As the Buffalo Bills begin interviews this week in search of their next head coach, candidates should have questions about a roster that could see nearly half of its players turn over by next season.
The Bills have 24 unrestricted free agents and four restricted free agents, which currently stands as the largest amount of pending free agents of any NFL team, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That number could change as playoff teams sign players or the Bills re-sign their potential free agents before the start of free agency March 9.
"We have a lot of work to do this offseason," general manager Doug Whaley told WGR 550 on Dec. 16. "It could be that we have a whole new team next year, when you think about it. That's 23 [unrestricted free agents, at the time]. You're going to have a lot of new faces coming in."
Which faces could be leaving? Here are the Bills' 24 unrestricted free agents: QB EJ Manuel, RB Reggie Bush, FB Jerome Felton, WR Robert Woods, WR Marquise Goodwin, WR/KR Brandon Tate, WR Justin Hunter, WR Percy Harvin, TE Chris Gragg, OT Jordan Mills, DL Leger Douzable, DL Corbin Bryant, OLB Lorenzo Alexander, OLB Lerentee McCray, ILB Zach Brown, ILB Brandon Spikes, ILB Ramon Humber, CB Stephon Gilmore, CB/S Corey White, S Robert Blanton, S Colt Anderson, S Jonathan Meeks, S Sergio Brown and S James Ihedigbo.
The Bills also have four restricted free agents: RB Mike Gillislee, G/C Ryan Groy, OLB IK Enemkpali and P Colton Schmidt. The biggest name among that group is Gillislee, who led NFL running backs with a 5.7 yards-per-carry average this season. After assigning wide receiver Chris Hogan a low tender last offseason and losing him to New England, the Bills would be wise to assign Gillislee a higher tender this March.
There are two ways for head-coaching candidates to look at the Bills' free-agent situation. On one hand, they could see it as an opportunity to bring in players who fit their system instead of being stuck with players on longer contracts who fit previous coaches' schemes. On the other hand, coaches could also view the Bills' high number of free agents as an impediment to immediate success. If the Bills are turning over up to half their roster, getting the new group of players to jell could be a challenge.
At his season-ending news conference Monday, Whaley painted a more optimistic picture of the Bills' offseason than he did on WGR 550 in December.
"If you look at the majority of our free agents a lot of guys that we brought in for backup roles for one-year contracts that we were trying to see, 'Hey let’s see what they can do and we can sign them again after next year for longer-term deals,'" he said. "So it seems a daunting task, but if you really break it down, it is not daunting as you would say or think."
Whaley is correct, but only to a point. Of the Bills' 24 unrestricted free agents, 17 were signed before or during this season to one-year deals at relatively low cost. However, that does not mean re-signing all of those players will come cheap. Most notably, Alexander and Zach Brown were signed for potential backup roles and instead became starters because of injuries to top draft picks Shaq Lawson (outside linebacker) and Reggie Ragland (inside linebacker). If the Bills want to sign Alexander (who finished tied for third in the NFL with 12.5 sacks) or Brown (who finished second in the NFL with 149 tackles) to long-term deals, it will come at a much steeper cost than last offseason.
In addition to the Bills' 28 pending free agents, 17 of whom started at least one game this season, there are three wild cards: quarterback Tyrod Taylor, defensive tackle Kyle Williams and safety Aaron Williams. The Bills could opt to release Taylor before $30 million of his contract becomes guaranteed March 11, and the Williamses both indicated after Sunday's finale that retirement could be an option this offseason.
In the most extreme scenario -- that Taylor is released and both Williamses retire -- the Bills would return only 13 of their 22 starters next season and would be without a clear option to start at quarterback. That might not be the end of the world given the Bills finished 7-9 this season, but some of those potential losses -- most notably at wide receiver, safety and defensive line -- do not have young talent at the position ready to fill the void.