Once the Buffalo Bills complete their work and find a new Head Coach, the organization can move on to one of the other important tasks of the off season, deciding what to do with its own free agents.
The Bills have 13 unrestricted free agents, 3 restricted free agents and 2 exclusive rights free agents.
Here are the Unrestricted Free Agents:
FS Jairus Byrd
RB Tashard Choice
QB Tarvaris Jackson
DL Spencer Johnson
OG Andy Levitre
WR Ruvell Martin
FB Corey McIntyre
CB Leodis McKelvin
DE Shawne Merriman
DE Kyle Moore
OG Chad Rinehart
LB Bryan Scott
QB Tyler Thigpen
Restricted Free Agents:
OL Colin Brown
WR Donald Jones
WR David Nelson
Exclusive Rights Free Agents:
TE Mike Caussin
TE Dorin Dickerson
Byrd and Levitre are the most important players to re-sign. Byrd is one of the few consistent playmakers the Bills have on defense. The safety led the team in interceptions this season with 5, which was tied for first in the AFC and 7th in the NFL. The Bills 2nd round pick from the 2009 draft also led the club with 4 forced fumbles. He was 4th in total tackles and tied for 2nd in tackles for loss.
Byrd has been very durable, missing only 2 games in his 4 seasons in Buffalo. He has started 57 of the 62 games played. Since entering the league in ’09, Byrd has 18 interceptions which is tied for 3rd best with Ed Reed. Only Asante Samuel and Charles Woodson have more picks over the last 4 years.
Levitre has been Mr. Reliable, starting all 64 games since joining the Bills in 2009. He is one of only 4 picks from that draft to accomplish that feat, joining James Laurinaitis, Alex Mack and Michael Oher. Levitre has played almost exclusively at left guard but has showed his versatility, having recorded starts at 4 of the 5 spots on the offensive line.
Levitre seemed more open to re-signing with the Bills than Byrd. On locker clean out day, Levitre said he was very happy in Buffalo and enjoyed playing with his fellow linemen. Byrd, on the other hand, has talked about seeing what is out there on the market.
Keep in mind the Bills can always use the franchise tag to make sure one of those two stays in town. It would make more financial sense to use the tag on Byrd since his salary for 2013 would be $6.798 million. If the Bills use the tag on Levitre, the cap number is $9.660 million.
Of course, they can also reach multi year deals with both players since the Bills will have the cap room.
As far as the other UFA’s, the Bills would probably look to re-sign Kyle Moore, Leodis McKelvin and Chad Rinehart.
Moore, who was signed as a free agent in 2011 and played in 4 games last season, became more of a contributor on defense this season. He moved into the starting lineup when Chris Kelsay was injured in the game at Houston. Moore provided a consistent pass rush and ended up with 3 sacks to go along with 24 tackles in 12 games.
McKelvin started the season as the nickel corner, lost the job in September, but found his way back into the starting lineup late in the season due to injuries. While he has never lived up to his draft status, 11th overall in 2008, McKelvin has been a top level return man. That, coupled with the mess the Bills have at corner, could lead to the team wanting him back.
As far as cornerback goes, McKelvin had 1 interception and 3 passes defended this season. In 64 games over 5 seasons, the Troy State product has just 6 interceptions.
As a returner, McKelvin led the NFL in punt returns with an average of 18.7 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He was 2 kick returns shy of qualifying in the league stats but his 28.3 yard average would have been 3rd best. McKelvin has the Bills single season record for kick return yards.
Rinehart has been a valuable depth player on the offensive line. The 6-5, 321 pound guard joined the Bills as a free agent in 2010. Rinehart has been in 27 games over 3 years in Buffalo and has made 17 starts, 12 coming last season. He has proven to be a very reliable player and there has been minimal drop off when Rinehart is called upon due to an injury.
The Bills could let the rest of their free agents walk but they might have interest in bringing back guys like Spencer Johnson and Bryan Scott. Johnson was signed as a free agent in 2008 and has played in 76 games during his 5 year career in Orchard Park. The 6-3, 304 pound tackle is part of the defensive line rotation and has been productive in his limited role. Johnson has 10 sacks, 10 passes defended, 3 forced fumbles and 3 fumble recoveries as a Bill.
Scott just finished his 6th season with the Bills. He began his career as a safety but was moved to linebacker this season and was a regular in the Bills nickel package. Despite not being an every down player, Scott was 5th on the team in tackles, 2nd in passes defended and his 4 interceptions was 2nd best behind Byrd. It was also a career high for the Penn State product.
Tashard Choice was brought in by Chan Gailey and in 2 seasons, had 70 carries for 263 yards and 2 touchdowns.
If Tarvaris Jackson goes elsewhere, he could leave town with quite a distinction. The player fans called for the most who was never actually was activated for a game. The Bills gave up a 7th round draft pick for what amounted to an insurance policy in the event Ryan Fitzpatrick was ever injured.
Ruvell Martin has had limited contributions as a receiver and also played special teams. He has good size at 6’4”, 214 pounds but Martin caught just 11 balls for 123 yards and no touchdowns in his 28 games over 2 seasons.
Corey McIntyre is the number one fullback but his notable contributions over his 5 year Bills career have come on special teams.
Shawne Merriman has had a very unimpressive Bills career over 3 seasons. His stat line is a mere 15 games with 26 tackles and just 2 sacks.
Speaking of an unimpressive Bills career, Tyler Thigpen has probably put on Bills colors for the final time. Brought in by Chan Gailey to back up Fitzpatrick, Thigpen appeared in 7 games over 2 years but never made a start. He completed 6-13 for 55 yards and 1 interception.
David Nelson is the priority among the restricted free agents. An undrafted free agent out of the University of Florida in 2010, Nelson brings size(6’5”, 214) and sure hands. After catching 31 passes for 353 yards and 3 TD’s in his rookie season, Nelson broke through in 2011 with 61 receptions for 658 yards and 5 touchdowns, which was 2nd best behind Stevie Johnson. 2012 was a lost year for Nelson who suffered a season ending injury in the opener against the Jets.
Donald Jones is coming off his best campaign as a Bill. Also signed as an undrafted free agent in 2010, Jones had 41 catches for 443 yards and 4 TD’s but the Bills are in a wait and see mode with Jones since he ended the season on the reserve, non football illness list.
NFL teams have what amounts to a two and half month window of exclusivity to sign their own free agents. Players can’t hit the open market until March 12th.