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COMMENTARY

Jay Skurski's free agency mailbag: Expect Bills to focus on offense

Jay Skurski

So far, the Buffalo Bills' offseason has been dominated by a move they didn't make.

The team's reported interest in a trade with the Pittsburgh Steelers for star receiver Antonio Brown never came to be, but it was a clear sign that General Manager Brandon Beane will be aggressive in trying to build talent around quarterback Josh Allen.

Beane gets the chance to do that starting today, when teams can start negotiating with the agents of pending unrestricted free agents. While terms can be agreed to, contracts don't become official until 4 p.m. Wednesday, when the new NFL year starts.

This week's mailbag serves as a free-agency preview. Let's get to it ...

Buck Adams asks: How many guys do you think they’ll sign on the first day of free agency, and what side of the ball?

Jay: Last year, the team signed five players at the start of free agency – Star Lotulelei, Rafael Bush, Trent Murphy, AJ McCarron and Julian Stanford. That was in a year that the team didn’t have anywhere close to the cap space it does now. With that in mind, I’d take the over if I was betting.

Last year, the Bills leaned toward defense during the first wave of free agency, but I expect that will shift this year given the needs on the offensive side.

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“The Wolf” asks: Who will be their biggest competition in signing a center?

Jay: Their AFC East rivals – the Jets. New York’s starting center last year was Spencer Long. He was cut after just one year of a four-year contract, and ultimately signed with the Bills. The Jets also have a boatload of cap space, so it would not be a surprise to see them competing with the Bills for free agents.

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Scott Reed asks: Is a center really worth $11 million per year?

Jay: It is when you’re a team like the Bills and need to do everything possible to give your young quarterback a chance to succeed. Admittedly, I didn’t think it would be as difficult to replace Eric Wood last season as it ended up being. A veteran center who can make the protection calls should take some off Allen’s plate.

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Donald Parrish asks: There are a lot of fans and media who make a big deal out of “he’s the highest-paid _____ ever.” How much stock do you place in it? Does it really matter when salaries are constantly rising?

Jay: It matters in the sense that if you’re making a player the highest paid at his position, it’s an obvious huge commitment. The title itself doesn’t really matter, and you’re right that it will probably only last for a year or two, but it’s still a significant investment.

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William Mark asks: What amount of money do you believe the Bills will spend for this upcoming season?

Jay: The team enters free agency with $75.9 million in cap space – fourth most in the NFL. With only 56 players under contract, Brandon Beane is going to have to spend some of that money. The team currently has 10 draft picks, which would bring that number to 66 players. A year ago, Beane signed a dozen undrafted free agents. That would bring the total to 78. If we bump that total up to 14 this year, that’s 80 players – leaving 10 spots for free agents. Of those 10, I’d expect three or four high-profile additions, a couple midlevel signings and the rest veteran-minimum types.

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Joseph Spinelli asks: Is there a chance we sign a defensive player costing $10 million-plus per year?

Jay: There is a chance, but I’d classify it as unlikely. The biggest need on defense is probably a cornerback to compete with Levi Wallace for the starting job opposite Tre’Davious White. There aren’t many cornerbacks who are likely to get eight-figure contracts, and one of them – Ronald Darby – is a player the Bills previously traded.

A linebacker could be in the Bills’ plans, but paying someone at that position $10 million or more would indicate a three-down role, and the Bills already have two players in Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano who do that.

The wild card here is a pass rusher. The Bills could certainly use some more juice in that regard, but with Jerry Hughes, Shaq Lawson and Trent Murphy under contract, it’s hard to see how they fit in a big contract at the position unless they move one of those players out, either by trade or release.

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Anthony Angrisano asks: During free agency there is a tendency when players visit and don’t sign on the dotted line, they usually don’t circle back if they leave. Do you feel it’s a must to sign them while the player is here or, if not, if he leaves is he gone for good?

Jay: It’s not 100 percent a must, but it’s a pretty good indication that if a player does leave without a contract, the team doesn’t view him as someone they can’t live without. So far this offseason, tight end Dwayne Allen and cornerback Kevin Johnson have made visits and left without a deal. Allen went on to sign with the Dolphins, while Johnson remains without a team. Both of those players can be considered middle-tier free agents.

The situation is different for the top free agents available. Think back to the Mario Williams saga. In that scenario, there was a real thought that if he left without a signed contract, he was gone. There isn’t a player like Williams in this year’s class, but if Beane has one or two players targeted – and there’s a good bet that he does – it would make sense to be aggressive in locking them up. With the amount of cap space the team has, they can afford to make sure that happens.

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Daniel Rossi asks: What do you think of Cole Beasley and Adam Humphries to add at wide receiver?

Jay: Humphries, yes. Beasley, meh. In my “GM for a Day” column from Sunday, I identified Humphries as a free agent I’d pursue. He’s young (26) and coming off a career season (76 catches, 816 yards, five touchdowns). Beasley will be 30 by the time the 2019 season starts, and his numbers have gone down in each of the past two seasons after he set career highs with 75 catches for 833 yards and five touchdowns in 2016. When it comes to similar players – Humphries and Beasley do most of their work out of the slot – I’m opting for the younger player. Humphries will cost more money, but the Bills have enough to spend. I agree with the idea that upgrading the slot position should be a priority in free agency.

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Jason Mitchell asks: Who are the big 2020 free agents we can start looking forward to when the “judicious” Bills still have a lot of cap space left over?

Jay: Are Tom Brady and Drew Brees big enough names? Of course, there isn’t much hope either of them actually makes it to free agency. There are other players to consider, though, starting with Bengals receiver A.J. Green. Thinking about only the Bills, the key players heading into the final year of their contract are LeSean McCoy and Jerry Hughes.

Keep in mind that even though the Bills have a lot of cap space, they’ll want to keep a significant chunk of that free given that players like Tre’Davious White and Matt Milano will be up for raises soon. Quarterback Josh Allen can also be extended after the 2020 season, which isn’t too far away.

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Peter Horn asks: Where do you think they’ll get the most bang for their cap bucks on offense: offensive line or wide receiver? I think they gain more by keeping Josh Allen upright than they do chasing guys like Antonio Brown. Stabilize the line now with money and draft skill positions for the future.

Jay: I’m in agreement. If I had to choose between the two, I’d invest heavily in the offensive line. Matt Paradis is my No. 1 target. After that, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Bills go after a right tackle – be it Carolina’s Daryl Williams or Miami’s JaWuan James. Neither of those players will come cheap, but they’ve got plenty of starting experience. If the Bills can add at least two starters to the offensive line, it frees them up to target receivers in the draft.

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IDon’tTrustTheProcess asks: Doesn’t the Bills’ pursuit of Antonio Brown signal not only how weak they feel the free-agent wide receiver group is, but how likely they are to get Josh Allen a weapon at No. 9 in the draft?

Jay: I don’t think the two are related. Instead, I believe the Bills saw an opportunity to get a premier player at a bargain price. There isn’t anyone like Antonio Brown in free agency. A player of his caliber does not become available very often. The Bills know they need receivers, but I don’t believe Beane will abandon his approach to free agency to find one.

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TNFP69 asks: Will we hear Monday that the Bills have an agreement with any players? Or will they let the way-overpaid ones go by and not hear anything until the players can put their signatures on the dotted line?

Jay: I do think with all the money they have to spend that the Bills will be decently aggressive early in free agency, which means we will hear about an agreement early in the week. As far as overpaying, that’s what happens in free agency. There is a good chance the Bills spend more on a player than you might think, which is what happened when the team brought in Star Lotulelei.

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Rick McGuire asks: Do you think it hurts the Bills when reports surface that they are very interested in a free agent before the signing period, like has happened with Jesse James and Matt Paradis? Could it drive up the price?

Jay: I don’t think it matters all that much. No. 1, are we even sure that the reports are accurate? No. 2, the market is set by more than one team. It’s not as if James and Paradis are negotiating with only the Bills. They can take any offer from the Bills and use it as leverage with another team, or vice versa.

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