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Friday, March 7, 2014
Assessing the Bills' top free-agent needs

By Mike Rodak

Earlier Friday, we took a brief look at what positions the Buffalo Bills could target in free agency.

The Bills have about $25 million in cap space and are expected to be "active" in free agency, according to CEO Russ Brandon. Still, signing free agents can often be a perilous endeavor, with many players' values inflated because of supply and demand factors. Just because the Bills have the money doesn't mean they will or should spend it.

Free agency is just one of three main ways the Bills can add talent this offseason, along with the draft and any potential trades. In his latest mock draft, ESPN NFL draft expert Todd McShay has the Bills selecting Texas A&M offensive tackle Jake Matthews ninth overall. There are three offensive tackles that could be selected in the first 10 picks, which makes the draft an ideal way for the Bills to add talent along the offensive line.

Because of that, offensive line is not on our list of top positions the Bills could target in free agency. Teams can begin speaking to free agents Saturday at noon, while deals can be completed as soon as 4 p.m. Tuesday.

Here's where the Bills might look on the free-agent market:

1. Linebacker: The Bills have already started combing this position. They hosted Jameel McClain and Jasper Brinkley on free-agent visits this week and because both players were released by their former teams, either could sign with the Bills at any time. Both McClain and Brinkley have experience at inside linebacker and could compete for a starting role next to Kiko Alonso, which could push Nigel Bradham down the depth chart. The Bills have insisted that they'll try to keep their defense from last season intact under new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, but it's unrealistic to think that nothing will change. Schwartz isn't going to shave his head and become Mike Pettine; he will bring his way of doing things to Buffalo and that could mean changes at linebacker.

2. Safety: This hinges on the status of Jairus Byrd. The door hasn't been shut on a new deal, so if Byrd somehow finds his way back to Buffalo, it will lessen this need to almost zero. If Byrd lands elsewhere, then the Bills have a need here. They just committed a chunk of money to Aaron Williams but they will need another starter at the position. Do they go with a one-year stop-gap measure, using Da'Norris Searcy or re-signing Jim Leonhard for that role? Possibly, but that wouldn't be ideal. Their best bet is to supplement the young talent that they have with a second-tier free agent -- Malcolm Jenkins is one possibility -- and target that position in the draft over the next two years. The Bills aren't doing themselves any favors if Duke Williams is atop their depth chart this summer.

3. Quarterback: Yes, quarterback. The Bills got themselves in a jam last season when Thad Lewis and Jeff Tuel saw the field. The events that led to the Bills' quarterback situation last season can be debated for years, but the reality is that they need a better fallback option next season. If they want a quarterback with potential and room for growth, they can address the position in the draft. If they want a veteran who can provide stability if EJ Manuel is injured again, then free agency is the way to go. However they choose to do it, the Bills need to push Lewis and Tuel for the backup jobs.

4. Tight end: Scott Chandler (and his team-leading 53 receptions) could be in another uniform next season. If so, the Bills will need help at tight end. Again, the draft is a possibility but the only realistic option at ninth overall is North Carolina's Eric Ebron. If the Bills don't go that direction this May, they will need some pass-catching ability at the position. Tony Moeaki could return to his pre-injury form, but the Bills should avoid a situation where, by mid-August, they're still waiting for Moeaki to emerge. There are some stronger names at the top of the free-agent class, including Jimmy Graham and Brandon Pettigrew. It would be surprising if the Bills chased either (Graham is franchised and would require the Bills giving up two first-round picks to sign him), but they could shoot for a second-tier free-agent like Garrett Graham to add another layer at tight end.

5. Defensive end: Similar to linebacker, this is a position that could be affected by the Schwartz hire. Pettine's scheme required a third "big body" along the defensive line, in a hybrid defensive end/tackle role. Alan Branch filled that role well and was rewarded with a three-year extension in December. His fit under Schwartz is less certain. In Detroit and Tennessee, Schwartz used two defensive ends with strong pass-rush ability. The Bills have that in Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes but lack depth beyond that. There's a deep free-agent crop this offseason headlined by Jared Allen, Robert Ayers, Anthony Spencer, Michael Johnson, and Justin Tuck. The Bills would make a splash if they dipped into that pool, but even adding a second-tier name would help.