The Buffalo Bills will say all the right things this week about how their sole focus is on the New England Patriots, the one remaining game on the 2014 schedule.
But Sunday’s 26-24 loss to the Oakland Raiders turned attention toward 2015 for everyone outside the locker room at One Bills Drive.
General Manager Doug Whaley will be tasked with putting together a roster that can end a mind-boggling run of 15 straight years without a trip to the postseason. One of his first priorities in that regard will be to make decisions on which of the team’s 10 unrestricted free agents on the current active roster he wants to re-sign.
Here’s a look at each of those players, along with the projected chances of him re-signing.
Jerry Hughes: The fifth-year defensive end has blossomed into a star in two seasons with the Bills. Hughes has 19.5 sacks in 31 games with Buffalo, including 9.5 this year, and has developed into an every-down defensive end this season, playing about 70 percent of the defensive snaps.
He’ll be 27 next season, in the prime of his career at a big-money position.
So the question for the Bills becomes … how much do they invest in the defensive line? Mario Williams, Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus are all signed for 2015 and account for nearly $33 million of the team’s salary cap.
The defensive line is the unquestioned strength of the team, though, so it would make sense if Whaley wanted to keep it together.
Seattle recently signed Cliff Avril to a four-year, $28.5 million contract with $16 million in guarantees. Avril, 28, is a seventh-year veteran with 52 career sacks.
If the Bills could get Hughes signed to a similar type of contract, it would be a huge win for Whaley. The team also has the option of using the franchise tag on Hughes, but it comes at a huge price.
This season, using the franchise tag on a defensive end would cost a team $13.116 million in fully guaranteed money for a one-year contract. That number could rise for 2015.
The Bills are projected to have more than $16 million in 2015 cap space, but that will change once a final cap number is set and the team decides whether to free up more money by either reworking contracts or releasing players.
The bottom line on Hughes is the team will have the money and cap space to pay him, and the ability to make sure he doesn’t leave by using the franchise tag. As we saw last year with Pro Bowl safety Jarius Byrd, however, that doesn’t always guarantee a player will be back.
Chances of re-signing Hughes: 85 percent.
C.J. Spiller: The writing was on the wall for Spiller the moment the Bills traded for running back Bryce Brown in May, and nothing that has happened this season makes it any more likely the team’s 2010 first-round pick would return for a sixth season.
That’s especially true for the running back if the current coaching staff is in place. Spiller has been largely ineffective in two seasons under coach Doug Marrone and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett. Injuries have of course played a part, but even when he’s been on the field, Spiller has struggled to regain the explosiveness he displayed in 2012 under Chan Gailey.
Spiller does have a player option he can exercise that would pay him slightly less than $3 million for 2015, but exercising that is highly unlikely. Even in a depressed market for running backs, he can probably find more guaranteed money elsewhere.
Whaley has said the Bills would like to retain Spiller, but if they do, it will clearly be on their terms.
Chances re-signing: 30 percent.
Erik Pears: Say this for Pears: He’s durable. If he plays the entire game against New England, it will be two straight years of taking every offensive snap.
The problem is, he’s struggled. The Bills shifted Pears from right tackle to right guard before the season, but the results haven’t been pretty. Among guards who have taken at least 50 percent of their team’s snaps, the advanced statistics website Pro Football Focus ranks Pears 59th out of 60. He’s got nearly equal negative grades in both pass- and run-blocking, according to PFF.
Pears counts $3.45 million against the Bills’ 2014 salary cap. That’s starter money the team will likely put to use in finding his replacement.
Chances re-signing: 15 percent.
Brandon Spikes: Signed away from New England on a one-year contract, Spikes has had a productive season for the Bills, with 54 tackles, one sack, one forced fumble and three passes defensed. He’s also been a leader in the locker room.
But it’s clear the Bills view Spikes as a two-down linebacker. He’s been in on about 50 percent of the defensive snaps. With the emergence of rookie Preston Brown and young veteran Nigel Bradham this year – along with the return of Kiko Alonso in 2015 – the Bills would have to figure out how Spikes fits in the defense, if he does at all.
If a backup role is all the team can offer, it wouldn’t be a surprise if he looked elsewhere.
Chances re-signing: 40 percent.
Da’Norris Searcy: When Byrd departed in free agency, it opened a hole in the starting lineup that Searcy has done a nice job filling.
In 14 games, including 12 starts, Searcy has 58 tackles, three interceptions, one forced fumble, five passes defensed and a half sack. That’s back-to-back sneaky-good statistical seasons for a player who’s probably underrated.
Searcy missed one game because of a hamstring injury, and has been limited in a few others because of other minor bumps and bruises, but has done enough to earn a second contract with the team.
Chances re-signing: 80 percent.
Chris Hairston: As the Bills’ “swing” tackle – the backup to both Cordy Glenn and Seantrel Henderson – Hairston has an important job. It’s just that he hasn’t been asked to do it.
Henderson has played every offensive snap, and Glenn sat out the final offensive series in a blowout win. It’s hard to say, then, how satisfied the Bills are with Hairston’s performance, since it’s being entirely graded in the practice setting.
Money won’t be an issue if they want him back.
Chances re-signing: 75 percent.
Jairus Wynn: A knee injury cut into his playing time, but Wynn has proven to be a smart, veteran signing by Whaley. He’s teamed up with Manny Lawson to provide a rotation with starters Hughes and Mario Williams at defensive end.
Wynn has 14 tackles, one sack and two passes defensed.
Provided Jim Schwartz returns to run the defense, Wynn’s re-signing makes sense for both sides.
Chances re-signing: 90 percent.
Marcus Easley: The former UConn wide receiver never fulfilled the promise he held on offense when he was drafted in 2010, but has carved out a nice career for himself on special teams as the team’s top gunner covering kickoffs and punts.
Chances re-signing: 80 percent.
Lee Smith: The Bills’ blocking tight end has played 30 percent of the team’s offensive snaps and 23 percent on special teams.
The Bills have three tight ends under contract for 2015 in Scott Chandler, Chris Gragg and MarQueis Gray, and could look to add to the position through free agency or the draft, so if Smith does re-sign, it might be in competition for a roster spot.
Chances re-signing: 60 percent.
Larry Dean: Signed prior to Week Three, Dean has become a core special teams player. In fact, heading into the game against Oakland, he had taken the most special teams snaps of any player on the roster.
But being a healthy inactive against the Raiders wasn’t a good sign for Dean. If he’s back, it will be a depth/special teams type of signing.
Chances re-signing: 45 percent.
The homecoming is over for Mike Williams. The Buffalo native was released by his hometown Bills on Monday afternoon.
The move isn’t a surprise – Williams was waived/injured by the team two weeks ago, and went on injured reserve because of a calf injury after failing to be claimed by another team. By releasing him now, the team saves $6.8 million against the 2015 salary cap in the form of Williams’ $5.2 million base salary, a $1 million roster bonus and $600,000 workout bonus.
Acquired for a sixth-round draft pick from Tampa Bay in April, Williams’ lone season with the Bills was a bust. He caught just eight passes for 142 yards and a touchdown, and was a healthy inactive three times before injuring his calf. After the quarterback change from EJ Manuel to Kyle Orton in Week Five, Williams was targeted just three times in five games.
The calf injury kept him out of the Week 14 game against Denver, and Williams was waived/injured the next day.
Upon passing a physical Monday, he was released and is now free to sign with any other NFL team.