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Inside the Bills

Bills GM Brandon Beane always looking to get a head start on free agency

INDIANAPOLIS – Brandon Beane is closer to accomplishing one of his goals.

The Buffalo Bills’ general manager wants to build his roster to the point that eventual departures in free agency lead to compensatory draft picks in return.

That’s something that hasn’t happened in Buffalo since 2016. The Bills assuredly will not receive any compensatory picks for a fourth consecutive draft when the 2020 selections are announced later this month, but the 2021 draft is a possibility – depending on what happens this offseason.

To review, a team is eligible to earn compensatory draft picks if it loses more or better qualifying free agents than what it gains in an offseason. Those picks come at the end of a round, starting with the third and continuing through the seventh. Although the NFL has never publicly released the formula for how it determines compensatory picks, it’s believed that a player’s average salary, playing time and any postseason awards he wins factor into the equation, with average salary carrying the most weight.

The last time the Bills were awarded compensatory picks came from what transpired during the 2015 offseason, when the addition of quarterback Tyrod Taylor was offset by the losses of offensive tackle Erik Pears, running back C.J. Spiller, tight end Lee Smith and safety Da’Norris Searcy.

Last offseason, the Bills signed a whopping 10 qualifying unrestricted free agents, while losing just one in guard John Miller. That explains why they won’t receive any 2020 picks. This offseason, those totals project to be closer, which makes receiving a pick (or picks) in 2021 a possibility.

The Bills have 11 pending unrestricted free agents: Running backs Frank Gore and Senorise Perry, offensive linemen LaAdrian Waddle and Quinton Spain, linebackers Maurice Alexander and Julian Stanford, safeties Kurt Coleman and Dean Marlowe, cornerback Kevin Johnson, defensive end Shaq Lawson and defensive tackle Jordan Phillips.

Not all those players will sign elsewhere. Some could re-sign with the Bills. Some could hit the market and find there are no offers for their services. Even those who do switch teams might not count in the compensatory formula, which is believed to be true of players who sign contracts for the veteran minimum. Some of Buffalo’s pending UFAs project as veteran-minimum candidates.

Let’s run through a scenario, though. The four free agents who figure to draw the most interest on the open market should they reach it are Phillips, Lawson, Spain and Johnson. The team could lose all four, but even that wouldn’t guarantee a compensatory pick (or picks) in 2021.

The Bills have more than $82 million in estimated cap space, third most in the NFL heading into free agency. A good chunk of that could go toward re-signing some of their pending UFAs, as well as potential contract extensions for their players with one year remaining on their deals – chief among them linebacker Matt Milano, left tackle Dion Dawkins and cornerback Tre’Davious White.

If the Bills were to lose the four players mentioned above, they would need to replace all those holes, in addition to the others already facing the roster. That’s not going to happen through the draft alone.

That’s why it’s a good bet the Bills will again be active in free agency, to the point where their additions will outweigh their subtractions.

“We’re getting there,” Beane said at his end-of-season news conference of swinging that balance in their favor. “I would love to say we’re at that point where we’re going to get them. I think they do help you.”

The NFL draft contains seven rounds, but with the addition of 32 compensatory picks, it’s really eight. Teams can be awarded up to four compensatory picks per year. Not surprisingly, the team that has done the best job recently at acquiring compensatory picks is the New England Patriots. From 2015 to 2019, the Patriots have received the maximum four picks twice and landed four third-round picks during that time. This year, they are expected to again land the maximum four picks – with two coming at the end of the third round.

New England’s theory as it relates to the draft is to buy in bulk. Over the past six years, the Patriots have drafted 52 players – at least nine in five of the six drafts, with the lone exception being four players chosen in 2017.

“The teams that have taken advantage of it have been the teams with stability and not having a bunch of changes,” Beane said. “We’re still early in this going into year four of a total rebuild, so I think Sean (McDermott) and I will get there with that, but I can’t say this will definitely be a year that’ll happen.”

Short of compensatory picks, the Bills have had to find other ways to increase their draft capital. Beane did that neatly last offseason, trading guard Wyatt Teller to the Cleveland Browns for fifth- and sixth-round selections in April. Then, he flipped center Russell Bodine to the New England Patriots for another sixth-round pick. The Patriots released Bodine just days later.

Those moves gave the Bills nine total draft picks this year – their own picks in rounds one through six, plus the three extra selections from Cleveland and New England.

“The more we can continue to draft and just re-sign our own, and then when you lose a few (free agents) and not have to dig into the free-agent market, it helps,” Beane said.

One way that Beane is working toward that is taking advantage of a head start on free agency. Players who are released before the start of the new league year in March do not count toward the compensatory formula. Last year, the Bills added two players – guard Spencer Long and cornerback Kevin Johnson – who fit that description. Both made the 53-man roster and Johnson became a key contributor by the end of the season.

Beane has again shown an interest this offseason in exploring such additions. He hosted former Carolina tight end Greg Olsen on a free-agent visit before the veteran signed with Seattle. Most recently, veteran cornerback Josh Norman, who was released by Washington, has been in contact with the Bills.

“If it's a guy that fits what you need – whatever the hole is – and he fits our DNA, it's nice to have a box checked off,” Beane said. “OK, this was a need that we needed to address in free agency, and we got it now. I’m definitely monitoring that. If the comp formula works out, it helps you there. I don't know that we would necessarily lose enough this year, but you never know.”

By pursuing players released before the start of the league year, the Bills can also do it more on their own terms.

“It keeps you from having to necessarily chase when the dollars start getting high in free agency,” Beane said. “You're generally going to spend on the edge of where you're comfortable or maybe even slightly above in free agency if you're chasing guys that five, six other teams are after.”

In Olsen’s case, he visited the Bills, Redskins and Seahawks. The Seahawks gave Olsen a one-year deal worth up to $7 million, so it’s possible the Bills were priced out. Even so, competing with a couple of teams is better than potentially 31.

According to contracts website, NFL teams have an average of more than $45 million in cap space, so there will be intense competition for some of the top free agents.

That much cap space would seem to suggest that most teams don’t need to do deep purges to their roster, but it doesn’t take long for that cap space to be gobbled up in free agency. When a team has a high-priced veteran who no longer fits in the plans, it makes sense to free up more cap space.

“After the combine there could be a few more that come up open,” Beane said. “So maybe (the comp formula) does work out where you lose one more than you sign. ... I want to get there. I would love it. We'll just have to see how it unfolds with our guys and what we lose.”

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