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Bills could turn to Carolina connection for free-agent help on O-line

This is the third of a series of stories previewing NFL free agency, which starts March 18. Today's installment: offensive line. Part 1 | Part 2

This will no doubt prompt the typical groaning from Buffalo Bills fans.

"Not another Carolina Panthers guy ... "

The fact is, however, that two of the Bills' more logical offensive-line choices in free agency could very well be guards from the Panthers: Daryl Williams and Greg Van Roten.

Only Williams was with the team when Bills General Manager Brandon Beane was in the Panthers' front office and Bills coach Sean McDermott was Carolina's defensive coordinator. Van Roten arrived in Carolina two months before the 2017 season, when Beane and McDermott were about to begin their first season in Buffalo.

Besides having been Panthers guards, the other quality Williams and Van Roten share is they would be far cheaper to sign than higher-end offensive linemen in free agency. That list includes guards Joe Thuney of the New England Patriots, Brandon Scherff of the New York Giants, and tackles Anthony Castonzo of the Indianapolis Colts, Jack Conklin of the Tennessee Titans and Bryan Bulaga of the Green Bay Packers.

The Bills are set with three starters: center Mitch Morse, left tackle Dion Dawkins and right guard Jon Feliciano. Left guard Quinton Spain could leave via free agency, but might return if the Bills think the price is right. Right tackle Cody Ford, a second-round draft pick last year, also is a lock to start, but might move to guard. The Bills also could re-sign LaAdrian Waddle, who after signing a one-year contract last year suffered a season-ending torn quadriceps muscle in training camp.

Still, the potential exists for at least one opening for a starter and the need for backup help.

The Panthers made the 6-foot-6-inch, 330-pound Williams a fourth-round draft pick from Oklahoma in 2015. After missing almost all of the 2018 season with a dislocated kneecap, he played in all 16 regular-season games last year. Given how highly the Bills value versatility among their offensive linemen, Williams would figure to be a good fit. In 12 starts last season, five were at left guard, four at left tackle, and three at right guard.

The 6-foot-3-inch, 308-pound Von Roten entered the NFL in 2012 as an undrafted free agent with the Packers. After two seasons, he spent a training camp with the Seattle Seahawks, then played two years with the CFL's Toronto Argonauts. He spent part of the 2017 offseason with the Jacksonville Jaguars before being released and signed by the Panthers.

For what it's worth, Pro Football Focus called Van Roten the Panthers' most improved player in 2019. In 2018, it gave him an overall grade of 59.4, which ranked 20th among 35 qualifying left guards, largely because he struggled in pass protection. A year later, PFF bumped up the grade to 65.5, which was 15th at his position.

New Washington Redskins coach Ron Rivera, the Panthers' coach for the past nine seasons, would figure to have Williams and Van Roten on his radar.

Assuming the Bills don't want to spend big money on free-agent tackles from other teams, two possibilities are Germain Ifedi of the Seahawks and Halapoulivaati Vaitai of the Philadelphia Eagles.

The Seahawks made the 6-foot-6-inch, 325-pound Ifedi a first-round pick from Texas A&M in 2016, but declined to pick up his fifth-year option rather than sign him for about $10 million. It's easy to see why. Ifedi has struggled to avoid penalties, with 13 called on him last season. After having issues with pass-protection earlier in his career, he made strides by allowing only three sacks through the final 11 games of the 2019 regular season.

Vaitai, who joined the Eagles in 2016 as a fifth-round choice from TCU, has played in 55 games (with 20 starts) in the past four seasons. He has started at left and right tackle. When No. 1 left tackle Jason Peters – a former Bill who also is headed for free agency – was injured, Vaitai replaced him during the Eagles' run to their Super Bowl LII championship. He had a strong showing in the Eagles' NFC championship game victory against Minnesota.

Still, the Eagles kept Vaitai in a reserve role for the next two seasons, and even worked him at guard last summer. Last year, he made three starts, yet played 41% of the offensive snaps. NFL Media's Mike Garafolo has said he has "heard estimates of anywhere from $8 million to $12 million" annually for a new contract for Vaitai, whose average salary was listed at $641,281 by Spotrac.

• • •

Bills' possible O-line free-agent targets

Daryl Williams, G, Carolina Panthers

Greg Van Roten, G, Carolina Panthers

Germain Ifedi, T, Seattle Seahawks

Halapoulivaati Vaitai, T, Philadelphia Eagles

Bills figure to mainly focus on depth in D-line free-agent market

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