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Inside the Bills: Reassessing the team's positional needs after the first wave of free agency

The signings have slowed to a trickle around the NFL.

After a frantic first week of free agency, most of the headline-grabbing moves have been made, but as the Buffalo Bills showed Monday, there is always work to be done. General Manager Brandon Beane added depth to the offensive line with the signings of former Bengals center Russell Bodine and former Raiders right tackle Marshall Newhouse.

Beane was right last week when he said that the Bills’ remaining moves in free agency wouldn’t “hit the ticker” – Bodine and Newhouse are far from household names – but they can give the team added flexibility heading into next month’s draft. The more needs Beane can fill in the second wave of free agency, the fewer draft picks he’ll need to use on them.

That list of needs has changed after a week of free agency. Before the new league year, defensive tackle was the biggest hole on the Bills’ roster other than quarterback. By re-signing Kyle Williams and making former Panthers defensive tackle Star Lotulelei the highest-paid player on the team, that need has been filled.

Just about a month ago, one of my Inside the Bills columns focused on ranking the team’s top positional needs from 1 to 10. Given the moves the team has made between then and now, it’s time to update that list. Instead of going 1 through 10, here’s a look at whether each position on the roster still has a need, and if so, the notable names remaining on the open market.

Center

Still a need? No.

Reasoning: The addition of Bodine on Monday gives Ryan Groy some competition to replace Eric Wood. The loser of that battle figures to give the Bills decent depth inside.

Tight end

Still a need? No.

Reasoning: It never was to begin with. Starter Charles Clay has a contract that ties him to the team for at least one more season. He's been somewhere between average and good since signing before the 2015 season. Backups Nick O'Leary and Logan Thomas are back on minimum-salary contracts. The Bills could add a developmental prospect in the later rounds of the draft, but otherwise the position is relatively settled.

Offensive tackle

Still a need? No.

Reasoning: With the trade of Cordy Glenn to Cincinnati, Dion Dawkins in entrenched as the franchise left tackle. The signing of Newhouse adds depth at both tackle positions after Seantrel Henderson departed as a free agent. Last year’s starter on the right side, Jordan Mills, could get a push for his job in training camp from Conor McDermott.

Guard

Still a need? No.

Reasoning: Both starters from last year, Richie Incognito on the left and Vlad Ducasse on the right, are under contract for 2018. Incognito “restructured” the final year of his deal, which in all likelihood means he took a pay cut. Additionally, former third-round draft pick John Miller may have a second life under new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll. With those three coming back, there isn’t a big need immediate need at the position. Groy can also play guard if Bodine wins the center job. Incognito, Groy and Miller are entering the final year of their contract, so a developmental prospect at the position would be a nice addition.

Running back

Still a need? No.

Reasoning: The addition of Chris Ivory before the official start of free agency gave the Bills the north-south runner they desired behind starter LeSean McCoy. The contract Ivory received makes it clear the team thinks he’s still got gas left in the tank even though he’ll be 30 for the 2018 season. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to add a rookie to the mix in the later rounds of the draft. There are currently eight running back in the NFL under contract for 2018 who will be 30 at the start of the season. The Bills employ three of them. --  McCoy, Ivory and the recently re-signed and Taiwan Jones. Travaris Cadet, also re-signed, is 29.

Wide receiver

Still a need: Yes.

Reasoning: Buffalo’s wideouts were a massive disappointment in 2017 – none of them finished in the top 100 in the NFL in either catches or yards. There is no denying the offense missed the explosiveness of Sammy Watkins after trading him to the Rams. A vertical threat to go with Kelvin Benjamin and Zay Jones is still near the top of the list of team needs. A player with the ability to return kicks and punts is also a need, as Brandon Tate remains unsigned from last year’s team.

Notable remaining free agents: Jordan Matthews, Buffalo; Kendall Wright, Chicago; Jeremy Maclin, Baltimore; Ryan Grant, Washington.

Quarterback

Still a need? No.

Reasoning: The signing of AJ McCarron gives the Bills a veteran to join second-year pro Nathan Peterman, even if McCarron has only made three starts in his four-year career. With only two quarterbacks under contract, the Bills clearly have room to add another to the roster, but the expectation remains that will come through a premium draft pick, not in free agency.

Defensive end

Still a need? No.

Reasoning: The Bills added Trent Murphy on a fairly large contract for a player who missed all of last season (three years, $22.5 million). He’ll join Jerry Hughes and Shaq Lawson at the position. It’s probably not worth getting caught up over who will start, since coach Sean McDermott likes to rotate his defensive line so much. Murphy, who had nine sacks for Washington in 2016, will be counted on to provide a boost to the pass rush. The bottom line is all three of them should get plenty of playing time. Owa Odighizuwa was another depth signing, joining holdovers Ryan Davis, Eddie Yarbrough and Cap Capi.

Safety

Still a need? Yes.

Reasoning: With Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde back in 2018, the team has one of the best safety duos in the NFL. The Bills targeted Rafael Bush early in free agency to add depth to the position. The Bills could opt to bring back either one of last year’s reserves at the position, Shamarko Thomas or Colt Anderson, to contribute on special teams. The safety market in free agency has been slow to develop.

Notable remaining free agents: Colt Anderson, Buffalo, Shamarko Thomas, Buffalo, Michael Thomas, Miami; Nate Allen, Miami; Tyvon Branch, Arizona; Tre Boston, L.A. Chargers; Eric Reid, San Francisco; Kenny Vacarro, New Orleans

Cornerback

Still a need? Yes.

Reasoning: Veteran Vontae Davis’ addition gives the Bills a veteran starter opposite Tre’Davious White, but the team’s slot cornerback role remains unfilled. EJ Gaines, last year’s starter on the outside, signed with Cleveland. Buffalo’s slot cornerback in 2017, Leonard Johnson, is also still on the open market. Another signing here before the draft would not be a surprise. The Bills reportedly are hosting Kansas City Chiefs free agent Phillips Gaines next week. Gaines started 14 games in his four seasons in Kansas City.

Notable remaining free agents: Leonard Johnson, Buffalo; Bashaud Breeland, Washington; Ross Cockrell, Giants, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Giants; Delvin Breaux, New Orleans; Jeremy Lane, Seattle.

Linebacker

Still a need: Yes.

Reasoning: Preston Brown, the NFL’s leading tackler, left for Cincinnati, leaving only Matt Milano as a projected returning starter in the team’s base 4-3 defense. McDermott values speed in his linebackers, and that’s something the team lacked in 2017. The Bills did sign former Jets linebacker Julian Stanford, but he looks to be a special teams contributor first and foremost. Ramon Humber also re-signed, but he’s another player whose primary contributions will come on special teams. A rangy middle linebacker is perhaps the biggest need remaining on Buffalo’s roster. It’s possible that position could be filled through the draft, because the free-agent market is thin.

Notable remaining free agents: NaVorro Bowman, Oakland; Jerrell Freeman, Chicago; Derrick Johnson, Kansas City.

Defensive tackle

Still a need: No.

Reasoning: As mentioned above, Lotulelei and Williams form a strong pairing. Adolphus Washington will be a part of the rotation. Cedric Thornton remains unsigned, so there is a spot for a fourth defensive tackle to join the group, but that could come in the draft. With Williams playing on another one-year contract, it would be a good idea to groom a replacement.

Specialists

Still a need? No.

Reasoning: Kicker Stephen Hauschka, punter Colton Schmidt and holder Reid Ferguson all are coming off solid seasons and are under contract for 2018.

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