Stop the music, Buddy. No more musical chairs.

Photo property of Rick Stewart / Getty Images

 

Pat Williams, Antoine Winfield, Travis Henry, Nate Clements, Willis McGahee, Jason Peters, Jabari Greer, Marshawn Lynch… what do these men (and dozens like them) have in common? They all got their starts as Buffalo Bills and when their contracts came up, the team didn’t want to pay for them to continue playing here so they were either let go without a consideration or traded away to save a few dollars.

For years, this has been an issue that has plagued the Bills. They simply seem inept when it comes to recognizing the players that make the most sense to retain in order to field a decent team. In some cases, such as Clements’ and Peters’, the money requested far outvalued the production shown ($80 and $60 million, respectively) so the argument could be made for letting them walk, but as a whole, the logic has seemed to be to just let free agents walk and try to reload through the draft and with low-level signings. When you’re letting those players take off in three or four years, the whole process is shot and entirely counterproductive.

2012 can be the year that mindset changes, and if Nix and company want to win, it needs to be. With eighteen contracts to consume themselves with in the next month-and-a-half, they can really set the tone for what they are trying to do. There’s a handful of starters and key role players in this group, and if they don’t at least make a valiant effort to bring them back, you’ve really got to wonder if it’s just more of the same here. For a team that showed so much promise to start the year, let’s hope not.

RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS

OL Kraig Urbik & Chad Rinehart, LS Garrison Sanborn

 

Six months ago, you couldn’t bribe me into saying that Kraig Urbik should have a job in the NFL, much less a starting role with the Buffalo Bills. After seeing how well he played this year, however, I’d say his return needs to be made a priority for the team. He proved to be a strong and versatile player who works well in offensive line coach Joe D’Alessandris’ blocking schemes, manning every spot on the line besides right tackle at some point throughout the 2011 season. Urbik saw most of his time at right guard and eventually became the team’s starting center after Andy Levitre proved ineffective there (following Eric Wood’s season-ending injury) later in the year. He shouldn’t command a huge number, and paired with Rinehart, he makes up some solid interior depth should Levitre or Wood go down again.

Rinehart stepped in wonderfully to both guard positions at various points this year and made quite an impression, easily earning himself a new deal in my eyes. The injuries and constant shifts made these two players gain much more experience on the line than they otherwise would have, thus making them hard to dispose of. Sanborn has continued his three-year dominance amongst long snappers, one of the most unsung positions in all of professional sports. He’s incredibly consistent and is among the best in the league at what he does. It would be simple to say that he is a lock to be brought back, but we all thought the same about Mike Schneck before he was cut just prior to the season opener in 2007 in favor of the (much worse) rookie Ryan Neill. Quality long-snapping is integral to solid special teams play and Sanborn has helped  Brian Moorman greatly since being signed out of Florida State in 2009.

I fully expect the team to re-sign all three of these guys, and they may tender Urbik and Rinehart with the low-end compensation which, since both were third round picks, would send back a choice in that round if they were to sign elsewhere.

UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS

HB Tashard Choice, TE Scott Chandler, WR Steve Johnson, Roscoe Parrish, Ruvell Martin, Derek Hagan, OT Demetrius Bell, LB Andra Davis, Kirk Morrison, Reggie Torbor, DB Bryan Scott, Reggie Corner, K Rian Lindell, Dave Rayner, Brandon Coutu

 

It looked like a bad signing at the time, after being cut twice in the same season (by Dallas and Washington) with a combined 155 yards from scrimmage in seven games, but Tashard Choice helped out the Bills in his six appearances this year. It was clear after Fred Jackson went down that CJ Spiller wasn’t going to be able to shoulder the load himself, and Johnny White wasn’t ready to play at the level we needed him to, so Choice (who has ample experience in Gailey’s system) was brought in to help out. As the second back, he still only compiled 121 yards and a score in those six games, but he served to spell the younger Spiller and picked up on blocking when needed, something that quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick surely was thankful for during the dark days of this season. Still, Spiller broke out of his shell with 830 yards from scrimmage and 6 touchdowns (561/4 rushing) in 2011 and ended up developing decent enough blocking capabilities to stay on the field in third down situations, something that was hindering him all of last year and early in this one. Because of Spiller’s emergence, Gailey has already said he’ll get a much increased workload – something closer to a 50/50 split with Jackson – in 2012. Due to that, as well as the hopeful further development of White, I can’t see Choice being offered a deal to return. You best believe, though, that if someone goes down, he’ll be the first on the short list of backs called in.

You know how when Rian Lindell’s injury prompted a Dave Rayner signing everyone was worried? It was justified. Rayner completed just 66% of his kicks for Buffalo this year, which fully explains why he was a free agent in mid-November. With every miss (including two in his last game, a home victory against Denver), Lindell was becoming Rayner’s biggest fan. Before the injury, Lindell had made good on 86% of his kicks but wasn’t a lock to be re-signed. With Rayner’s showing, and later (for one game, the last of the season) Brandon Coutu’s (0-1), Lindell’s value became increasingly apparent. Since it was a shoulder injury that sidelined Rian and not something that would alter his kicking mechanics, he should already be back to 100% and able to pass a physical. Coutu may get a call to training camp just for an extra leg, but Lindell will get his payday for sure, while Rayner searches for his twelfth NFL team since 2005.

The linebacker contracts that are expiring likely won’t even get consideration until Wannstedt decides which scheme he is installing for 2012. With 33-year-old Andra Davis, 30-year-old Reggie Torbor, and 29-year-old Kirk Morrison all barely factoring in throughout 2011, it’s unlikely that any get offers from the Bills. Davis was a team captain, but he also came into the season as a starter alongside Nick Barnett before eventually giving way to rookie Kelvin Sheppard. If the team shifts to a 4-3, Morrison may be offered a low-end deal to come back as interior depth, but both Davis and Torbor are built for, physically and mentally, the 3-4 and would be better off moving on. If a 3-4 stays intact, I could see Davis receiving a one-year contract to continue mentoring young guys such as Sheppard, Chris White, and Scott McKillop, but that’s unlikely. I think that Morrison will have better opportunities and I can’t see any of these three returning to Buffalo in 2012.

Both reserves in the secondary, veterans Bryan Scott and Reggie Corner have two very different roles with this defense. Scott plays both safety positions and linebacker, when the scheme calls for it, as well as extensive play on the kick coverage team. Corner has been cut by this regime twice already and is only continually brought back because he knows the defense that another signee would have to take time to pick up. I’d be surprised if Scott didn’t return as his value to the defense and the different roles he takes depending on the packages employed are hard to replace, though Da’Norris Searcy looked up to the task of doing so during his rookie season this year. Corner was, even with injuries, the team’s fourth cornerback at his best point in 2011 and won’t return. Nix has already said that he’d like to add at least two more corners in free agency, and even if there are no other moves, a starting tandem of Terrence McGee and Drayton Florence with Aaron Williams and Justin Rogers coming on in nickel and dime situations is more than enough, at least for one more season, to keep Corner out.

The writing was on the wall midway through the season for Demetrius Bell – after he returned from injury, completely healthy, to continue sitting on the bench in favor of fourth-round rookie Chris Hairston. Bell did finally end up getting one more start and some spot duty here and there, but the fact that Hairston so seamlessly replaced an opening day starter isn’t good tidings for the latter. Bell could easily net a decent payday from another team if he chooses to test the waters, possibly as a right-tackle starter for a team in serious need, but he may not have any other choice. If the Bills do offer him a deal, it will be as a reserve, and it won’t even be a guarantee. Nix came out this past week to publicly say that, while he was pleased with the play of the offensive line (led the league with just 23 sacks allowed), he still thinks that left tackle is a position of need in the draft this April. If the Bills were to go out and grab someone like Matt Kalil, Jonathan Martin, or Riley Reiff in the first round then Bell would have to compete with Hairston to be able to back them and right tackle Erik Pears up. Is that a position that he’d even want to put himself in? I think it’s safe to say that we’ve seen the last of Bell in a Bills uniform.

Another opening day starter, tight end Scott Chandler, had his breakout season in 2011, catching 38 balls for close to 400 yards and six touchdowns after recording just one catch in his previous two years as a pro. He began the season as a one-dimensional red-zone weapon for Ryan Fitzpatrick, but as teams began to pick up on the big man’s tendencies, he became less effective there. When that happened, Gailey adjusted his routes and got him more involved in the regular passing game, which helped to further open up the offense for Fitzpatrick and Jackson. Still, 389 yards isn’t exactly elite, so while Chandler is a solid blocker and a good target for Fitz, he’s not an absolute necessity. Considering Tennessee just set the market for low-end tight ends by signing their third stringer Craig Stevens to a four-year, fifteen million dollar deal, it’s safe to say that Chandler’s agent would be looking to an upgrade over that, and you don’t need me to tell you that Scott’s production so far hasn’t exactly warranted a contract of that stature. I think that Nix and Gailey both would like him to return, but at what cost? We’ll see what happens over the next few weeks, assuredly, but don’t get your hopes up, Chandler fans.

Did you know that the Bills have fourteen wideouts in their organization in some capacity at this moment? All of those guys under contract and they still can’t find a competent compliment for Steve Johnson. Donald Jones is penciled in as the number two, and he competed with Marcus Easley in camp for that last year along with Roscoe Parrish, but the production and consistency required simply weren’t there. Nix and Gailey both have come out to say that they would like to add a big, playmaking wideout this offseason, as well as another ‘Parrish-like’ slot receiver – which leads me to believe Roscoe’s time here is up. It’s unfortunate, because Parrish was so heavily underutilized by Dick Jauron and has ended his last two years with Gailey actually using him on the injured reserve with a combined ten games played. I think that the team would like him to return as a third or fourth receiver, to interchange with David Nelson and to stretch the field on open sets, but he’s another player that could likely make more and have a bigger role elsewhere. The injuries may play in our favor though, as other teams may not have nearly the right interest to make an offer after not seeing him complete a season since 2009. Ruvell Martin and Derek Hagan were both brought in to attempt to fill that number two role after Jones was hurt early in the season, and neither could do so. Martin can’t run effective routes and has terrible hands, so I can’t imagine him getting so much as a thought from our offices, but Hagan has earned some praise from Gailey and now-former receivers coach Stan Hixon (now with Penn State in the same capacity) throughout his limited time with the team in 2011. A 6’2″ target, formerly of the Oakland Raiders, Hagan showed solid route running and caught 13 passes in four games of limited action, including a touchdown against Miami. I would be surprised if he didn’t get an offer to stick around and compete in the crowded pool of talent we have at the position throughout the summer.

Of the four receivers whose contracts are up, there is only one that can be considered a priority – rather, the priority – for Nix and the rest of the Bills front office this year. Antics aside, Steve Johnson is the best wideout we’ve had since Eric Moulds (yeah, I know, how’s that guy you’re thinking of doing in Baltimore?) was tearing things up for every bad quarterback to don a red helmet in the late nineties and early 2000’s. I’ve put this out there plenty before, but it bears repeating, I don’t care about a player’s character or attitude as long as they are doing their job – and Johnson does his job. Simply put, Steve Johnson gets points – Steve Johnson gets yards – Steve Johnson draws coverage – Steve Johnson makes this offense go. You let him walk away and collect his big payday from a contending club and you set this offense back significantly. That would be an exercise in the Buffalo way, the same thing that jettisoned the list of guys I started this piece off with out of town. This kid is the definition of a home-grown talent. We brought him up from a seventh round nothing to one of the top wideouts in the game today, and he deserves to be paid as such. His rhythm and level of understanding shared with Fitzpatrick is something that you can’t get by just bringing in another name. Nix and Gailey both said this week that the past issues he’s had have been dealt with, and if he were to return he’d know what to expect if it happens again. To have a disciplinary scale in for him – and others who do things similar – is what has been needed all along anyways. They need a true number one target here, and Johnson is that guy. This is one of those do what it takes kind of players – re-sign him and keep those playoffs in sight.

They’ve got until the first week of March to negotiate with these guys before they hit the open market, and I’m interested to see how it plays out. The personnel moves this offseason could serve to be huge in giving that final push into the postseason for this team (or the cement shoes to the pits of mediocrity – your call, Buddy). Let’s just hope they do what’s right. I’ll see you again next week to discuss other team’s free agents and who we should be going after. Until then, Go Bills.

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