By Sal Capaccio
The Bills have 23 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 skill position (non-offensive linemen) on offense:
QB EJ Manuel
He won't go down as the biggest bust in Bills draft history, but EJ certainly never lived up to the expectations that go along with being a first-round choice. But that's not really his fault. He was selected far too high in 2013. After being given one final shot to show what he could do in the season finale at the Jets last year, Manuel's poor performance almost certainly finally closed the book on his chapter in Buffalo. Given his age (27), physical attributes, and the fact that he's actually started in and won games in this league, Manuel will most likely have a few teams come calling for a number two QB. But it shouldn't be the Bills.
Verdict: Time to move on as an organization and EJ should want a fresh start somewhere else, as well.
WR Robert Woods
Woods should be one of the team’s top-three priorities, along with CB Stephon Gilmore and LB Zach Brown, as far as the Bills trying to retain their own. He's been their most consistent wideout for most of the past four years, has missed a total of only seven games in his career, and had the most yards receiving on the team last season. The problem is, he's a number-two receiver who will be paid - somewhere - a lot more than what the Bills can, or should, offer him for that role. They'd like to see Sammy Watkins stay healthy this year and that would lead to a big contract. And the team isn't going to tie-up a huge percentage of their salary cap in the wide receiver position. As much as it would be nice to have Woods back, it's hard to see it happening.
Verdict: Make Woods an offer of $5-6 million per year knowing full well he will most likely get much more elsewhere. Then don't match.
WR Percy Harvin
Harvin unretired to join the Bills in November. He lasted two games before migraines forced him out of the lineup again. He was then placed on the Reserve/Non-Football Illness List for the rest of the season.
Verdict: There is no reason to consider Harvin as an option any longer.
WR Marquise Goodwin
Raise your hand if you had Goodwin as the healthiest wide receiver for the Bills in 2016. If you have your hand up, you're lying. But, that's exactly what he was, missing only one game all season. He actually wound up third on the team in yards receiving (431) and touchdown catches (3). Goodwin, of course, brings world-class speed to the position, but there's no guarantee he will stay healthy, either, given his history of only playing 24 of a possible 48 games his previous three years. The Bills are extremely thin at wide receiver heading into the off-season. There will be teams who will investigate signing him, and fall in love with his speed, but no one should give him so much money the Bills won't at least have a chance to bring him back for a low price.
Verdict: Offer him a short, cheap deal but don't go any higher if another team wants him for a higher price.
WR Justin Hunter
Hunter is an interesting case. He came in after missing all of training camp and four games when he was claimed off waivers, then caught only 10 passes all year. He had more than one catch in only one game. However, of those 10 receptions, 4 were for touchdowns. At 6-4, he's the kind of red zone at target the Bills need. But he also offers very minimal special-teams value when he’s not lining up on offense.
Verdict: Like Goodwin, try to retain Hunter, but put a bit of a higher priority on him. However, don't overpay for his services.
WR/KR/PR Brandon Tate
Tate was one of the nice surprises for the team as the season went on. He was signed as a punt and kick returner and did a solid job in that area, finishing fifth in the league with 11.6 yards per punt return. He was also thrown onto the field as a wide receiver several games due to injuries at the position and didn’t look out of place. He only had 8 catches, but all came during a five game stretch in the middle of the season, averaging 14.6 yards per catch. Tate was one of the few players who did a nice job running after the catch, an area the Bills were awful. Other than spot duty as a wideout, Tate is very limited in what he can offer teams, especially as a nine-year veteran who turns 30 this coming season. But he can be a nice low-priced piece for the Bills
Verdict: Resign for 1-year, veteran minimum
TE Chris Gragg
I believe the fourth-year player was actually missed more than most realize last season. He was a capable in-line blocker and a trusted receiver when called upon. But, his ACL injury in preseason cost Gragg his entire season. That, along with the money Charles Clay is making as the clear number-one, and the emergence of Nick O'Leary as a solid number-two, the team would be best served going younger and healthier here.
Verdict: Let Gragg hit free agency and sign elsewhere. If still unsigned in August, and healthy, explore resigning him to compete for a roster spot.
RB Reggie Bush
Bush was signed late in training camp last season to compete for the primary punt and kick returner spot, as well as a backup running back. After looking fresh and rejuvenated the first couple weeks with the team he barely saw the field in 2016. And when he did, he carried the ball only 12 times for -3 yards, actually setting an NFL record by becoming the first rusher ever to finish the season with negative yards having at least 10 carries. He also finished with only two punt returns and five kick returns. He was inactive for three games. Bush will be 32 years old before free agency begins.
Verdict: No need to bring Bush back. Let him become a free agent and either sign elsewhere or retire.
FB Jerome Felton
After being cut then brought back a week later to start last season for financial purposes, Felton once again opened holes for LeSean McCoy and helped the Bills running game finish at the top of the league. New offensive coordinator Rick Dennison has been a part of systems, with or under Mike Shanahan, Alex Gibbs, and Gary Kubiak, who like to utilize the fullback, but generally one more athletic who can also carry the ball and catch passes out of the backfield. Felton isn’t going to help much in those areas, but he’s still one of the best blocking FBs in the league. Considering he was signed for less than $1 million last year and is about to turn 31 this offseason, the Bills should be able to keep Felton for a low price if they want, possibly even the veteran minimum - which will then allow them to use the vet salary cap benefit and only count $615,000 on the cap.
Verdict: Resign for 1-year, veteran minimum.
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