With just over two weeks to go until the start of the new NFL year, the Bills are poised to make several personnel moves in the next few weeks. There's a new coaching staff in place, with a fresh set of eyes on the roster and some new needs to address in terms of personnel. Here's a list of the Bills top nine storylines for the weeks ahead as the roster takes shape:
1. THE TYROD QUESTION
He's got a winning record in 29 NFL starts. He's been to the Pro Bowl in each of his first two years as a starter. But the Bills are presumably still wrestling with the decision on whether to exercise their contract option on Taylor. And according to Buffalo's decision makers, they'll base their decision on Taylor's viability as a championship-level quarterback, not on finances.
Exercising the contract option on Taylor would eat up a chunk of Buffalo's salary cap, but it would make him around the 20th highest paid QB in the league--not unreasonable.
The Bills may be interested in getting some cap flexibility by reducing Taylor's cap hit, which may mean a renegotiated deal. There have been various reports in recent weeks suggesting Taylor may or may not be interested in renegotiating.
But the Taylor decision is the linchpin in many other offseason moves the Bills have in mind. Buffalo has until two days into the new league year, March 11, to decide whether to pick up the option.
2. WHO FITS IN A NEW DEFENSE?
Head Coach Sean McDermott brings in a new defense and a new defensive coordinator, Leslie Frazier. And after two seasons playing Rex Ryan's scheme, with its 3-4 front as a base, the Bills may see a shift in their base defense. McDermott and Frazier have run more traditional 4-3 defenses in their NFL careers.
If the Bills move to a 4-3, they will have some decisions to make on key defenders and most likely some holes to fill.
Who will step in at the critical weak-side linebacker position? Which 3-4 defensive ends (if any) can make the switch to OLB in a new 4-3 scheme? Do the Bills need corners more adept at zone coverage as opposed to the primary man responsibilities they had the last two years?
After weeks of reviewing last year's personnel, the Bills new coaching staff should be ready to put an action plan in place to play the new defensive scheme.
3. KEY FREE AGENTS TO ASSESS
The answer to the question of who fits in the defense goes a long way towards determining Buffalo's approach to free agency in a couple of weeks.
The "legal tampering" phase of free agency begins on March 7, with signings allowed two days later. To date, the Bills have 22 unrestricted free agents set to hit the market. But there are about a half-dozen key free agents to make decisions on in the weeks ahead.
LB Zach Brown may be the answer to the question above about weak-side linebacker. But after a career year at inside linebacker last year for Buffalo, Brown will get some attention if the hit's the open market.
CB Stephon Gilmore is poised for a big payday whether it's with the Bills or another team. WR Robert Woods has put up solid, consistent production in his first four years in the NFL and is likely to be high on the list of sought after WR options.
Another WR, Marquise Goodwin, has demonstrated value as a speedy third option and will likely attract some interest.
Pro Bowl MVP Lorenzo Alexander hits the open market after one year in Buffalo that demonstrated he has more to offer than just outstanding special teams ability.
Jordan Mills heads to free agency after 21 starts in the least two seasons with the Bills; 16 last year at RT.
FB Jerome Felton, WR Justin Hunter, and DT Corbin Bryant are other upcoming UFAs who may factor into Buffalo's plans.
4. CAN THE O-LINE STAY TOGETHER? OR IMPROVE?
The Bills have led the league in rushing each of the last two years and they've done it with a consistent, capable group up front on the offensive line. But they've got some questions to answer about the O-line group.
The aforementioned Jordan Mills is the incumbent starter at right tackle. But whether the Bills will make a big financial commitment to keep him around is still in the air. Cyrus Kouandjio got five starts at LT and more than held his own. He would merit some consideration at tackle, either on the right side or at LT if the Bills want to shift Cordy Glenn to the other side.
And there's also Seantrel Henderson, who has battled a serious ailment the last two seasons and still has five games left on his substance abuse suspension from last November.
5. RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS TO BE TENDERED
It's not just the unrestricted free agents; the Bills have some restricted free agents who will deserve consideration for tender offers in the next few weeks.
Backup RB Mike Gillislee, P Colton Schmidt, and OL Ryan Groy all played valuable roles last season. The Bills will have to decide which type of tender offer to make to reserve their rights for the upcoming season.
6. WHO'S HEALTHY? HOW'S THE RECOVERY?
All of Buffalo's offseason personnel decisions will be made with an eye on the recovery of some key players who missed time or had surgery from injuries last year.
Leading the list – WR Sammy Watkins, who had a second procedure on his fractured foot last month. The Bills expect him to be healthy for training camp.
C Eric Wood is recovering from a broken leg suffered in November. And there should be an update soon on the decision made by S Aaron Williams regarding his future, after being sidelined by another neck injury last October.
7. CARDALE JONES – SIGNS OF PROGRESS?
There's a lot of attention focused on QB Cardale Jones as he prepares for his second NFL season. The fourth round pick a year ago, Jones saw his first and only action in the season finale against the Jets.
He got limited reps in practice in 2016. But his raw ability and tremendous stature make Jones an intriguing prospect at the QB position.
8. NEW COACHES – EARLIER PRACTICES
Jones and the rest of the Bills will benefit from some extra practice time afforded the Bills thanks to the new coaching staff. The Bills first offseason workout period is scheduled to start in about six weeks. That means extra work and extra reps for any player who wants them during the voluntary period, and extra practice time when attendance is mandatory.
9. ANOTHER SPRING TIME SURPRISE?
Two years ago, it was the March 10 blockbuster trade that brought Shady McCoy to the Bills. Three years ago, it was the bold draft day move that landed Sammy Watkins. Do the Bills have another spring surprise in the works?
GM Doug Whaley has demonstrated a penchant for dramatic personnel moves in his three-plus years on the job. Don't discount the possibility of another big move, in free agency or the draft, in the weeks and months ahead.