Thursday, February 20, 2014

Bills & free agency: Who goes, stays, signs?


The Buffalo Bills were fairly quiet in their wheelings and dealings during last year's free agency period, with a lot more namely departures than additions. This year looks to be a quite the opposite. With only eight players on the roster currently not under contract -- four more if you include the exclusive free agents -- and cap-space estimates somewhere in the neighborhood of $20 million, Buffalo certainly has some wiggle room to fill gaps through the free agent market.

Free agents:

S Jairus Byrd, K Dan Carpenter, TE Mike Caussin (R), DL Alex Carrington, TE Scott Chandler, S Jim Leonhard, LB Arthur Moats, OL Thomas Welch (R).

Who goes?

While he posted career numbers with Buffalo last season, Chandler's tenure in Western New York is likely over. The 28-year-old hasn't really panned out like the Bills had hoped despite his towering frame, and his red-zone presence was noticeably lacking in 2013. Despite leading the team in receiving, his hands weren't extremely reliable, and he failed to record a touchdown reception in his final 10 games of the season. As my esteemed colleague has noted, he's likely to draw interest elsewhere, which seems just fine for a Buffalo squad that will likely shop a more dual-threat option at the position.

It could be sayonara to the team's most veteran safety presence, Jim Leonhard. The journeyman turns 32 this season, and despite his success in Pettine's blitz-happy system last season (41 tackles, four interceptions), he's certainly below his Pro Bowl counterpart Byrd and probably the injury prone Aaron Williams on the depth chart. Given Williams's recent surgery, however, and the fact that Leonhard can be useful on special teams, the team could opt to keep him around for another year if he agrees to a menial contract. Otherwise, consider him history.

Others likely to be handed walking papers are Carrington and Caussin, who were absent for much or all of last season due to injury.

Who stays?

By simple math, that doesn't leave many. The big one is Byrd, who after a slightly messy contract negotiation and an injury bounced back to show everyone just why he should be paid like a top safety. The Pro Bowler tallied four interceptions and a forced fumble along with his 48 combined tackles while working under the team's franchise tag, and his presence and leadership helped the Bills tout one of the most productive secondaries in the league. Expect Doug Whaley to throw a decent dollar amount at Byrd, if he doesn't franchise him first. If that's not worked out by the Day 1 of free agency though, Byrd could be gone faster than Levitre was last year.

Next up is Carpenter, who by most anyone's standards earned his extension with a stellar turnaround after leaving Miami. The 28-year-old put up the best numbers of his career to date, finishing the year tied for 10th among kickers in field goal percentage while missing just three of his 36 tries. His tries, success rate and total points were among Bills' records, as well. Buffalo also has rookie Dustin Hopkins, who they signed in last year's draft and who was IR'ed with a groin injury before the season started. Odds are the team lets the two battle it out during preseason and training camp, with the back up being a franchise tag designation for Carpenter.

Other expected re-signings are Moats, who shined as a run-stopper and a reliable special teamer, and Welch, who could be kept on as a safety net for the offensive line. Either could be replaced if the team lands a solid fit via the draft, but they'll likely survive the mayhem in mid-March.

Who signs?

It's no secret the Bills could use some help in the pass-catching department, and with Chandler likely gone, that goes double for the starting tight end spot. Problem is, there's not a ton to offer on the market at the moment.

The offensive line has slowly started to waver compared to year's past, though the defensive front seems as solid as ever. It wouldn't be a surprise to see the team take a shot at another potential starting corner to work in rotation with Leodis McKelvin and Stephon Gilmore.

James Jones, WR, Green Bay Packers
While Anquan Boldin is likely on many wishlists this offseason, Jones offers similar attributes at a lower price. At only 29 years old compared to Boldin (33), Jones hauled in 17 touchdowns in his past two years with Green Bay, and his size and veteran experience would be a good fit for the younger supporting cast in Buffalo. He also has a habit of staying healthy, which is a plus given Stevie Johnson's absence lately.

Rodger Saffold, OL, St. Louis Rams
Versatile and quick-footed, Saffold proved his worth as a run blocker last season while in the guard role, an area Buffalo could use some assistance. At 25, he's certainly got some years ahead of him barring a setback, which he's done a fairly good job at avoiding. He may, however, garner deals the Bills aren't ready to match, though he could be a good long-term fit in the Bills' rebounding from the loss of Levitre last year.

Tarell Brown, CB, San Francisco 49ers
While he's slightly older than the Bills probably would prefer, the 29-year-old Brown has played well above his fifth-round selection back in 2007. He's tallied double digits in defended passes the past three years, and he has played at a No. 2 level in a solid San Fran defense scheme. Bringing in talent like his would give the cornerback crew some needed leeway, particularly if the pass rush isn't quite as good as it was last season.

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