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Jay Skurski's Bills Mailbag: Who should be the top target in free agency?

A good sign of just how much Josh Allen has won over Buffalo came at Thursday night’s Sabres game.

When Allen was shown on the Jumbotron – wearing a Tre White Goalie Academy sweatshirt – the crowd inside KeyBank Center cheered as loud as it did all night. Allen took in the applause with a smile and a wave. He could be on a beach somewhere, so it was somewhat surprising to still see him hanging in Buffalo.

“This is my home now,” Allen said Monday. “I’m super excited and grateful to be a part of this community, a part of this franchise, a part of this city. It’s not like many places. … I’m super fortunate to be here.”

Time will tell if Allen is the Bills’ long-term quarterback. In the meantime, he’s saying all the right things – and winning over fans in the process. On to this week’s mailbag:

Beast of the East asks: Who should be the No. 1 free-agent target for the Bills this offseason?

Jay: I’ll go general and say upgrading the offensive line should be the No. 1 priority for General Manager Brandon Beane. To do that, how about poaching from a division rival? Ja’Wuan James is just 26 years old, and finished as the No. 31-ranked tackle, according to analytics website Pro Football Focus’ grading. James did give up seven sacks this year, according to PFF, but his 26 pressures allowed was 19th in the league among those playing at least 600 offensive snaps.

I’d also take a look at Denver center Matt Paradis. He’s a little older than I’d like at 29, but he has allowed only one sack over the past two seasons, according to PFF. Paradis played in just nine games in 2018 before suffering a broken fibula. Before this season, though, he had started all 48 games in his career. His price tag probably won’t come down much because of the injury, but the Bills have plenty of money to spend. Signing Paradis and James would give the Bills two plug-and-play starters on the offensive line.

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TNFP69 asks: Do you think the Bills will go after a young wide receiver in free agency instead of a veteran who might only have a few years left because we have such a young quarterback? They have a need for speed.

Jay: I think it always makes sense to target younger free agents, not just at wide receiver. The Bills aren’t just one veteran player away, so you’re right that it wouldn’t make sense to target a player who may only have a year or two left. Ideally, any free agents signed become part of the team’s core moving forward. For an example, look at safeties Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer. They’ve been everything you could hope for and more as free-agent signings. That’s why it would make more sense for the Bills to go after players such as Tampa Bay’s Adam Humphries or the Chargers’ Tyrell Williams as opposed to an older player such as Philadelphia’s Golden Tate. Humphries, 25, had 76 catches for 816 yards and five touchdowns. He’s finished with no fewer than 55 catches for 622 yards over the last three years. Williams, 26, had 41 catches for 653 yards and five touchdowns in 2018. He has a 1,000-yard season on his resume, which came in 2016. That’s impressive for a former undrafted free agent. Williams, who ran a 4.42-second 40-yard dash in college, has a size and speed advantage over Humphries at 6-foot-4, 205 pounds. Humphries is 5-11, 195 and ran a 4.53 at Clemson’s Pro Day in 2015. Either player would be a welcome addition for Josh Allen.

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Rick McGuire asks: The majority of mock drafts I’ve seen say cornerback is a high priority for the Bills in April. With the better-than-expected play of rookie Levi Wallace and higher priorities needed, do you think Brandon Beane is looking to add a cornerback in the first two or three rounds, or will he wait until rounds four to seven?

Jay: So much of this depends on what happens in free agency. Based on what Wallace was able to do, my plan of action would be to sign a veteran to compete with him for the starting job so that he doesn’t get complacent. Someone like, oh, Vontae Davis last year – just without the whole retiring-at-halftime thing. The tricky part is, it’s not thought of as a great free-agent class of cornerbacks. The top option is probably Philadelphia’s Ronald Darby, and he’s a player the current front office traded out of Buffalo. Wallace’s performance was strong enough to make me comfortable with not needing a cornerback at the top of the draft. Beane has said he doesn’t want to draft for need, but that’s something every GM says. Look at last year: The Bills left the first round with Allen and middle linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, who both just so happened to fill the biggest needs on the roster. Again, free agency can change things, but if I were to use a first-round draft pick on defense, my preference would be on a pass rusher.

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IDon’tTrustTheProcess asks: The very short stays by offensive coordinator Rick Dennison, offensive line coach Juan Castillo and wide receivers coach Terry Robiskie on Sean McDermott’s staff seems to reflect poorly on his hiring judgment, or ability to work with. Also, didn’t Brian Daboll have any say in the offensive hires of Castillo and Robiskie?

Jay: To answer the second part first, Castillo was already on the staff when the offensive coordinator was brought in. Daboll seemingly would have had input on hiring Robiskie, but it’s ultimately McDermott’s decision.

As for the first part of the question, the other side of that is the Bills’ offense wasn’t good under Dennison, and the same thing can be said this past season regarding the offensive line under Castillo and the wide receivers under Robiskie. Both of those coaches would likely say they weren’t given much to work with, and probably have a fair case. The question, then, becomes how much of the blame should be put on them that those players did not show more improvement? Clearly, McDermott thought that way. Castillo took issue with the idea second-year left tackle Dion Dawkins regressed in an interview with The News’ Vic Carucci, but if that was the case, the Bills would have shot down any talk about a possible position switch for their franchise left tackle next year. Beane didn’t do that at his season-ending press conference. I’m guessing on what Robiskie would point to as reasons he should stay since he declined an interview request, but the list would probably start with the progress Robert Foster made in the second half of the season.

Going back to Dennison, it’s important to remember he was never McDermott’s first choice to be coordinator. It was reported after McDermott was hired that he was interested in candidates such as Mike McCoy, Brad Childress and Greg Olson. Only after those options disappeared when Childress retired and McCoy and Olson took other jobs did McDermott turn to Dennison. It’s fair to debate whether any or all of those staff moves were “fair.” I land on the NFL being a performance-based business, and the Bills not getting acceptable performances, which justify the changes.

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Jimmy Zolnowski asks: What are the salary-cap details if Shady McCoy and/or Charles Clay get cut?

Jay: They’re pretty straightforward. Clay is due $9 million next year. The Bills would save half of that, $4.5 million, if he were cut, leaving them with $4.5 million in dead money.

McCoy’s salary-cap hit is slightly higher, at $9.05 million. The savings would be even greater if he were cut -- $6.25 million. That would leave a dead-money hit of $2.625 million, which is manageable.

Beane was asked during the season-ending press conference about the “temptation” to move on from McCoy and Clay given the savings it would provide.

“Well, if we were up against the cap, I’d say maybe you’re more considering that, but I’m not a believer that LeSean is done,” Beane said. “I know you’re talking about the number is around $6 million. If he gets back to the form and we get our offense going, I think he can still be a weapon.”

Left unaddressed in that answer is any mention of Clay. The writing was on the wall for his departure when he was made a healthy inactive in Week 16. As it stands, I’d expect Clay to be released and McCoy to return. Looking ahead to free agency, the top option at tight end is far and away Oakland’s Jared Cook, but he won’t come cheap.

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Louis Stromberg asks: Your podcast partner checking in. Thursday was the anniversary of The Comeback … so let’s talk comebacks. Personally, my favorite is George Costanza’s “the jerk store called, they’re running out of you!” Thoughts on best comeback?

Jay: The first that comes to mind is Jack Nicholson’s “You can’t handle the truth!” in “A Few Good Men.” But my choice is Matt Damon in “Good Will Hunting”: “How do you like them apples?” The most memorable line from one of my favorite movies. Thanks for all the questions this week!

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