In the first piece in our series on the Buffalo Bills Offseason, we looked at elements like the 89% Cash Spending Floor and the 30% rule, which could both impact Brandon Beane’s approach to this off-season, specifically with extensions for existing players. Now, we’ll focus on the players from the 2019 roster whose contracts are expiring when the league year ends March 15th. The Bills have 19 such players (Buffalo Bills 2020 Free Agents – Spotrac.com), and we’ll break them up into groups to work through them:
Lorenzo Alexander – The 37-year-old OLB has been the consummate leader over his 16-year career, most specifically in all 4 of his years in Buffalo. The Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year candidate will be tough to replace in the locker room. Still, on the field, his very unique role of Special Teams Maven, OLB on run downs, and pass-rush DL will likely be cobbled together by multiple different players playing snaps in those roles in 2020.
Frank Gore – This may be less voluntary than Zo’s but anyone who watched the Frank Gore, who took 17 carries for 109 vs. New England in September compared to the Frank Gore, who averaged below 2.5 yards per carry in November and December games, can see the writing is on the wall. Bills fans will see the dividends of his efforts mentoring Devin Singletary for year’s to come.
Exclusive Rights Free Agents
Levi Wallace, Robert Foster, Jason Croom – All three players have their rights exclusively owned by Buffalo. If the Bills offer each of them a minimum contract, their only choice is to sign that contract or not play in the NFL. I expect all three to be tendered by the Bills for training camp with Wallace being a roster lock at that price while Foster and Croom will both be fighting for roster spots with a low probability of making the final 53. If any of the three of them complete the 2020 season, earning an accrued year of service, they would each be Restricted Free Agents in 2021.
Restricted Free Agent
Isaiah McKenzie – McKenzie is the most likely to receive a tender offer, likely as the ‘Original Round Tender,’ which would mean that any team offering McKenzie a contract would owe the Bills a 5th round pick (Denver drafted McKenzie in 2017). He played a valuable role in Daboll’s offense as “eye candy”, utilizing Jet Motion with the occasional Jet Sweep or pop pass. The role may end up being filled by a draft or Free Agent upgrade, but he will have a shot in camp to retain the spot.
Spencer Long – The Bills contract with Spencer Long last spring looked like a 3 yr $12.6M Contract but was indeed a one year deal with two separate $4M team options in each of 2020 and 2021. When considering that Jon Feliciano’s cap number is $3.65M and Quinton Spain had to settle for $2M, Long’s number is a tad high, but it’s also at a level where it may not be worth declining the team option when you’d like to have him back just slightly lower. It’s not a guarantee, but I think Spencer Long’s interior depth and versatility to play all 3 spots is worth the slight $4M “overpay”.
Veteran Minimum Special Teams Depth
Julian Stanford, Maurice Alexander, Kurt Coleman, Senorise Perry – all 4 guys played a material number of snaps, almost exclusively on Special Teams. Julian Stanford probably provides a slight amount of defensive value as an experienced backup to MLB Tremaine Edmunds, but all 4 players should expect to be pushed by younger additions to the roster, and any draft pick invested at their position should be viewed as a high hurdle to clear for their roster chances. I would expect most, if not all, to be invited back to camp on modest deals with Stanford and Perry the most likely and Maurice Alexander, the least likely of the bunch.
Versatile Positional Depth
LaAdrian Waddle – Both in this category are worth bringing back at slightly above the veteran minimum level for their positional versatility, veteran experience, and ability to step into a short-term starting role if needed. Waddle can be a swing tackle backing up either side and would have been very valuable for stretches this season when Ty Nsekhe was out. I support renewing his $2M deal from 2019.
Dean Marlowe – The 28 year old safety has found a niche as a versatile defensive back in Sean McDermott’s defenses in both Carolina and Buffalo. He contributes on Special Teams, as a depth safety and late in the season as a nickel back as needed. Although I think he’s a prime candidate to be upgraded via the draft, he’s certainly found a way to maintain NFL roster worthiness through previous Training Camp battles. I have a feeling 2020 is the year he finally gets beaten out.
Corey Liuget – The veteran was an excellent mid-season addition at a rotational nose tackle. I don’t think he made the kind of splash that the previous year’s DT addition did, where Jordan Phillips (who we’ll get to soon), earned a $4.5M deal, but I would support bringing Liuget back between $2M and $3.5M to be Ed Oliver’s primary backup.
Potential Starters or Key Rotational Pieces
Kevin Johnson – The 28 yr old CB and former 16th overall pick by the Houston Texans came to Buffalo off three straight injury-riddled seasons. He had only played 19 of a possible 48 games but then was able to step into competition with Levi Wallace for the starting CB job in Buffalo, playing snaps at CB or on Special teams in all 16 games and the playoffs. He ended the season playing nearly half the snaps in the final eight games and 100% in the playoff game. The draft could bring in added competition, but if Brandon Beane runs it back with Levi Wallace vs. Kevin Johnson opposite Tre White, I think the team is in excellent shape. Johnson has earned a slight raise and should be brought back for two years, $10M.
Quinton Spain – After starting 48 games in his first four years in Tennessee, Spain did not find the free-agent market he anticipated last spring. After waiting it out, he ended up signing a modest one year $2M deal with Buffalo for a chance to start and increase his value. After starting all 16 games, playing every snap, and not giving up a single sack, I would say he accomplished his goal – but the key is how much did he increase that value? I initially projected that he should be brought back on a three year $16.5M deal, giving him a raise from $2M to $5.5M per season as well as some future security. If that increases up to the $7-8M range, and Brandon Bean values continuity and the stability he brought next to Dion Dawkins, that may be worth matching. If his market gets beyond $8M+ per season, it may be worth letting Spain walk and bringing in another veteran or a mid-round draft pick to compete with Spencer Long. I hope he returns for the right deal.
Jordan Phillips – Very few players elicit the kind of emotional response from fans that Jordan Phillips does. After two and a half disappointing seasons in MIA, Buffalo claimed the disruptive DT off waivers in 2018. He finished that year strong and earned a one year $4.5M deal to return. In 2019, he put up by far his most impressive box score of his career with 9.5 sacks and 13 tackles for a loss. Many have nitpicked at the consistency, efficiency, and run-support, but his ability to impact the game with big plays as well as being an emotional charge for the team and fans is undeniable. The key is what value that represents on the market. Our friends at Spotrac.com compare him to the production of recent free agents Michael Brockers, Eddie Goldman, Malcolm Brown, and Beau Allen to project a three year $18.5M deal, averaging $6.1M per year. (Jordan Phillips Market Value Comparison – Spotrac.com) If that is the range, then SIGN ME UP! Phillips’s social media posturing has certainly indicated that he is targeting a deal well beyond that range. He absolutely would have value to the team, returning as a key rotational piece that allows Buffalo to manage the development of Ed Oliver, but if his price range gets beyond those projections and into Phillips’ targeted territory, Beane needs to have the discipline to let him walk.
Shaq Lawson – By far, the toughest projection on this list is a 25-year-old defensive end, Shaq Lawson. After three mediocre seasons with a mixture of injury issues and misuse in previous systems, 2019 saw Shaq come into his own as a stellar run defender and occasional pass-rushing threat. His 32 tackles, 13 TFL, and 6.5 sacks were all career highs in a contract year… but that’s the rub. Any GM who used the rule “Don’t sign anyone off-peak production in a career year,” you would make many more good decisions than bad. It is also fair to question if that “peak production” is worth what Defensive Ends often get paid on the open market. We look again to our friends at Spotrac.com and find a very reasonable projection. (Shaq Lawson Market Value – Spotrac.com) Using a production comparison and recent deals signed by Henry Anderson, Robert Quinn, Matt Ioannidis, and DaQuan Jones, they project a four year deal for $30.7M, averaging $7.6M per year. Once again – SIGN ME UP! I fear that Shaq may find a team that scouted him coming out of Clemson and feels there is another step of progression left in him and willing to move up to $9-$11M per year. That price range is getting into the territory of some of our “Free Agent Wish List” targets that you’ll see in an upcoming piece and may be too rich for the Bills’ blood when compared to the alternatives. Shaq Lawson’s negotiations will be a critical tipping point for this offseason and very interesting insight into Brandon Beane’s approach. I would love to have Shaq back for the right deal, but am bracing for a new name at that DE spot.
As both Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane made very clear in their end of season press conference, the key to continued success is continuity and bringing back as much talent as possible. I think that is well within reach with these upcoming free agents, and Bills fans should be very excited about the potential opportunities.