A championship contender with arguably the best QB in the league, the Bills seem set up for the future. But first, they must reload with a tight budget on their hands. Here are some ideas as to how they can attack 2022 free agency.
Most NFL franchises would love to be where the Buffalo Bills are. Franchise quarterback in Josh Allen (check). Good coaching staff and front office situation, led by head coach Sean McDermott and GM Brandon Beane (check). A talented young core with players locked up on deals (check).
But that has not gotten the team past the Kansas City Chiefs in each of the last two postseasons. So there’s some reshuffling to be done to take that next step. Again, though, there’s a lot to be optimistic about.
Buffalo’s lean salary cap, however, has the team set to work through financial gymnastics this off-season. But there are a few ways the team can work through that.
Buffalo Bills Veteran Decisions in 2022
For starters, Jerry Hughes (33) and Mario Addison (34) are both heading into free agency as the Bills’ most experienced defensive linemen. According to Spotrac, their 2021 cap hits were each respectively over $8 million in value. Being roughly $2 million under the cap makes it hard to see both players coming back as they’ve hit the twilights of their careers. It would be great to see both guys return, but the Bills could be forced to take one or the other.
There are a few other vets who will be needing new deals, including Emmanuel Sanders, Harrison Phillips, Isaiah McKenzie, Mitch Trubisky, Efe Obada, and Levi Wallace. Again, it would be great to have all these players back for the valued roles they bring. But because of the tight cap, I feel there are some names that must be targeted first.
Wallace stepped up in absence of All-Pro CB Tre’Davious White, who tore his ACL on Thanksgiving night against New Orleans. The former two-time national champion with Alabama really grew in an expanded role, as Wallace allowed a completion rate of 58% and a career-best 72.6 passer rating, according to Pro Football Reference.
In the eight games following White’s injury, the former Crimson Tide CB only gave up one touchdown and had just one game where he allowed more than 40 yards when targeted. Both of those figures came in the AFC Divisional Round classic against KC.
So, in my opinion, Wallace should be priority No. 1, even with White’s expected to return to the lineup. I think Wallace could be in line for a two- or three-year extension, somewhere in the $9-$10 Million per year range, according to Spotrac.
Phillips would be next on the list. The former Stanford standout set career highs nearly across the board, including in total tackles, solo tackles, sacks, QB hits, and he also tied a career-high in tackles for loss. In his advanced numbers, the four-year veteran had three games with six or more tackles, and he also closed the regular season with back-to-back games with three pressures.
As Buffalo’s Man of the Year selection in each of the past two seasons, “Horrible Harry” has a presence in the locker not measured on the stat sheet. It helps when you’re best friends with the team’s best player, too (check out the 8:22 mark).
Phillips could be one of the vet presences on the team moving forward if brought back. Another two-year deal could be fitting here, but maybe a one-year, prove-it deal lights the fire under him that he played with this past season.
Three other names intrigue me as well:
Isaiah McKenzie — a true burner for the team on offense and in the return game, “Lil Dirty” showed he can bring the juice once added to the game plan. His 11-catch, 125-yard, and one TD-effort against New England the day after Christmas may be his biggest resume booster. Playing more consistent snaps from Week 15 on, McKenzie could be the team’s future in the slot if Cole Beasley is not brought back (more on that later).
Although he shined in his Week16 performance against the Patriots, people forget the Georgia product accounted for seven total TDs (five receiving, 1 punt return, 1 TD pass) in 2020.
Ryan Bates — The three-year pro broke into the starting lineup over the last five games of the season for the Bills. The offense really began to take off during that stretch, including Allen laying the smackdown on the Pats in Round III for the AFC East rivals during the Wildcard Round. Bates finished the 2021 campaign with a solid PFF grade of 64.3
The Pennsylvania native is in a position unlike most Bills free agents, however. Bates is a restricted free agent, so Buffalo will have the opportunity to match any offer a team may place on the Penn State product.
Siran Neal — As a special teams ace, who can fill in on defense in the secondary, Neal has proven to be a valuable piece towards Buffalo’s specs since 2018. He played over 50% of the team’s ST snaps in 18 of the team’s 19 games in 2021 (including the playoffs) after netting that minimum percentage in all 19 of the team’s games during the 2020 season.
The former fifth-rounder could be a good fit long-term (27 years old), especially with fellow special teams ace Taiwan Jones (33 years old) also set to hit free agency.