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Bills ready for opening of free agency

It would make perfect sense if some Buffalo Bills fans were feeling as if they’ve been served the entree before the appetizer.

The NFL’s free-agent signing period begins today, but it would be fair to say that most of the Bills’ biggest moves of the offseason already have been made.

Oh, they’ll continue to be active. A few key positions – such as offensive guard, tight end, and fullback – still need addressing, and the Bills are expected to have at least one of them filled by 4 p.m., when NFL teams can begin signing unrestricted free agents and making trades.

General Manager Doug Whaley offered a tease Monday when, after being asked what’s next for the Bills, he smiled and said, “Wait and see.”

He didn’t elaborate, but this much is known:

• The Bills continue to have strong interest in tight end Charles Clay, on whom the Miami Dolphins have placed a transition tag. That means the Bills, or any other NFL team, can, as of 4 p.m. today, could make him a contract offer that the Dolphins would have seven days to match. If they don’t, Clay would join the new team without the Dolphins receiving compensation.

• Coach Rex Ryan and offensive coordinator Greg Roman want a strong lead-blocker at fullback for their run-based scheme. Among the better ones expected to be available is seven-year veteran Jerome Felton, who spent the last three seasons with the Minnesota Vikings. In 2012, the 6-foot, 248-pound Felton reached the Pro Bowl by helping Adrian Peterson rush for 2,097 yards. Felton’s playing time has decreased significantly since, so he is looking for an offense that will give him a larger role.

• The Bills want to address their crying need at offensive guard beyond the signing of controversial Richie Incognito, who hasn’t played since his 2013 suspension by the Dolphins for a bullying incident. Reports had them interested in two of the top players at the position, Green Bay’s Bryan Bulaga and San Francisco’s Mike Iupati. Bulaga has had a history of knee issues, making him a potential financial risk, and the Bills never had interest in Iupati, who reportedly is planning to join the Arizona Cardinals.

In an offseason that began with the big-splash hiring of Ryan, the Bills made yet another bold move in keeping with a win-with-dominant-defense approach with Monday’s re-signing of defensive end Jerry Hughes to a five-year contract worth a minimum of $45 million, including more than $22 million of guaranteed money to be paid over the next two years. With incentives, the total deal could grow to $50 million.

Hughes was due to hit the open market today, and there were six teams (including the Jacksonville Jaguars) known to be interested in his services. But the aggressiveness of the Bills’ new owners, Terry and Kim Pegula, and Hughes’ desire to remain in Buffalo – even if it probably cost him some money – factored heavily in his return.

The Bills were every bit as aggressive in last week’s trade with the Philadelphia Eagles to acquire running back LeSean McCoy, in exchange for linebacker Kiko Alonzo, and Sunday’s restructuring of his contract to pay McCoy $16 million this year. For now, that makes McCoy the highest-paid player at his position, and assured Ryan of having the key cog for his offensive philosophy.

The Bills also added a veteran quarterback last week by trading with the Minnesota Vikings for Matt Cassel and his $4.75-million contract.

Still, thanks to the Hughes deal, the Bills made it clear, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that they place the highest priority on their defensive front, which already was loaded with the big contracts of end Mario Williams and tackles Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams.

“I have said this before – when you don’t have a large chunk of your cap eaten up by a marquee quarterback, you can spend it other ways,” Whaley said. “We are going to be heavily invested in the defensive line. That is one of the ways that we are going to have to play to win with the makeup of our squad. Play good defense, run the ball and have the quarterback protect the ball. That is how we are building this team.”

Players like what they’re seeing.

“So when you have the front office making moves and putting guys in position to be successful to win more games, that speaks volumes for the team,” Hughes said. “When I saw the acquisitions being made, I was excited about that. I was excited to get back and just ready to get back to work.

“When you’re on a team where everyone kind of feels that way and when you have that camaraderie, everybody just wanting to win, the willingness to win, … you want to be a part of that. Also, with Rex Ryan taking over the team, you know what he is bringing to the organization. You know he knows how to get to the playoffs, so you want to be a part of something special. You can kind of lean on that.”

In a move that received far less attention, the Bills extended the contract of kickoff specialist Jordan Gay. The Bills were one of only two NFL teams to carry such a player under previous coach Doug Marrone, and with Ryan’s emphasis on defense and running the ball, field position is especially critical.

Hughes can sense a dramatic difference in the One Bills Drive he left at the end of last season and the one he sees now.

“A whole new vibe, whole new vibe,” he said. “Everyone is excited in the building.”

e-mail: vcarucci@buffnews.com

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