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Dockery, Royal cut loose Bills have openings at four starting spots

The Buffalo Bills entered the free-agency season today with a couple more holes in their starting roster.

The Bills released guard Derrick Dockery and tight end Robert Royal on Thursday.

Buffalo now has vacancies at three starting spots on offense (center, left guard and tight end) and one starting spot on defense (outside linebacker).

Meanwhile, there is a need for backups at quarterback, receiver, running back, guard, defensive end, cornerback and perhaps safety.

Bills Chief Operating Officer Russ Brandon and his football staff figure to be busy the next two months trying to shore up those positions.

The Bills have plenty of money to spend. They entered free agency roughly $25 million under the league-wide salary cap, which is expected to be $127 million. However, most of the rest of the league has plenty of cap room, too. Tampa Bay was leading the pack, with $61 million in cap space. The Bills' AFC East rival, New England, was near the low end of the cap space list, with roughly $4 million in room.

NFL teams were allowed to start contacting free agents as of 12:01 a.m. today.

Cornerback Jabari Greer was the top Bills free agent to hit the market. He and the Bills kept the lines of communication open this week, but the prospect of a big deal at one of the "gold" positions in free agency (cornerback) was too tempting as of late Thursday for Greer to resist seeing what offers he might receive. The Bills have a replacement for Greer waiting to start in Leodis McKelvin, the 11th pick in last year's draft. However, if Greer signs elsewhere, as expected, the Bills will need to find a veteran backup for insurance at cornerback.

With that in mind, Buffalo hosted free-agent cornerback Drayton Florence, formerly of San Diego and Jacksonville. He was cut by the Jaguars. But with six years' experience and 51 starts, he fits the profile of what the Bills could use.

Dockery was the big casualty on the Bills' roster. He lasted just two seasons after signing what at the time was the biggest deal in team history, a seven-year, $49 million contract. He wound up getting $18 million the past two years.

However, Dockery's play did not match his pay. He had a disappointing season in 2008, particularly in pass protection, prompting the Bills' decision. The Bills did not save much cap space by releasing him. He still will count $5.4 million on their cap list this season, thanks to bonus payments he previously received that "roll back" into this year's cap. However, the Bills avoided paying him $5.857 million he would have got in 2009. So it was a net cap savings of $457,000.

"These business decisions are never easy, especially when you are talking about two great individuals in both Derrick and Robert," Brandon said .

It would be a surprise if the Bills spent another $7 million a year on a guard. They have a potentially big offensive line expenditure awaiting them in the form of a contract extension for left tackle Jason Peters. They will try to reach a deal with Peters this spring, if possible.

They also have to find a center, and that could be a big purchase in free agency, since there is one top young center available (Baltimore's Jason Brown) and one veteran out there (Matt Birk). Center also looks like a good position in the draft this year.

The Bills have a desperate need for a tight end who will be a security blanket for quarterback Trent Edwards. Finding one may not be simple. The free-agent crop is thin, with injury-plagued but talented Philadelphia veteran L.J. Smith arguably the top target left. There are some good tight ends in the draft, however.

Meanwhile, the Bills struck contracts with No. 3 tackle Kirk Chambers and fullback Corey McIntyre to keep them from hitting the market. McIntyre, who got a two-year contract, has excelled on special teams. Chambers made four starts in 2008.

Besides Florence, a second free-agent visitor to Buffalo on Thursday was Denver linebacker Jamie Winborn. He has played with four teams over eight seasons and made 32 starts.

Besides Greer, Bills hitting the free-agent market were: Angelo Crowell, Duke Preston, Chambers, Melvin Fowler, J.P. Losman, Teddy Lehman and Jason Whittle.

e-mail: mgaughan@buffnews.com

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