By Sal Capaccio
The Bills have 22 unrestricted free agents set to hit the open market next month. This week, I’ll be summarizing and stating what I think the team’s approach should be with each one.
Today, a look at the defensive backs:
CB Stephon Gilmore
Gilmore has been the fans’ most polarizing Bills pending UFA going back to the beginning of last season when it was clear he and the team were not going to work out a long-term deal. And he still is. The Bills have a decision to make: place the franchise tag on Gilmore and guarantee him roughly $15 million (there is no firm amount from the league yet) for one season or let him become an unrestricted free agent and, most likely, sign elsewhere. (It’s worth noting the Bills could very well get a compensatory selection in the 2018 draft if Gilmore leaves). Through his five seasons in Buffalo Gilmore has been, mostly, a very good player, not great. But he’s also had plenty of games where he was average at best. The first half of this year was one of those stretches. But, the second half of the year he played as well as any cornerback in the league, which earned him a spot as an alternate in the Pro Bowl. Then he wound up playing in the game and collecting an interception. He has consistently said, in different ways, he’s one of the best players at his position and wants to be paid as such. Sources have told me Gilmore is looking for top-5 CB money on a long-term deal. While that figure also represents basically the same amount as the franchise tag will be, it would only be for one season. The team would prefer something longer to spread the money out for a lesser cap hit, and he'd prefer more security and not be tagged. I was also told that if the Bills do not tag Gilmore, they are very likely to give him another offer before free agency begins, but make it clear they can’t keep it on the table once players start moving around and they have to make decisions elsewhere that impact their roster and salary cap. Gilmore collected a career-high five interceptions this past season and added 48 tackles - the second most of his career. But it’s also his tackling the team has concerns about. He’s not one to play aggressively against the run and appears to shy away from taking on hits or tackles.
Verdict: I agree with the approach of making Gilmore an offer of the value the team believes he’s worth and leaving it at that. If he finds more elsewhere, so be it. If he doesn’t and agrees to come back on that deal, then it works for both sides. I would not franchise tag him unless the team is confident they can get a long-term deal done at a lower salary cap price before next season begins (as they did with Cordy Glenn). That would give both sides time to work out the details without exposing him to the open market. But how much should the Bills be willing to pay overall? I don’t think Stephon belongs in the top-5 CB discussion, and that kind of money can really eat up a lot of cap space. Eleven CBs currently make $10 million or more per year. Gilmore made $11.082 million last season playing on his fifth-year option. That was good for ninth-highest annually in the NFL. I’d add to it slightly given the rising cap and ability to spread it out through bonus money, with a final offer for three years, averaging between $11.5 - $12 million. No tag. Don’t budge.
CB Corey White
I really liked the way White played in both training camp and early in the season when he got his limited opportunities. But because of injuries at safety, Rex Ryan and his staff moved him there later in the year and he then struggled as both positions, most likely because he was switching back and forth, sometimes during games when he hadn’t even practiced at the spot all week. He’s also not a safety and was playing out of position when called upon there. White was a regular special teams contributor all year, but over the last six games, he played some of the most snaps on defense for any defensive back. Because of his willingness to play different positions and special teams, and given how solid he looked early on, I believe he’s worth trying to keep as a depth CB, especially if Gilmore walks.
Verdict: White played for the veteran minimum last year, which allowed the Bills to use the salary cap vet minimum benefit (paid $760K, cost $680K on cap). He’s absolutely worth doing that again, and I’d even be willing to forego the benefit if it takes adding another $100K to his salary to keep him given how tough it can be to find good secondary depth.
S Robert Blanton
Just like White, Blanton played for the vet minimum last year and was signed to be a depth safety and regular special teams contributor. He was forced into action on defense a lot more and earlier than expected due to injuries at the spot, especially to Aaron Williams. He then got hurt himself and missed the final six games. When he played, he was inconsistent at best.
Verdict: There’s no reason to need Blanton back over any other veteran player the team can sign to fill the same role.
S Sergio Brown
Brown has been on four teams in his seven NFL seasons. There’s a reason for that. He’s the kind of player you sign midway through a season because of injuries to second and third string guys, just as the Bills did. He played a total of four defensive snaps in eight games - two each in the last two games.
Verdict: There’s no reason to re-sign Brown.
S James Ihedigbo
Like Sergio Brown, Ihedigbo was signed late last season strictly due to so many injuries at the safety spot. But unlike Brown, he actually contributed on defense in his short time on the team. In only four games played, Brown got the majority of snaps in three of them, averaging close to 43 per game in those contests. The ten year veteran’s best asset is his football IQ. He has played in multiple systems and has no issues understanding them quickly. He also had his best season playing in a similar scheme Sean McDermott will use while with the Lions in 2004, collecting 80 tackles, 2.5 sacks, and four interceptions. The Bills don’t need him back, but they should at least keep his number handy as the offseason goes on.
Verdict: Ihedigbo is a “break glass in case of emergency” player at this point. The Bills don’t need to re-sign him unless they’ feel they need another veteran body in the secondary when training camp rolls around. They can wait until then to evaluate it.
S Jonathan Meeks
After Colt Anderson went down for the season, Meeks replaced him as a core special teamer and one of the leaders of the unit, finishing the year with the second most snaps on special teams, behind only Ramon Humber. Defensively, he’s more of a liability than an asset when asked to play. But with Danny Crossman returning as special teams coordinator, Meeks will know and have plenty of experience in his systems.
Verdict: Now that he has four years accrued, Meeks qualifies for the veteran minimum salary cap benefit. Given his familiarity and experience with Danny Crossman’s special teams, the Bills should want to bring him back for that vet minimum, but strictly for special teams purposes.
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