CAPACCIO: Bills UFAs - Linebackers
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 linebackers:
OLB Lorenzo Alexander
Let’s face it. If Alexander had been signed for the vet minimum by the Patriots then had the season he did, he’d be the poster child as another example of how they’re the greatest ever at finding talent at cheap rates. But I digress. The point is, Alexander was an afterthought as a free agent signing last offseason, then was one of the best defensive players in the entire league for most of the year. At 33 years old, he had a career year, finishing third in the league with 12.5 sacks on top of playing at a very high special teams level. He was rewarded by being named to the Pro Bowl. Even without those accolades, Alexander would be great to have back simply for his locker room presence and leadership. But with the season he had, there’s no way the Bills can have him for the same veteran minimum they did last year. He’s going to command a lot more money. The questions are how much more and where does he fit in the new 4-3 Under defensive scheme? He could very well be a strong side option depending how Sean McDermott and Leslie Frasier see other backers and their roles. Alexander hasn’t played nearly as many snaps as a lot of other players his age, and takes great care of his body. So his age should matter somewhat, but shouldn’t force the Bills to dismiss him for another year or two. He isn’t irreplaceable, but he’d certainly be a nice piece to keep in the fold. This will be a tricky one.
Verdict: If the current staff feels Alexander can start on the new defense, but not a third-down player, they should offer him a two year deal at the going rate for a starting 4-3 OLB, which is between $3-4 million/year, with a chance to make more through incentives. If they see him playing on third downs, as well, then it should be closer to $5 million/year. However, if he wants starting edge-rusher type of money because of the season he had (which is understandable from his perspective), that will be upwards of $5-6 million/year and too much for the Bills to swallow. Especially since that’s not where he projects to play for them in a 4-3.
OLB Zach Brown
There are a lot of similarities between Brown’s and Alexander’s situation. Both were signed to cheap one-year deals and both had career years. In Brown’s case, he was at the top of the NFL in total tackles most of the season, finishing second in the league and leading the Bills with 149 of them. But, the differences are Brown’s age (he’ll only be 27 when next season begins) and the fact that he not only has a spot on this defense, but he’s actually exactly what it calls for - an athletic linebacker who can cover in the passing game. In fact, with Reggie Ragland and Preston Brown both most likely either starting or playing a lot somewhere at LB, the Bills desperately need more of what Brown offers at the position. Neither of the others is nearly as fast or has the same ability to cover. Brown will be cashing in on free agency at the perfect time for him…..and the worst time for the Bills. They don’t have much flexibility with there salary cap and would probably have to be creative to retain Brown. But that’s exactly what they should at least try to do.
Verdict: Try to retain Brown with a 3-4 year deal so they can give him enough money upfront to make it worthwhile for him, and have the ability to spread the money over the life of the deal for salary cap purposes.
ILB Ramon Humber
Humber signed for the vet minimum last year with the sole purpose to be a core special teams player, and that’s exactly what he was. He actually led the Bills playing over 72% of the team’s special teams snaps and very little on defense (less than 6% of plays). No reason he’ll be signed by any team for anything more than that again.
Verdict: There are plenty of players every offseason just like Humber who can be signed for the veteran minimum. They should offer that to him but not care if he chooses to go elsewhere.
OLB Lerentee McCray
McCray is very similar to Humber as far as contribution in 2016, but actually playing more as a backup on defense, lining up for about 15% of snaps. He was third on the team playing 55% of the special teams plays, and that’s even with missing three games near the end of the season with a concussion. However, McCray is still only 26 years old and the Bills actually gave up an asset to get him. He’s the reason they do not have a seventh round draft pick this year, after they traded it to the Packers for him. So, there’s some investment there. McCray can also play both 3-4 OLB and 4-3 DE, so he should be a little higher on their list of players to call than Humber. The good news is since McCray now has four years in the league he qualifies for the vet minimum cap benefit. The Bills can give him a cash raise to the minimum for a four year player, which will be $775K, but only have $615K count against the cap.
Verdict: Make McCray a “high priority veteran minimum” player. He should be one of the first players fitting that profile the team wants back.
ILB Brandon Spikes
A fan favorite over his two seasons in Buffalo (he was out of football in 2015), Spikes was used sparingly in Rex Ryan’s defense or on special teams last year, and was even inactive several games. And considering Sean McDermott’s scheme prefers athletic linebackers who can run, he’s not a very good fit as a true MLB for them, which is what he would be in that defense. That said, Jim Schwartz wasn’t afraid to use Spikes on 3rd and long situations in the middle while using nickel personnel since Spikes only had to cover a smaller zone area and could still watch for any draws or screens. McDermott could do the same with him if he wanted to keep a player that shouldn’t cost a lot to retain and then have a veteran backup MLB to either Reggie Ragland or Preston Brown.
Verdict: Spikes will probably be a street free agent most of the offseason, if he gets signed anywhere at all. He won’t have teams beating down his door. He should only be an option for the Bills to resign if there’s a shortage at the middle linebacker spot when training camp comes around - or during camp - due to injury or other circumstances.
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