The Buffalo Bills shocked the NFL two years ago when, virtually out of nowhere, they made the biggest splash in free agency by signing the No. 1 player available on the market, defensive end Mario Williams, to the richest contract ever given to a defensive player. Don't look for a repeat scenario this year as the Bills - despite having approximately $23 million in cap space - aren't likely to be in play on the upper-echelon level players.
Think more in line with 2013 when the Bills signed two players for manageable deals who both contributed to an improved defense: Manny Lawson earned a starting outside linebacker job, and defensive lineman Alan Branch became a starter when defensive end Alex Carrington was lost to injury in Week 4. Branch has since been signed to a contract extension.
The Bills' big move on the first day of the open signing period was bringing back kicker Dan Carpenter, signing him to a four-year contract. They also re-signed oft-injured tight end Mike Caussin, who has played only six games since joining the team late in the 2010 season.
The team also released quarterback Kevin Kolb, with general manager Doug Whaley announcing he had failed a physical. Kolb, who missed all of last season following a preseason concussion, the latest of multiple concussions he has suffered in recent years, was due a roster bonus this month as part of the two-year deal he signed last offseason.
Carpenter joined the Bills the week of the 2013 season opener after Dustin Hopkins suffered a groin injury. Carpenter, who had been cut by the Dolphins, Cardinals and Jets in a span of about four months, put together one of the finest kicking performances in team history. He tied the Bills' single-season record for field goals with 33 (in 36 attempts), and his 131 points were the third-most by a Buffalo kicker.
"This reiterates our core principle, to sign our own guys and a guy that made 33 out of 36 field goals in that stadium is somebody that we were very interested in and we were very happy to get him signed up for a long-term deal," said Whaley.
During his six-year NFL career (the first five of which were spent in Miami), Carpenter has made 160 of 191 field goals (83.8-percent), and 186 of 187 extra points. His 160 field goals are the fourth-most in the NFL since 2008.
What's interesting about the signing is that second-year player Dustin Hopkins is still on the roster. Hopkins had won the Bills' job in 2013 training camp, but suffered a groin injury the week of the season opener, and that's why Carpenter was signed. There is talk that coach Doug Marrone might keep Hopkins for kickoffs as he has a stronger leg than Carpenter and was proficient at producing touchbacks in college at Florida State.
"I'm not going to stand up here and tell you that I have the strongest leg in the league because I can tell you a few that have stronger legs," said Carpenter. "It all depends, there is so much going on in the game and every situation and every kickoff is different. With the score and the time of the game, weather, field conditions, so it's hard to stand up here and say that I'm going to be able to kick one nine yards deep in the end zone every time because the situations change throughout the game and throughout the season as well. It's kind of difficult to answer."
The Bills were unable to come to an agreement with free safety Jairus Byrd on a long-term deal, and rather than use the franchise tag on him as they did last year, the Bills opted to let him test the market, and he will strike it rich. And that's what happened when Buyrd signed a six-year contract with the Saints worth $54 million with $28 million guaranteed.
Once negotiations broke down for the final time, the Bills turned their attention to re-signing 2011 second-round draft pick Aaron Williams to a four-year, $26 million extension. Williams will replace Byrd at free safety, and third safety Da'Norris Searcy will get the first chance to win the strong safety spot.
"We'll be active in free agency," team president and CEO Russ Brandon said last week. "We have a master plan on everything related to our current roster and going into free agency."
And that plan will be based on building through the draft, trying to re-sign a few of the team's own unrestricted free agents, and fill a couple holes with veteran mid-level free agents.
With Byrd gone, tight end Scott Chandler and Carrington are the next most-important players on the Bills' slim free agent list (safety Jim Leonhard, linebacker Arthur Moats and offensive linemen Thomas Welch are the other unrestricted free agents).
Chandler led the Bills in receptions (53) and receiving yards (655) and has, at the very least, worked himself into the top half of productive tight ends in the league. He earned $2.75 million last season, and the team wants him back, but with Tony Moeaki (a potential steal of a signing late last year), 2013 draft pick Chris Gragg and blocker Lee Smith, the Bills aren't going to over-pay for Chandler, who could command as much as $4 million per year.
Carrington's stock was hurt because he missed three-fourths of the 2013 season with a torn quad and it might not cost much to bring back a player who was largely unproven since being drafted in 2010.
"We set our priority of our guys we want to have back and the value we want to have them back at," Whaley said. "We will not be able to get everybody. With this system with the salary cap you're not going to sign everybody, but you want to start at the top and have a priority list and go down from there."
If their visits-to-date are any indication, it appears they want to sign an inside linebacker. Both Jasper Brinkley (Arizona) and Jameel McClain (Baltimore) were in Buffalo last week because the Bills want to move 2013 rookie star Kiko Alonso out of the middle and play him on the weak side.
Alonso finished third in the NFL in tackles, but he was undersized playing in the middle and can better use his athleticism and quickness on the outside. Brinkley has already signed with Minnesota, but McClain is still available.
Offensive line is another area the Bills will explore. Several mock drafts have the Bills picking an offensive tackle with the No. 9 overall pick, but there is also a need at left guard and Marrone would prefer a veteran. Both left guard Doug Legursky and right tackle Erik Pears underperformed in 2013 and the Bills need to upgrade. The tackles may cost too much, but the Bills will explore the guard market.
Also, it was confirmed Tuesday that Miami cornerback Nolan Carroll will visit the Bills.
--The Bills re-signed cornerback Brandon Smith to a new contract before free agency began. The 6-foot-1, 205-pounder came into the NFL with Carolina as an undrafted free agent. He joined the Bills' practice squad in September and saw action in two games, the first of his NFL career. He will compete for a backup job in the secondary.
--The Bills introduced a new variable ticket pricing plan in an effort to raise their season-ticket base, but also to help individual game sales after a season in which only two of seven games played at Ralph Wilson Stadium were legitimate sellouts. The Bills manufactured two other sellouts, and three games did not sell out. "The goal of variable pricing is to create a pricing structure that best reflects the market demand for all games," said Russ Brandon, the team president and CEO. It is expected that the Bills' eight home games (the team will not play a game in Toronto this year) will be divided into four pricing tiers based on the opponent, and the costs will be determined after the NFL schedule is released in April. Also, the Bills announced a season ticket price increase for the first time since 2010.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--LINEBACKER: The Bills would love to find a young veteran inside linebacker which would enable them to move Kiko Alonso to the outside. If Arthur Moats leaves via free agency, they will also need to add depth to the unit.
--OFFENSIVE LINE: Coach Doug Marrone has let it be known he wants to upgrade the line. Ideally, he'd like to find new starters at left guard and right tackle, and add depth. That can't all be accomplished in the draft.
--QUARTERBACK: The Bills continue to say they like backup Thad Lewis, but in all honesty, he's better suited to being a third-stringer. Bringing in a veteran who could capably step in for starter EJ Manuel - who proved to be injury-prone as a rookie - is a must.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS (not tendered offers)
--OL Thomas Welch (not tendered as RFA) has seen limited duty since coming to Buffalo and likely won't stir much interest so a return to Buffalo is expected. He can provide depth at both tackle and guard.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS
--DE Alex Carrington had the misfortune of suffering a serious injury in his contract year. He missed three-quarters of 2013 with a torn quadriceps muscle, and that figures to impact his value on the market. The Bills would love to re-sign him, and they could do so at a reduced rate because Carrington only became a starter-worthy player midway through 2012.
--TE Scott Chandler enjoyed the finest season of his career as he led the Bills with 53 catches for 655 yards. The Bills have been working to re-sign him, but he could fetch something in the $4 million per year range and the Bills may not want to go that high. They have decent depth at the position, especially if Tony Moeaki can stay healthy and play the way he once did for Kansas City.
--FS Jim Leonhard was brought in last year when Jairus Byrd's case of plantar fasciitis forced him to miss the first five games. He lent a veteran presence to the secondary, and because his market value shouldn't be too high, a return to Buffalo is certainly in play.
--LB Arthur Moats is a career backup and special teams player, so losing him would not be a catastrophe, but Moats has some versatility and would provide good value at the right price. Scuttlebutt was that the Browns were interested in Moats, and that was interesting. New Browns head coach Mike Pettine was Buffalo's defensive coordinator last year, but Moats lost playing time on defense late in the season.
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: None.
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS
--WR Chris Hogan (tendered at $495,000) saw time as a backup in 2013, making 10 catches for 83 yards, and also became a key member of the Bills special teams units and finished the season with 10 tackles.
--FB Frank Summers (tendered at $570,000) has bounced around the league (originally he was a fifth-round pick of the Steelers in 2009) but he found a home in Buffalo last year. He played in 15 games (nine starts) and carried 12 times for 46 yards with one touchdown and proved to be a solid lead blocker.
--OL Antoine McClain (tendered at $495,000) joined the Bills midway through the season after being cut by Oakland. The 336-pounder was inactive for every game, but is expected to compete for a backup position this year.
--K Dan Carpenter: UFA; 1 yr, terms unknown.
--TE Mike Caussin: Potential RFA; terms unknown.
--P Brian Moorman: Potential UFA; $955,000/1 yr.
--WR Ramses Barden: FA; $1.475M/2 yrs.
--QB Dennis Dixon: FA; $1.475M/2 yrs.
--S Jairus Byrd: UFA Saints; $54M/6 yrs, $28M guaranteed.
--QB Kevin Kolb (released/failed physical).
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