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Inside the Bills: Prioritizing the team's 18 pending free agents

A year after leading the NFL with 24 unrestricted free agents, the Buffalo Bills are once again a team loaded with expiring contracts.

The Bills have 18 players set to hit the open market in March, meaning General Manager Brandon Beane and coach Sean McDermott will continue their radical reshaping of the roster that started last year. Some of that reshaping will be done by willingly letting players walk, while others might find richer offers elsewhere that the Bills elect not to match or exceed.

Here are all 18 of those players with expiring contracts, and what The Buffalo News would do with each one:

18. WR Jeremy Butler: A concussion suffered in training camp landed Butler on injured reserve, where he spent the entire season. It’s somewhat surprising an injury settlement was never announced, which could be a sign Butler’s concussion is more serious. Even if he’s healthy, there’s no need to bring him back, as there will be no shortage of receivers looking for work.

17. RB Mike Tolbert: The bulky backup running back is a favorite of coach Sean McDermott – and a foe of Bills fans who reached their breaking point with the outside runs and even slant passes former offensive coordinator Rick Dennison called for him. Tolbert finished the year with 66 carries for 247 yards – an average of 3.7 yards per rush – and 14 catches for 78 yards. He fumbled twice, losing one of them, and turned 32 in November. It’s time to get younger at the position, meaning it’s time to move on from Tolbert.

16. WR Brandon Tate: He’s still a capable punt returner, averaging 9.7 yards per return in 2017. That ranked sixth in the NFL. Tate struggled on kick returns, though, averaging just 19.6 yards on 28 returns. Among the 12 players with enough attempts to qualify for the league’s leaders in that category (which was a minimum of 20 attempts), that ranked 12th. Tate also saw spot duty at wide receiver, with six catches for 81 yards and a touchdown. The Bills made him a healthy inactive for three games, and as early as Week 2 attempted to replace him in the lineup with Kaelin Clay. That never materialized, though, and Clay was eventually cut, giving Tate the job for the rest of the season. Tate will turn 31 early in the 2018 season. The Bills should look to get younger while also adding more explosiveness to the return game. Chances are, if they can’t find that player, Tate will still be available to them as a backup plan.

15. DT Cedric Thornton: The analytics weren’t kind to Thornton in his first season with the Bills. Pro Football Focus gave him the lowest grade of any Buffalo defender. Thornton finished with 27 tackles and two sacks, appearing in 15 games with three starts. He played 389 defensive snaps, which was 35 percent of the team’s total. While the blame doesn’t fall squarely on Thornton, there’s no escaping the fact the Bills were abysmal against the rush, ranking 29th in the NFL with 124.6 yards per game allowed. The Bills need an upgrade at defensive tackle, meaning it’s time to move on from Thornton.

Jordan Matthews heads to unrestricted free agency off his worst professional season with significant questions about his health. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

14. WR Jordan Matthews: Acquired to be the Bills’ No. 1 receiver after Sammy Watkins was traded, Matthews never looked anything like that. He suffered a chipped sternum within 15 minutes of his first practice at training camp, robbing him of valuable time to get on the same page with quarterback Tyrod Taylor. Although he made it back in time for the regular season, injuries continued to be an issue. He broke his thumb in the Week 4 win at Atlanta, and although he missed just one game, it’s fair to wonder how long the injury bothered him. Matthews missed the Week 11 game against the Chargers because of a knee injury, but that’s something he was dealing with before the trade was even made. He eventually was placed on injured reserve, missing the final four games, and underwent surgery in December to correct both the knee injury and an unreported ankle injury.

Matthews’ final numbers – 25 catches for 282 yards – were a drastic drop in production from his first three seasons, when he averaged 75 catches and 891 yards per year. There’s never a good time to get hurt, but the timing was particularly awful for Matthews, who heads to unrestricted free agency off his worst professional season with significant questions about his health. His production in Buffalo’s pop-gun offense likely cost him millions of dollars on the open market. It wouldn’t be surprising to see him sign a short-term, prove-it contract.

The Bills should let that happen elsewhere. Perhaps Matthews gets back to the form he showed in his first three seasons, and the Bills get a 2019 conditional draft pick for losing him. Either way, there is no need for the Buffalo to bring him back with Zay Jones, Kelvin Benjamin and Andre Holmes on the roster for 2018. That leaves an opening for another outside receiver – preferably one with speed -- with Jones moving inside to the slot, where Matthews does his best work.

13. S Colt Anderson: In two years with the Bills, Anderson has appeared in just seven games because of injuries. Even in spot duty on defense in the playoff game against Jacksonville, Anderson got hurt. He’s also 32 years old. It’s clear that special teams coordinator Danny Crossman values his play, but the Bills can find a younger backup safety who can do the same thing without getting hurt so much.

12. CB Shareece Wright: The veteran cornerback lost his job midway through the season, being a healthy inactive for three straight games from Weeks 11-13. Wright eventually returned to the lineup, but a concussion kept him out of the Week 17 win over Miami and playoff loss to Jacksonville. In 12 games (five starts), he had 44 tackles, five passes defensed and one interception. While his commitment to the team was impressive (taking an Uber from Chicago to Buffalo for a spring practice), the Bills can find another player to fill their No. 4 or 5 cornerback role.

11. LB Ramon Humber: The veteran was a pleasant surprise early in the season, making 37 tackles in Buffalo’s 3-1 start. Humber broke his thumb in the win against Atlanta, however, and missed the next three games. By the time he returned, it was clear the Bills should have made the move to put rookie Matt Milano in the starting lineup. McDermott delayed on that until Week 14, but eventually did bench Humber for the rookie. Humber then returned to a role he’s familiar with, as primarily a contributor on special teams. Forced back into the starting lineup because of an injury to Milano in the playoffs, Humber gave up the only touchdown of the game. That’s enough of a reason to say see ya.

10. OT Seantrel Henderson: The Bills liked Henderson enough to keep him around through the remaining five games of a suspension handed down in 2016, then got him into the lineup as part of their “heavy” package when six offensive linemen were on the field. It’s been a nice comeback story as he manages living with Crohn’s disease. Henderson’s suspension issues relate to his use of marijuana as a treatment for his disease, which is common. The NFL should really look at changing their rules regarding marijuana use in this case. Until that happens, though, Henderson will be viewed as a risk because another suspension would result in a one-year ban. Because of that, and the ongoing question of whether he’ll be able to maintain a healthy playing weight as he battles Crohn’s, will impact his value on the open market. The Bills have a development tackle in Conor McDermott on their roster, so it’s hard to see where Henderson would fit.

9. RB Taiwan Jones: His only offensive contribution came in the form of a catch, but it was a big one against Tampa Bay in Week 7. Jones gained 11 yards, most of it coming after the catch, to pick up a key first down and wrap up a victory. Other than that, he was a key member of the special teams before getting hurt in Week 9 against the Jets. He can also return kicks, averaging 25 yards on his two attempts in 2017. A one-year contract for the veteran minimum is a fair offer and would give Jones an opportunity to compete for the third running back spot again.

8. S Shamarko Thomas: Signed as a free agent prior to Week 5, Thomas became a key contributor on special teams. He tied with Lorenzo Alexander for the team lead with nine tackles on special teams, appearing in 41 percent of the snaps. A one-year contract for the veteran minimum is reasonable.

The complication for Bills quarterback Joe Webb is if the team adds both a rookie and a veteran at quarterback in the offseason. (James P. McCoy/Buffalo News)

7. QB Joe Webb: The flexibility Webb brings by playing quarterback, receiver and special teams is valuable. Let’s face it: Any team that has to play its third quarterback for an extended period of time isn’t going anywhere, so it’s nice to have a player in that role who can contribute in other ways. Webb did that by playing the most snaps on special teams of any player on the roster. Let’s not forget that Webb also made a huge throw in overtime of the had-to-have-it win against the Colts in a raging snowstorm. There is a reason McDermott wanted to bring him to Buffalo after their time together in Carolina. Webb played on a one-year, veteran-minimum contract in 2017, and is worthy of the same deal next year. The complicating factor for Webb is if the team adds both a rookie and veteran at quarterback in the offseason. Along with second-year veteran Nathan Peterman, that means Webb would have to convince the team to carry four quarterbacks, which is highly unusual, but not out of the question given Webb’s background.

6. RB Travaris Cadet: He flashed some skills after coming to the Bills after Jones got hurt. When LeSean McCoy was out, Cadet did a reasonable job replacing him, finishing with 22 carries for 93 yards (an average of 4.2 yards per rush that was tops among the team’s running backs) and gaining another 93 yards on 13 catches before suffering an ankle injury against the Patriots in Week 16. That landed him on injured reserve. Cadet played himself into at least a shot at earning a reserve job again next season, with a veteran-minimum contract.

5. WR Deonte Thompson: He tied for the team lead with 27 catches in just 11 games and provided the only significant deep threat on the team, averaging 15.9 yards per catch. Thompson made seven starts in his 11 appearances, and as the season wore on got more and more playing time as he earned the trust of the coaching staff. Finding a comparable contract for Thompson will be a bit of a challenge for the Bills and his representatives. He’ll likely want more than the veteran minimum that he made in 2017. An incentive-laden deal with bonuses for playing time and catches would make sense for both sides and is something the Bills should pursue.

4. CB Leonard Johnson: Brought over from Carolina after spending 2016 playing for McDermott, Johnson had a good year as the team’s nickel cornerback, making 51 tackles, seven passes defensed, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery in 15 games (seven starts). To steal a phrase from McDermott, Johnson has the “DNA” the team is looking for. He expressed a strong desire to return to the team following the playoff loss to the Jaguars, and at 27 is in the prime of his career. According to PFF, Johnson played the second-most snaps of any slot cornerback this season, at 423. He allowed 59 catches for 603 yards, both of which were most in the NFL, but the high number of snaps partially explains that. Johnson shouldn’t command a huge salary, and the Bills should put a high priority on bringing him back.

3. LB Preston Brown: The NFL’s leading tackler with 144, Brown has been a rock for the Bills the last four years, playing in all 64 games with 62 starts. In each of those years, he’s made at least 109 tackles. He has not made a lot of big plays, though, with just one career sack, no interceptions over the last two years, and just two career forced fumbles. As previously mentioned, the Bills’ run defense was a big issue, and Brown is in the middle of that. For those reasons, it would not be a surprise to see the Bills try and upgrade at linebacker to a player McDermott deems a better fit for his scheme. If Brown tests the market and doesn’t find a contract to his liking, perhaps the Bills would be open to a return on a deal similar to the one former Buffalo linebacker Zach Brown signed with Washington last offseason. That contract had a value of just over $2.5 million.

2. DT Kyle Williams: Williams has to want to keep playing first. If that happens, Beane said at the season-ending press conference that the team would be open to his return. At this point in his career, Williams would be best utilized as part of a defensive line rotation. That means taking a reduction in salary from the $8.3 million cap hit he had in 2017. If playing a reduced role at a reduced salary is something Williams is up for, the Bills could use him because depth at defensive tackle will be a serious issue if he departs. A one-year deal would be best for both sides.

1. CB E.J. Gaines: Late in the 2017 season, ESPN included Gaines on a list of players who will get a contract bigger than expected in the offseason. Recently, he came in at No. 46 on an ESPN list of the top 50 potential free agents. Cornerbacks do get paid in free agency (looking at you, Stephon Gilmore), but Gaines has dealt with some injury issues that could lower his price tag. He’s missed at least five games the past two years, after missing all of 2017.

How important was he to the defense this year? In the five games Gaines missed, Buffalo went 1-4 and allowed 7.4 yards per attempt. The record with Gaines in the lineup was 8-3, and the yards per attempt was more than a full yard better, at 6.3. The Bills have the cap space to make sure Gaines doesn’t make it to the open market. He proved to be a good fit in McDermott’s scheme, and ranked 24th overall among cornerbacks, according to PFF. Re-signing Gaines before he hits the open market should easily be Buffalo’s top priority because it would prevent the team from having another hole to fill in free agency.

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