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Bills Mailbag: How much of a priority should running back be in free agency?

Jay Skurski

As of now, the NFL is planning to go ahead with the start of its new league year next week. With it comes the start of free agency. Of course, as the country grapples with how to handle the spread of the COVID-19 virus, things could change.

Until they do, though, here is this week’s Bills Mailbag …

 John Jarzynski asks: A. Any chance the Bills go for another free agent running back this year? If so, who? B. I am no expert, but Jordan Phillips’ 9.5 sacks seemed mostly due to missed blocks. If somebody offers him $17 million a year, don't let the screen door hit you on the way out. I'll hang up and listen to your opinion ...

 Jay: The Bills don’t seem inclined to bring back Frank Gore, so running back is certainly on the list of needs heading into free agency. The good news is, they should be able to find a solid option at an affordable price. As NFL teams increasingly get production from young players at the position – see Devin Singletary with the Bills – veterans are finding an increasingly depressed market. Even a high-profile, former first-round draft pick such as Melvin Gordon may soon find out teams just don’t pay big money for veteran running backs. That could greatly benefit the Bills. One player I’m intrigued by is Philadelphia’s Jordan Howard. He would provide a nice change of pace from Singletary and help the Bills in short-yardage situations, an area they struggled with last year.

As for the second question, I’m hesitant to offer any guarantees when it comes to free agency, so I’ll just say I would be floored if Jordan Phillips got a contract that averaged $17 million per season. There are only 13 defensive players – and just three defensive tackles – who make at least $17 million a season. Phillips took advantage of his opportunities in 2019 and deserves to cash in with free agency. That will probably happen somewhere else. He’s not getting $17 million per season, though.

Matt Trice asks: I’ve seen both Laviska Shenault and Justin Jefferson mocked to the Bills. Gun to your head, who are you taking between these two and how do you see him fitting into Brian Daboll’s scheme?

 Jay: Jefferson. I’m puzzled why he isn’t getting a little more love in this year’s class. He had massive production for the national champions at LSU, catching 111 passes for 1,540 yards and 18 touchdowns. He ran a 4.43-second 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine and had a 37.5-inch vertical jump. At 6-foot-1, he’s got good size. Shenault is an excellent prospect in his own right, but his injury history is a bit of a red flag.

Cody Phinney asks: Can you see Brandon Beane and Co. making a headline signing and/or trade this year? Could they shock everyone?

 Jay: I’d lean toward no, since Beane said at his end-of-season press conference he didn’t feel like the team was “one player away.” Given the cap space the team has, nothing should be ruled out. The smart money, however, would be on a somewhat conservative approach to free agency.

TNFP69 asks: Do you think the Bills will be active on day one of free agency, or stay balanced with their choices and spending for the future (older, over 30 years of age, one-year deals that are prove-it ones)?

 Jay: Barring a last-minute flurry of deals with their own impending free agents – something that looks highly unlikely – the Bills will have to be active right away with the amount of money they have to spend. Let’s say Shaq Lawson, Jordan Phillips and Quinton Spain leave. That’s three huge holes that will have to be filled. I wouldn’t expect the number of deals to reach last year’s total, but Beane isn’t going to sit on the sidelines while players he likes fly off the board. The Bills are in position to make competitive offers for just about any player they like. I tend to agree that they will take a conservative approach to doing so, targeting players who fall outside the upper echelon of free agents expected to be available. The recent contract agreement with veteran cornerback Josh Norman is a perfect example.

BigD asks: I know we need an edge rusher, but don’t you think it’s time the Bills went for the difference maker at wide receiver? The last time there was such a great wide receiver class, they gave away the farm for Sammy Watkins. Could have had Odell Beckham Jr. or Mike Evans had they stayed where they were.

 Jay: Evans was off the board before the Bills would have picked at No. 9 in that draft, but I get the point. I also feel like it’s contradictory. The last time they made a big move for a wide receiver, it failed … so you want them to do it again? If your point is they should stay put at No. 22 and take a receiver if one falls to them, fine. That’s totally justifiable. It wouldn’t be my ideal position in the first round, but I would understand it. Making a move up for a receiver would be harder to justify with all the talent at the position.

Sam Ruggiero asks: Edge rusher, it appears, is becoming the Bills’ biggest need. With the Jaguars’ Yannick Ngakoue asking for loads of cash, wouldn’t it be better to navigate through the draft and pick up an edge rusher like AJ Epenesa? Cheaper, better, and we can build through the draft.

 Jay: Yes, that would be my ideal scenario. The only issue is, what happens if there is a run on pass rushers before the Bills pick? That’s a distinct possibility, because there looks to be a significant dip in talent at edge rusher after the first three or four come off the board. Keep in mind that need can change between now and the draft, depending on what happens in free agency. I agree that the cost to acquire Ngakoue might exceed what the Bills are comfortable with, but they could target an edge rusher with a lower price tag, as well as possibly re-sign one of their own in Shaq Lawson. That would give them the flexibility to take another position if edge rusher does not line up in the first round.

x-Ryan Smart asks: Would it be worth it to trade up for a top three wide receiver or take the best defensive end/offensive lineman and take a wide receiver in the second round?

 x-Westchester County (NY) Buffalo Bills Backers: Which wide receiver would make the most sense in Round 2?

 Jay: What would be the cost to move up? Let’s just say, in general, I wouldn’t be in favor of moving my second-round draft pick. I’d also prefer not to part with my third-round selection, either. My thinking with the draft is I want as many top-100 picks as possible. It’s doubtful the Bills could move up very far without including at least one of those picks, so that’s why my preference would be to stay put, address another position and then find a wide receiver on the second day of the draft. We’ve seen in the last two drafts, however, that Beane isn’t afraid of moving up for his guy. That’s why if one of the perceived top three wide receivers (I’m assuming Ryan is referring to Jerry Jeudy, CeeDee Lamb and Henry Ruggs III here) does begin to fall, nothing should be ruled out.

As for the wide receiver who fits best in the second round, there could be several. Perhaps Arizona State’s Brandon Aiyuk slips. Baylor’s Denzel Mims is a big target (6-foot-3) who had a strong showing at the scouting combine. Penn State’s KJ Hamler would bring plenty of speed. I’d personally be in favor of adding a bigger target, so Mims is the most attractive to me.

billsoferie asks: Could we draft more than one wide receiver?

 Jay: Absolutely. I could even see a scenario like 2013, when the Bills drafted Robert Woods in the second round and Marquise Goodwin in the third round. Let’s say the Bills pass on a receiver in the first round. When their pick comes up in the second round, they might still have a first-round grade on an available receiver. The same scenario could present itself in the third round, when a player the Bills feel is a second-round talent is still on the board. If Beane stays true to his “best player available” philosophy, it’s entirely possible the Bills could come away with two receivers earlier, given the depth and quality of the class.

Alex M. asks: How much of the cap should Brandon Beane spend to not be considered cheap?

 Jay: Right now, the Bills have a little more than $23 million in cap space for the 2019 league year, which ends next week. After Norman’s contract is processed, the team is expected to have about $77 million in space for the 2020 season. While that sounds like a lot, keep in mind Beane knows he’ll need space for contract extensions for his own players. That’s true not just this offseason, but next year as well. He also likes having room to make moves in season if injuries arise. Let’s say he keeps $25 million in space free. That takes his spending amount down to about $50 million. After signing draft picks, that total will drop down to less than $40 million. It won’t take a lot for the team’s cap space to be gobbled up pretty quickly. Beane showed last year when he went into free agency that the last thing he should be considered is cheap. He’s not afraid to spend – he just tries to do so wisely. Last year, that meant buying in bulk as opposed to one or two big-ticket items.

cdgentile@aol.com asks: The NFL free-agent signing season starts next week. However, the Bills signed free agent Josh Norman this week. Did the Bills violate NFL rules in signing him early? If the answer is no, then what is the significance of the beginning date to sign free agents?

Also, you wrote this week that Spencer Long was re-signed for another year that included a workout bonus of $100,000. I would expect that working out is part of the job and should not be optional to qualify for a bonus. What am I not understanding here?

 Jay: No, the Bills’ deal with Norman did not violate any NFL rules. That’s because Norman was released last month by the Washington Redskins. As a veteran with at least four years of NFL experience, that immediately made him a free agent eligible to sign with any team. When players with less than four years of experience are released, they are subject to waivers, which means teams can assume their contract. The waiver order is based on descending order of the standings, which means the worst team in the league has the first priority and it continues in order to the top team with the last priority.

The difference between Norman and the players that will soon change teams as free agents has to do with the start of the NFL’s new league year, which is scheduled to come at 4 p.m. Wednesday. At that time, contracts from last year expire. For the Bills, that is when Shaq Lawson, Jordan Phillips, Kevin Johnson, Frank Gore, Quinton Spain and others will officially become free agents. A key difference is that if, say, Lawson and Phillips sign elsewhere, they would count toward the NFL’s compensatory draft formula, which awards draft picks based on a team’s net loss in free agency in a given offseason. Because Norman was released before the end of his contract, he does not count in that formula.

As for Long and his workout bonus, that is a standard item in almost every NFL contract. It requires the player to participate in the team’s offseason workout program at the facility. Those workouts are termed voluntary, but with a financial incentive involved, attendance is usually close to 100%. You’re right that Long would be working out with or without the bonus – he’d find himself out of the league quickly if he wasn’t – but by paying the bonus, the Bills have Long in house, working with their strength and conditioning staff.

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