General Manager Doug Whaley already offered a word of warning: The Buffalo Bills will not be shopping in free agency.
Their No. 1 goal will be getting out of salary cap hell. Expect the front office to slash multiple salaries off the payroll in an attempt to sign their own free agents. Tackle Cordy Glenn and guard Richie Incognito are likely top priorities, as noted in Sunday’s offseason to-do list in The News.
So with next to no wiggle room, the Bills must leave no stone unturned in searching for reinforcements. That means the 2016 draft carries even more significance, undrafted rookies have a legitimate shot and don’t forget the flurry of moves Buffalo made at the end of the 2015 season.
One, two, even three of those signed through a turbulent December could end up sticking into next season.
As the season started to crumble apart, the Bills’ pro personnel staff went to work in tinkering with the roster as much as possible. From Dec. 1 to Dec. 30, the Bills signed 14 players to the 53-man roster. DT T.J. Barnes, DE Lavar Edwards, ILB Kevin Reddick, RB Mike Gillislee, ILB A.J. Tarpley, TE Nick O’Leary, DE Max Valles, WR Dezmin Lewis, WR Walter Powell, WR Greg Salas, DE Jerel Worthy, WR Leonard Hankerson, CB Bud Noel and CB Sammy Seamster were all either called up from the practice squad or signed off the street.
Chances are, you won’t hear from most of them again. But of the 14 darts thrown at the board, a few should land.
Coaches have already stated that Gillislee deserves a role in the 2016 offense. Surely, running backs coach Anthony Lynn has this name highlighted on his resume through his string of head coach interviews this month, too. Abandoned by the Miami Dolphins and Arizona Cardinals, he was a Day One fit in Greg Roman’s scheme, rushing for 267 yards on 47 attempts (5.7 avg.) with three touchdowns the final five games. Not particularly fast, not particularly strong, the former Florida Gator had a sixth-sense feel for his offensive line on a handful of big plays, knowing precisely when to plant and turn runs upfield.
And, hey, playing as Roman’s former San Francisco 49ers on Madden didn’t hurt, either.
“I pray every day that I’ll be here,” Gillislee said. “I love this offense. I fit well. If it all came down to it, hopefully I’m here. ... Go into the offseason not getting complacent. Being hungry still. Working out and staying in shape.”
LeSean McCoy is the Pro Bowler. Karlos Williams is the punishing, promising complement. But these two also missed a combined nine games with five injuries – the No. 3 RB on the NFL’s No. 1-ranked rushing attack is valuable into next season.
At wide receiver, Salas deserves a fair shot in training camp because of his size/catching radius. The 6-foot-2, 210-pound NFL vagabond is on his sixth team since going in the fourth round of the 2011 draft out of Hawaii. He stood out in the 22-17 win over the New York Jets with three catches for 41 yards, briefly flashing potential as a bigger receiver in this offense.
“I think I made a positive impression and did well, did what I’m supposed to do for the two weeks I was here,” Salas said. “That’s all I could do and that’s all I did.”
Defensively, where the Bills will truly need to get to work this offseason? Tarpley went from released to playing 43 snaps the last two games.
One day after Buffalo’s bitter 30-22 loss at Kansas City, the linebacker was shown the door. No assurances were given, either. The Bills signed Tarpley back to the practice squad one day later, rookie Tony Steward was placed on injured reserve one week later and, voila, Tarpley was on the 53-man roster again. He played 30 snaps in the 16-6 win over Dallas, with a key interception. And he played 13 more snaps in the regular-season finale against New York, with another interception.
He’s not fast, not that big – Rex Ryan said Tarpley will need to bulk up this offseason – but the undrafted rookie out of Stanford brings a high football IQ. On the pick against Dallas, he knew to drop to the post as a de facto safety. Kellen Moore’s slant pass was tipped and he was in the right spot at the right time.
“I pride myself on being versatile,” Tarpley said. “Especially when you’re not a starter in this league, you have to be able to back up multiple spots. So at linebacker, you have to be able to play Sam, on the ball, off the ball, Will off the ball, Mike off the ball, make the calls at Mike. Everything.
“There’s going to be ups and downs in any career path. For me, it was just ‘What’s next? What’s the next opportunity?’”
Buffalo gave Tarpley a second chance, one that’ll likely spill into 2016. Of the 14 signed last month, he’s probably not alone, too.