Offseason blueprint for Bills to take next step in 2023: Free agent targets, mock draft selections and more
Where do the Buffalo Bills go from here? From heartbreaking loss in the divisional round a year ago to a shellacking at home in the divisional round on Sunday, Sean McDermott’s team, one of the most successful groups since the start of the 2020 campaign now has three straight playoff losses with bad defensive efforts, and the Bills have to contend with not only Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs but Joe Burrow and the Bengals in the conference.
A new standard has been set in Buffalo. Around Western New York, it’s longer about throwing a wild celebration if the Bills make the playoffs. Getting to and winning a Super Bowl is standard. And with that lofty standard, everything’s heightened. Expectations, pressure, etc. With Josh Allen and a sound core, the Bills will still be championship contenders. But clearly work needs to be done this offseason. Plenty of it.
Let’s run through all the moves GM Brandon Beane and Co. should (could) make so the Bills can play with — and beat — the top clubs in their conference then win a Super Bowl.
Based on a $225 million expected salary cap in 2023, the Bills will start the offseason somewhere between $5 million and $8.5 million in the hole, but they’re reportedly rolling over around $2 million of leftover 2022 cap. Because we don’t have exact, official cap-space figures at this point, for the sake of this article, let’s label the Bills currently with negative $4M in cap space.
Releases (cap savings):
The Morse release wouldn’t be a move the Bills would be happy making, but given he suffered another concussion this season and the fact he’s turning 31 in April, it would hardly come as a shock. Morse was a low-key vital piece to Allen’s maturation, and even took a pay cut to stay with the team previously. These are the type of difficult decisions teams have to make when there’s a huge quarterback contract on the books. Morse retiring wouldn’t be surprising either.
McKenzie’s hyped summer never materialized into a breakout, and at this juncture, even his $2.5M cap hit in 2023 is not an worthy expenditure for the Bills.
Neal has been a quality special teamer. As a defender, he’s never found his footing in any one role.
This restructure was essentially bound to happen after Allen signed his well-deserved, monster extension in the summer of 2021. The simple restructuring of the soon-to-be 27-year-old’s contract will create $21.5 million in cap space, bringing Buffalo’s total to around $27 million. Around $10 million needs to be saved for the 2023 draft class and low-level re-signings.
Notable re-signings (2022 cap hit)
Edmunds has matured into a key, unique cog in the middle of Buffalo’s defense at 6-feet-4 and 250-plus pounds with tremendous range, high-end coverage ability, and recently shored up tackling reliability. He’ll only be 25 in May, so Buffalo can push the large cap hit chunks of Edmunds extension well into the future. His 2023 cap hit could be as low as $3M or $4M.
Lawson wasn’t a game-changer in his second stint with the Bills. He did flash at times as a rusher and maintained his status as a quality outside run-stopper. He’d likely cost less around $1M on a one-year deal. At this stage, the Bills would have roughly $12 million in 2023 cap to spend in free agency.
Notable free-agent signings (projected 2023 cap hit)
Wingard was a full-time safety in 2021 in Jacksonville and emerged as a solid all-around player. In 2022, he was relegated to a reserve/backup role, seeing only 223 snaps. A truly versatile playmaker, Wingard is big and aggressive enough to make plays near the line but was a ballhawk in college as a free safety, when he was teammates with Allen at Wyoming. He feels like the type of lower-priced free agent with upside the Bills would love to develop in a starter role.
Hernandez was an early second-round pick in the 2018 draft and while he mostly underwhelmed with the Giants, he turned in a quality 2022 in a prove-it situation with the Cardinals. With Arizona likely undergoing a rebuild of some sort, Hernandez is unlikely to be re-signed and would be a strong, wide-bodied instant starter at left guard for the Bills in 2023.
Dortch is a young, former undrafted free agent who, when finally given an opportunity in 2022, showcased his dynamic abilities from the slot position. He forced a whopping 13 missed tackles on 52 receptions and did not have a drop all year. The Bills have promise at inside receiver with 2022 fifth-round pick Khalil Shakir, and Dortch would provide legitimate, veteran competition there.
Okoronkwo went in the fifth round of the 2018 draft, and after largely being buried on the Rams depth chart at the beginning stage of his career, he signed a one-year deal with the Texans and was a pass-rushing success in Houston this past season with 36 pressures on 268 pass-rushing snaps (13.4% pressure rate), both of which were career highs. He’s the smaller, bendy type rusher the Bills need to add to the outside pass rush group beyond Von Miller.
Draft (mock selections) Round 1 – Parker Washington, WR, Penn StateRound 2 – Darnell Wright, RT, TennesseeRound 3 – Joe Tippmann, C, WisconsinRound 4 – Byron Young, DL, AlabamaRound 5 – DeMarcco Hellams, S, AlabamaRound 5 – Jaxson Kirkland, OL, Washington
In the 2021 regular season, the Bills finished dead last in yards after the catch per reception in the NFL at 4.22 yards. The 2022 improvement in that key statistic was negligible. Buffalo moved from 32nd to 31st in YAC per grab with a 4.42 yard average. The four teams in the conference title games were second, third, fifth and 11th during the regular season. The Bills must get better in that regard in 2023, and Washington is the ideal, bigger-bodied YAC specialist for Buffalo to select in Round 1. He forced 15 missed tackles on just 42 receptions in his final collegiate season and averaged 6.3 YAC per reception.
We’re at the beginning stages of draft season, so pegging where prospects will land now is impossible, but it feels like Jordan Addison, Quentin Johnston, and Jaxon Smith-Njigba will be off the board when the Bills go on the clock at No. 28 overall.
Wright would represent an immediate upgrade over Spencer Brown at right tackle. He’s a oversized, bouncer who routinely throws defensive linemen out of the club. He was awesome in many one-on-one situations against Will Anderson and is a snow plow for the run game.
Tippmann is an athletic, two-year starter who can leap into the starting center role in 2023. Being from Wisconsin, he’s well-versed in the run game and excelled as a pass protector during his time with the Badgers. Young is a versatile defensive lineman for two reasons. He has the body to play anywhere from nose tackle to five technique and can two-gap to eat blockers to free linebackers to halt the run or hit a swim move and disrupt the pocket on a pass play.
Hellams can’t be relied upon to be a smooth coverage type at safety. As a box defender, he can thrive because of great instincts reading blocks and super-sound tackling. Kirkland was on the early-round radar as a tackle before the 2021 season. After a disappointing year, he returned to Washington and had a fine fifth year with the Huskies at guard. More blocking reinforcement for Allen.