Inside the Bills
Sean McDermott wasted little time in laying out what he hoped to see this offseason.
The Buffalo Bills’ head coach has delivered the franchise its first AFC East championship since 1995, but he knows doing so again won’t be easy.
“It is tough to stay there,” McDermott said. “Staying power and sustained success, we've had some of it, but there's always challenges every year and they're different every year.”
For the Bills this offseason, one of those challenges is the salary cap. Although the final number has not been set by the NFL, the Bills are likely going to be right up against the cap – and that’s before the business of free agency and the draft even begins.
“It starts with the mentality of trying to keep as much of the pieces of our team together as possible,” McDermott said two days after the Bills’ loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game.
That’s not going to be easy for General Manager Brandon Beane and his staff. With 14 pending unrestricted free agents on the roster, the Bills have some serious maneuvering to do to bring back even some of them.
“Teams that can put the team first and continue to put the team first are teams that will stay together and win year after year,” McDermott said.
With that in mind, here is a look at each of the 14 players scheduled to become unrestricted free agents when the NFL league year begins March 17, along with the percentage chance of the Bills and GM Beane being able to retain them:
Matt Barkley: 80%
The Bills haven’t needed to use Barkley much over the last two years because – knock on wood – Josh Allen has stayed healthy. Nevertheless, Barkley does have a valuable role. He’s a trusted sounding board in the quarterback room who has developed a great relationship with Allen. The healthy dialogue between the two during the practice week and on the sideline during games is beneficial to the Bills’ starter. The Bills have Jake Fromm, a fifth-round draft pick in 2020, who could compete to be the No. 2 quarterback and there will be the usual glut of backups on the open market – some of whom might arguably be better on-field options – but if the Bills value what Barkley brings to the locker room, they should be able to keep him.
Jon Feliciano: 70%
It’s somewhat surprising the Bills haven’t already retained Feliciano. Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll loves Feliciano’s toughness and versatility. Whenever center Mitch Morse has gone out of the lineup, Feliciano has shifted over from guard to center. Feliciano’s teammates voted him the team’s recipient of the Ed Block Courage Award, which is given to one player on each of the NFL’s 32 teams who serves as a role model to others based on his courage, sportsmanship and ability to inspire others. Allen is a big fan, too. Feliciano did have an interesting tweet Friday when he posted, “12 games no sacks.” Perhaps negotiations aren’t going as smoothly as expected. Nevertheless, it would be a surprise if he were to depart.
Taiwan Jones: 75%
Jones didn’t do much offensively (just four snaps), but he played a big part on special teams, quietly helping transform that unit to one of the league’s best. The Bills jumped from 28th to eighth in veteran NFL writer Rick Gosselin’s annual ranking of special-teams units, which are recognized as the league standard. The Bills might want to try to add a fourth running back who could do a little more if needed on offense, but the team has prioritized quality play on special teams. For that reason, Beane should have plenty of interest in bringing Jones back.
Tyler Kroft: 5%
Kroft originally signed a three-year contract with the Bills, but that was reworked after the 2019 season to eliminate the final year, which makes him an unrestricted free agent this month. He had a pair of touchdown catches in a Week 3 win against the Los Angeles Rams, but was a healthy inactive four times in the second half of the season. The same was true in the postseason. His wife, Lexi, tweeted about “round two” of free agency a few days ago, a good indication that the Krofts fully expect Tyler will hit the open market. Don’t expect him back.
Dean Marlowe: 90%
Marlowe has been with head coach Sean McDermott for six years. He knows the system and is a reliable backup to starting safeties Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde. He does not figure to command a big salary on the open market, either, so this should not be a complicated negotiation.
Isaiah McKenzie: 60%
He has nicely settled into the fifth receiver role, averaging about 15 snaps per game. McKenzie is a decoy on many of those plays, using jet-sweep motion to keep defenses honest. He also has some return ability, which he showed off in Week 17 when he returned a punt for a touchdown against Miami. If Andre Roberts isn’t re-signed, that could be a primary factor in McKenzie's return.
Matt Milano: 50%
Easily the most difficult decision Beane faces. Milano’s impact on the defense is hard to overstate. He’s the type of three-down linebacker whom every NFL team seeks. The fact he developed into that role as a fifth-round draft pick made him all the more valuable because his rookie contract was peanuts in NFL terms. Now, however, Milano’s contract figures to be more like caviar. Can Beane fit a deal in the range of $12 million per season under a tight salary cap? He’s going to have to get creative, because Milano figures to get at least that amount on the open market. The Bills have seemingly braced for his potential departure by using the line he’s “earned the right” to test free agency, which is the same thing that was said about Shaq Lawson and Jordan Phillips last year before they left.
The Bills could keep Milano by using the franchise tag, which is projected at $15.6 million for linebackers, with the hopes of working out a long-term contract that substantially reduces his 2021 cap hit. That decision will need to be made by Tuesday's deadline to apply the tag. Losing Milano would sting. He’s not an easy player to replace. We’ll call this one a coin flip.
Trent Murphy: 5%
In hindsight, the Bills made a mistake keeping Murphy on the roster for 2020. They would have been better off taking the cap savings that would have come by cutting him. The defense likely wouldn’t have noticed much of a dropoff had it rolled with Darryl Johnson Jr. and A.J. Epenesa at defensive end. It’s understandable the Bills didn’t want to rush Epenesa along as a rookie, but keeping Murphy around ended up being an expensive insurance policy. The money that would have been saved by releasing him would have helped the team’s cap crunch this offseason. Murphy played in 10 games, making nine starts and finishing with 19 tackles and two sacks. He was a healthy inactive six times in the regular season and twice in the playoffs. It was clear at that point he wasn’t long for Buffalo.
Josh Norman: 20%
It’s hard to say enough good things about Norman as a person. The work he put in to support small businesses in Buffalo impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic was extraordinary, especially for a player so new to the community. It’s too bad the media couldn’t interact with Norman more. He’s an exceptionally good interview subject who never shied away from a question and it would have been great for fans to hear from him more often. Norman has a bright future whenever he decides his playing days are done. A second season with the Bills, however, seems unlikely. Norman dealt with hamstring injuries that limited him to just nine games in 2020. He started three times, finishing with 24 tackles, two fumble recoveries and one interception that he returned for a touchdown in Week 17 against Miami.
Ty Nsekhe: 55%
The Bills didn’t have to call on Nsekhe much in 2020, as the veteran offensive tackle played just 54 offensive snaps. Nsekhe turns 36 during the 2021 season, so it’s doubtful he’ll find another contract like the Bills gave him before the 2019 season – two years, $10 million. If the Bills want to bring him back, it will likely have to be in the $1.5 million range. If so, they’d be bringing back a player they know well who is plenty familiar with OC Daboll’s system.
Andre Roberts: 30%
The 33-year-old has been solid in his two years as the Bills’ primary kick and punt returner. Although he has failed to reach the end zone, he’s provided sure hands and consistently given the team solid starting field position. He plays a minimal role on offense – he played just 62 snaps – so the Bills might want a bit more versatility out of their sixth receiver.
Daryl Williams: 25%
Beane did a terrific job of acquiring Williams last year on the cheap. The former Carolina Panther played 1,048 snaps at right tackle, winning the job in training camp and pushing Cody Ford inside to guard. Williams did so while earning just $2.5 million. At 28, he set himself up for a nice payday during this round of free agency. Unfortunately for the Bills, he likely priced himself out of Buffalo – unless Beane prioritizes re-singing Williams over Milano. With the Panthers expected to put the franchise tag on Taylor Moton, Williams is arguably the best right tackle available. It would not be a surprise to see him get more than $10 million per season.
Brian Winters: 15%
The Bills signed Winters after he was released by the New York Jets in August. Winters played in all 16 games and started nine, but ended the season as a backup after Feliciano returned from his torn pectoral muscle. With Ford expected back along with the potential returns of both Feliciano and restricted free agent Ike Boettger, there is not a big need to re-sign Winters.
T.J. Yeldon: 10%
Yeldon has spent most of the past two seasons on the sideline, having played just nine games, including three in 2020. He’s produced at a decent level when called upon, rushing for 133 yards on 27 carries and catching 14 passes for 146 yards and one touchdown. Yeldon, though, hasn’t been able to push for more playing time, with the Bills choosing their third running back based on contributions on special teams. Yeldon doesn’t turn 28 until October, but the Bills might want to bring in a later draft pick in a cost-cutting measure to push Devin Singletary and Zack Moss. That makes Yeldon’s return unlikely.