OPINION: Bills face a challenging offseason

Buffalo's front office will have its work cut out for them
By WGR 550 SportsRadio

Yes, I’d like the Buffalo Bills to get J.J. Watt.

During his season-ending Zoom conference call, head coach Sean McDermott said the Bills need to do a better job of getting a pass rush with four guys. Watt would certainly help in that area. He may not be playing at the freakish level from earlier in his career, but he is still a very good pass rusher.

Having said that, I don’t see how the Bills could afford to sign Watt and do some of the other things they need to do this offseason. Especially if reports are true that Watt is hoping to earn as much of the $17.5 million he would have made with the Houston Texans next season.

The Bills can’t use up that kind of cap space.

My list of priorities for the Bills is a short one going into the free agency/trade portion of the league year, which kicks off next month.

I’d like to see the Bills re-sign linebacker Matt Milano.

It’s a different looking defense when Milano, who is an every down linebacker, is on the field. He can handle a number of roles and his instinct, ability, versatility is something the Bills need to hold on to at that position.

Based on what general manager Brandon Beane said during his season-ending Zoom conference call, it sounds like Milano would like to see what his value is on the open market. That might make you think about what the Bills said before Shaq Lawson and Jordan Phillips hit the free agent market last offseason. As you know, both players signed elsewhere.

That's why I would play the franchise tag card with Milano. It would cost a little more in terms of cap space, but Milano would be a big hole to fill.

I’m guessing that hole would be filled via the NFL Draft, unless the Bills are confident Tyrel Dodson could step in. The answer is not A.J Klein. He turned out to be a good depth piece, but he is not an every down linebacker.

According to Spotrac.com, Milano’s free agent market value is projected to be an average of $13.8 million. The projected franchise tag is $15.6 million.

Item No. 2 on my list is re-sign offensive lineman Jon Feliciano.

Spotrac estimates his market value at $8.3 million, which might be too pricey for a guard for some of you, but Feliciano is clearly one of the best-five offensive linemen, and he provides a very valuable insurance policy for center Mitch Morse, who has had issues with concussions in his NFL career.

I don’t think the Bills should cut Morse this offseason (more on that in a moment), but if that is part of their plan to create cap space, then signing Feliciano is an absolute must since he would be the leading candidate to start at center.

Item No. 3 is to find an upgrade at tight end, which most likely would have to come via free agency rather than a trade.

Now that they are good and more big contracts will be handed out in the future, it would behoove the Bills to hang on to their draft picks since those are relatively cheap, cost controlled contracts, and players drafted now may take the spot of players who the Bills can’t afford to keep in the future.

The Bills have done a great job of building one of the best wide receiver groups in the league, but they need more production in the passing game from the tight end position.

With two years down in Dawson Knox’s career, I feel exactly as I did after his rookie season. He definitely has a good skill set, but he needs to be more consistent. Knox, who has 52 catches for 676 yards and five touchdowns in his young NFL career, is the best option at that spot on the current roster.

The most catches by a Bills tight end in any game last season was four. A tight end recorded more than 40 receiving yards in a game only two times.

Two options in free agency are Jonnu Smith from the Tennessee Titans and Gerald Everett of the Los Angeles Rams.

Spotrac pegs Smith’s contract at an average annual value of $8 million. He is coming off career-highs in targets (65), catches (41), yards (448) and touchdowns (8). Over the last two seasons, Smith has 76 catches, 987 yards and 11 touchdowns. All off those totals are better than Knox and Tyler Kroft combined for the same period.

The 6-foot-3, 248 pound Smith was fourth among all tight ends in average yards after catch, and would give Josh Allen another red zone weapon. 26% of Smith’s targets with the Titans last season were in the red zone.

Everett would probably cost a little less than Smith. He is also coming off a career-best season with 41 catches for 417 yards and two touchdowns. He wasn’t really used that much in the Rams' passing game. Everett never had more than 40% of the snaps in his first three seasons in Los Angeles, but that number did go up to 57% last season. The 6-foot-3, 240-pound Everett was third among all tight ends in yards after catch in 2020.

Spotrac estimates his contract at an average of $7.3 million. If the Bills release wide receiver John Brown, perhaps some of that lost production can come from an increase out of the tight end spot.

Now comes the challenging part. How do the Bills pay for all of this since they are not blessed with cap space?

According to Spotrac, the Bills would have a little over $3 million in cap space if the cap goes up to $185 million. Teams were told to anticipate a cap no lower than $175 million, but recent reports say it could end up around $180 million.

No matter what, the Bills will likely have to release some players and maybe restructure contracts for some others to create room for offseason moves.

The prime cap cut candidates are Brown, Vernon Butler and Quinton Jefferson. Releasing those three players would give the Bills about $21 million in cap space.

Releasing Morse would add another $4.8 million, but I think the Bills are better off restructuring his deal since they can still save about $3 million and keep their starting center around for another season.

There was some speculation Lee Smith might retire. If that happens another $2.25 million in cap space becomes available.

There are other players who have high base salaries next season, and a portion of base salaries can be converted into a signing bonus. That would lower their cap numbers and give the Bills more room to add players.

The higher base salary players for next season include Stefon Diggs ($11.6 million), Tre'Davious White ($10.4 million), Dion Dawkins ($7.3 million), and Mario Addison ($6.6 million).

Don’t forget the Bills would also need cap space should they decide to give tender offers to restricted free agents Levi Wallace, Ike Boettger and Corey Bojorquez.

For the first time since they got here, Beane and McDermott face a challenging off season from the business standpoint. It will be interesting to see how they maneuver through the next few months to set up the 2021 roster.

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