As part of our offseason series on the Bills, we’ve walked you through How Much Cap Space do the Buffalo Bills Really Have?, Which Buffalo Bills Free Agents should be Re-Signed and for how much?, and Buffalo Bills Free Agent Wish List – Offense. Now, we turn our eye to the defensive side of the ball.
We will run through each position group and identify upcoming free agents that Brandon Beane and staff may want to take a look at and that make sense schematically.
The Bills return some strength at defensive tackle in 2020 with first-round pick Ed Oliver manning the pivotal three-technique spot in Sean McDermott’s defense, while Star Lotulelei, Harrison Phillips and Vincent Taylor all vie for their one-technique roles. With Jordan Phillips and Corey Liuget as pending free agents, the rotational three-technique spot is potentially up for grabs. Although I think it’s very likely that Liuget is brought back on a reasonable deal, there are several pending free agents worth considering. With former Carolina Defensive Coordinator Eric Washington coming aboard as the new defensive line coach, it makes sense to consider 26-year-old Vernon Butler. At 6’4″ and 330 lbs, there are some potential Jordan Phillips similarities to be drawn. He never quite lived up to his first-round pick status out of Louisiana Tech, but he may be the right value to follow Coach Washington to Buffalo to revive his career on a value signing, possibly two years and $7M. Another candidate for that rotational three-tech spot would be Dallas’s 25-year-old Maliek Collins, who, at 6’2″ and 308 lbs, has shown a bit more consistent disruption than Butler. Beane and McDermott have shown that they value the defensive tackle spot in the past, so it’s possible they pursue the higher-priced veterans like a Chris Jones, Gerald McCoy, or Ndamukong Suh, but with the draft capital of Ed Oliver and Star Lotulelei’s remaining contract, I think we see a rotational piece added, with a future investment slated when Star’s deal comes off the books.
Here is where we spend some PegulaBucks, with pass rush being the number one need for this defense. The Bills’ current roster has Jerry Hughes, Trent Murphy, Darryl Johnson, and Mike Love under contract, with Shaq Lawson’s free agency pending. Any fan of the Cover 1 Buffalo Podcast or follower of mine on Twitter knows my affinity for Jacksonville’s defensive end, Yannick Ngakoue. Recent reports show Jacksonville planning to franchise tag Ngakoue if they’re not able to reach a long-term deal, so for our purposes, I will find the restraint not to add him to my plans.
Despite every team’s desire to retain their premier pass rushers, I still think there’s a high likelihood that a few significant talents reach the open market. I anticipate the Bills to consider Seattle’s Jadaveon Clowney, Tampa Bay’s Shaquille Barrett, Pittsburgh’s Bud Dupree, and San Francisco’s Arik Armstead, any of which could be material upgrades to Buffalo’s Pass Rush, but the player I want to focus on is one many fans will remember from the Bills matchup with the Ravens, Matthew Judon. A former fifth-round pick out of Grand Valley State, the 6’3″ 278 lbs 27-year-old follows a very similar path to the Baltimore pass rusher who last year signed with Green Bay, Za’Darius Smith and I think Judon could have a similar impact on Buffalo’s defense in 2020. Judon has never missed a game due to injury, is an outstanding locker room presence is able to support the run while consistently getting after the passer. He has three straight years with 7+ sacks, double digit QB hits, and increased pressures each year, with potentially his best football ahead of him. Although he may not quite get the $20M per year that a Clowney gets, Judon won’t come cheap. I think the Bills could add the critical pass rusher for the same four years and $66M that Za’Darius Smith got from Green Bay.
I also think that if Judon comes aboard as the upgrade alternative to Shaq Lawson, that they may move on from Trent Murphy and possibly add a value signing in that range, as well. Similar to my Vernon Butler connection at defensive tackle, I could see Eric Washington put in a good word for his fellow Grambling alumnus, defensive end Mario Addison. Although Addison is 32, he has had 9+ sacks for four straight years, and might have a solid one or two-year deal still left in him, around $6-7M per year. I could also see them pursue Emmanuel Ogbah, Vinny Curry, and Vic Beasley in this same range for a rotational pass rusher and alternative to Trent Murphy or Shaq Lawson.
With a draft investment, a defensive end room of Matt Judon, Jerry Hughes, Mario Addison, Bradlee Anae, and Darryl Johnson would strike fear into the hearts of every QB on the Bills’ schedule.
The retirement of Lorenzo Alexander leaves fifth-round pick Vosean Joseph, who spent the season on IR after a disappointing preseason, competing with UDFA holdover Corey Thompson as the lone options to replace him at strong-side linebacker. Although I don’t know that it’s reasonable to shoot for someone who can play SLB, pass rush DT, and special teams captain all at once, looking for some of those skills may lead us in the right direction.
At the higher end of that market is a talent like New England’s Kyle Van Noy. Originally a second-round pick of the Lions, the 6’3″ 250 lbs defender really blossomed once traded to the Patriots. He’s one of the lone options on the market who truly could fill the Lorenzo Alexander role as SLB on first and second down, then become a valuable pass rusher on third down. There’s a chance he could cost in excess of $30M over three years to obtain, but his kind of versatility and championship pedigree may be worth the investment, even turning 29 going into the season.
One under-the-radar player that the Bills may pursue is Tennessee’s Kamalei Correa. The 6’3″ 241 lbs 26-year-old has some scheme versatility as well as special teams ability. Another is Green Bay’s 28-year-old Kyler Fackrell, who, at 6’5″ 245 lbs, can play all over. He has experience at OLB, special teams, and even has a 10.5-sack season to his resume. The final value option is Philadelphia’s 26-year-old Kamu Grugier-Hill. He’s 6’2″ and 230 lbs with stretches of starting experience at LB, as well as extensive special teams ability. He has the least pass rushing value of the bunch, but he can check two of Zo’s boxes.
With the pending free agency of Kevin Johnson, Levi Wallace’s ERFA status, and the injury history of Taron Johnson, cornerback is a sneakier need than some may realize. Although I expect the investment to come in the draft, it’s worth perusing the free agent market to see what options are available if we are not able to retain Kevin Johnson.
Names like Byron Jones, Chris Harris, and Logan Ryan will get a lot of attention, but with the upcoming contract of Tre White, I don’t expect a splurge at CB. At the high end of where they may poke around is Minnesota’s Mackensie Alexander. The 26-year-old out of Clemson is 5’10” and 195 lbs and has battled Trae Waynes, Xavier Rhodes, and Mike Hughes for playing time in a crowded Vikings secondary. He may cost a slight notch more than Kevin Johnson, possibly closer to $7-8M per year compared to Johnson’s $5-6M, but he may be worth considering. Another option is the Raiders’ Daryl Worley, who, at 6’1″ 215 lbs, brings a bit more size coming off of his rookie deal at 25 years old. I still expect it to be Kevin Johnson vs. Levi Wallace in camp with a second-to-fourth-round pick nipping at Taron Johnson’s heels.
Safety is another spot that I expect to be more of a draft addition than through free agency. With Micah Hyde, Jordan Poyer, Siran Neal, and Jaquan Johnson all under contract, as well as options to bring back Dean Marlowe or Kurt Coleman, it’s hard to find an immediate need. However, if you look a bit deeper, Jordan Poyer has one year and Micah Hyde has two years left under contract. While Neal has shown versatility and Jaquan Johnson a few flashes, neither screams “future starter” at this stage. I fully expect this to be a position we see the Bills invest in through the draft, likely in 2020 AND 2021, but a possible high-upside flyer I could see them poke around at is, oddly, another Clemson Tiger from the depths of the Vikings secondary, Jayron Kearse. As the family legend implies, Jayron is every bit his own “freak” at 6’4″ and 215lbs at 26 years old. With Harrison Smith and Anthony Harris blocking the way, there’s an intriguing upside to Kearse that may be worth a flyer. A two-year, $6-8M deal may be enough to get him in the door to, at minimum, be a key special teams contributor, pushing Siran Neal and Jaquan Johnson, while giving a shot at snagging another reasonably-priced safety to replace Jordan Poyer, should they not be able to re-sign him.
I believe these options give us a chance to not only sustain the defensive success that we’ve seen the previous three years, but with added development from defensive pillars like Tremaine Edmunds, Ed Oliver and others, they could take it to even another level in 2020. Like you, I can’t wait to see what Brandon Beane has in store.