ORCHARD PARK — Marv Levy, during his 11½ seasons as coach of the Bills, had an unwavering view of NFL free agency.
“The best free agents you sign are your own,” he maintained.
This year, free agency begins March 13 at 4 p.m., though negotiations can commence two days earlier.
Barring signing any of its own players before that date, Buffalo has 11 unrestricted free agents: defensive tackles Jordan Phillips and Corey Liuget, defensive end Shaq Lawson, cornerback Kevin Johnson, running backs Frank Gore and Senorise Perry, offensive linemen Quinton Spain and LaAdrian Waddle, safety Kurt Coleman and linebackers Julian Stanford and Maurice Alexander.
BILLS GENERAL manager Brandon Beane is very much of Levy’s mindset with keeping players the franchise values.
“If you have a guy you want, you’d love to get something done before they get to free agency,” he said. “But I also respect the business part of it. We have to make business decisions that are sometimes painful, because (you’re) around these guys, you love them, and you appreciate what they’ve done for you. I don’t hold it against any of them if they say, ‘I really want to be here, but I want to wait a little closer to free agency and get a feel for my market because maybe I can get more, or I just want to make sure before I commit.’
Beane added, “Some guys are like ‘I just want to be here’ and that’s great for us. A lot of guys may say ‘Let us see what’s out there and circle back closer to free agency.’
“(But) any guy that says ‘I definitely want to be here,’ and we can be on the same page of their value, we’d love to get them done as soon as possible. It’s much better than the alternative where they’re speeding out of here leaving skid marks in the parking lot.”
There’s also something to be said for keeping the team’s core together.
“I agree with continuity,” Beane said, reiterating the point made by coach Sean McDermott. “The more cohesive you are … this is the ultimate team sport. We want to keep as many intact as we can, but we wouldn’t do it in spite of a clear upgrade. If you’re talking about bringing in a guy with a similar skill set, why would I do that if this guy can do it?
“Other than people that leave in free agency that we can’t control, we believe in continuity and we want to keep as many of these guys that we’ve drafted and spent time developing and learning our system. That’s our plan, so hopefully we’ll be able to add some pieces here and there to help us take the next step.”
SO WHAT’S this year’s approach to free agency?
“We probably won’t be spending at the deep end of the pool like we did last year, (but) it’s still up to us to find either pieces to compete with what we have or pieces that can upgrade,” Beane said. “You can get minimum contract guys that are low-tier, sort of middle of the road ... those sometimes are as important or more important than those big-ticket items.
“We have to have a real assessment of where we see them, how they finish and our vision for what we see each player is going forward. Is this a guy that’s on the decline? Is this a guy that’s ascending? Is this a guy we can win with, or is this a guy we have to upgrade from? We’ll have some frank discussions. We won’t all agree with each other, but that will kind of lay the groundwork for what our next steps are.”
ONE PLUS is Buffalo having just under $90 million in salary cap space.
“It gives you a lot of flexibility, the more cap space you have,” Beane admitted. “Obviously we want to begin re-signing some of our own guys and putting funds there, so I don’t know what it’ll be by the time free agency (starts). Then you have to hold money for the draft. But it gives us a lot of flexibility. I love to have money in the bank if we need to make a move in August, September.
“Sometimes when you’re cap strapped you can’t do that, so its currency just like draft picks. It will allow us to do what we need to do to get better. We aren’t going to not be able to sign a guy or not be able to trade for a guy because we don’t have the cap space. We want to be cap strong as long as we can. Hopefully Josh (Allen, quarterback) continues to ascend and he makes us pay him some of those hefty salaries at that time. We want to be able to be in cap strength to handle that and not all of sudden sign a quarterback and then have to release three other players just to stay under the cap.”
How has the view of the Bills changed among potential free-agent signees?
“Last year I had to defend Buffalo,” Beane said. (But) I think people understand and see what we’re building here. People across the league see that we have a young quarterback that’s developing and growing. You look at what Green Bay did all those years with Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers. If you have a quarterback to build around, (that’s an) attractive thing.
“People see that we play selfless football and have guys that are going to fight. We’re hopefully considered a young team on the rise and an attractive place (to be). That would be the part that I would sell for anyone that was looking at Buffalo.”
(Chuck Pollock, a Times Herald senior sports columnist, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)