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COMMENTARY

What to expect from Bills' decisions on pending free agents

Vic Carucci

The Buffalo Bills have some decisions to make on who to keep and who to let go from a fairly long list of players due to become free agents next month.

Two – defensive tackle Jordan Phillips and defensive end Shaq Lawson – will be far more difficult than the others, because their salary expectations are going to be much greater.

With the NFL free-agency period due to begin March 18, the following is a preliminary look at what the Bills could do:

UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS

Maurice Alexander, linebacker

Reason to keep him: Nothing compelling.

Reason to let him go: He’s a journeyman who makes limited contribution on special teams. He played in only seven games last season. The Bills could easily find a younger guy to do the same thing.

Projecting how it plays out: Alexander is unlikely to return, though he wouldn’t command anything more than minimum salary if the Bills wanted to bring him to camp.

Kurt Coleman, safety

Reason to keep him: Though he only played 13 defensive snaps last season, because the starters stayed remarkably healthy, the Bills place a high value on reliability and players they can trust to correctly handle assignments. Coleman is the epitome of such a player.

Reason to let him go: If the Bills think 2019 draft pick Jaquan Johnson has promise, they might decide it makes more sense to go younger in their reserve safety corps.

Projecting how it plays out: It’s possible the Bills would prefer a youthful alternative to Coleman, who will turn 32 in July. However, if Micah Hyde were to suffer an injury, they could do worse than insert Coleman temporarily. Coleman wouldn’t command much money and should be easy to re-sign.

Frank Gore, running back

Reason to keep him: He was an excellent locker-room presence who provided strong leadership and did plenty to help with the development of rookie Devin Singletary. Gore had a team-high 166 carries, but his 599 yards and his average of 3.6 yards per carry were the lowest of his career.

Reason to let him go: His work as a mentor for Singletary is done. Singletary is more than ready to exclusively assume the No. 1 role he shared with Gore last season. Gore’s production also is easy to replace, and even improve, by T.J. Yeldon or someone else.

Projecting how it plays out: Gore, 36, already was well into the overtime of an outstanding career. It’s time for the Bills to move on from him, which they likely will.

Kevin Johnson, cornerback

Reason to keep him: After signing a one-year deal in the offseason, he did enough to convince the coaches that he merited rotating with Levi Wallace at the cornerback spot opposite Tre’Davious White. Johnson was credited with five passes defensed and 32 tackles.

Reason to let him go: Regardless of what the Bills do with Johnson, cornerback is considered a need they’ll address in the draft or free agency.

Projecting how it plays out: Johnson was far from great, but he did enter the NFL as a first-round draft pick in 2015 with the Houston Texans and did earn increased playing time with the Bills. After injuries had impacted him in previous years, he played 16 games for the first time since he was a rookie. It wouldn’t be a shock if the Bills made an effort to keep him, especially with the possibility of breaking in a rookie at the position.

Shaq Lawson, defensive end

Reason to keep him: Despite filling a reserve role, he made a significant impact on one of the top defenses in the NFL. In 15 games, Lawson had a career-best 6.5 sacks, 18 quarterback hits and 12 tackles for loss. He also played a career-high 483 snaps, 46.6% of the team’s total.

Reason to let him go: Lawson joined the Bills as a first-round draft pick in 2016 and, though the beginning of his career was slowed by shoulder surgery, he was mostly ordinary through 2018. It seemingly took a contract year to bring out his best season as a pro. A speed-rushing defensive end, which Lawson is not, also is widely considered a draft priority.

Projecting how it plays out: Lawson heads into free agency because the Bills didn’t pick up his fifth-year option. But it would make sense for them to make a strong effort to retain a player who, at 25, is in the prime of his career. One of the Bills’ starting defensive ends in 2019, Jerry Hughes, will be 32 before the start of next season, while the other, 29-year-old Trent Murphy, has been inconsistent. Signing Lawson won’t be cheap, but if the bidding gets too high, they might be better off spending that on another free agent.

Corey Liuget, defensive tackle

Reason to keep him: Nothing all that compelling beyond being a fallback option after the first couple of waves of free agency.

Reason to let him go: Liuget, who entered the NFL as a first-round draft pick of the Chargers in 2011, wasn't all that much of a factor after signing with the Bills on Nov. 5. In seven games, during which he played 134 snaps (12.7 percent), he was credited with seven solo tackles and three assists, along with one sack and a quarterback hit.

Projecting how it plays out: The Bills probably could do worse for a No. 4 defensive tackle, but you'd prefer to do better.

Dean Marlowe, safety

Reason to keep him: None, unless the Bills simply want another body for training camp and to go with a player in whom they’ve already invested two years.

Reason to let him go: The Bills have Jaquan Johnson, who is clearly ahead of him on their safety priority list.

Projecting how it plays out: If the Bills want Marlowe back, they could sign him to a minimum salary. There also would be no urgency to do so.

Senorise Perry, running back

Reason to keep him: In the 12 games Perry was active, he ranked seventh on the team in special-teams snaps. The Bills can’t afford to let good special-teams players get away.

Reason to let him go: If the Bills want to upgrade the backup running back situation and found another player at the position who could contribute on special teams, Perry could be expendable.

Projecting how it plays out: The Bills are likely to make an effort to keep him, and it probably won’t cost much.

Jordan Phillips, defensive tackle

Reason to keep him: He greatly improved his value after signing a one-year, $4.5 million deal after the 2018 season, during which the Bills acquired him off waivers from the Miami Dolphins. After spending the first seven games of last season backing up first-round draft pick Ed Oliver, Phillips took over as a starter the rest of the way and finished as the team leader with 9.5 sacks and 13 tackles for loss. His 9.5 sacks were third in the league among defensive tackles.

Defensive tackle also is an under-the-radar need, even with Harrison Phillips’ expected return from a season-ending knee injury. Jordan Phillips played 52 percent of the snaps last season, a clear indication of how much the Bills valued his effectiveness as an inside pass-rusher. Another factor to consider is the retirement of linebacker Lorenzo Alexander, who also saw action as an inside pass-rusher.

Reason to let him go: Phillips’ salary demands could exceed what the Bills are willing to pay. He has tweeted that he considers himself a top-three player at his position. If he’s looking to be paid that way, based on 2019 figures, he’d be seeking more than $17 million per year. Having selected Oliver with the ninth overall choice, the Bills won’t continue to keep him out of the starting lineup.

Projecting how it plays out: General Manager Brandon Beane gave a fairly strong hint when he said, during his season-ending news conference, Phillips “earned the right to see what his value is on the market and we’ll just have to see where that goes.” It will be interesting to see what the market holds for Phillips. It’s hard to imagine any team making him a top-five-paid defensive tackle, let alone top three. Spotrac.com puts his projected market value at $6 million per year, but if he insists on at least doubling that, the Bills could take a pass.

Quinton Spain, guard

Reason to keep him: He made the most of the prove-it opportunity he received with the one-year contract he signed after his deal with the Tennessee Titans expired. Spain started every game and played every snap at left guard. According to Pro Football Focus, he didn't allow a sack and gave up five quarterback hits. The Buffalo News has him giving up one sack. Either way, his pass-protection work was impressive.

Reason to let him go: There’s no overwhelming reason. Maybe the Bills think they could find someone better, but there’s no pressing need to seek a replacement.

Projecting how it plays out: Spain was a good, solid find. Keeping him makes perfect sense and should be affordable.

Julian Stanford, linebacker

Reason to keep him: Stanford had a team-high 273 special-teams snaps. He ranked third on the Bills last season with five special-teams tackles. Stanford, who turns 30 in September, also was the primary backup to middle linebacker Tremaine Edmunds. At the moment, the Bills don’t have anyone to fill that role.

Reason to let him go: A younger, possibly cheaper and potentially more effective replacement could be found in the draft or free agency. But, again, you don’t let good special-teams players get away.

Projecting how it plays out: If the Bills are inclined to keep him, it shouldn’t cost all that much.

LaAdrian Waddle, offensive tackle

Reason to keep him: It’s hard to make too strong of a case, considering he suffered a season-ending torn right quadriceps in August after signing a one-year, $2 million deal.

Reason to let him go: If the Bills have any doubt about how well he’ll recover from a serious injury, that could be enough to cause for them not to retain him.

Projecting how it plays out: The Bills like to give themselves plenty of mix-and-match options on their offensive line, which paid off last season. At the right price, they could bring Waddle back.

• • •

RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS

Isaiah McKenzie, wide receiver

Reason to keep him: In his first full season with the Bills, McKenzie made his presence felt by ranking fourth on the team with 254 receiving yards and fifth with 27 catches. He also rushed for 49 yards on eight carries and chipped in as a returner.

Reason to let him go: None. His considerable speed, especially on jet sweeps, is a plus for an offense that needs all the help it can get.

Projecting how it plays out: McKenzie likely returns.

• • •

EXCLUSIVE-RIGHTS FREE AGENTS

Jason Croom, tight end

Reason to keep him: Beyond wanting an extra tight end for training camp, there’s no strong case to be made for retaining Croom, who missed all of last season with a hamstring injury.

Reason to let him go: The Bills revamped their tight end position by signing free agent Tyler Kroft and using a third-round draft pick on Dawson Knox and a seventh-round choice on Tommy Sweeney.

Projecting how it plays out: Croom probably will be back for training camp, but he seems like a long shot to make the final 53.

Robert Foster, free agent

Reason to keep him: After showing promise as an undrafted rookie in 2018, he was expected to be in the mix with John Brown and Cole Beasley for one of the top three receiver spots. That never happened. In 13 games, Foster finished with a mere three receptions for 64 yards. Still, he has plenty of speed and athleticism that makes him worthy of another chance.

Reason to let him go: His disappointing second season.

Projecting how it plays out: Foster’s promise should discourage the Bills from giving up on him after only two seasons.

Levi Wallace, cornerback

Reason to keep him: He started all 16 regular-season games and did his part to help the Bills have the third-ranked pass defense in the NFL. Wallace had two interceptions and nine passes defensed before suffering an ankle injury in the regular season finale that kept him out of the wild-card playoff loss against Houston.

Reason to let him go: None.

Projecting how it plays out: Even if the Bills add cornerback help, Wallace should be back to compete for his starting job.

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