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Analyzing What’s Left of the Defensive Free Agent Market

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The big wave of NFL Free Agency moves have come and gone, and while Buffalo sure has been active, the bulk of their transactions have fit a “run it back” theme, as Brandon Beane has scarcely dipped his feet into the free-agent pool outside of One Bills Drive.

So far, this is how the Bills have dealt with their defensive unit:

Brought Back:

  • Matt Milano
  • Levi Wallace
  • Andre Smith

Extended:

  • Micah Hyde
  • Tyler Matakevich

Released/Let Walk

  • Quinten Jefferson
  • Trent Murphy

Reduced Contracts:

  • Vernon Butler
  • Mario Addison

What it Means

Buffalo is aware of their need on the defensive line. The Bills were suitors in the JJ Watt sweepstakes and rumored to have interest in the big pass rusher market, but no splash was made, as Beane focused his attention in-house. However, reducing the contracts of Addison and Butler while letting Jefferson go shows a desire for better production if not change. All three were signed last off-season and were meant to be the final pieces to an elite defense but fell short of expectations.

With a wide net of pass-rushing options and a limited salary cap, solid front-four talent has been left on the market, giving the Bills some options if they don’t want to wait for a prospect to fall to them in the draft. Pass rush is the most pressing need, but I wouldn’t rule out the Bills in the cornerback market either if the right situation comes along. Brandon Beane made some committing statements towards the DB room that’s already present, but I think Wallace’s deal being a one-year contract shows the team isn’t exactly brimming with confidence.

We will take a look at the best fits and most realistic options that can help the Bills realize (in a humble and hungry manner of course) their championship aspirations.

According to Spotrac, Buffalo is in the red in terms of cap space. They will need to restructure some deals to make room for any additional moves.

Geno Atkins

An eleven-year veteran and four-time All-Pro, Atkins would slide nicely into Buffalo’s defensive tackle rotation. 

The 32-year-old is coming off an injury-shortened season that saw him accrue less than 2/3rds his teams total snap count for just the second time in his career. He finished the season with just one tackle and one QB hurry— both career lows. 

Being apt at rushing the passer and stopping the run, Atkins could solidify some of the holes Buffalo succumbed to last season. Taking responsibility off of Harrison Phillips is Buffalo’s best bet in getting the most out of their interior lineman

PROS:

  • Low Risk – Would most likely be a one-year deal with Buffalo’s cap situation, and Atkins’ need to re-prove himself.
  • Depth – If the Bills get Star back, Atkins provides a good rotational role player behind Ed Oliver and gives McDermott positional flexibility.
  • Durability – Atkins played in all 16 games for six straight seasons before playing just eight in 2020.

CONS:

  • Age – Atkins will turn 33 this month and posted a lowly 54 PFF grade for his eight games last season. His grade has dropped steadily the last four years and reached a career low this pat season.

Richard Sherman 

Also 32, Richard Sherman is coming off an injury-plagued season that had him appear in only five games in 2020. Sherman was playing at elite levels as recently as 2019 and has stated that he only wants to play two more years before calling it a career. His championship experience and high ceiling would give Buffalo the best tandem they’ve had at Corner since drafting Tre White, but is it worth a potential multi-year contract?

If I am the Bills, I’m kicking the tires on Sherman but not being overzealous about it. Age can catch up fast in this league for corners, and I’d like to see Buffalo entertain the idea of better athletes across from White who can do more than play soft zones. Sherman’s two year plan makes it seem unlikely he’d take a one year deal just to do the same again next year, so I would pass on two years and just look towards the draft.

PROS:

  • Stability – Less pressure on Levi Wallace and Dane Jackson to be a bonafide #2 corner 
  • Culture Fit – From scheme to locker room, Sherman would be a nice fit, offering more leadership and a higher floor at the position.

CONS:

  • Price Tag/Term – Sherman is not a cold commodity and will most likely get a favorable offer from other teams. It is not worth the investment for Buffalo to win a bidding war and be locked into a player for two years. Similar to JJ Watt, test the waters but stay away from committing to multiple years.
  • Age – The 49ers experimented with Sherman at safety last year, a sign of declining speed and efficiency. Versatility is nice but with the Bills’ talent at safety, there’s no need for it here.

Melvin Ingram 

A nine-year veteran with 49 career sacks, Ingram sits atop the remaining pass-rusher market. Coming off a season marred with holdouts and injury, Ingram failed to record a sack in 2020 but still managed to pressure the Quarterback 12 times. He is past 30, and it would be difficult to rely on him to be the premier pass rusher he has been in the past, but even semi-consistent quarterback pressures would be a step-up for the Bills.

Spotrac estimates Ingram’s market value at $11 million per year, but I find it unlikely he reaches that mark given his injuries, age, and the deals being given out across the league to other pass rushers in their prime.

PROS:

  • Versatile – A player that can line up as an OLB or DE, although the Bills would never use him at Linebacker, but decent coverage skills on the line could allow the team some more variance.
  • Disruptor – Prior to 2020, Ingram recorded 95 QB hits over a five-season span. Outside of Jerry Hughes, Buffalo has lacked consistent play on the edge and would benefit from another High rate Quarterback getter.

CONS:

  • Price Tag – if the $11 million valuation is correct, the Bills would be priced out of Ingram, as they’d have to make substantial restructuring moves to afford him. Committing multiple years would also be too much of a risk at that kind of price.
  • Consistency – Ingram is highly talented but has struggled to be great on a weekly basis, often going weeks without a sack and only registering a few pressures. The Bills already have that typecast on their roster and adding another could be more of a hindrance than a bonus.

Carlos Dunlap

Coming off a six-sack year with Cincinnati and Seattle, Dunlap poses as a similar option to Ingram. However, he offers less upside but more reliability as he has not had the injury issues that have surrounded the former Charger.

In each of the past eight seasons, Dunlap has managed at least six sacks and 18 Quarterback hits while only missing three games during that time span.

It is difficult to gauge what his market value will be for the season but things seem to be pointing to a one-year contract situation in which case I think the Bills should jump on him immediately.

PROS:

  • Durability – Only missed a single game last season and has missed just three the past eight years. (Although, all three have come since 2019.)
  • Production: Dunlap has maintained consistent numbers in regards to pressures, QB hits, and sacks throughout his career and was able to pick up his numbers after a change of scenery in Seattle. He comes across as a very nice plug-and-play option.

CONS:

  • Age (sort of) – Dunlap is 32 but he hasn’t shown his age as of yet, and on a one-year deal, any loss of production can be easily forgotten the following offseason.

Who’s the Target?

For me, it’s Dunlap, as he fits in the parameters of affordable, productive, and low risk. He would also allow Buffalo to assess other needs outside of the pass rush in the draft and be a more reliable presence come playoff time.

Overall, I want the focus to be on mid-priced veterans who are looking for one-year deals. The team has shown itself as a viable destination for vets looking to win a ring, so I think the ball is in Brandon Beane’s court. He has to take a swing at the best fit for this squad in his eyes.