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Inside the Bills: Looking ahead to decisions on eight unrestricted free agents

Brandon Beane’s perfect world involves re-signing his own free agents.

We live in an imperfect world, though, so it remains to be seen whether the Buffalo Bills’ third-year general manager stands by that between now and March.

The Bills have eight pending unrestricted free agents, which is a big change from last year, when Beane had 18 pending unrestricted free agents to consider. Of those, only defensive tackle Kyle Williams and running back Taiwan Jones returned for 2018 (receiver Deonte Thompson signed elsewhere, but then returned to Buffalo midway through the season).

Is a similar exodus coming this year? Or will Beane come closer to his stated goal? The Bills certainly have the room to pay as many of their free agents as they want, with more than $90 million in projected salary-cap space. That’s much different from last year at this time, when the team was bracing to eat more than $50 million in dead money on the cap.

“In my perfect world, we draft and we sign our own. We grow them and we sign them,” Beane said at the Bills’ season-ending press conference. “That’s why it’s important to be judicious and not just go spend it. To be selective, be smart, bring in some added competition to both sides of the ball and special teams. I’ve been on many teams where, at this time of the year, the GM and coach are having to answer questions how they’re going to get to free agency without any money because you’re either over the cap or barely have any money to operate. We don’t have to worry about that going forward, which is freeing.”

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Beane got a jump start on free agency by signing quarterbacks Matt Barkley (two years) and Derek Anderson (one year) to contract extensions in the past month. The team still has three starters among the players with expiring contracts and two others who were significant contributors. Here’s a look at each of them:

LB Lorenzo Alexander: Arguably the Bills’ defensive MVP at age 35, Alexander showed he still has plenty left in the tank. He played 62 percent of the defensive snaps, finishing with 69 tackles (11 of which went for losses), 6.5 sacks, 10 quarterback hits, nine passes defensed, two interceptions, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery.

He wants to be back, and the team wants him back.

“I’m invested,” Alexander said on locker clean-out day. “I’ve been here. Invested in the community, invested in this team and organization. I would like to be able to continue to play here and be able to retire here, but we’ll see what happens. Have to go through that process with Brandon and work something out that is obviously fair to the organization as well as fair for me.”

Alexander was already on the short list of team leaders, but that role will take on increased importance if he’s back next year following the retirement of Williams.

“You know, I don’t like to discuss deals, but at the end of the day, we like Lorenzo and appreciate all that he’s done for this organization,” Beane said. “I’m about keeping those types of guys around.”

RT Jordan Mills: He started all 16 games for the third straight season, so Mills has played a lot of football for the Bills since coming over from the Detroit Lions’ practice squad midway through the 2015 season.

“It’s been wonderful. I would love to come back,” Mills said of his four years with the Bills. “That’s on the organization, whether I come back or not. I just try to let my play speak for itself. My future is set every day I come out here for practice and every time I step on the field for game day.”

“It’s special here. Our record might not show it, but it’s going in a different direction. We’re on the climb, and I’d love to be back here next year to continue that climb.”

In what could have been his final game as a member of the Bills, Mills was ejected from the season finale against Miami following a skirmish that started when Dolphins linebacker Kiko Alonso delivered a hit on rookie quarterback Josh Allen.

Mills ranked 51st among offensive tackles who played at least 50 percent of their teams snaps, according to analytics website Pro Football Focus, with an overall grade of 56.1. He was charged with allowing five sacks and 35 overall pressures.

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RG John Miller: Believe it or not, Miller is the fourth-longest tenured member of the Bills, behind defensive end Jerry Hughes, running back LeSean McCoy and tight end Charles Clay. Like Mills, Miller has played a lot of football for the Bills over the past four years, making 47 starts in that time. Among guards who played at least 50 percent of the offensive snaps in 2018, he finished 19th in PFF’s rankings. He was charged with allowing one sack, five quarterback hits and 24 hurries, for a total of 30 pressures.

It’s important to note the Bills could have decided to get younger on the right side of the offensive line, but they largely stuck with Mills and Miller as opposed to giving tackle Conor McDermott and guard Ike Boettger more of a look later in the season.

C Ryan Groy: He began the year as a starter, but lost his job to Russell Bodine after Week 2. After Bodine suffered a broken fibula against Miami in Week 13, Groy started the final four games. He ranked 37th out of 39 qualifying centers, according to PFF, among those who played at least 20 percent of their team’s offensive snaps. Groy allowed three quarterback hits and eight hurries. The Bills kept Groy by matching the two-year contract offer made to him as a restricted free agent by the Los Angeles Rams in 2017.

DT Jordan Phillips: Claimed off waivers from Miami after the first month of the season, the 6-foot-6, 341-pounder averaged 24 snaps per game over the final 11 weeks. He became a reliable backup at both defensive tackle positions. With the retirement of Williams, there’s a hole in the starting lineup.

“The word on the street is the Bills are looking for a new 3-technique, and I think I’m the best candidate, so we’ll see,” he said on locker clean-out day.

Phillips made 19 tackles (two for losses), three passes defensed and one fumble recovery. He also brought an undeniable energy to the field every week. Phillips will turn 27 early in the 2019 season.

RB Taiwan Jones: A key contributor on special teams, Jones played in the first six games of the season, but suffered a neck injury against Houston in Week 6 that eventually landed him on injured reserve. The severity of that injury, and whether it has any impact on Jones being able to resume his playing career, is unknown. He made five special teams tackles, which still tied for third on the team. It’s worth mentioning that the Bills’ special teams went in the tank — so much so that coordinator Danny Crossman was fired — after Jones was injured. A veteran-minimum contract should be enough to get Jones back for another year, and may be a higher priority after seeing what happened to the special teams when he was out.

WR Deonte Thompson: He made minimal contributions after joining the roster after the bye week, making three catches for 37 yards. He played five games, missing the season finale because of a toe injury. Thompson turns 30 in February, and it’s possible the Bills will want to get younger at the position. If they do bring him back, it would be to compete for a depth role as a veteran presence.

OL Jeremiah Sirles: He played 12 games, making five starts, although four of them came as a tight end in a run-heavy package. His one true start along the offensive line came against Miami in Week 13, when he played 66 of his 138 total offensive snaps. Sirles will be 28 next season. Like Thompson, if he’s brought back, it would be to compete for a depth role.

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