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GM for a Day: Charting a course for the Bills' offseason

A critical offseason is about to start for the Buffalo Bills.

Year No. 2 of the Brandon Beane-Sean McDermott pairing produced a step back with a 6-10 record. That was not entirely unexpected, though, after the team moved on from starting quarterback Tyrod Taylor, replacing him with rookie Josh Allen. Perhaps more importantly, the front office also made the calculated decision to swallow more than $50 million in dead money on the salary cap.

That came from cleaning up the ugly contracts signed by the previous regime, and meant more than 30 percent of the team’s cap space was used on players no longer on the roster. That total was the second-highest percentage of any NFL team in the past eight years, since the league’s current collective bargaining agreement went into effect in 2011. (The Raiders had 45 percent of their cap space devoted to dead money in 2013.)

“Those are necessary evils, if you will, that you’ve got to go through sometimes,” McDermott said last week at the NFL Scouting Combine. “You’d like to have more flexibility — whether it’s cap, draft capital, so it is nice to be in a position now where we can move forward and continue to climb and get this organization where we’re trying to get it to and give the fans what they so much desire in Western New York.”

The Bills will have that flexibility come Wednesday, when the new league year starts. The dead money will officially be off the books at that time, leaving the Bills with an estimated $77.3 million in cap space, according to contracts website spotrac.com. That’s fourth most in the NFL.

Beane, however, has cautioned all offseason about not expecting a spending spree.

“We don't want to be in a position where every four or five years, we're having to purge the roster and reset the cap and all that stuff,” he said last week. “The goal is to keep the cap in a healthy situation.

"The job of a general manager in my mind, is one eye on today and one eye on tomorrow, which is different from coaching. If I was Sean McDermott and his coaching staff, I'm looking to win this practice, this game, every day. They shouldn't think about and they don't need to worry about beyond 2019. That's my job.”

Except for today. In my third annual “GM for a Day” column, I’ll (hypothetically) take over for Beane, and offer my suggestions on how the team should proceed this offseason. Let’s get started:

Defensive tackle Jordan Phillips re-signed with the Bills this week. (James P. McCoy/Buffalo News)

Dealing with my own

Beane re-signed defensive tackle Jordan Phillips to a one-year contract earlier this week. The 26-year-old Phillips, acquired off waivers from Miami early in the 2018 season, played well in a rotational role.

I still need to find a replacement for Kyle Williams, but having Phillips back gives me options at the position. As of now, he can compete with Harrison Phillips for the starting job opposite Star Lotulelei. That doesn’t mean I won’t add another defensive tackle somewhere along the way, but I’m not desperate to do so.

Unlike last year, when the Bills had 18 pending unrestricted free agents, there are only five such players — none of whom figure to command massive salaries should the team want to bring them back.

It’s time for a change along the offensive line, which means I’m thanking them for their service, but saying goodbye to Jordan Mills, Ryan Groy and John Miller. I’m also looking for a change at wide receiver, meaning Deonte Thompson won’t return.

If running back Taiwan Jones is healthy after ending the 2018 season on injured reserve because of a neck injury, I’d offer him a veteran-minimum contract to possibly beef up the special teams.

Tight end Logan Thomas, a restricted free agent, would cost more than $2 million to offer a contract that would give Buffalo a fourth-round draft pick in return if he signed elsewhere and the Bills didn’t match. That’s out of my price range, so Thomas becomes an unrestricted free agent. If he’s interested in coming back on a veteran-minimum deal, great, but if not, he’s free to go elsewhere.

If Mills, Groy, Miller and Thomas all move on, by the way, the Bills would return just five players in 2019 who predate McDermott and Beane — running back LeSean McCoy, linebacker Lorenzo Alexander, long snapper Reid Ferguson and defensive ends Jerry Hughes and Shaq Lawson.

Just like that, my work is done, for now, with the current roster. Now on to the part you’ve been waiting for …

Matt Paradis could be a highly coveted player when free agency begins (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Shopping season

Beane has tried all offseason to temper expectations about free agency, famously using the words “judicious” to describe his approach. That doesn’t mean sitting on the sideline, though.

Rather, Beane is referring to sticking with an assigned value rather than chasing a particular player or position — no matter the cost. That’s a reckless approach.

Nevertheless, the Bills are coming off a 6-10 season. They have too many holes to rely on the draft to fill them all, particularly if they want to avoid drafting for need by taking the “best player available.” So I’m going to have to spend some of owners Terry and Kim Pegula’s money.

I’m going to start doing that along the offensive line. As mentioned above, three starters from last year are gone in Groy, Miller and Mills. Replacing at least one, and preferably two, in free agency is a must.

The Bills are one of 10 NFL teams to have no offensive linemen making $10 million or more per season. In fact, the Bills have committed just $12.46 million to offensive linemen in 2019, according to spotrac.com, least in the league. The Bills’ highest-paid offensive lineman is their newest, Spencer Long, at slightly less than $4 million in 2019 — and he might not even start.

So the Bills are overdue to pay for a talent upgrade up front. My shopping list starts with Denver center Matt Paradis. It might take making him the highest-paid center in the NFL to get a deal done, but that makes sense for the Bills.

Replacing Eric Wood, both on the field and in the locker room, proved to be a riddle the Bills couldn’t solve. Acquiring a veteran center to lead the line has to be a priority.

Buccaneers center Ryan Jensen’s average annual value of $10 million per year tops the list of highest-paid players at the position. The Bills can top that by offering Paradis a four-year, $45 million deal, with $25 million guaranteed.

I’ll offset the cost of the contract somewhat by releasing center Russell Bodine and guard Vlad Ducasse. Doing so would save me $4.3 million in cap space, leaving less than $600,000 in dead money. I’ll need to add some more interior depth, but that can be done at a cheaper cost.

My next investment is either 1A or 1B on the needs list: Wide receiver.

The market for free-agent wideouts often gets silly, but again, the Bills are wildly less than the spending average at the position. According to spotrac, Buffalo has just $5.95 million spent on receivers heading into 2019, just 3 percent of the cap. Like the offensive line, that’s the least money spent on the position in the NFL.

Adam Humphries of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers tops Jay Skurski's wide receiver wish list. (Will Vragovic/Getty Images)

It’s not a great year to need a wide receiver in free agency — Pro Football Talk’s list of the top 100 free agents does not include a player at the position in the top 30 — but the Bills don’t have much of a choice. The question then becomes, what kind of receiver?

My preference would be a player who excels in the slot. The emergence of Robert Foster last year as a potential deep threat was a nice development, allowing me to focus on an inside receiver. My choice for that job is Tampa Bay’s Adam Humphries.

The comparison to Julian Edelman is easy to make with Humphries, but it’s not far off. They’re about the same size, with Edelman listed at 5-10, 198 and Humphries listed at 5-11, 195. Both bring the added bonus of returning punts — another need for the Bills. Humphries has had at least 55 catches each of the last three seasons, and ended 2018 setting career highs with 76 catches for 816 yards and five touchdowns.

There are 26 receivers in the NFL making an average of at least $8 million per season. Paying Humphries $9 million per year would slot him 21st in the league, a fair deal for a player without a 1,000-yard receiving season. Last season, Humphries was targeted 81 times out of the slot, catching 59 of those passes for 666 yards.

Factoring in my two signings and two releases, I’ve used about $16 million in cap space. That falls in line with being “judicious,” and still leaves room for some more spending.

That’s good, because there are more holes to fill.

Next up is a veteran cornerback to compete with Levi Wallace for the starting job opposite Tre’Davious White. Beane has already been in that market, hosting former Houston Texan Kevin Johnson on a free-agent visit, but injury concerns mean he’s not my top choice.

Instead, my focus is on plucking a cornerback from a division rival. Morris Claiborne has played solid football the last two years for the Jets, starting 30 of 32 games and breaking up 22 passes, including a career-best 14 in 2018. Claiborne turned 29 last month. He would fit well in the locker room, too. He was a mentor for White growing up in Shreveport, La., and would seemingly love the chance to play with him in the NFL.

Claiborne has signed one-year contracts each of the last two years, earning $7 million in 2018. The Bills will have to better that. If Claiborne is agreeable to another one-year deal, I’m comfortable paying him $8 million for 2019.

Taking into account my above moves, here is how the list of needs now reads: Right tackle, tight end, defensive tackle, edge rusher, wide receiver, running back, guard, linebacker.

I’m not interested in getting into any bidding wars, so I have to go bargain hunting.

Now in bargain-hunting mode, GM-for-a-day Jay Skurski goes after Jesse James of the Pittsburgh Steelers at tight end. (Joe Sargent/Getty Images)

Steelers tight end Jesse James fits there. He won’t turn 25 until June, and has caught at least 30 passes in each of the past three seasons. Stuck behind Vance McDonald on the Steelers’ depth chart, James should welcome the opportunity to establish himself as an NFL starter. He’s a capable blocker, too.

Plucking from the Jets again, defensive tackle Henry Anderson quietly had 48 total pressures in 2018, according to analytics website Pro Football Focus. That tied the total of Ndamukong Suh. Anderson would add to the competition to replace Kyle Williams, while not eating up too much more of my cap space.

That’s important, because as Beane said, I need to keep an eye on the future after 2019. White and linebacker Matt Milano will be eligible for contract extensions after this season, while it won’t be long before Allen is there, too. It’s important to keep a healthy amount of cap space to eventually realize Beane’s vision, which he described this way:

“The theme we're trying to build here and we're still in the early phase of it, is drafting, developing and signing our guys,” he said last week. “That's the perfect way to do it in my mind. It doesn't always work out that way and free agency is there for a reason, but we have guys that we know will be coming up in the next few years and I don't want to spend a bunch of money and they walk out the door because I couldn't afford them.”

Offensive lineman Jawaan Taylor of Florida is on Jay Skurski's draft list. (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Draft plans

About $10 million in cap space also will be needed to sign the team’s draft picks. The Bills currently have 10 selections.

I get where Beane is coming from when he says the team doesn’t want to draft for need, but is it any coincidence that the two first-round draft picks a year ago — quarterback Josh Allen and linebacker Tremaine Edmunds — filled the biggest two holes in the starting lineup?

The reality is, every team drafts for need, something McDermott admitted at the combine when he said, “A lot of people say you’re looking for best player, other people say, ‘We’re going to address needs.’ It’s really both. To do your job the right way, you have to cast a wide net.”

So that shapes my thinking heading to the draft. With my first-round pick, ninth overall, the selection is Florida right tackle Jawaan Taylor. A three-year starter for the Gators, Taylor plays with a mean streak. He’s worked to get his weight down from 380 pounds in high school to 312 at the combine. I love the idea of having a starting tackle on a cost-controlled contract for the next four years.

One look at the contract signed by Tampa Bay’s Donovan Smith just a few days ago shows why that’s important. Smith ranked as PFF’s 39th-best tackle in 2018, but signed a three-year contract that could pay him more than $40 million. In other words, the free-agent market for players such as Miami’s Ja’Wuan James and Carolina’s Daryl Williams could get crazy quick.

Ideally, I’d be able to slide down a few spots in the first round and still land Taylor. Memo to other GMs: My phone is working, so give me a ring if you’re interested in moving into the top 10. Ultimately, though, without a firm trading partner, I’m staying put and crossing a big need off my list — with a player who fits as the “best available.”

On Day Two of the draft, my top targets would then be a wide receiver and an edge rusher. It’s important to start preparing for 2020, when both Hughes and Lawson can become unrestricted free agents. The pass rush could use more juice, even with Hughes and Lawson back. Additionally, Trent Murphy’s contract is easy to get out of after 2019 if he fails to stay healthy.

If Arizona State receiver N’Keal Harry is available in the second round, he’s my pick. Harry’s specialty is contested catches, and let’s face it: Allen is never going to be a pinpoint passer. Getting him a receiver who can actually pull in passes that might be slightly off target is a no-brainer.

That leaves edge rusher for the third round. Michigan’s Chase Winovich is a McDermott-type player through and through. He’s my target.

With the remaining seven picks to be made on the third day of the draft, I can try to acquire depth. With two picks in the fourth round, my goal is to use one of them on a tight end. UCLA’s Caleb Wilson had a big junior season, being named to the All-Pac-12 first team after making 60 catches for 965 yards and four touchdowns. He would provide a nice secondary option to James.

After free agency and the draft, here are what the starting lineups look like:

Offense: QB-Allen, RB-McCoy, WR-Jones, WR-Harry, WR-Humphries, TE-James, LT-Dawkins, LG-Teller, C-Paradis, RG-Long, RT-Taylor.

Defense: DE-Hughes, DT-H. Phillips, DT-Lotulelei, DE-Lawson/Murphy, LB-Alexander, LB-Edmunds, LB-Milano, CB-Claiborne, CB-White, S-Poyer, S-Hyde.

Special teams: K-Hauschka, P-Schmidt, LS-Sanborn.

Particularly at wide receiver and offensive line, those are much-improved areas. It’s fair to wonder whether the Bills adequately replaced Williams and did enough to boost the pass rush in this scenario, but I only have one day to be GM.

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