The 2022 NFL season didn’t finish how fans or players wanted it to, but the Buffalo Bills’ defense was once again one of the best units in all of football. The group allowed the sixth-fewest yards per game at 319.1 and the second-fewest points per game at just 17.9. Peeling back the layers a bit with analytics, they were fourth overall in Football Outsider’s DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) with a cumulative score of -11%. Buffalo allowed the fifth-fewest rushing yards per game at 104.6.
The Bills could have a lot of moving parts this offseason, including free agent pro bowl linebacker Tremaine Edmunds. The 24-year-old finished his rookie deal in 2022 and is in line to be one of the highest-paid LBs ever. The linebacker position carries close to a $21,000,000 franchise tag number, making the decision to figure out a long-term deal for the former first-round pick or to move on even more difficult. If the Bills and Edmunds can’t come to a deal, Buffalo will have to decide if they rock with 2022 third-round pick Terrel Bernard or dive into free agency.
For this exercise, we will look at a variety of pieces of information for Edmunds and Bernard, plus dig into a pair of free agents in Germaine Pratt (Cincinnati) and Devin Bush (Pittsburgh). Those four players will give us a wide array of production vs. contract to dissect as we head to our final verdict of PROMOTE vs. PAY in the middle of the Buffalo defense.
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Edmunds was on the field for 92% of the Bills’ regular-season snaps in 2022, per Pro Football Reference. Pro Football Focus (PFF) had him in for 970 snaps in 20 weeks of football. They list him as playing 875 of those snaps in the box, and 50 were on extra points. Bernard took the field 389 times during his rookie season, but only 110 were on defense, with the rest coming on special teams. When he did get defensive reps, 96 came in the box.
Looking outside of the organization, Pratt took 980 snaps in 21 weeks for the Bengals, with 747 coming in the box and 135 being counted along the defensive line. Bush had 727 snaps for the Steelers in 2022, 565 were in the box. As you can see, if Edmunds signs elsewhere, being able to play in the box is an important factor for the Bills to consider.
Edmunds went over 100 tackles for the fifth time in his career last year, notching 102 total tackles, with six coming for a loss. He added a pick and a sack in 2022 and had a missed tackle rate of just 7.7%, the second-best of his career. As you see in the above paragraph, Bernard didn’t see the field much for the Bills a season ago. The rising sophomore had 22 tackles for Buffalo with a missed tackle rate of 5.9%.
Pratt just missed out on 100 tackles for 2022, finishing with 99. He added a pair of interceptions and a sack. The Bengals free agent had a career-best 6.5% missed tackle rate, with six tackles for a loss. Bush, a former defensive rookie of the year, racked up 86 tackles, with two for a loss. The Steelers’ free agent had a 3.6% missed tackle rate in 2022.
Let’s peel back the layers of advanced stats for these four starting with Pro Football Reference’s system they call “AV” which stands for “approximate value” (“this is our attempt to put a single number on each player season since 1960 so that we can (very approximately) compare across years and positions”). Here, they grade Edmunds a 7, Bernard a 2, Pratt a 9, and Bush a 6.
When it comes to PFF’s grades and rankings, we have to eliminate Bernard from the discussion as he isn’t going to qualify for much of if it due to limited snaps in his rookie campaign. Edmunds’ agent loves PFF, the analytics website graded him highly in most stats. His 81.9 overall grade makes him 5th best among qualified linebackers (played 50% of team snaps). The 90.0 coverage grade came in first at the position, his 77.1 in tackling was 12th, and the 72.0 in pass rush was 13th. Pratt isn’t too far behind Edmunds in most stats. He ranked 10th in overall defense at 78.4, 3rd in coverage at 87.2, 17th in pass rush at 70.8, and finished one spot ahead of Edmunds in tackling at a 77.4 grade. Bush is a step behind those two in all grades except tackling, where he ranked 3rd overall with an 85.7. He was 24th in pass rush with a 66.9 and graded out at 58.6 in coverage and 58.8 overall.
If the Bills want to lock down Edmunds on the franchise tag, they would owe him close to $21 million for this upcoming season alone. Edmunds just finished up his 5th-year option, where he made $12.716 million, and is going to get a massive haul somewhere. Spotrac has his market value at $11 million average annual value on a four-year deal, but their based calculated value goes up to roughly $12.2 million per year.
I am here to tell you he will get far more than those on the open market. Pratt just finished his rookie deal with the Bengals and has a market value of $10.6M, per Spotrac. Bush also just completed his rookie contract and has a market value of $3M. Bernard is entering his second year of a rookie contract. He has a base salary of just under $1,000,000 as a third-round pick.
I’m going to start my verdict with this qualifier each and every time… We all know the Bills aren’t flush with cash entering 2023. Even if they pull out most of their “cap coupons” (as our cap guru, Greg Tompsett, calls contract restructures), they are still looking at $40M to $50M to work with before signing or drafting anyone. That said, I believe the Bills NEED to figure out how to bring Edmunds back for 2023 and beyond. You can see a projected six-year contract for Edmunds below. If he and the Bills can agree to this deal, the offseason would be off to a great start.
If Buffalo and Tremaine can not come to terms on a long-term deal, my attention shifts to someone like Bush on a one-year prove-it deal. I’ll add the disclaimer that I am a huge Michigan fan and remember Bush patrolling sideline to sideline for the Wolverines and earning his first-round value. He will be two years removed from an ACL injury and would be playing to prove he deserves a massive contract after a stint in Buffalo. Pratt isn’t a terrible Plan C, but at his price, the Bills should just figure things out with Edmunds. The plan CAN NOT be to enter 2023 with Bernard stepping in for all of Edmunds’ snaps. Lastly, regardless of whether or not they sign Edmunds, I would like to see another LB drafted this year. I would love a guy like Iowa’s Jack Campbell in round three, should he fall that far.