CAPACCIO: Ranking the Bills' five biggest needs heading into free agency

March 5, 2018
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Although they can’t officially sign anything until next Thursday, one week from today, NFL teams can begin contacting and even negotiating contracts with pending free agents from other clubs.  Bills head coach Sean McDermott said last week, while speaking at the NFL Combine, that the team isn’t as far along as many believe.  He’s right.  There are plenty of holes to fill on a roster that includes 22 pending free agents of its own, including 18 unrestricted.

The Bills have some of the most draft capital in the league that they can use to help the roster come late April.  But before that even happens, they’ll be identifying and pursuing free agents who can help fill some of those holes and allow them to focus elsewhere in the draft.

The biggest question mark for the team is still under center.  What will they do with Tyrod Taylor?  And if they move on from him, as many expect, will they sign a free agent to be the starter?  Draft a rookie in the first round?  Both?  

Without knowing what the plan is at QB yet, here are the top positional needs other than quarterback for the Bills heading into free agency next week:

1. Defensive Tackle

We still aren’t sure what the future holds for Kyle Williams.  General manager Brandon Beane told WGR last week that the last time he spoke with Williams’ representatives he was given the indication that the veteran wants to play a thirteenth season.  But Williams is also a free agent.  If he does want to return, both sides have to agree upon the right value of a contract, which may get sticky.  With Williams, the Bills still need to find help at defensive tackle, most likely including a starter next to him.  Without him, there’s an even bigger need and probably two starters.  Cedric Thornton started three games last year and played well as a rotational player, but he’s also a free agent.  That leaves Adolphus Washington and Rickey Hatley as the only two defensive tackles currently under contract.  The Bills finished 29th in the league against the run last year.  After Marcell Dareus was traded away, offenses didn’t have to double-team him and could choose which defensive tackle they wanted to focus on each play.  The Bills didn’t have someone who drew that type of attention on a play-to-play basis anymore and it hurt them.  There’s a lot of work to be done to solidify this group both in quantity and quality.

2. Linebacker

Middle linebacker Preston Brown is a free agent.  The Bills have said publicly they want him back, but indications are that they aren’t going to spend too much money to make sure that happens and are willing to let him go if he gets better offers elsewhere, which he most likely will.  If that happens, Tanner Vallejo, who played a total of thirteen snaps last season on defense (all coming in two blowout losses) becomes the defacto starter until someone else is signed or drafted.  Matt Milano will almost certainly be the starting weakside linebacker heading into 2018, and Lorenzo Alexander will be penciled in on the strong side.  But Alexander will be 35 in May, going into the last year of his contract, and also still plays a lot of special teams snaps.  The team needs to find a younger player there who can compete for that job, contribute quality snaps, but also be ready to take it over in 2019.  As stated above, the rushing defense was not good in 2017.  Partly because of the defensive line issues, but also because of run fits and too often not getting off blocks well enough.  This group also struggled in coverage, especially as the year went on and teams noticed what they could do against them on film.  Ramon Humber is also a free agent.  It's looking more and more like they'll need to find a replacement for Brown just to start.  From there, adding depth and getting younger also needs to be a priority.

3. Offensive Line

After leading the league in rushing yards per play for two straight years, the Bills dropped to fourteenth in that department last year, and they had to work extremely hard for everything they got.  Of course much of that may have been due to scheme and the lack of fit for the players up front in what offensive coordinator Rick Dennison wanted to do.  That said, a lot of the success they did have was simply because of LeSean McCoy making people miss or something out of nothing.  Vlad Ducasse ultimately beat out John Miller at right guard, and even though he got better as the season went on, never really instilled a ton of confidence in fans.  Jordan Mills had an average year, having a couple nice games at right tackle but getting beaten too much.  There just wasn’t enough consistency from the right side all season.  Richie Incognito is going into the last year of his deal and set to count over $7.5 million against the team’s salary cap in 2018, but he’s still playing at a high level.  Dion Dawkins has taken over from Cordy Glenn as the franchise left tackle.  Now the question is what happens to Glenn?  Center Eric Wood has retired (I know, not officially…..yet).  Ryan Groy did a terrific job filling in for him two years ago, but means there’s a lot less depth up front.  OT Seantrel Henderson is a free agent.  This is a unit in flux.  They need more talent, especially on the right side.

4. Wide Receiver - speed

Kelvin Benjamin.  Zay Jones.  Andre Holmes.  Those are the team’s top three receivers right now.  While Jones has some speed, none of them are considered threats to get behind the defense on any given play.  The other thing they all have in common?  Each is coming off an injury.  Benjamin (knee) and Jones (labrum) each had offseason surgery already, while Holmes finished the season on IR with a neck injury.  The team signed Rod Streater - who was having a fine training camp before he was hurt and reached an injury settlement with the club - to a reserve contract immediately after the regular season.  He has more of that type of speed they lack.  Jordan Matthews is also coming off surgery, but he’s also a free agent and I don’t expect him back.  He’s also very similar in traits to the other wideouts they already have.  Once again, it’s the need for speed at the position.  The Bills need to find someone to take a little attention away from the running game and have an ability to make plays down the field.

5. Defensive End/Pass Rusher

This is a group that has some quality players, but not enough play-makers.  At least not enough plays made last year.  They desperately need more from the pass rush out of their defensive ends for sure.  Jerry Hughes had a disappointing 2017 as far as sack totals, collecting only four of them, his lowest since coming to the Bills in 2013.  Shaq Lawson had a very nice training camp but never put it together the same way in the regular season, also finishing with four sacks.  He missed the team’s last five games after being placed on Injured Reserve.  There has been speculation since McDermott and Beane took over that they may try to move Lawson if they can.  I wouldn’t count that possibility out.  Eddie Yarbrough filled in as the starter opposite Hughes once Lawson went out and did a nice job.  He’ll be an exclusive rights free agent, which makes him easy to retain, but offers much more as an edge setter than a pass rusher.  He had just one sack last year.  After a slow start as a depth defender Ryan Davis put together a nice finish to last season, collecting a pair of sacks and ten tackles over the final four games.  Cap Capi played the final four games and showed flashes that he might be a viable option as a rotational player, but all of this added up means the Bills only had 13 sacks from a total of five defensive ends last season.  Even if Hughes can get back on track and close to double-digits again, they have to look to get better in that area, and have a higher ceiling overall at the position.

 

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