Despite getting close to finally getting past the Kansas City Chiefs in the postseason, the Buffalo Bills’ bid for a Super Bowl fell short once again. Now, with many free agents and a significant cap deficit, the need to hit on their 2024 NFL Draft selections is as big as ever.
With more roster turnover this offseason expected than any the Bills have had over the last four years, there are several directions they could go with this year’s draft. As the offseason decisions draw closer, where do things stand in terms of their draft needs?
Here is an early look at potential options, stemming from the most pressing needs to positions that could use some depth in the mid-to-late rounds.
The most pressing needs the Bills could use a premium draft pick on in April.
The Bills head into each offseason with a goal they want to accomplish, and many times, it has to do with their primary playoff deficiency. And even with some offensive success against the Chiefs, they clearly lacked the ability to make an explosive play. Their final drive could be looked at as a microcosm for what ailed them. Stefon Diggs dropped their one attempt at a big play all game and because they had to spend most of the game setting the attempt up, the opportunity was lost. It’s not solely on Diggs for that one missed chance, but rather the personnel leading to such a game plan that required such a small margin for error.
To put it simply, Diggs needs some help with him in the form of a receiver who demands attention past the underneath routes. Gabe Davis filled a role as a blocker and occasional downfield threat, but the more he played, the less consistent a producer he became. Davis was a better decoy for Diggs earlier in his career. Khalil Shakir and Dalton Kincaid are both starters moving forward and better as short-to-intermediate targets, but they are not the true explosive play threats this offense needs this offseason. It could come in the form of a speedster or someone with size and speed, but the ability to make big plays is a must. Between Davis becoming a free agent in March and already declaring he’s going to free agency, Diggs turning 31 in 2024 and the 2024 NFL Draft being stocked with excellent receiver talent, the position should remain near the top of their draft needs, barring a move between now and April 25. And if it’s such a good receiver draft, you can’t rule out the Bills doubling up and drafting two this April.
Last year’s draft was the first time the Bills could ignore the defensive end position in many years, but with their current situation, it’s back near the top of the needs list. The only sure thing they have in their edge rusher group right now is Greg Rousseau, who is entering his fourth season with the team. After that, the only players the Bills have signed for 2024 are Von Miller, who went without a sack last season, special teams player Kingsley Jonathan and practice squad player Kameron Cline. Jonathan showed some potential as a pass rusher in the summer, but it’s not a ton to go on to prevent them from bringing in one or two pass rushers heading into the offseason. Leonard Floyd, A.J. Epenesa and Shaq Lawson are all free agents and, as of now, it’s looking like it will be a challenge to retain both Floyd and Epenesa.
The Bills will have an opportunity to get Miller off their books with cap savings in the 2025 offseason, which presents an opportunity to draft an edge rusher this year in the first few rounds with the goal of putting them in close to an even split with Miller in snaps in 2024 before becoming the starter in 2025. As we’ve seen in their past picks, it doesn’t always go as planned, but that shouldn’t stop general manager Brandon Beane from trying it again. At least this time around, there will be a clear path to playing time due to all of the expected roster turnover over the next two offseasons. There is also an added emphasis to take a defensive end early this year, as Rousseau is due a huge pay increase — either in the form of his fifth-year option or a long-term extension — in 2025.
Much like the defensive end position, expiring contracts leave the Bills bare at defensive tackle. DaQuan Jones, Tim Settle, Poona Ford and Jordan Phillips are all unrestricted free agents in March, which leaves the cupboards almost entirely bare. Only Ed Oliver, who proved to be one of the best players on the team throughout the regular season, and reserve/futures signing Eli Ankou remain. Oliver, in the first round of the 2019 draft, is the last time the Bills used any draft pick on the position. The last 36 picks have all gone in a different direction. Oliver is firmly entrenched as the starting three-technique defensive tackle, so if you’re looking for the last time they selected a one-technique defensive tackle, that would be Harrison Phillips in 2018. It may be time for the Bills to select one on a cost-controlled four-year contract. Fortunately for the Bills, one-technique defensive tackles usually aren’t used with premium picks, so they could find one who fits their scheme on Day 2 or early Day 3.
The Bills could get Jones to return on a short-term deal if the money makes sense from a cap perspective. Jones is now 32 years old and suffered a long-term injury last year, so he could be entirely affordable for the 2024 season and as a short-term fix for the position. The Bills were a different defensive line when Jones was in the lineup last season, and in 2022 as well. Even with him coming back, though, drafting a long-term starter at the position should remain firmly in consideration with one of their first four or five picks. A late-round three-technique shouldn’t be out of the equation, either.
This need is probably a year or two late, as it likely would have been better to draft a safety and let them learn behind Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer rather than drafting one and forcing him into the lineup their rookie season. But that might wind up being their fate with their cap being structured the way it is and without a starting option other than Poyer signed for 2024. Damar Hamlin is signed but at bottom of the safety depth chart, which is not a great sign for him moving forward. There has been a glaring need for a young safety to be drafted in the first four rounds in one of the past few drafts, but the Bills always opted for something else. Now with Hyde mulling retirement and a free agent and Poyer nearing the end of his career, drafting one this year should be a priority.
The Bills could turn one of their cornerbacks into a safety to fill the void, but neither Tre’Davious White nor Kaiir Elam seem like great fits for the position. White is not a great tackler, which would limit his effectiveness. Elam’s strength is as a man-cover corner, not in the zone scheme the Bills primarily run. Christian Benford would be an ideal solution, but with how he won the job last summer and his play this season as a starter, it could create another long-term roster hole if they moved him. They could also opt to make their one “big” free agent splash a safety in the range of the Connor McGovern deal last year and push the draft need out by one year. But with their limited cap space, their best bet might be to use Poyer as a bridge starter, sign a low-cost free agent on a one-year deal, draft a safety and see if the rookie can beat out the one-year free agent this coming summer.
Needs that aren’t immediate, but could still warrant an early-to-mid round draft pick.
Starting left tackle Dion Dawkins is a free agent after 2024, as is right tackle Spencer Brown. If the Bills feel like they can’t afford both players, drafting a mid-round offensive tackle to develop behind them in 2024 would be wise. They were a bit lucky the inexperienced tackle depth with Ryan Van Demark wasn’t needed for much more than garbage time snaps in 2023. Just like at safety, they shouldn’t rely on that sort of health at the position to continue and should be proactive to improve their tackle depth. Van Demark has some potential to improve, but his ceiling might be as a top reserve swing tackle in the NFL.
There could wind up being some changes along the offensive line this offseason. Just like Dawkins and Brown, starting center Mitch Morse is a free agent following the 2024 season. Morse will be 32 in April and the Bills should look to extend their longtime starter through 2025 if he’ll agree to it. But if he’s at all hesitant about pushing past this current deal and into his age-33 season, the Bills could be proactive in drafting a center to take over beginning in 2025. While it is possible the Bills bring back the trio of Dawkins, Brown and Morse for 2025, it’s a long time between now and then and it could take some serious cap dollars to keep the whole group intact. Keep an eye on the offensive line on Days 2 and 3 of the draft.
I know what you’re thinking. Draft a running back? Again? Over Beane’s entire history with the organization, one tendency remains true time and time again. He likes to take a lot of swings at the running back position and the Bills have never paid a running back more than a low to middle-tier deal.
Needs that assist depth, rather than seeking an immediate starter or a starter in the next two seasons. Specialty positions are also considered tertiary needs.
A lot of this depends on what happens with both Rasul Douglas and White. Douglas is under contract for 2024, and if the Bills extend him past this season, it would cut out the need for an early-round cornerback. The case gets even more difficult to make if White returns next season, regardless of his injury status. On top of this, the Bills still have Taron Johnson, Benford, Elam and Siran Neal under contract next year. That’s already a full room, as the Bills generally only keep five or six cornerbacks on the 53-man roster. If the Bills move on from White, they could select a mid-to-late-round cornerback just to get someone else in the system. They could also bring back Dane Jackson or even Levi Wallace on a low-cost free-agent deal as two players who know the system quite well. Either way, this doesn’t seem like a premium add position at the moment.
The Bills have four linebackers signed next season in Matt Milano, Terrel Bernard, Dorian Williams and Baylon Spector, so they already have their starters and two young players to serve as the top two backup options. But the Bills generally keep five or six linebackers each year, which opens up room for a Day 3 draft choice to help on special teams in the short-term and to develop as depth for the long term. This need could also go away if the Bills re-signed Tyrel Dodson, Tyler Matakevich, a free agent or a combination of two of the three. But they’ll need at least a fifth linebacker to come from somewhere.
Sam Martin had an excellent end to his regular season before a hamstring injury hobbled him in the playoffs. Before that though, Martin battled some inconsistency throughout the year, which put his 2024 status into jeopardy. However, the Bills need to decide on Martin well before the draft in late April. The entirety of Martin’s $1.55 million base salary guarantees a few days after the start of the new league year in mid-March. So if the Bills don’t move on or don’t make any adjustments to the deal, drafting a punter may not happen. Even if Martin returns, it could be wise for the Bills to sign a priority undrafted free-agent punter and attempt to keep that player on their practice squad in 2024, which would allow the Bills to have multi-year control on a low-cost deal for 2025 and beyond, when Martin’s deal is no longer guaranteed. And if the rookie outplays Martin in the summer, they could try to trade Martin for a conditional late-round pick. If the Bills redo Martin’s contract to take away the guaranteed money, though, it could be Puntapalooza o’clock this summer.
(Top photo: Perry Knotts / Getty Images)