With Super Bowl LI in the rear view mirror and free agency approaching, the 2017 off-season is now in full swing. As such, the Last Word on Sports NFL department will be analyzing the top three needs for each team. Here, the Buffalo Bills are under the microscope.
Buffalo is currently a tad hamstrung with respect to addressing their needs via free agency. Per OverTheCap.com, the Bills available cap space of slightly under $20 million is 26th lowest among NFL teams. Cap casualties aside, that may preclude a big splash when unrestricted free agents can being signing on March 9th.
But there really aren’t that many game-changing free agents at positions of need for the Bills anyway. On the other hand, this year’s class of draft prospects is full of potential gems who could make an immediate impact. This is true of whoever Buffalo decides to take in the first few rounds.
With that in mind, it’s time to take a look at the three positions most in need of an upgrade for the 2017 Buffalo Bills.
Buffalo Bills 2017 Off-Season: Top 3 Needs
The initial plan here was to make the case for wide receiver being the most pressing skill position need for the Bills. But things changed Wednesday when ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported the following news.
Bills' Tyrod Taylor, who has $27.5M option bonus due March 11, has been medically cleared from last month’s groin surgery, per team source.
— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) February 22, 2017
To say that Tyrod Taylor‘s contract situation for 2017 is complicated might be an understatement. Basically, if he can’t pass a physical by March 11th, his $12 million base salary for 2017, plus a $15.5 million option bonus becomes fully guaranteed. Schefter’s report likely allows the Bills brass to breathe a sigh of relief regarding the escalators in Taylor’s contract.
If Buffalo declines Taylor’s option and releases him before free agency begins, they incur a mere $2.85 million dead money charge while clearing $13.05 million in cap space. Such a scenario is now fairly likely given the Bills existing cap constraints. If it happens, acquiring a quarterback either via free agency or the draft becomes a high priority.
Unfortunately, the free agent market is nothing to write home about this year. Kirk Cousins is the only high profile name but might come at too high a price tag even if the Bills cap situation improves. There are reports the Chicago Bears are shopping Jay Cutler. But do the Bills really want to annex draft picks for an oft-injured, over-the-hill quarterback? The same goes for Tony Romo.
Upgrading this position in the draft appears to be the best option. Prospects such as Deshaun Watson, Mitch Trubisky and DeShone Kizer are possibilities when the Bills pick in the first round. Potential middle round fliers include Patrick Mahomes, Davis Webb and Nathan Peterman. The latter two impressed mightily at the Senior Bowl.
Injuries ravaged the Bills receiving corps in 2016. The following statistic underscores that fact. The top three wideouts in terms of receiving yards (Sammy Watkins, Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin) appeared in just 36 games, the second worst total in the league behind Chicago. Clearly, staying healthy is paramount next season.
But beyond that, adding depth at the position can’t hurt. Doing so is possible with free agency acquisitions as well as draft picks. Alshon Jeffery, Pierre Garçon and Desean Jackson are among the more prominent free agents. But some value might exist in players such as Ted Ginn, Jr. or Terrelle Pryor. Ginn isn’t far removed from a ten touchdown haul during the Panthers Super Bowl campaign of 2015.
Re-signing Robert Woods, himself a free agent in 2017, could help at augmenting depth at the position. During his first four years in the league, the former USC product averaged 613 receiving yards per season, not bad for a WR2. But there are indications that Woods will test the open market and could be playing elsewhere in 2017.
And then there is this year’s class of draft prospects which is full of potential instant-impact players. Clemson’s Mike Williams is arguably the gem of the bunch but might not be available at ten unless the Bills trade up. Corey Davis of Western Michigan enjoyed a record setting college career but there are concerns over his durability after recently undergoing ankle surgery. Also pay attention to Washington wideout John Ross, a big mover on draft boards in recent weeks.
A combination of factors necessitate the Bills getting better at safety in the off-season. Four of the six players who saw game time at the position in 2016 (Robert Blanton, James Ihedigbo, Jonathan Meeks and Sergio Brown) are impending free agents. None contributed regularly, accounting for just 26.7 percent of total team snaps at safety.
With Aaron Williams‘ career in doubt due to recurrent head injuries, it’s possible Corey Graham might be the only returning safety who saw game reps last year. That’s concerning given he ranked 37th among safeties according to Pro Football Focus. Also alarming is the fact his lone interception was the only pick managed by Bills safeties, tied for second worst among NFL teams.
Among the more intriguing free agents to hit the market include Eric Berry, Jonathan Cyprien, D.J. Swearinger and Quintin Demps. Berry doesn’t exactly have the most favorable price point and could re-sign in Kansas City. Cyprien garnered the highest PFF rating (seventh) among these four, finishing with 96 tackles for the Jaguars. Swearinger made an impact in the Cardinals secondary and received the fifth best coverage grade for safeties by PFF. And only the Chargers Casey Heyward picked off more passes in 2016 than the six interceptions Demps came up with.
This year’s crop of safety prospects appears top-heavy at first glance. After Malik Hooker, Jamal Adams and Jabrill Peppers, there’s a bit of a drop-off. Hooker will likely be off the board by the time the Bills are on the clock. Adams is a hard-hitter who excels close to the line of scrimmage but needs work as a coverage safety. Peppers is similar. Despite freakish athleticism, he might not match the skill set the Bills need at the position.
Expect Buffalo to address this need in the later rounds.