Season of success followed by offseason of uncertainty for Bills

The Bills Report

Buffalo Bills general manager Brandon Beane walks on the field before an NFL divisional round football game against the Baltimore Ravens Saturday, Jan. 16, 2021, in Orchard Park, N.Y. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)

Brandon Beane laughed when it was suggested that he may have to worry about becoming a bit too arrogant about his general manager abilities after being named NFL Executive of the Year.

“That’s a team award,” Beane said referencing the work done by his top assistants, Joe Schoen and Dan Morgan, among others. “They put my name on it, but I don’t look at it that way.”

It’s a good thing Beane has a good team. They will be busy over the next few months. They won’t necessarily be making a flurry of moves, but they will have many long discussions.

“There’s probably gonna be some tough decisions,” Beane said to reporters during his season ending Zoom call on Wednesday.

The problem begins with the salary cap. This time last year, the 2021 cap was expected to rise from $198 million in 2020 to $210 or $215 million. Then, the pandemic hit and the league had to brace for significantly less revenue. The 2021 cap is still unknown, but has a floor of $175 million. It’s not expected to be much higher. Beane said more will be learned about the final number after league meetings over the next couple weeks.

The Bills currently have about two million dollars in cap room. In the world of NFL economics, that’s couch change. Beane lamented that if he had known the reduction was coming, he might not have been as aggressive with some contracts. However, there was little the Bills could have done to prevent their cap predicament and it’s a problem shared by almost all the other 31 teams.

It still means the man who has authored some notable moves the last couple offseasons will be quite hamstrung this time around.

“I would not anticipate any blockbuster moves of Stefon Diggs type,” Beane said. “It’s really gonna be plugging some holes, depending on who we lose, and then the onus is on us to really have a strong draft. This is not going to be a free agency where we can be aggressive.”

The Bills do have a few notable players that could make the “who we lose” list and it starts with linebacker Matt Milano. The former 5th round pick has completed his rookie contract and is in line for an eight figure per year payday.

Even if Beane can clear out enough cap space to afford Milano, he will have to determine if $12 or $13 million per year is worth spending on a lower valued position like linebacker. There’s no doubt Milano is an impact player for the Bills.

“Matt is a very good player. What a great job he’s done since he came in here to improve,” Beane said. “We’d love to be able to get Matt back. He knows that. I’ve shared that with him. I’m sure Sean has as well. He’s earned the right to go to free agency and see what his market bears. We’ll do our best to retain him.”

The only question with Milano is his health. He’s missed ten games and 15 starts the last three seasons. Beane does prefer to give the big contracts to the players drafted originally by the Bills.

“They know what to expect and they can help lead the message,” Beane said.

The next two priorities after Milano are offensive linemen Jon Feliciano and Daryl Williams. Beane said he was impressed how fast Feliciano returned from his offseason pectoral injury, noting that it can often keep players out three or four weeks longer. He added that Feliciano is a great “communicator” and, of course, complimented his versatility.

Williams had last played guard in Carolina, but was a second team all-pro in 2017 at tackle. A knee injury essentially ruined his 2018 and 2019 seasons. When the Bills moved him back to tackle and he began to flourish, there were kudos from football experts for Buffalo’s smartly returning Williams to his more productive position.

That was not the plan.

Beane admitted he thought Williams would work best in Buffalo at guard. However, Feliciano got hurt and Cody Ford was the first choice to replace him at guard. That left the tackle position open for Williams.

“The more we watched him practice, he just seemed confident at right tackle. I knew he could do it. It was good to see him back to playing like he did 3-4 years ago,” Beane said. “He’s a very Steady Eddie personality. I thought he brought a calmness to our line.”

Beane isn’t sure if he’ll be able to retain either player. He wants to see where the market lands on both. If either leaves, Beane will be shopping for “similar cost effective replacements”.

Among the other notable free agents are Isaiah McKenzie, Andre Roberts and Matt Barkley. The latter is notable because the Bills need someone as the backup QB. Any salary cap gymnastics have to include the couple million it’ll take to roster a veteran backup if Jake Fromm doesn’t get the job next year.

Barkley’s contributions off the field cannot be overlooked. In fact, Beane made a point Wednesday of saying how much Barkley’s wife, Brittany, helped keep player wives connected during the Covid affected season. Beane called the Barkley’s a “big blessing” to the Bills.

Josh Allen would agree.

“His first thing every day he walks through this door is to help Josh Allen be the best version of himelf,” Beane said of Barkley. “That’s why it’s been so great to have him,”

The only way to find cap space for all these unsigned players Beane wants to keep is releasing other players that are currently signed. Two will be at the top of any possible Bills salary cap casualty list.

John Brown would save the Bills over eight million dollars against the cap if he is cut this offseason (all numbers courtesy Brown missed seven games this year and played three more without making a catch.

Beane thought the arrival of Stefon Diggs would make Brown a better player, but injuries helped to disrupt his season. Even after returning to the lineup with a four catch, 72 yard, one touchdown game in the season finale against Miami, Beane thought Brown could never regain his groove in the Buffalo passing game. In addition, Allen had time to get in “sync” with other receivers like Gabriel Davis.

It seems the writing is on the wall for Brown’s departure.

Mitch Morse is another candidate to become a victim of his salary cap number. A Morse release saves the Bills nearly $5 million. Beane complimented Morse’s play late in the season, but Morse suffered his fifth concussion this season. The Bills do have a ready replacement at center IF they bring Feliciano back.

They also seem to have replacement all but penciled in for Feliciano at guard. Beane was bullish on Ford, calling him one of the team’s most talented linemen. He added that it would be a “surprise” if Ford was not a starter next season.

If Ford is all but in, then someone has to be all but out. It could be Feliciano, but if he stays, then Morse will almost certainly be the one to go. The Bills have also lauded the play of Ike Boettger over the last few weeks and he seems a heavy favorite to keep his starting job.

Beane is expecting a few tough conversations this offseason with guys he likes and guys who have been a big part of building the Bills into a Super Bowl contender. It’s part of the job when you are Executive of the Year.

“Have to be very honest with guys. They’re not going to like it. They’re not always going to agree with it,” Beane said of how a GM should explain to a player they are being released. “If you ask those guys, they’ll at least respect it.”

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