The Buffalo Bills will play hardball. They made that much publicly clear on Monday.
With no substantive progress made toward a new deal with left guard Richie Incognito, the team brought in veteran guard Jahri Evans for a visit and announced the visit itself. Evans was released by the Saints on Feb. 8.
Incognito, meanwhile, will hit unrestricted free agency Wednesday if a deal isn't reached.
By bringing in Evans, the Bills may be looking to gain leverage in talks with Incognito, who has repeated he wants to return. Buffalo did not extend an offer during the season to Incognito and made his reps a low initial offer at the NFL scouting combine.
As he broke down to The News in Phoenix, Incognito wants to continue his football renaissance in Buffalo. He was one driving force behind the NFL's No. 1-ranked rushing attack, playing on a one-year, $1.1 million deal. The Bills averaged 6.58 yards per carry running behind the left guard, the most ESPN Stats & Information has tracked since the stat's inception in 2006. This offense built on the run will now be facing a slew of the league's best run defenses next season – the Seattle Seahawks (No. 1), New York Jets (No. 2), Pittsburgh Steelers (No. 5), Arizona Cardinals (No. 6) and Cincinnati Bengals (No. 7). Beyond this, New England was ninth vs. the run and Baltimore was 12th.
Thus, free agency begins with a crucial decision.
Incognito will be turning 33 years old in July, a number that probably concerns the Bills. One source indicated that the two sides have discussed a three-year deal but were obviously apart on the number. Also, behind the scenes, a source said that offensive coordinator Greg Roman was pushing for Incognito's return. In Roman's complex running schemes, Incognito pulled often.
The guard himself said he "100 percent" wants to be back in Buffalo, and called this a "special place" in listing off players' names, the Pegulas, Rex Ryan, Russ Brandon and Doug Whaley. But he is not interested in a so-called "hometown discount."
Last week, it was leaked to Pro Football Talk that the Bills were frustrated Incognito wouldn't take less money to stay, that the team hoped he'd take a hometown discount.
“This is a high-stakes business,” Incognito said. “There’s no such thing as a hometown discount. There’s fair, there’s market value, there’s team-friendly, there’s player-friendly. … I definitely feel I owe Buffalo a lot. But I owe them on the football field.
“I play my heart out.”
So by bringing in the 6-foot-4, 318-pound Evans for a visit, General Manager Doug Whaley and VP of Football Administration Jim Overdorf may be looking to a.) pressure Incognito into taking less money or b.) be sincerely ready to move on with someone else. The four-time All-Pro Evans is also getting older, only one month younger than Incognito. He'd have a sense of familiarity in that current Bills offensive line coach Aaron Kromer was his position coach for four seasons (2009- '12) with New Orleans. Yet this could still be an adjustment for Evans in that he played on the right side of the line for the Saints and wasn't asked to pull as much as Incognito was last season.
Either way, the Bills will need take action fairly quickly. Multiple teams will likely be interested in Incognito once Baltimore's Kelechi Osemele finds a home when the free agency floodgates open.
What will be Incognito's value? He can realistically make the case that he's a Top 10 guard after last year which would equate to more than $5 million per season. The 10th-highest paid guard according to Spotrac is Green Bay's T.J. Lang at 5.2 million per year.
After last week's restructuring, the Bills are about $10.7 million under the salary cap, though still need to address restricted free agents.
In finding the right number with Incognito, the Bills must figure out how much football he still has to give.
“It’s hard to put a number on it," Incognito said. "I take it day by day. But I have a lot of gas left in the tank. The year off did me really good. It fueled up everything small. I really haven’t had any major injuries. But the year off helped everything heal. The year off, I got to train a lot of imbalances and get stronger in a lot of areas you neglect. My total body strength improved. As long as I’m healthy and as long as I feel good, I’ll play. I love it that much that I could see myself playing another five-seven years.
"Now, will my body hold up that long? I don’t know. But mentally I could play as long as I want.”