin Jordan, and Hunter Long of Boston College.
Round 3, Pick 94: Cornerback
Taking a step back in 2020, the Bills ranked 18th in the league in passing yards per game, 22nd in the league in opponent pass completions per game, and 24th in opponent passing attempts per game. Largely due to the revolving door at the second cornerback spot, the team failed to receive consistent play from Wallace or Norman all year long in 2020, with both players missing time at different points. In addition to this, both are on expiring contracts, setting the stage for Buffalo to bolster their secondary. While they could add a veteran on a value contract before the draft in April, finding a young number two corner would allow the team to let White shadow top receivers more, improving their pass defense. With their third-round selection set for pick 94, potential options include Washington’s Elijah Molden and UCF’s Aaron Robinson.
Early 2021 Expectations
Living up to the expectations surrounding them in 2020, the Bills ultimately captured their first AFC East title in over 20 seasons before being knocked off by the then reigning world champion Chiefs. Remaining one of the elite young rosters in the NFL heading into 2021, look for the team to focus on adding pieces to the defensive side of the ball. Along with this, expect Beane and company to keep adding playmakers on the offensive side of the ball to help the continued development of Allen. Focused on capturing a second straight division crown next year at the very minimum, the franchise will have its eyes set on locking up home-field advantage in the loaded AFC playoffs.