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Analysis: What the slow market for Bills free agents means

A week ago, the Buffalo Bills had 18 players set to become unrestricted free agents.

Now, five days after the market opened, just under a dozen of those players still do not have teams for the 2018 season.

The Bills re-signed veteran defensive tackle Kyle Williams to a one-year, $6 million contract, while also re-signing running backs Travaris Cadet and Taiwan Jones and linebacker Ramon Humber to their own one-year deals. Meanwhile, linebacker Preston Brown signed in Cincinnati, offensive tackle Seantrel Henderson went to Houston and cornerback Shareece Wright agreed to terms with the Oakland Raiders. Otherwise, it’s been a slow start to unrestricted free agency for the rest of the former Bills, which means a couple different things.

No. 1, the team’s chances of landing a compensatory draft pick, or picks, in 2019 are just about over. Buffalo has signed seven qualifying free agents from other teams so far this offseason – Carolina defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, Washington defensive end Trent Murphy, Cincinnati quarterback AJ McCarron and center Russell Bodine, New York Jets linebacker Julian Stanford, New Orleans safety Rafael Bush and Oakland offensive tackle Marshall Newhouse.

To review, a team is eligible to earn up to four compensatory draft picks if it loses more or better qualifying free agents than what it gains in an offseason. Although the NFL has never publicly released the formula for determining how compensatory picks are handed out, it’s believed that a player’s average salary, playing time and any postseason awards he wins all factor into the equation. Of those, average salary is believed to carry the most weight.

The website has diligently forecasted compensatory picks for years with a cancellation chart. It shows that Lotulelei’s $10 million average per year is worth a fourth-round compensatory pick and Murphy’s $7.5 million average per year worth a fifth-round pick. That means the Bills would have to lose three more of their 12 remaining unsigned free agents to cancel those additions out.

Among the remaining unsigned Bills, cornerback E.J. Gaines and wide receiver Jordan Matthews stand the best chance at landing decent-sized contracts somewhere else. Both of those players have reportedly visited the Arizona Cardinals in recent days.

Even if Gaines and Matthews sign elsewhere, the Bills would be one down in terms of free agents lost and gained. The only other player among the team’s unrestricted free agents to have gotten interest on the open market is receiver Deonte Thompson, who is reportedly “mulling a few offers,” according to the NFL Network’s Mike Garafolo.

The rest of the Bills’ still-unsigned free agents are: RB Mike Tolbert, CB Leonard Johnson, S Colt Anderson, S Shamarko Thomas, WR Brandon Tate, WR Jeremy Butler, DT Cedric Thornton and QB Joe Webb. None of those players figure to command a contract that would put the Bills in position to land a compensatory pick.

General Manager Brandon Beane has said the compensatory formula is something he pays attention to, but the reality is he can’t – and shouldn’t – let it dictate how he approaches free agency. With 18 players from the 2017 team having finished their contract, the Bills had way too many holes this offseason to worry too much about how signing players from other teams would impact their chances of landing a 2019 draft pick. Sure, getting one would be nice, but rebuilding the defensive front seven – which the team has taken steps toward with the additions of Lotulelei and Murphy – is much more important. Beane had no choice but to be active in free agency.

The second part of the slow market for those former Bills is what it might mean for the likelihood of them returning to Buffalo. It stands to reason that the longer they remain on the open market, the lower their price tag will be.

As of Monday morning, NFLPA records showed the team having $22.219 million in cap space, but the team's roster currently has 65 players, not the 62 shown on the salary cap report. Once all of the team's contracts are processed, that cap space will go down.

"We're very low on money," Beane said Friday. "We can do some lower level things, but nothing that's going to hit the ticker."

Of the team's remaining unsigned players, Gaines is perhaps the most interesting. Beane said at the NFL Scouting Combine that the team's addition of veteran cornerback Vontae Davis did not necessarily close the door on Gaines possibly coming back. With Johnson also a free agent, there is a hole on the defense at nickel cornerback.

"I’m not going to get into too deep of what’s offered and what’s not," Beane said when asked about Gaines and Brown (who has since signed in Cincinnati). "We’re still talking with a lot of guys, including them. We would love to have them back, but other than that, until something's done, that’s really where it’s at."

That would seem to leave open the possibility of the Bills bringing some more of their own back.

"Yeah, you never know. It’s musical chairs for the teams and the free agents, really," Beane said. "Teams are nervous that the holes they've got, that they’re not going to get a guy in those seats. The agents, when you talk to them, they’re trying to see what’s real and what’s not. There’s a lot of chess, so to speak, cat-and-mouse games that go on of people throwing out ranges, but maybe they’re not really the range. That’s why you’ve got to put your value on them.

"I think at the end of the day, the people that are still out there haven’t found the right fit for them, and if it works out for them to come back here, great."

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