It's been a quiet month-and-a-half around the halls of One Bills Drive since the season ended with the playoff loss in Houston. But that silence will shift to feverish activity within the month as the Bills embark on the offseason. NFL Free Agency begins one month from today.
In the third offseason under Brandon Beane, the fourth with Sean McDermott, the Bills are likely to continue their methodical team-building approach. They may not make big splashes, but they're going to make ripples as they continue their push to assemble a 'Championship Caliber' roster in Buffalo.
Here's a look ahead at some significant offseason milestones ahead, and what the Bills may have in store:
1. QUIET DOESN'T MEAN INACTIVE
There hasn't been much public comment from the Bills brain trust since the season ended. General manager Brandon Beane held a brief media scrum at the Senior Bowl last month. But that doesn't mean there hasn't been activity.
Beane and his personnel department, including assistant general manager Joe Schoen, Malik Boyd in pro personnel, Terrance Gray in college scouting, Dan Morgan, director of player personnel, and others, have been busy in the last several weeks assessing likely players who might become available in free agency, and setting the draft board.
Last week’s reported re-negotiated deal for veteran defensive tackle Star Lotulelei was just the first move in what may be a busy period of contract moves.
2. "TAG" YOU'RE IT – JUST A WEEK AWAY
The first day the Bills and other NFL teams can apply a franchise or transition tag on players is Tuesday Feb. 25th. That's one way to keep the free agent you want off the market, and the teams only have two weeks to make the decision.
There’s been speculation that Buffalo is considering using the franchise tag on defensive tackle Jordan Phillips before he hits free agency. That could put him in line for a 2020 salary of $15-16 million, for one year.
That's a lot of cash, even for a guy who had 9.5 sacks last season, second among NFL interior lineman. At least one Bills observer, Thad Brown of WROC-TV in Rochester, thinks it's too much.
"If you look around the national publications, the guys who rank the top 50 free agents for example, Jordan Phillips is nowhere to be found." Brown continued. "That doesn't mean that those guys are right. But I think it does mean that maybe Jordan Phillips value is not as high as we might think it to be. You might not have to pay that guy $10 million to keep him in Buffalo."
3. SHOULD THEY STAY OR SHOULD THEY GO?
It's not only Phillips. The Bills have important decisions on other 2019 Bills approaching the free agent market.
Shaq Lawson, Buffalo's first round draft pick in 2016, presents an interesting decision. He was an important and effective member of the Bills defensive line rotation last year, getting 46 percent of the snaps.
Others, including veteran cornerback Kevin Johnson, guard Quinton Spain and tackle LaAdrian Waddle, also could hit the market. The Bills may move on some of these players by signing them to new deals before free agency opens.
4. OPEN SEASON
And then it's on. The negotiation period for unrestricted free agents begins in a month. The "legal tampering" period goes for two days, and on March 18 the players can sign with new teams as the league year starts officially.
There are tempting targets at receiver and pass rusher for the Bills to consider. It's likely they'll target at least a couple of understated, non-flashy players who fit Buffalo's culture and approach. John Brown, Cole Beasley, and the haul of veteran offensive linemen last year in free agency seem to fit the profile of who the Bills might pursue.
5. BRADY'S FUTURE COULD SET THE TONE FOR FREE AGENCY
One month away from free agency, the future of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady seems like the biggest question. Does he return to New England? Does he explore other options around the league? He wouldn't retire, now, would he?
One observer of the situation says it may not be Brady's decision entirely. Christian Fauria, former New England tight end and Brady teammate, says the Patriots may be ready to move on.
"Why isn't it likely that the Patriots are likely to move on from him?" Fauria asked in an appearance on One Bills Live. "Why isn't it that the Patriots are not saying, 'You know what? We're not going to pay him $25 million; we won't even pay him $15 million. He's just not worth it. It's time for us to move on.' That's usually what happens."
"If you play long enough, you end up being on another team – that's the rule," Fauria says.
6. FOCUS ON THE DRAFT FOLLOWS FREE AGENCY
The Bills and the rest of the NFL head to Indianapolis for the Scouting Combine next week. And we're just two months away from the 2020 NFL Draft in Las Vegas.
Buffalo has a need at receiver, and maybe some pass rush help, especially if their free agent plans don't work out.
Former Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy, who sees a ton of college talent in his TV work now for ESPN, says Buffalo should focus on pass rush help in the first round, and get a wide receiver later.
"I think it's an excellent receiver draft. Excellent. Really, really good," he said last week in an appearance on One Bills Live. "If I were the Bills, I would hope that I could find value at receiver in the second or third round."
"I think it's a really good receiver draft where you can find excellent depth. And if you get a guy like Bryan Edwards from South Carolina in the late second round or early third round—that's as good, to me, as over-drafting a guy in the first round."
Among those mentioned by McElroy as first round edge rush prospects for Buffalo are Iowa defensive end AJ Epenesa and outside linebacker K'Lavon Chaisson of LSU.