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Tight end, guard top list of Bills’ needs

Doug Whaley has lived up to his word.

The Buffalo Bills’ general manager said at the NFL Scouting Combine last month that he wanted to have all of his team’s needs filled before heading into the draft.

Whaley didn’t even wait for the start of free agency to do that, acquiring running back LeSean McCoy and quarterbacks Matt Cassel in trades, giving up linebacker Kiko Alonso (to Philadelphia) and a 2016 seventh-round draft choice (to Minnesota, along with swapping a 2015 fifth-round pick for a 2015 sixth-rounder).

The Bills also re-signed pass rusher Jerry Hughes on the eve of free agency opening, and have since brought back wide receiver/special teams ace Marcus Easley and reserve defensive end Jarius Wynn on modest contracts.

Whaley has looked outside the organization to sign blocking fullback Jerome Felton, who should become McCoy’s new best friend, and reportedly the team has reached an agreement with receiver Percy Harvin on a one-year contract. That hasn’t yet been made official by the team, but when it does, Harvin figures to be the team’s new slot receiver, joining Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods in three-receiver formations.

While that’s a good start to accomplish his goal, there is still work left for Whaley. Here is one take on what remaining needs Whaley and Co. should look to fill:

1. Tight end. The Bills’ prolonged pursuit of Dolphins tight end Charles Clay has developed the Twitter hash tag #Claywatch. After spending three days in Buffalo on a visit, Clay returned to South Florida (on a jet belonging to Bills co-owners Terry and Kim Pegula) without a contract offer. The Dolphins have been reported to be interested in bringing him back, but The Buffalo News’ Tim Graham reported Saturday night that could be changing.

The Dolphins have used the transition tag on Clay. That gives them five days to match any offer made to Clay. Should they choose not to do so, however, they wouldn’t be entitled to any compensation for him leaving.

Clay has gone from a logical target in free agency to a “must-get” for Whaley. The Bills cleared out cap space to do so by releasing last year’s starter at the position, Scott Chandler, and also let blocking tight end Lee Smith leave as an unrestricted free agent. That leaves the Bills with just two players with NFL experience on the roster in Chris Gragg and MarQueis Gray, as well as a project in former Canisius College basketball player Chris Manhertz.

Clay’s agent undoubtedly knows the situation the Bills are in and is using that to his client’s advantage. The Bills need Clay, and as Graham’s report Saturday night indicated, he just might need them, too.

The only other tight end currently on the open market with starring potential is the Bengals’ Jermaine Gresham.

2. Guard. Curiously, the Bills haven’t been very active in the offensive line market. The team wanted to sign Green Bay Packers tackle Bryan Bulaga, but he took less money than what was on the table in Buffalo to stay with Aaron Rodgers and Co.

Erik Pears, who started every game at right guard for the Bills in 2014, signed with San Francisco. As of now, that leaves the Bills with likely four players to be in the mix to start at the two guard spots — Kraig Urbik, Chris Williams, Richie Incognito and Cyril Richardson. Urbik carries a $3.75 million cap hit, making him a prime candidate to be released if the team needs more cap space. If he were released prior to June 1, the move would save $2.35 million against the 2015 cap, or the move could come after June 1, which would save $3.05 million.

Williams, who is coming off back surgery that ended his 2014 season, will count $3.35 million against the cap in 2015. If he were to be released after June 1, it would save $2.475 million.

There are several veteran options still on the market, including Miami’s Darryn Colledge, New England’s Dan Connolly, Minnesota’s Vladimir Ducasse, Atlanta’s Justin Blalock and Detroit’s Rob Sims. Should the Bills be interested in any of them, they should come cheap.

3. Tackle. The Bills elected not to offer a contract to restricted free agent Chris Hairston. That leaves them without a swing tackle heading into 2015. That’s an important position – the primary backup to starting tackles Cordy Glenn (left) and Seantrel Henderson (right).

Cyrus Kouandjio, the team’s 2014 second-round draft pick, could figure into the mix here, but new offensive line coach Aaron Kromer hasn’t spoken publicly yet about whether he sees Kouandjio as a tackle or guard, where the previous coaching staff had him working last season. For what it’s worth, the team lists Kouandjio as a tackle on its website. The Bills need him to take a huge step forward in 2015, no matter where they decide to play him.

If Kouandjio does move to guard, tackles still on the open market who could fit the Bills include Kansas City’s Ryan Harris, St. Louis’ Jake Long and Joe Barksdale, Carolina’s Byron Bell and Chicago’s Eben Britton.

4. Linebacker depth. The trade of Alonso left Nigel Bradham and Preston Brown as every-down players on the roster. Behind them are 2014 seventh-round draft pick Randell Johnson, Ty Powell, primarily a special teams player with the Bills, and Jimmy Gaines, the Buffalo native who spent last season on the practice squad. Brandon Spikes and Larry Dean – another key special teams player – are unrestricted free agents, as is Stevenson Sylvester, who spent last season on injured reserve. Spikes is a two-down player known for stuffing the run. He embraced playing in Buffalo and was a solid presence in the locker room last season. The longer he stays on the open market, the more his price comes down, increasing the chances he could return if he’s open to a reserve role.

5. Veteran secondary depth. There is no such thing as too much of this. Da’Norris Searcy’s departure left a hole at starting safety that should be filled by Duke Williams, but behind him are two young players in Bacarri Rambo and Jonathan Meeks. If coach Rex Ryan wanted to bring over a veteran “coach on the field,” Dawan Landry is still available. Landry started every game for Ryan and the Jets in 2014, making 106 tackles. Landry is 32, so a long-term deal isn’t happening, but he makes perfect sense if Ryan wants to bring in a smart player who can assist in the transition to a new scheme.

email: jskurski@buffnews.com

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