Here are the moves the Buffalo Bills should consider when free agency opens at 4 p.m. ET Wednesday, March 14:
Sign a middle linebacker: With the Bills' signing of Vontae Davis most likely taking them out of the running to re-sign starting cornerback E.J. Gaines, the most important remaining free agent for Buffalo is middle linebacker Preston Brown. He ranks 47th among ESPN's top 100 free agents and could earn a deal in the range of $7 to $9 million per season given deals for players in similar situations. Miami's Kiko Alonso signed a deal last offseason worth $8.3 million per year and Cleveland's Christian Kirksey inked a contract at $9.5 million per season. If that price tag is too expensive for the Bills, they could attempt to fill the hole in free agency. Who they target could depend on scheme fit and cost. There are younger (Anthony Hitchens, Avery Williamson, Todd Davis) and older (Demario Davis, NaVorro Bowman) options on the market with varying skills. The better bet is the Bills look for a linebacker with range and coverage ability to fit their 4-3 defense more than a thumper. The Bills do not have an obvious replacement for Brown on their roster unless they move promising 2017 rookie Matt Milano from the outside.
Bolster the defensive line: Defensive tackle was perhaps Buffalo's biggest problem area after last October's trade of Marcell Dareus. From Weeks 8 through 17, the Bills allowed a league-high 18 rushing touchdowns and an AFC-worst 1,487 rush yards, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. Of those yards, 1,105 were inside the tackles, and opponents' 4.8 yards per rush inside the tackles was tied for worst in the NFL. With longtime stalwart Kyle Williams a free agent this offseason, the Bills are left with Adolphus Washington, Marquavius Lewis and Rickey Hatley under contract at defensive tackle. General manager Brandon Beane said at the combine that his most recent conversation with Williams, who turns 35 in June, indicated he plans on continuing playing. However, Beane said the price must be right for him to return. Depth at pass-rusher is also an under-the-radar need for the Bills, whose pressure rate on opposing quarterbacks (24 percent) was the second-lowest in the NFL last season, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
Add depth at wide receiver: The Bills committed resources to wide receiver last season, spending a second-round draft pick on Zay Jones and shipping third- and seventh-round picks to Carolina in October for Kelvin Benjamin. The results from the receiver group as a whole -- which also included trade acquisition Jordan Matthews, free-agent signing Andre Holmes and midseason signing Deonte Thompson -- were subpar. The Bills face the question this offseason of whether to continue to use resources at wide receiver or reserve them for help at quarterback. As it stands, the Bills have Benjamin under contract through 2018, as well as Jones, Holmes, Rod Streater, Brandon Reilly, Malachi Dupre and Quan Bray. Bringing back a solid but unspectacular contributor such as Thompson makes more sense than splurging on a top-of-the-market receiver.
Take care of special teams: Among Buffalo's 18 unrestricted free agents, at least five can be considered important special-teams players: quarterback/wide receiver Joe Webb, running back Taiwan Jones, wide receiver Brandon Tate, linebacker Ramon Humber and safety Colt Anderson. Retaining at least a few will not break the bank, so expect Buffalo to take care of business and maintain special-teams units that ranked seventh in the NFL by respected reporter Rick Gosselin last season.