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Free agent Focus: Bills could use a 'Star' at defensive tackle

If a franchise quarterback magically appeared on the Buffalo Bills’ roster tomorrow – don’t hold your breath – there is little doubt the next-biggest team need is a big man for the middle of the defense.

Or better yet, big men.

The trade that sent Marcell Dareus to the Jacksonville Jaguars midway through the 2017 season opened one hole in the starting lineup, and Kyle Williams’ status as a pending unrestricted free agent means the team could need two new starters in 2018. With only Adolphus Washington and Rickey Hatley under contract, the Bills need both quality and quantity at the position. The former might be tough to find.

According to analytics website Pro Football Focus, there are only six players set to become unrestricted free agents who were starters last season, and only two that were classified as “quality” starters – Seattle’s Sheldon Richardson and Atlanta’s Dontari Poe.

As such, they are expected to sign hefty deals. The contracts website spotrac.com estimates that Richardson has a market value of five years and nearly $60 million, an average annual value of about $12 million per season. The Seahawks are working on trying to re-sign him, and even if he does hit the open market, his expected price tag likely takes him out of the market for Buffalo, which will have little more than $22 million of cap space to use next week.

Poe’s price tag is estimated to be less than that, with Spotrac figuring his market value at three years and $17.2 million, an average of less than $6 million per season.

With a large number of teams scheduled to have a vast amount of space under the salary cap, Poe could land a much bigger deal than that next week. Falcons General Manager Thomas Dimitroff acknowledged as much last week at the NFL Scouting Combine.

“Dontari did a heck of a job for us this year,” Dimitroff told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We really liked his impact for us especially in the run game of course, understanding that it may be a one-year deal. We are in a spot right now there’s a very good chance he’s going to free agency and land a very lucrative deal.”

Poe, who earned $8 million in 2017, played 868 defensive snaps, a huge number for a defensive tackle. He finished 14th in PFF’s “run stop percentage,” a metric that measures tackles that prevent a successful offensive play (defined as gaining 40 percent of the required yardage for a first down on first down, 60 percent on second down and 100 percent on third or fourth down).

Richardson ranks seventh on the NFL.com list of the top 101 impending free agents, while Poe comes in at 15th. The next defensive tackle on the list is a known commodity to Bills General Manager Brandon Beane and coach Sean McDermott. Carolina’s Star Lotulelei is a former first-round pick who has drawn mixed reviews.

“Lotulelei is a dependable starter on the interior, but he doesn’t make enough impact plays to merit a high-dollar contract,” reads his descriptive sentence on the NFL.com list, which has him at No. 27.

For comparison’s sake, ESPN.com’s list of the top 50 available free agents ranks Lotulelei 13th (ahead of Poe), while PFF does not have him among its top 50. He finished with 25 tackles and 1.5 sacks in 2017.

“Someone will give him another shot because of his first-round pedigree, but his play warrants little reason for excitement,” reads Lotulelei’s player overview in PFF’s free agency guide.

Carolina coach Ron Rivera said at the combine that the Panthers have an interest in re-signing Lotulelei.

“You’d love to be able to keep the pieces in place as far as the D-line’s concerned,” Rivera told the Charlotte Observer. “It’s hard to find the right kind of fit and we know that Star does fit us.”

Spotrac estimates that Lotulelei's market value is in the neighborhood of four years and $40 million. That sounds like big money for a player with pedestrian stats (76 games, 141 tackles, 11.5 sacks), but Lotulelei’s value comes in his ability to plug running lanes in the middle of a defense.

That’s something the Bills desperately need to add in 2018. Buffalo gave up 1,944 rushing yards and 22 touchdowns on the ground last year, figures that ranked 29th and 32nd in the NFL.

If the Bills are looking to get younger at the position, Philadelphia’s Beau Allen, 26, could be an option. Allen played 41 percent of the Eagles’ defensive snaps during their championship run, but is stuck at No. 3 on the depth chart behind Fletcher Cox and Tim Jernigan.

“I want to be a starter. I think I’m a starting-quality defensive lineman,” Allen told philly.com last month. “I think I’ve had a good year, to come back early from a (pectoral) injury and playing all these games, playing well after missing time, it was a tough thing. I’m proud of myself for that. I think I played well. I think guys on the defense would agree that I’m a starting-quality defensive lineman. We’ll see how other teams feel about that, I guess.”

Tennessee’s DaQuan Jones suffered a torn biceps in Week 13 last year, cutting short a solid season in which he had 31 tackles and 3.5 sacks before getting hurt. Jones made 17 “stops,” according to PFF, which ranked eighth among interior defensive linemen, and also recorded 17 quarterback pressures. He’s also 26.

Kansas City's Bennie Logan is a little older, at 28. He finished with 25 "stops," 9.8 percent of his 254 run snaps.

In addition to Williams, Cedric Thornton is also scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent. Thornton had 27 tackles and two sacks last season in 15 games, making three starts.

As for Williams, Beane said last week at the combine that the team wants him back, but indicated it has to be a deal both sides are comfortable with. Williams has not said definitively that he wants to play in 2018.

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