The Buffalo Bills are heading into the offseason with a tight salary cap situation. They’re currently expected to be over the reported $154 million number, but even after releasing some players or re-working contracts, Doug Whaley and Jim Overdorf will need to make decisions on the team’s own key free agents in Cordy Glenn, Richie Incognito and Nigel Bradham among others. Whaley has stated that the Bills won’t be early players when the 2016 NFL Free Agency period kicks off, as they’ll have to find role players that fit within the offensive and defensive schemes at a discount. So which players could the team be eyeing as free agency approaches? Here at Building The Herd, we’ll look at several players on both sides of the ball that could potentially attract the team, while coming at a discount.
Sammy Watkins had a breakout year, establishing himself as one of the best deep threats in the National Football League, but the Buffalo Bills’ offense seemed stagnant at times when he was dealing with injuries or opponents rolled coverage to him. Percy Harvin was supposed to be the deep threat opposite Watkins that would keep defenses honest, but injuries and his subsequent mysterious absence has led to the wide receiver position being one of need yet again.
Rishard Matthews, 26, Miami Dolphins
Rishard Matthews doesn’t have the speed that Harvin or Marquise Goodwin offers, but he has good size (6’1” 210 lbs) and is a solid all-around receiver. Last season, Matthews stepped up for the Dolphins when their first-round pick, Devante Parker was hurt. In Parker’s absence, Matthews caught 43-of-64 targets for 662 yards (15.4 yards-per-catch) and four scores.
He made 10 receptions of 20+ yards, while 244 of his yardage came after the catch. He provided 2.08 yards-per-pass-route he runs, the 17th most efficient total among 85 wide receivers. Matthews’ quarterback posted a passer rating of 125.1 when targeting him, which ranks fourth at his position. Overall it’s a weak crop of free agent wide receivers so the price points that these players sign at will be interesting, but Rishard Matthews is definitely a player to keep an eye on in regards to the Bills.
Jermaine Gresham, 27, Arizona Cardinals
The Buffalo Bills signed Charles Clay to a lucrative deal last offseason, but offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s scheme frequently relies on multiple tight ends—particularly ones that can block—and Jermaine Gresham could be an ideal fit. The former first-round pick never lived up to his pre-draft hype, but he’s been one of the league’s best run and pass blocking tight ends over the years.
The 6’6” 271 pounder played about half of the Arizona Cardinals’ offensive snaps, primarily as a blocker. He didn’t allow a single sack and surrendered just one quarterback hit and three hurries. The Bills brought in Matthew Mulligan last season to be a blocking specialist but it didn’t work out, so signing an established veteran is definitely a possibility.
Quinton Coples, 25, Miami Dolphins
Quinton Coples was a first-round pick by the New York Jets in 2012 while Rex Ryan was the head coach, but after the team picked up his fifth-year option for the 2016 season, he was released and claimed by the Miami Dolphins, but the Bills also put in a claim for the “tweener” defensive end/outside linebacker.
Coples stands 6’6” and weighs 285 pounds and was a relatively productive edge player for the Jets under Ryan. In 2014 he racked up seven sacks, 11 quarterback hits and 21 hurries and his 39 total pressures ranked 20th among 3-4 outside linebackers, while his 18 tackles against the run ranked 18th. In 2013, Coples recorded six sacks, 15 hits and 23 hurries. His 44 pressures ranked 18th and his 21 run stops ranked 10th at his position. Coples has the size, athleticism and versatility to play as an edge rusher in addition to sliding to inside as an interior defender in nickel situations.
Akiem Hicks, 26, New England Patriots
Akiem Hicks was selected by the New Orleans Saints in the third round of the 2012 NFL Draft. The 6’5” 318 pounder flourished under Rob Ryan, who now is on the Bills’ coaching staff, recording 95 tackles, 15 tackles for loss, seven sacks and two pass breakups—despite being moved all over the defensive line. In 2013, Hicks’ 35 run stops ranked 2nd among 3-4 defensive ends, trailing only J.J. Watt, while his 21 quarterback pressures cracked the top 20 at the position.
In 2014, he ranked 10th in both categories, registering 21 run stops and 27 quarterback pressures.
At the trade deadline in 2015, the Saints traded Hicks to the New England Patriots for tight end Michael Hoomanawanui. While he isn’t a full-time starter like he was in New Orleans, he’s thriving in a role carved out specifically for him. He’s played just 283 defensive snaps in 11 games, but has recorded 18 tackles, four tackles for loss and three sacks, while adding 15 tackles and 11 stops in 116 snaps against the run. In addition to his three sacks, Hicks added four QB hits and 11 QB hurries in 167 pass rushing snaps, good for the seventh-most efficient total at his position.
His familiarity with Rob Ryan coupled with the Bills’ need for a versatile five-technique defensive end could make Akiem Hicks an attractive option.
Demario Davis, 26 New York Jets
Demario Davis was a full-time starter at the inside linebacker position next to David Harris under Rex Ryan’s tenure with the New York Jets. The 2012 third-round pick stands 6’2” and weighs 240 pounds, flashing great speed, physicality and leadership that had Ryan raving about him as a rookie.
Since 2013, Davis has recorded 301 tackles, 16 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks, eight pass breakups and an interception while playing within Ryan’s hybrid 3-4 defensive system until Todd Bowles brought his hybrid 4-3 scheme this past season.
Davis hasn’t been outstanding by any means, failing to rank in the top 20 run-stoppers per ProFootballFocus’ “Run Stop Percentage” stat since 2013, and he’s inconsistent in pass coverage, but he’s a solid all-around player. As a blitzer, Davis is one of the best at his position, registering 6.5 sacks, 13 QB hits and 36 QB hurries in 393 pass rushing snaps over the last three seasons.
The Jets announced that they wouldn’t be retaining Davis as a free agent, after he was benched late in the season, but he knows what Rex expects from his players and he knows the system as well, having played over 2,200 snaps in their three seasons together.