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Buffalo Bills restricted free agents: The players, the guidelines & what we'd offer

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Restricted free agency is increasingly becoming a smaller part of the NFL offseason.

But for the Buffalo Bills, it’s an important one in 2016.

The Bills have an unusually high number of seven players with exactly three years of NFL experience – the amount of accrued seasons needed to qualify as a restricted free agent.

It’s conceivable the Bills would have an interest in bringing back all seven players, but to do so would come at a cost that may be prohibitive. To understand why that is, a refresher on the rules for restricted free agency is in order.

With contracts for drafted rookies spanning four years, restricted free agents are players who either entered the league as undrafted free agents, or who were released prior to the end of their rookie contracts and signed elsewhere.

A restricted free agent can sign a contract offer from another team, but if their original team – in this case, the Bills – offered a one-year qualifying offer at a price determined by the NFL, that original team would have the right to match whatever contract offer the player receiver, or possibly be entitled to draft-pick compensation, depending on the amount of the qualifying offer they made.

In the 2015 offseason, there were three levels of qualifying offers teams could make. The highest was for $3.354 million and included a first-round draft pick as compensation if a player signed elsewhere and his original team chose not to match the offer. The second level was $2.356 million and included a second-round draft pick as compensation, while the third was for $1.542 million and included original-round draft pick compensation. For players who entered the NFL as undrafted free agents and received the lowest tender, their original team gained only the right to match whatever contract they received as a free agent, and would not be entitled to a draft pick if they chose not to match (since there is no “original round” the player was drafted in).

Those figures represent a 7.7-percent increase from the 2014 tender amounts. While the league has not released the 2016 tender amounts, if the same increase is applied, it would cost teams about $3.612 million for the highest tier, $2.537 million for the middle tier and $1.66 million for the lowest tier.

These numbers are important for the Bills, who have precious little salary-cap space. Extending even the lowest tier offer to all seven of their restricted free agents would cost $11.62 million based on our estimated tender amount. That’s likely too rich for the Bills’ blood.

Qualifying offers must be made to restricted free agents by the start of the new league year at 4 p.m. March 9. From there, restricted free agents have a deadline of April 22 to sign offer sheets from other teams. After that date, their negotiating rights revert exclusively to their original team.

If a team decides not to extend a qualifying offer to one of their restricted free agents, that player would then become an unrestricted free agent at the start of the league year.

The other option, which may end up being the best for the Bills in regards to several of their restricted free agents, is to work out a new contract at a lower cost than any of the tender amounts.

Here are the Bills’ seven restricted free agents, in our priority order, along with what we’d do in each situation.

7. LB Ty Powell

Age at start of 2016 season: 28.

2015 stats: Did not play.

Original draft round: Seventh.

How he fits: Powell was slated to be the Bills’ backup middle linebacker and a key special-teams contributor, but he suffered a torn ACL during training camp and missed the entire season. He should be fully healthy by training camp, and would figure to once again be in the mix for a reserve job if he’s brought back.

Our call: Powell earned $585,000 in 2015. The veteran minimum for players with three years of experience in 2016 is $675,000. We’d make him an offer at that salary, and if he didn’t accept it, allow him to become an unrestricted free agent.

6. TE MarQueis Gray

Age at start of 2016 season: 26.

2015 stats: Four games, one catch, 2 yards.

Original draft round: N/A.

How he fits: Gray played just 26 offensive snaps in the first four games of the season before a broken arm landed him on injured reserve. His primarly role was as on special teams, where he averaged nearly 20 snaps per game before being hurt. Like Powell, he should be fully recovered by the start of next season.

Our call: Depth at tight end is a need for the Bills, so if offensive coordinator Greg Roman likes Gray’s potential, we’d offer him the same, veteran-minimum contract that we would to Powell – one year for $675,000.

5. DT Stefan Charles

Age at start of 2016 season: 28.

2015 stats: 13 games, one start, 13 tackles, one sack, one forced fumble.

Original draft round: N/A.

How he fits: Charles played just 21 percent of the Bills’ defensive snaps under Rex Ryan a season after he appeared in 31 percent under Jim Schwartz. Considering the Bills lost Kyle Williams for the year early in 2015, that decreased usage is a sign Charles did not give the team’s new coaching staff what they were looking for. He’s at best the fourth defensive tackle on the roster.

Our call: In limited work, Charles does have five sacks and two forced fumbles in the past three seasons. There is some ability there, but it’s not worth the lowest tender. We’d offer a one-year deal for $800,000.

4. OT Jordan Mills

Age at start of 2016 season: 25.

2015 stats: 10 games, five starts, 355 offensive snaps (33 percent).

Original draft round: Fifth.

How he fits: Mills didn’t join the Bills until their Week Seven trip to London, but he ended up starting the final five games of the year at right tackle. To do so, Mills passed 2014 second-round draft pick Cyrus Kouandjio on the team’s depth chart. With Seantrel Henderson’s future up in the air because of a medical condition, Mills could find himself in the mix to start again.

Our call: The Bills rightfully should have an interest in bringing Mills back given their need at right tackle, but once again, even the lowest tenure seems like overpaying. A similar offer to the one Charles got – one year, for $800,000 – seems fair.

3. S Bacarri Rambo

Age at start of 2016 season: 26

2015 stats: 15 games, eight starts, 62 tackles, one sack, one interception, six passes defensed, two forced fumbles.

Original draft round: Sixth.

How he fits: Rambo’s role grew when Aaron Williams was lost for the season because of a neck injury. With Williams’ long-term future uncertain, the Bills could have one opening at safety, and possibly two if they decide to move on from Corey Graham. Rambo had a knack for being around the ball and showed his toughness late in the season, gutting it out despite several injuries. If re-signed, he would be in the mix for a starting job.

Our call: We’re getting closer to the lowest tender level, but not there yet. We’d still want Rambo on our team, though, so we’d offer a three-year, $3 million contract, with cap hits of $800,000, $1 million and $1.2 million. That would be a substantial raise from the $585,000 he made in 2015.

2. WR Chris Hogan

Age at start of 2016 season: 27

2015 stats: 16 games, four starts, 36 catches, 450 yards, two touchdowns.

Original draft round: N/A.

How he fits: Hogan’s ceiling seems to be a fourth receiver and key special-teams contributor. Because of injury, the Bills asked him to do more last season as a wideout. The results were ok – drops were a problem at times – but no defensive coordinator is staying up at night because of Chris Hogan.

Our call: With Marcus Easley’s return uncertain because of a devastating knee injury, the Bills could have a wide receiver/special teams job open. Hogan makes sense for that. We’d offer him the same contract Easley got last season – four years for $7 million, with a $1.7 million signing bonus. The first-year cap hit in that deal is $1.35 million – slightly less than the lowest tender amount.

1. DT Corbin Bryant

Age at start of 2016 season: 28.

2015 stats: 16 games, 10 starts, 45 tackles, one pass defensed.

Original draft round: N/A.

How he fits: It was Bryant who took over as a starter after Kyle Williams got hurt. He did a serviceable job for the Bills and is a quality veteran presence in the locker room.

Our call: We’d offer Bryant the lowest tender. At 28, he’s older than most restricted free agents. A one-year contract would mean he’d be an unrestricted free agent after the 2016 season, but the Bills can use the upcoming season to get some more clarity about what they want to do on the defensive line, including how they address it at April’s draft.

Conclusion: Assuming our estimation on the tender amount is close to correct, if the Bills were to take our course of action with these seven players, it would cost $6.785 million in 2016 cap space. For a team in desperate need of cap space, that has to be a primary consideration. It would also give the Bills depth options at several positions of need, including right tackle, linebacker, tight end, defensive line, safety and wide receiver.

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