Three days after the 2021 season, Brandon Beane cautioned not to expect big things from the Buffalo Bills when free agency arrived.
“I wouldn't see us being, like, big spenders or anything like that, but we'll definitely look to fill some spots from the outside as well as retain some of our guys,” the team’s general manager said at his season-ending news conference.
Beane has lived up to his word with the start of the NFL’s new league year arriving at 4 p.m. Wednesday, and deals that have been agreed to during the past two days of the league’s “legal tampering period” becoming official.
The optimistic view of the Bills’ offseason to this point is that it has been sensible. Operating within the confines of being tight up against the league’s salary cap, Beane’s first few moves have been logical, and predictable. He’s cut veterans Jon Feliciano, Daryl Williams and A.J. Klein for cap space – all justifiable moves given their salary and role on the team. Of the three, only Williams ended the year as a starter, and while it would have been nice to have him back, he was priced as a tackle and not a guard, which is where he ended the year.
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Extending the contract of center Mitch Morse, which freed up a little more than $2 million in cap space, was another logical move. Morse is the anchor of the offensive line and is coming off his best season. Continuity at center is a good thing.
As for Beane’s moves from outside the organization, he definitely has tipped his toes in the free-agent pool so far, as opposed to diving in head first.
Veteran guard Rodger Saffold, whose signing is official because he was released last week by the Titans, provides a capable starter who is familiar with new offensive line coach Aaron Kromer. Although the terms of Saffold’s deal have not yet been released, it’s hard to see him breaking the bank on a one-year deal.
Beane has also addressed the interior of his defensive line with a pair of moves that are expected to become official Wednesday. Washington defensive end Tim Settle and Carolina defensive end DaQuan Jones should both make the Bills more stout up the middle – an area that has been a weakness at times. Settle’s deal contains a cap hit of just $2.69 million in 2022, and although all the details of Jones’ contract aren’t known yet, it's not a huge salary. (His agency reported a $7 million average over two years).
Their additions became all the more important given that veteran defensive tackle Harrison Phillips has agreed to a deal with the Minnesota Vikings.
Beane has also added a pass-catching running back in Washington’s J.D. McKissic. He figures to be a third-down option for new offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey.
The pessimistic view of the offseason to this point would be that Beane’s asleep at the wheel. While contenders in the AFC are loading up – the Broncos have agreed to a trade for star quarterback Russell Wilson and the Chargers are set to deal for Khalil Mack and sign Patriots cornerback J.C. Jackson – the Bills’ moves are far less splashy.
Beane has spoken often in the past of how he prefers to fill obvious holes on his roster in free agency, which then allows him to focus on taking the best player available in the draft. With that in mind, what’s left for him to tackle upon the “official” start of free agency?
Backup quarterback: As expected, the Bills lost Mitchell Trubisky, who has agreed to a two-year contract with the Steelers. Trubisky fell in the Bills’ lap last year and gave them excellent insurance behind Josh Allen, even if it turns out he wasn’t needed. The backup quarterback market has seen some action, including with former Bills starter Tyrod Taylor agreeing to a two-year contract worth $5.5 million per year.
“That's an important position,” Beane said at the NFL scouting combine earlier this month about backup quarterback. “We know the quarterback position is the ultimate in all sports. So it'll be our job to find a suitable replacement.”
Teddy Bridgewater will sign with the Dolphins, so that’s another potential backup off the board.
Still available is the sentimental favorite – Washington’s Ryan Fitzpatrick – along with Andy Dalton, Cam Newton, Jacoby Brissett, Marcus Mariota and Kyle Allen, among others.
Cornerback: If Levi Wallace does indeed bolt for Pittsburgh, which has been reported, the biggest hole in the starting lineup undoubtedly is at cornerback. Beane has favored one-year deals for veterans at the position in the past, bringing in Vontae Davis, Phillip Gaines, Kevin Johnson and Josh Norman that way.
He has options if he wants to take that approach again, as the Steelers’ Joe Haden, the Raiders’ Casey Hayward, the Vikings’ Patrick Peterson and the Colts’ Xavier Rhodes are all accomplished veterans who could be interested in a short-term deal with a Super Bowl contender. If so, that would give the Bills some insurance in case Tre’Davious White isn’t 100% at the start of the season coming off a torn ACL and/or Dane Jackson struggles as a full-time starter. Either way, a cornerback has to be a priority for Beane.
Offensive tackle: Williams started last season at right tackle, which gave the Bills some flexibility if they needed to bounce him back outside. Right now, the swing tackle behind starters Dion Dawkins and Spencer Brown would probably be Tommy Doyle, a fifth-round draft pick in 2020. Maybe he’s ready for the job, but it would be wise to have a veteran fallback plan if he’s not.
While the market for guards has been busy the past couple of days, there have been fewer deals for tackles being announced. That means there is a long list of options available for Beane.
Tight end: One of Beane’s stated goals at the end of the 2021 season was to bring in more depth behind starter Dawson Knox. The only other true tight end on the active roster last year was Tommy Sweeney, and he was a regular inactive by the end of the year.
A possible homecoming for Amherst native Rob Gronkowski has been much discussed, but with quarterback Tom Brady returning to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, it would be a surprise if Gronk elected to play elsewhere.
Some reports also had the Bills linked to the Giants’ Evan Engram, but he will reportedly sign with the Jaguars.
Depending on what happens with Gronkowski, the Buccaneers’ O.J. Howard may be available. A former first overall pick, Howard’s career has never really gotten off the ground, but a change of scenery could be a worthwhile, low-risk gamble for the Bills.
Edge rusher: Fans holding out hope for a big move are probably looking here. With Jerry Hughes and Mario Addison set to hit the open market Wednesday, a case can be made that this is a need position.
Arizona’s Chandler Jones is so far without a new team, and social media has been abuzz with pleas for him to sign in Buffalo.
Green Bay’s Za’Darius Smith, Cleveland’s Jadeveon Clowney and the Rams’ Von Miller are also headline-worthy names without agreements to join new teams at this point.
Acquiring any one of them would require Beane to conduct some more salary-cap surgery, because none of them figure to come cheap.