The Buffalo Bills have been mathematically eliminated from the playoffs for the 16th consecutive season, so it’s time to look at the 2016 NFL Free Agents in addition to starting my work on 2016 NFL Draft prospects. Here, we’ll break down the biggest needs of the Buffalo Bills going forward, offering a free agent as well as a draft prospect that could potentially fill that need during the 2016 NFL Offseason.
Buffalo Bills Top Needs
After looking at current and future contracts and studying the schemes ran on both sides of the ball, Rich Fann and I came up with eight positions the Buffalo Bills need to address this offseason—whether that be in Free Agency or via the NFL Draft.
In no specific order, these needs are as follows: Backup/developmental quarterback, starting inside linebacker, boundary WR with size that can attack vertically, starting RT, starting two-gap/space eating nose tackle, five-technique defensive end (if Mario Williams is released), safety depth and an edge defender to play opposite Jerry Hughes, behind Manny Lawson.
When Percy Harvin went down with an injury, Buffalo’s lack of talent at the wideout position—aside from Sammy Watkins—was exposed, despite the team spending eight draft picks in the last three seasons there. Robert Woods is a solid No. 2 option, but he’s used as a “blocker” in this offense and has just one year remaining on his deal. Chris Hogan will be a restricted free agent after the season, while Marquise Goodwin has done nothing to prove he can endure a full 16-game season.
Free Agent Options
Rishard Matthews, 26, Dolphins
Rishard Matthews doesn’t have the speed that Harvin or Goodwin offer, but he has good size (6’1” 210 lbs) and is a good all-around receiver. This 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’s providing 2.08 yards-per-pass-route he runs, the 17th most efficient total among 85 wide receivers. Matthews’ quarterback is posting a passer rating of 125.1 when targeting him, which ranks fourth.
Matthews isn’t flashy but he’s reliable and could have a breakout similar to that of Michael Crabtree or Allen Hurns with the right quarterback and complementary pieces around him.
Leonard Hankerson, 26, FA
Leonard Hankerson is a bigger receiver that the Buffalo Bills offense lacks, standing 6’2” and weighing 215 pounds. He’s a freak of an athlete, running a 4.4 40-yard dash with a 1.51 10-yard split, posting a 36” vertical leap and a 6.94-second three-cone time. These measurables put him on par athletically with Demaryius Thomas, Larry Fitzgerald, Josh Gordon, Jordan Matthews and Stefon Diggs.
A third-round pick of the Washington Redskins in 2011, he didn’t see the field much as Santana Moss, Jabar Gaffney and Fred Davis were the team’s top three receiving options. They signed Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson in the following seasons, so he was a rotational player. However, when he did get on the field he was able to make plays, catching 68 passes for 918 yards (13.5 yards-per-reception) and six touchdowns in his final two seasons in Washington.
This year, Hankerson has gotten more opportunities to showcase his ability after he signed a one-year deal with the Atlanta Falcons. Playing the flanker and the slot, he’s caught 26 passes for 327 yards and three touchdowns in eight games. He has some issues with drops, but his athleticism and production warrants a role as a No. 3 option, at the very least.
LaQuon Treadwell, Ole Miss
LaQuon Treadwell looks the part of a prototypical “No. 1” receiver, standing 6’2” and weighing about 215 pounds. He’s got a well-built, muscular frame with long arms, big hands, and he knows how to utilize them.
Despite poor quarterback play in his first two years, Treadwell has been an impact player ever since he stepped on campus at Ole Miss, recording 72 catches, 608 yards and five touchdowns as a true freshman in 2013. In 2014, he caught 48 passes for 632 yards and five touchdowns in nine games before suffering a broken fibula and dislocated ankle in a freak injury.
LaQuon Treadwell is a complete receiver that can beat defenses in a variety of ways. He’s physical enough to win on the outside, while showing the agility, toughness and physicality to win over the middle. He’s got good size to him that would set him apart from the other receivers on Buffalo’s depth chart and would be an ideal complement to Sammy Watkins, who’s an incredible vertical threat.
Five-Technique Defensive End (3-4 DE)
Mario Williams is set to count for over $19 million against the Buffalo Bills’ salary cap next season and the team can save $12.9 million by releasing the veteran who’s voiced his displeasures regarding his new role within the defense.
As talented as Mario is, this is a good year to be on the hunt for a defensive end to plug and play as a five-technique in a 3-4 system. These players need to possess a combination of size, power, length and pass rushing ability, as their typically responsible for the gap to either side of the tackle on base downs. In sub-packages, they’ll kick down to the three-technique or out to the seven-technique where they can attack one gap.
Free Agent Options
Akiem Hicks, 26, Patriots
Drafted by the New Orleans Saints in the third-round of the 2012 NFL Draft, Akiem Hicks flourished when given an opportunity to succeed, but under Rex Ryan’s brother, Rob, those opportunities were few and far between. Hicks, an interior defensive lineman that stands 6’5” and weighs 318 pounds was too often played as an edge rusher under Ryan, where he’d line up outside the tackle and essentially waste his natural ability.
In his first two seasons, Hicks was productive—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 isn’t asked to play a wide defensive end position, and he’s used in situations where he can succeed. He’s played just 234 defensive snaps in 11 games, but has recorded 18 tackles, four tackles for loss and three sacks, while adding 11 tackles and eight stops in 89 snaps against the run. In addition to his three sacks, Hicks added three QB hits and seven QB hurries in 21 pass rushing snaps, good for the sixth-most efficient total at his position.
DeForest Buckner, Oregon
DeForest Buckner stands 6’7” and weighs 290 pounds. He’s played 51 games in four years for the Ducks, starting for the last two seasons and has recorded 225 tackles, 35 tackles for loss, 17 sacks, two forced fumbles and broke up 10 passes. In 2015, ProFootballFocus graded him as the No. 1 pass rusher among interior defensive linemen after notching a position-leading 40 quarterback pressures, but his real strength as a player is playing the run, where his 30 stops are the most at his position.
Bucker notched 17 sacks in his career and led defensive lineman in pressures during his senior year, but he’ll need to refine his game and develop some additional pass rush moves to see that type of production at the NFL level.
He’s is an ideal fit for Rex Ryan’s hybrid scheme that features multiple fronts with both one and two-gap principles. He has the ability to play both the five and three technique within his system and he’s got the necessary length and power to occupy blockers, with the quickness and athleticism to disrupt the pocket in passing situations. He reminds me a bit of Calais Campbell coming out of the University of Miami.