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10 Bills takeaways from the start of free agency

1. Sean McDermott is calling the shots. The new Bills’ coach has gone out of his way to “give credit to this entire organization,” as he said Thursday. All the talk about how things are a “team effort” is fine, but it’s just that – talk. When it comes down to it, someone has to make a final decision. As it pertains to the 90-man roster, that job was thought to be General Manager Doug Whaley’s – McDermott said as much at his introductory press conference – but evidence would suggest it’s actually the coach wielding the power.

A report during the NFL Scouting Combine from CBS Sports’ Jason La Canfora that said the Bills were split on what to do about quarterback Tyrod Taylor – with the coaching staff wanting to retain him and management wanting to move on – made perfect sense. It was the decision of management, after all, to bench Taylor for Week 17 after Rex Ryan was fired last year. That wouldn’t have happened if they were committed to Taylor long term.

McDermott said at the combine he was a “competitive guy by nature,” an indication rebuilding was not the plan for 2017. That was reinforced by the decision to bring back veteran defensive tackle Kyle Williams. It makes sense, then, that the coach would want Taylor, especially after surveying the available options. Tony Romo was always going to be a long shot, and carries significant injury risk. After that, Taylor would probably be the best available option. If there was a “chasm,” to use La Canfora’s word, McDermott came out on top.

That can also be seen in how the Bills have steadily said goodbye to players Whaley signed or gave extensions to.

2. It doesn’t sound like Taylor and Whaley are BFFs. The quarterback was asked Thursday how his relationship with the team’s general manager has evolved. His answer was short and to the point.

“We were able to come together on terms as far as the contract,” he said. “What happened, happened. We learned from it, put it behind us. If it was a bad relationship, I wouldn’t be standing in front of y’all today. Like I said, we got a deal done, so it’s good.”

Consider me less than convinced of that.

3. Taylor’s contract could become a talking point again next season. The Bills accomplished their goal of significantly lowering Taylor’s cap hit in 2017, from about $16 million to just under $10 million. In 2018, he’s due a base salary of $16 million. The Bills could release him after the upcoming season and be stuck with a manageable “dead money” cap number. That means if he has another season similar to the first two he’s had in Buffalo, there will be another debate about what to do with him. Good times.

4. Micah Hyde is a solid addition at safety, while it’s a sad ending to Aaron Williams’ time in Buffalo. McDermott has made it clear he values versatility, and Hyde brings plenty of that with his ability to play cornerback, both outside and in the slot, as well as safety and returner. Those are all positions of need for the Bills. Hyde’s average annual salary of $6 million isn’t outrageous for a starting safety, and he’s only 26. Hyde figures to step into the starting role that once belonged to Williams, filling one of the biggest holes on the roster.

Versatility is a theme with the Bills’ signings thus far. Hyde and fellow safety Jordan Poyer have played both the strong and free positions, while also returning punts. Mike Tolbert has experience at both running back and fullback.

“You’re looking for that value in guys,” McDermott said. “When you add the component in the locker room with these individuals, that’s big for us.”

The Bills’ decision to release Williams, meanwhile, made sense given his history of neck injuries, but it’s still disappointing. Williams, who seemed to genuinely love playing for the Bills, was refreshingly open and honest in his dealings with the media. His internal struggle over whether to continue his playing career – even as his friends and family have urged him to retire – has led to all sorts of different opinions on what he should do. Ultimately, that decision belongs to Williams. Here’s hoping that he makes the best one for himself, and that he has a healthy future outside of football.

5. There is a ton of roster building left to do. The Bills still have holes at right tackle, No. 2 and No. 3 wide receiver, backup quarterback, weakside linebacker and cornerback. The team doesn’t have much cap space left to fill those holes, either.

According to the NFL Players’ Association, the Bills had $21.975 million in salary cap space as of Friday afternoon, but that included only 46 contracts. The Bills had 53 players on their roster Friday, so it’s likely the new contracts signed by free agents have not been processed.

When those deals are put in, that cap space will decrease rapidly. That means the Bills might still need to do more roster trimming or contract restructuring. Names to watch in that regard are Patrick Lewis (possible cut), Marcell Dareus (possible restructure) and Cordy Glenn (possible restructure).

6. Stephon Gilmore signing with the Patriots makes a great storyline. It was widely expected that Gilmore would leave the Bills for a monster contract somewhere else. It was a surprise, though, to see him stay in the AFC East with New England.

The Patriots haven’t given out a long-term, big-money contract to another team’s free agent since Adalius Thomas in 2007, but deemed Gilmore worthy of a five-year deal worth up to $65 million, with $40 million in guarantees.

That will make for fascinating matchups against the Bills in coming seasons. Gilmore was one of the most scrutinized players in Buffalo in recent years, given his status as a former first-round draft pick and his up-and-down play, particularly in 2016.

According to the website Pro Football Focus, he allowed 25 catches for 444 yards and one touchdown in the first eight games, but just 15 catches for 183 yards in the final seven.

Gilmore’s performance in New England will be closely watched by Bills fans – those who loved him and those who loathed him.

7. Lorenzo Alexander’s return doesn’t make a lot of sense on the surface. He was one of the best stories in the NFL in 2016, and his leadership in the locker room has value, but re-signing Alexander is a bit of a strange move. He’ll be 34 next year, so asking him for another 12.5-sack season is a stretch.

It’s also not exactly clear where Alexander will fit in McDermott’s 4-3 defense. The defensive end jobs figure to go to Shaq Lawson and Jerry Hughes, which would make Alexander an expensive reserve unless the team sees him playing one of the linebacker positions.

Speaking on a conference call Saturday after re-signing, Alexander said he expects to play a role similar to the one Thomas Davis filled for the Carolina Panthers.

8. RIP, fullback jokes. 3/8/17 - 3/10/17. First there was the report the Bills were interested in Baltimore’s Kyle Juszczyk. Then there was the news that the team was instead adding Atlanta’s Patrick DiMarco. When Tolbert came aboard later Wednesday, the “sign all the fullbacks crowd” reached a fever pitch.

Here is McDermott’s explanation for the interest in a position many consider to be nearing extinction in today’s NFL: “Fullback is a big part of this offense, and let’s say this: it’s not limited to playing the fullback position. There’s versatility within that position.

“I had the chance to be around Mike for a number of years in Carolina and I know what he brings to the table in terms of leadership, intangibles again, and what happens in that locker room on Monday through Saturday. So that’s a big part of it, and then Mike’s versatility on the field with the ability to play fullback, line up at fullback and then also transition to the halfback position and carry the football, and he’s done that extremely well. I had a front-row seat to observe what Mike’s skill set is, both on and off the field, and that was key for us. You’re talking about a guy that’s been to a Pro Bowl, and that’s really no different to DiMarco, in this case.”

New offensive coordinator Rick Dennison used fullback Andy Janovich on 22 percent of the offensive snaps last season with the Denver Broncos. That’s less than the 30 percent of offensive snaps Jerome Felton played last year for the Bills. The bottom line is it’s no guarantee both DiMarco and Tolbert even make the 53-man roster, and if they do, they’re not going to be used much differently than the Bills used Felton.

9. It’s disappointment for one Western New Yorker, and elation for another. The Bills’ decision to release Corey Graham on Friday was a reminder of how cold and calculating the NFL can be.

Graham, a Buffalo native and Turner-Carroll graduate, spoke at the end of the 2016 season how getting his hometown team into the playoffs was the biggest goal he had left in his career. He won’t get that chance after the new coaching staff determined he’s not a fit for the defense and/or costs too much money.

Akron’s J.C. Tretter, meanwhile, signed a three-year contract with the Cleveland Browns worth up to $16.75 million, according to Pro Football Talk. It’s a great deal for the 26-year-old who spent the past four seasons with the Green Bay Packers.

10. The Bills upgraded at kicker … but paid too much to do it. Swapping out Dan Carpenter for Stephen Hauschka is a good move. Signing Hauschka for four years and up to $12 million is less so.

Hauschka has been nails on field goals, with a career success rate of 87.2 percent that ranks third all time. He set Seattle records with 175 field goals, scoring in 94 straight games and making at least one field goal in 19 straight. He was 33 of 37 on field goals in 2016 … but just 29 of 35 on extra points.

That was the same problem that led to Carpenter’s demise in Buffalo. If Hauschka continues to struggle with extra points, that contract will come under extreme scrutiny.

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