Doug Whaley’s work is just getting started.
The Buffalo Bills’ general manager has already led a coaching search this offseason, one that tabbed Sean McDermott to take over after two disappointing seasons under Rex Ryan.
Plenty more will have to be done, though, if the Bills are to finally put an end to an embarrassing 17-year playoff drought – the longest such streak in North American professional sports.
With the start of a new league year coming March 9, the Bills will head into free agency with precious little space under the salary cap. The team also holds just six draft picks, and barring trades isn’t expected to get any more via compensatory selections handed out by the NFL. With a league-leading 22 pending unrestricted free agents, the Bills currently have just 49 players under contract for 2017, meaning nearly half the roster that will report to training camp in late July needs to be filled out.
Oh, and then there’s the issue of what to do with the quarterback. Tyrod Taylor is one of those players under contract for 2017, but that could change if the Bills – led by Whaley – opt not to pick up his contract option. As you know by now, doing so would trigger nearly $31 million in guaranteed money.
Like it or not, Whaley is the one who will be making those decisions – even if his job approval rating among Bills fans is suffering at the moment. His awkward season-ending press conference, in which he said he wasn’t “privy” to the decision to fire Ryan, didn’t inspire much confidence, to say the least.
Owners Terry and Kim Pegula, however, let Whaley lead the coaching search, and are bringing him back for another shot in 2017.
Whaley surely wouldn’t turn to the media for any help, but we’ll offer our suggestions, anyway, by resurrecting The Buffalo News’ “GM for a Day” column, this time with a Bills edition. Originally started in 2007 by columnist Bucky Gleason for the Sabres, the challenge at that time was to keep together a team that had made back-to-back Eastern Conference finals appearances with co-captains Chris Drury and Danny Briere.
Over the years, the challenge changed for Gleason and later, News hockey writer John Vogl, as the Sabres bottomed out. The Bills are somewhere in the middle, which some might call “purgatory.”
Our goal is to lead them out of that. Let’s get started:
Settling the QB debate
The entire offseason will be shaped based on what the Bills decide to do with Taylor. Now that I’m in charge, the decision is simple: I’m moving on.
Just like that, my job approval ratings have likely taken a big hit.
Taylor has a vocal legion of supporters. They see a player who takes good care of the ball and can be a dynamic playmaker on the ground. They see a quarterback who was forced to play in 2016 without his No. 1 receiver, Sammy Watkins, for half the year and compromised by injury in the other half. They also see a quarterback market that offers few options for improvement.
Admittedly, the decision on what to do isn’t an easy one, which is why it’s been so polarizing for fans. The Bills are at a crossroads. Do they part with Taylor, which would signify the beginning of a rebuild? Or do they retain him and try, again, to make things work with a roster that has some talent, but has fallen short of its goals?
I’m going to try and rebuild on the fly. Before I explain how, here is my rationalization for releasing Taylor: I don’t think he’s a franchise quarterback.
It’s that simple. At some point, this team has to get off the treadmill of mediocrity that Taylor represents. Can he possibly get them to 10-6 and into the wild-card round if things break right? Sure, but my goals are bigger than that.
I don’t want to be tied to a quarterback for the next three years – which is what would happen if Taylor’s option is exercised – if I’m not convinced he can win big. The Bills are 3-11 in games Taylor has started over the last two years in which they’ve been tied or within one possession of the lead in the fourth quarter. That’s just not good enough.
In a passing league, the team finished 32nd in attempts and 30th in yards, with Taylor ranking 21st in yards per attempt, 18th in passer rating and second in sack rate.
Yes, a better defense the past two years likely would have swung some of those games, but 29 starts has provided enough evidence to know what Taylor brings to the table.
For that reason, I’m saying so long.
Swing for the fences
Without Taylor, there is a massive hole at starting quarterback. My No. 1 target to fill it is the biggest fish in the pond, Dallas’ Tony Romo.
He’s not a free agent, but his time in Dallas appears over. With a cap hit of $24.7 million next season, there’s no way he’s back with the Cowboys. Whether he moves on via trade or his release is yet to be determined.
Not wanting to take the risk of Romo choosing a different team if he hits the open market, I’d call the Cowboys with the following trade offer: Their original 2017 fifth-round draft pick that the Bills own from the Matt Cassel trade, and a conditional 2018 pick that is tied to Romo’s playing time.
I recognize that selling Romo on Buffalo is going to take work. That’s where I lean on my owners. The Pegulas have treated players right, and they need to roll out the reddest carpet they have to sell Romo on my team.
With Watkins, running back LeSean McCoy and tight end Charles Clay on the roster, as well as four-fifths of a quality offensive line, the pieces are in place for the offense to reach another level with a quarterback like Romo, who, when healthy, is still one of the dozen best in the NFL.
Obviously, that’s a big if given his recent history, but it’s a risk worth taking.
Would Romo be open to playing in Buffalo? Only he can answer that with certainty, but let’s take a look at the other teams who might be in the quarterback market.
Chicago, Cleveland, San Francisco and the New York Jets all could use a new starting quarterback. None of their rosters are clearly more talented than mine.
Kansas City, Houston and Denver are playoff teams who could have appeal, but the Chiefs and Broncos have publicly committed to their current players, while the Texans have no choice but to keep Brock Osweiler on the roster because of his cap number, which makes affording Romo a challenge.
While it's not ideal to give up more draft resources when I don’t have many to begin with, it’s worth it for a player of Romo’s caliber. What happens if Romo isn’t keen to the idea of playing in Buffalo? We’ll get to Plan B later.
Making some room
Assuming Romo is acquired at his current contract, that leaves me without about $20 million in cap space. Clearly, that’s not enough, so it’s time to start handing out pink slips.
Kicker Dan Carpenter, center Patrick Lewis and wide receiver Marcus Easley are the first to go. That saves me about $4.6 million in space.
That’s still not enough room, though, so the next two players on the chopping block are my safeties. Corey Graham and Aaron Williams are respected veterans, but it’s time to move on from each for different reasons.
In Williams’ case, back-to-back season-ending neck injuries have left his playing future uncertain, while Graham will be 32 at the start of next season. Cutting both will save $8.2 million in cap space if Williams is given a June 1 designation. That gets me to about $33 million in space.
Next up is contract restructuring. By taking $8 million of Marcell Dareus’ base salary in 2017 (scheduled to be $9.75 million) and converting it to a signing bonus, I can free up $6.4 million in space. By taking the same $8 million from Cordy Glenn’s base salary of $9 million, I can free up another $6 million in space, which gets me to just over $45 million with which to do business.
Time to go shopping
Heading into free agency, here is my list of team needs, in order: Safety, wide receiver, cornerback, weakside linebacker, right tackle, kicker, quarterback, tight end.
Why is cornerback so high, you ask?
That’s because I’m letting Stephon Gilmore walk. With that, my approval rating will likely take another hit.
Gilmore is a good player who is going to get paid like a great one. I could use the franchise tag on him, but that would eat up a significant portion of my cap space, and it’s time for the Bills to stop paying players like they are among the best at their position (See Dareus and Glenn) when they’re not.
The same reasoning applies for why I’m letting Robert Woods walk. He’s been a nice player, but isn’t worth the $8 million annually he’s likely to command.
I’m also saying goodbye to linebacker Lorenzo Alexander. One of the feel-good stories in the league last year, Alexander came out of nowhere with 12.5 sacks, more than his previous career total, and won Pro Bowl co-MVP for the AFC. But at 34 years old, his best years are behind him, and I have starters at defensive end in McDermott’s 4-4 scheme in Jerry Hughes and Shaq Lawson. Alexander deserves to chase one more big pay day, I just don’t have the space to give it to him.
With Gilmore, Woods and Alexander departing, that still leaves 19 unrestricted free agents. Here is who I would prioritize bringing back: Linebacker Zach Brown, fullback Jerome Felton, wide receiver Marquise Goodwin, tight end Chris Gragg, defensive tackle Corbin Bryant, linebacker Lerentee McCray, safety Jonathan Meeks and receiver/returner Brandon Tate. I’d also extend qualifying offers to two restricted free agents: guard/center Ryan Groy and running back Mike Gillislee.
The good news is, the only player on that list who figures to get even moderate money is Brown, who would fit in nicely at weakside linebacker. Something in the range of $4 million to $5 million per season should get a deal done. My offer is three years for $14 million.
Felton will be back to open holes for McCoy in the running game, while Goodwin’s speed earns him another spot on the roster as a situational playmaker. Gragg can compete for a backup tight end job, while Bryant is a key reserve along the defensive line. McCray, Meeks and Tate, meanwhile, are special-teams contributors. None of those contracts should be for much more than veteran minimum.
Groy and Gillislee, meanwhile, are two of my most important reserves and as such, could get long-term deals.Now it’s time to look outside the organization.
With both safety jobs open, that is the top priority. To that end, my No. 1 target is Arizona’s Tony Jefferson. He had 96 tackles in 2016, and has four sacks and five forced fumbles over the last two years. He’s viewed as an excellent run defender who is also a capable cover man.
The top safeties on the open market in recent years have commanded contracts approaching $7 million per year, and I’m willing to go there for Jefferson. My offer would be five years and $35 million, with $18 million guaranteed.
As for the other safety, I can save the Pegulas some money on jet fuel by staying in the desert for D.J. Swearinger. He had 56 solo tackles, three interceptions and eight passes defensed last year, making $1.6 million. A three-year, $12 million contract would provide a nice raise and give me a new safety duo.
Next up is right tackle. I’m letting Jordan Mills walk. In his place, my top target is Cleveland’s Austin Pasztor. He started all 16 games last season and is experienced, with 43 starts at age 26. He also projects well in the zone-blocking scheme that’s expected to be implemented by new offensive coordinator Rick Dennison.
If Easley is cut, I’ll have just three receivers signed for next year, so I need to add numbers there. Bringing Goodwin back will help, but I’m also going to target Kendall Wright from Tennessee to serve as the slot receiver. Additionally, the Broncos’ Jordan Norwood knows Dennison’s offense well, so he will be brought in to compete for a roster spot.
I’m staying in Denver to sign cornerback Kayvon Webster, as well, adding him to the mix at the position along with Ronald Darby, Kevon Seymour, Nickell Robey-Coleman and White.
I’m a big believer in bringing in at least a couple players with direct ties to my new coach. They can assist the holdovers to learn the new scheme. That means former Carolina Panthers A.J. Klein and Kyle Love will also be targets. They can provide depth at linebacker and defensive line, respectively.
Lastly, I need a new kicker after cutting Carpenter. Former Seattle kicker Steven Hauschka was a surprise cut, so he’s my first call. I didn’t extend a qualifying offer to punter Colton Schmidt, but am hopeful of re-signing him, too.
Attacking the draft
The glaring positional needs mentioned above have largely been addressed in free agency, with the exception of wide receiver.
The good news is that at No. 10 overall in the first round, I should have a chance to get one of the best in the draft. My top target is Western Michigan’s Corey Davis, a smooth route runner who dominated the Mid-American Conference. Davis also gives me some protection if Watkins can’t make a return to full health and/or departs in two years as a free agent.
I need to come out of this draft with another quarterback, and I’m willing to take him in the second round. I’m skeptical about any of the perceived top four cornerbacks – North Carolina’s Mitch Trubisky, Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer and Texas Tech’s Patrick Mahomes – being available there. If one of them is, they’re the pick.
If not, the secondary will still be my focus. If Washington free safety Budda Baker is available, he’d look nice next to Jefferson. If not, there could be several cornerbacks available who could compete to start on opening day, including Florida’s Quincy Wilson, Ohio State’s Gareon Conley and Clemson’s Cordrea Tankersley.
In the third round, ideally Miami quarterback Brad Kaaya is available. He projects best to a West Coast offense similar to the one Dennison is expected to run.
Just like that, I’m down to just two late draft picks, which I’ll use for depth on the best player available.
After free agency and the draft, here is what the starting lineup looks like
Offense: QB-Romo, RB-McCoy, FB-Felton, WR-Watkins, WR-Davis, TE-Clay, LT-Glenn, LG-Incognito, C-Wood, RG-Miller, RT-Pasztor.
Defense: DE-Hughes, DT-Kyle Williams, DT-Dareus, DE-Lawson, MLB-Preston Brown, WLB-Zach Brown, SLB-Ragland, SS-Jefferson, FS-Swearinger (or Baker), CB-Darby, CB-Webster (or a second-round draft pick).
Special teams: K-Hauschka, P-Schmidt, LS-Sanborn, Returner-Tate.
I recognize that Romo is the true wild card in all of this. His health is a concern, but a bigger one is his willingness to come to Buffalo.
If I can’t convince him to do that, I’m still moving on from Taylor, but adjusting my expectations for 2017.
My top priority becomes finding a quarterback of the future, meaning the 10th pick in the draft is definitely in play. Let’s say we flip flop where we take a quarterback and receiver from the scenario above.
I’ll have to sign a holdover veteran starting quarterback like Tampa Bay’s Mike Glennon, and then hope that I’ve finally found my next true franchise quarterback.
If not, someone else will be filling the role of GM.