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GM for a Day: Charting a course for the Bills' 2020 offseason

Jay Skurski

Sean McDermott is ready to turn the page.

As for when he’ll get the chance to, it’s anyone’s guess.

The Buffalo Bills’ head coach has processed what happened in his team’s massively disappointing loss to the Houston Texans in an AFC wild-card game. While the wound from blowing a second-half lead might not have disappeared, it’s at least scabbed over.

“I’ve been around enough playoff appearances and wins and losses on both sides or coming up short in the Super Bowl to know that you have to be aware of what happened and, overall, why,” McDermott said at the NFL scouting combine. “We’ve got to flush last year, take what we felt like worked as we continue to move forward and build. But at the same time, this will be a new football team in 2020.”

That starts (tentatively) this week. The NFL’s new league year is scheduled to begin at 4 p.m. Wednesday. "Scheduled" being the key word, as it’s possible the league pushes back one of its busiest weeks on the calendar as the country braces for the coronavirus outbreak.

The Bills on Thursday pulled their scouts and coaches off the road over ongoing health concerns surrounding the coronavirus. While free agency does not require public gatherings, would players still be able to make visits? Would they be comfortable traveling? Some teams have closed their facilities. What would happen in those cases?

With the rest of the sports world shut down, would the NFL move forward when, quite frankly, there are more important things to figure out?

For now, all of those questions remain unanswered. Until they are, the Bills – and 31 other NFL teams – are left to prepare for the start of free agency as best they can.

Even in what has been a week unlike any other in professional sports, the Bills have gone about their offseason business. The team agreed to a one-year contract with veteran cornerback Josh Norman. It picked up the contract option on offensive lineman Spencer Long and made plans to retain exclusive-rights free agents Levi Wallace, Robert Foster and Jason Croom.

On Thursday, the team came to an agreement to re-sign guard Quinton Spain to a three-year contract and restructured the contract of tight end Tyler Kroft, freeing up salary-cap space.

Whether the Bills make moves in the coming week or not, it promises to be an exciting offseason for a franchise coming off a second playoff appearance in three seasons.

"I'm excited about the direction of our organization and where we're headed,” McDermott said at the combine. “We’ve got a lot of great people back in Orchard Park. We’ve got a good group of young, core players to build from and a good locker room, and that's taken years to get there. And so this is an exciting time to be a Buffalo Bill, and I'm excited for the season, but we've got free agency and we've got the draft, which is why we're here, and a lot of days and weeks between now and then.”

Depending on happens, it could be even longer than that. At some point, though – hopefully soon – life as we know it will resume.

So let’s prepare for that. In my fourth annual “GM for a Day” column, I’ll offer up the moves I would make if I were in Beane’s chair. Let’s get started:

Charting a course

The first part of any offseason is dealing with the impending free agents in house. Beane has done me a solid in that regard by taking care of one of them in Spain.

The three-year contract reportedly could pay Spain up to $15 million. It’s reasonable money for a starting guard, but by no means is it breaking the bank. At $5 million annually, Spain ranks 32nd in pay for guards, according to contracts website Spotrac.com.

Spain will come into the spring penciled into the starting lineup at left guard. That means the team’s top seven offensive linemen in terms of playing time from last year are all back. That doesn’t mean I’m set at the position, though. (More on that later.)

As of Friday afternoon, Spotrac lists the Bills as having $78.4 million in cap space, which is the fourth-highest total in the NFL. That figure does not take into account Spain’s deal, so we’ll call it $73.9 million for ease of calculations. That's still a good chunk of change. In the offseason, only a team's top 51 contracts count against the salary cap, so Spain's deal would push the contract of Christian Wade ($515,000) out of the top 51.

With Spain checked off the list, the Bills’ remaining free-agent list looks like this: Jordan Phillips, Shaq Lawson, Kevin Johnson, Frank Gore, LaAdrian Waddle, Julian Stanford, Maurice Alexander, Kurt Coleman, Corey Liuget, Senorise Perry, Dean Marlowe and Isaiah McKenzie (restricted).

After agreeing to terms with Croom on Saturday and offering an original-round tender to McKenzie, my cap space is roughly $73 million.

Next up are the players who are free to sign elsewhere. I’ll start with my goodbyes. Gore, 36, and Coleman, 31, were respected voices in the locker room, but it’s time to get younger. They’re out. Liuget played 134 defensive snaps for me over the second half of the season, but he’s replaceable. The same goes for Alexander, who played seven games before being placed on injured reserve in early November.

From there, it gets a little tougher. Phillips has been a heck of a find on the waiver wire for the Bills. His 9.5 sacks last season ranked second among defensive tackles behind arguably the best defensive player in the NFL, Aaron Donald. Phillips has earned the right to test the open market. Chances are, he’s going to find an offer that simply exceeds what I’m willing to pay. I have Ed Oliver, who I chose ninth overall last season, ready for a bigger role. I’ll shake Phillips’ hand, thank him for his contributions and wish him the best with his new team.

As for who I’m keeping around, the words of the head coach from the end of the season have stuck with me.

“We have to keep our team together, as many pieces as we can, and then approach this offseason with a tremendous amount of urgency,” McDermott said at the season-ending press conference, “as we continue to grow and continue to build this football team and organization into what we want it to become.”

With that in mind, I’ll start with bringing back a player who didn’t take a snap in 2019. Waddle spent the entire season on injured reserve, but he has experience as a swing tackle and is a Super Bowl champion. I like that postseason experience in my locker room. He signed a one-year, $2 million contract last year – I’ll give him the same deal.

I’m also giving Stanford a one-year, $2 million contract. He’s the primary backup to middle linebacker Tremaine Edmunds and a key contributor on special teams. Those two moves bring me to about $70 million in cap space.

I’d also re-sign Marlowe, who is a favorite of the head coach and can play different roles in the secondary, as well as Perry, another key contributor on special teams. After their deals, each of which are for one year and $1 million, I’m at $69 million in cap space.

Now it’s time to wade a little deeper into the pool. Keeping Johnson might not seem like a priority after Beane brought in Norman, but cornerback depth is still a need in my mind. The Bills were a twisted ankle away last season from having to play a player out of position in a playoff game. I don’t want that to happen. Johnson played in all 16 games. He might be eager to carve out a bigger role, but if he doesn’t find that in free agency, I’m offering him a two-year contract worth $12 million. He gets the same $6 million per year that Norman got, and with another strong season could be in line to start in 2021, because Norman and Wallace will again be free agents. That takes me to about $64.4 million in cap space.

My biggest decision in free agency deals with what to do with Lawson. He’s coming off a season in which he finished second on the team in sacks (6.5) and tied for the team lead in tackles for loss (13). He did that playing less than 50% of the snaps.

Arguably the biggest position of need is at defensive end. Trent Murphy is heading into the final year of his contract and Jerry Hughes is coming off wrist surgery entering his age-32 season. As such, I’m making a substantial commitment to Lawson in the form of a three-year, $27 million contract. Lawson eclipses Murphy in average annual salary, which seems fair given the way each contributed last season. He also gets another bite at the free-agency apple entering his age-29 season.

Looking ahead

After Lawson is re-signed, my available cap space is about $56 million. I’m still not ready to go shopping, though. Beane has often spoke of the need to maintain salary-cap flexibility.

“People say, ‘You’ve got $80 million dollars!’ If you know me, I want to draft develop and sign our own,” Beane said at the combine. “It’s not like we can go out and spend a bunch of money in free agency and then watch our own guys walk out the door. So it’s a fine line. We do have holes to fill, but we also want to make sure we have money in 2020 and we’ve got some guys coming up in 2021 and 2022. I want to make sure we have the funds to be able to re-sign those guys if they’re willing to sign back with us.”

At the top of my list would be cornerback Tre’Davious White. “Would be,” because the likelihood of White taking a long-term deal right now is remote. It would be borderline negligent on his agent’s part to do that right now.

The urgency isn’t there on either side. Exercising White’s fifth-year option, which I’ll do, keeps him under team control through 2021.

That leaves Dion Dawkins and Matt Milano as the two prime extension candidates. My first choice is Milano. He’s a perfect fit for McDermott’s defense; he’s a great example of rewarding your own; and he’s entering the prime of his career. There will be some sticker shock, but I’m giving Milano a four-year, $48 million contract.

So why not Dawkins? I need to see him back up a good third season with an even better fourth. I’m also not that worried about losing him next year, because the franchise tag is an easy way of keeping him. If Dawkins’ play regresses in 2020, perhaps the team doesn’t want to use the tag. The risk is Dawkins’ play continues to improve in 2020 and his price tag rises, but I’ll file that under “good problems to have.”

Time to shop

Milano’s extension leaves me with about $45 million in cap space to take into free agency (see how quickly it disappears?).

I’d like a little more space, so I’m following Beane’s lead. Murphy’s contract calls for a $9.775 million cap hit, but has just a $1.75 million “dead cap” hit if he were to be released. Like Beane did with Star Lotulelei and Tyler Kroft earlier this offseason, my message to Murphy is clear: “You’re in danger of being cut, so let’s make a deal. I’ll guarantee a portion of your base salary, but you’re going to take less overall.” Assuming he goes for that, my available cap space rises to $47 million.

The Bills are at a crossroad of sorts at this point. With quarterback Josh Allen still on his rookie contract, they have an opportunity to spend on other positions to build the strongest team possible around him. Coming off a second playoff berth in three seasons, the Bills are an ascending team. With the uncertainty surrounding what happens with Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, they might even be considered the favorites in the AFC East.

Beane, though, said at the season-ending press conference that he doesn’t believe the team is “one player away,” an indication a big splash in free agency shouldn’t be expected.

That’s where my opinion differs slightly from that of the GM.

I’m ready to write a big check if it gets me closer to my ultimate goal – which shouldn’t be to simply make the playoffs, but rather to make a run when getting there. For that to happen, the offense has to get better. Don’t take it from me, though. Here’s what Beane said at the combine:

“We need to score more points,” he said. “There’s so many reasons why. You’ve got to protect better, you’ve got to run the ball better, you’ve got to throw the ball better, we’ve got to catch it better. We’ve got a lot of work to do. It starts with me, making sure I’m bringing in the right personnel. There were some things we did this offseason and last year that helped. I thought Brian Daboll and his staff and Josh took a step in the right direction. Obviously, it wasn’t enough. We’ve got to take a bigger step next year.”

Let me help. I’ll bring in offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga, formerly of the Green Bay Packers. Bulaga has played all 16 games just three times in nine years, but the good news is one of those times came in 2019. I’m giving him a two-year, $24 million deal.

The offensive line was improved in 2019 … but it wasn’t good enough. If I’m truly committed to Allen, it makes sense to provide him as much support as possible. Bulaga does that.

You might be asking, what happens with Cody Ford? That’s for the coaches to figure out. If they think he’s best at guard, let him move inside and compete with Jon Feliciano and Spain for a starting job. If he’s best at tackle, leave him there. Too many good players shouldn’t be a problem.

After that, I’m addressing No. 2 running back. Enter Jordan Howard. The former Philadelphia Eagle provides an ideal change of pace to Devin Singletary. Howard should help greatly help in short-yardage situations, which was a weakness last year. He won’t cost a lot, either, given the depressed market for running backs. A two-year deal at $7 million should get it done.

After that, it’s back to the defense. The Bills need a replacement for Lorenzo Alexander. Christian Kirksey, who made a free-agent visit to the team Friday, could provide that both on the field and, to an extent, in the locker room. Kirksey, who was released by the Browns, was Cleveland’s Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee in 2018. The 6-foot-2-inch, 235-pounder started 54 games for the Browns over the past six years. He was limited to seven games in 2018 because of a hamstring injury, and he played just two games last season before going on injured reserve with a torn pectoral muscle. It’s a gamble that he’ll stay healthy, but it’s one worth taking considering the needs he would fill. He gets the same deal as Norman – one year, $6 million.

The last spot I’m determined to fill in free agency is a backup for Oliver. This won’t be much of a shock, but I’m going back to the Carolina well for that. Vernon Butler has generally underwhelmed as a first-round draft pick in 2016, but he did have six sacks in 2019 in playing 40% of the defensive snaps. For his career, he has 77 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, 18 quarterback hits, three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, two passes defensed and eight sacks. The Bills signed Phillips to a one-year, $4 million contract last offseason. If Butler agrees to a similar deal, it would leave me with about $20 million in cap space. About $8 million of that will be needed for draft picks, leaving me with a cushion of about $12 million heading into the regular season.

The draft

Obviously, projecting what I would do here would require me to know who is on the board when my turn comes up. Picking at No. 22 overall in the first round, that’s awfully tough to do. For assistance, I used the nifty mock draft machine available at thedraftnetwork.com.

With the No. 22 pick, I turn in the card for Iowa pass rusher A.J. Epenesa. For all the reasons mentioned above, defensive end is a need for this team. Epenesa is the perfect marriage of need matching up with talent. At this point, I’d be tempted to blow off the rest of the draft and go celebrate my success with a weekend round of golf – (if I know Beane, he wouldn’t be out on that, either) – but I’ll see the rest of the draft through.

As I expected on Day 2, I have my choice of wide receivers available. Clemson’s Tee Higgins slips to me, and I’m happy to choose him with the No. 54 overall pick. Beane and Co. got a good look at Higgins at Clemson’s Pro Day on Thursday. He has a chance to come in and immediately be one of the team’s top two receivers.

Now it’s time to go play golf.

Before I do, here’s a look at my projected depth chart – focusing on players with a good shot to make the 53-man roster – heading into 2020. You’re welcome, Bills fans …

Quarterback: Josh Allen, Matt Barkley
Running back: Devin Singletary, Jordan Howard, T.J. Yeldon
Fullback: Patrick DiMarco
Wide receiver: John Brown, Tee Higgins, Cole Beasley, Isaiah McKenzie, Duke Williams, Robert Foster
Tight end: Dawson Knox, Tyler Kroft, Lee Smith, Tommy Sweeney
Left tackle: Dion Dawkins, Ty Nsekhe
Right tackle: Bryan Bulaga, Cody Ford
Right guard: Jon Feliciano
Center: Mitch Morse, Spencer Long
Left guard: Quinton Spain
Defensive end: Shaq Lawson, Trent Murphy
Defensive end: Jerry Hughes, A.J. Epenesa
Defensive tackle: Ed Oliver, Vernon Butler
Defensive tackle: Star Lotulelei, Harrison Phillips
Linebacker: Tremaine Edmunds, Julian Stanford
Linebacker: Matt Milano, Vosean Joseph
Linebacker: Christian Kirksey
Cornerback: Tre’Davious White, Kevin Johnson, Siran Neal
Cornerback: Josh Norman, Levi Wallace, Taron Johnson
Safety: Micah Hyde, Dean Marlowe
Safety: Jordan Poyer, Juquan Johnson
Kicker: Stephen Hauschka
Punter: Corey Bojorquez
Long snapper: Reid Ferguson

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