NFL free agency is off and running, and we’re keeping track of every major signing, trade and release of the 2021 offseason, with analysis from our NFL Nation reporters and grades from our experts. The new league year began March 17, meaning free-agent signings could be made official after that. The first round of the 2021 NFL draft begins April 29 on ESPN.
The Buffalo Bills entered free agency with high expectations for 2021 after falling one game short of their first Super Bowl appearance since 1993. They addressed two of their biggest needs before free agency by re-signing linebacker Matt Milano, who excels in coverage, guard Jon Feliciano and right tackle Daryl Williams after increasing their salary-cap space with contract restructures and releases. They also brought back starting cornerback Levi Wallace on a on-year deal, and addressed other needs by signing receiver Emmanuel Sanders, backup quarterback Mitchell Trubisky and tight end Jacob Hollister.
Here’s a breakdown of every 2021 NFL free-agent signing by the Bills, and how each will impact the upcoming season:
What it means: Bills GM Brandon Beane called this a “reset” for Trubisky, a situation where he can rebuild his value before hitting the open market again in 2022. The former No. 2 overall pick offers similar mobility and athleticism as Josh Allen, meaning the team wouldn’t have to change much about its scheme were Allen to miss an extended amount of time. After coming one game from reaching the Super Bowl last season, Buffalo wants to ensure something like losing its quarterback won’t completely derail a possible championship run.
What’s the risk: The Bills hope they don’t have to play him, but if he does end up taking over for an injured Allen and keeps the team afloat, this will be one of the best bargains in the NFL. There’s virtually no risk in adding a player with 50 NFL starts to be your backup, but the move might not pay off if Trubisky never regains his confidence after being jettisoned from the Bears.
What it means: The Bills get their replacement at wide receiver for the recently-released John Brown. Sanders is a two-time Pro Bowler who had 726 yards and 5 touchdowns with the Saints in 2020. The length of Sanders’ deal says Buffalo felt the need to add another veteran to its receiver room after losing Brown and Andre Roberts this offseason, but also that it’s still committed to 2020 fourth-round pick Gabriel Davis in the long term.
What’s the risk: Sanders turns 34 when the league year begins March 17, which will make him the Bills’ oldest player alongside Mario Addison (33). Sanders has been productive in his 30s, but even if his productivity falls off quicker than expected, he won’t be relied on to be anything more than Buffalo’s third-or-fourth-best receiver this season. Sanders’ reported $6 million contract is not insignificant, but it’s a low-risk move for a wide receiver with three Super Bowl appearances.
The veteran running back has agreed to terms with the Bills on a one-year deal.
What it means: The Bills lacked speed coming out of the backfield and Breida provides that and then some. He was one of the league’s most electric backs during his tenure with the San Francisco 49ers and if he can tap into that productivity, he gives Buffalo a home-run threat as it continues to stockpile offensive weapons.
What’s the risk: Breida fell flat during his one season with the Dolphins, taking a back seat to Myles Boykin and Salvon Ahmed. There is some doubt about whether he was misused in Miami, but if whatever kept him off the field last season follows him to Buffalo, the Bills do have Zack Moss and Devin Singletary to rely on.
The veteran will return to the Bills on a one-year deal.
What it means: The Bills didn’t tender Wallace, who was a restricted free agent entering this offseason. They were always interested in bringing him back, however, and were able to retain their starting cornerback of the past two seasons. He gives them veteran experience within Leslie Frazier’s system and is a reliable starter — although Buffalo’s reluctance to give him a multiyear deal suggests his return won’t keep Beane from adding to the cornerback room.
What’s the risk: Wallace is a safe option at cornerback, but the Bills have made it relatively clear they don’t see him as a long-term option. Still, it’s a low-risk move to bring him back as he is good enough to keep any other cornerback they draft or sign off the field — including last years seventh-round pick, Dane Jackson.
The veteran receiver will return to the Bills on a one-year deal.
What it means: The Bills have found their return man after losing Pro Bowl returner Andre Roberts to the Houston Texans this offseason. McKenzie essentially aced his audition for the job during Week 17 last season when he returned a punt for a touchdown as part of a three-touchdown first half for him. Buffalo has primarily used the speedy McKenzie on jet sweeps and he should resume that role unless the team decides to convert him full time to special teams.
What’s the risk: There’s little risk with a one-year deal. The Bills made sure to bring back a player with experience who is beloved inside the locker room. It remains to be seen what it will take for the Bills to offer McKenzie a long-term deal, as they’ve signed him to one-year contracts in each of the past two offseasons.
The linebacker agreed to a four-year extension worth $44 million with $24 million guaranteed, a source told ESPN’s Adam Schefter.
What it means: “The process” is working in Buffalo. Coach Sean McDermott came to Buffalo in 2017 intent on establishing a certain culture — and it paid off in re-signing Milano, who cited that culture as one of the reasons he chose to return. This keeps the Bills’ defensive core intact for the foreseeable future and gives them their best cover linebacker for the next four years.
What’s the risk: It would be disingenuous to call Milano injury-prone; he has missed nine games in his four-year career, with six coming over the past two seasons. There’s virtually no risk in re-signing arguably their most important defensive player who has improved in each season. It’s a home run for Beane.
The sides agreed to a three-year extension worth $28.2 million, with $14 million guaranteed, according to a source.
What it means: The Bills viewed Williams as too valuable to let walk. Considering the options already on the roster who can play guard, Buffalo couldn’t afford to start over at right tackle as it enters its championship window. With Dion Dawkins, Cody Ford, and now Williams under team control for the next couple of seasons, the offensive line’s core stays intact.
What’s the risk: Williams does have an injury history, missing the 2018 season with a knee injury. He is also not as versatile as some of Buffalo’s other offensive linemen, but it doesn’t matter much. Williams locked it down for the Bills at his natural position from the first of training camp and has Pro Bowl potential at right tackle.
The Bills agreed to a one-year deal with the former Carolina Panthers backup.
What it means: The Bills needed to add depth to their defensive line this offseason and hope to have found a diamond in the rough with Obada. He put up 5.5 sacks for the Panthers last season in a reserve role — which he will likely reprise in Buffalo. If he shines, however, the Bills might have found another defensive end to pair with 2020 second-round pick, AJ Epenesa.
What’s the risk: Obada is not the standout edge rusher the Bills currently lack. They’ve gotten by the past few years as a sum-of-all-parts unit, but considering the teams they have to go through in the AFC, they would benefit from a double-digit sack defensive lineman who can draw attention from Jerry Hughes, Ed Oliver and others.
The Bills are bringing back their most versatile offensive linemen, as Feliciano has played left guard, right guard and center since signing with the team in 2019.
What it means: The Bills are intent on running it back with basically the same roster as last season’s AFC runner-up team. Feliciano brings a certain mentality to Buffalo’s offensive line that was noticeably missing during his seven-game absence to start the 2020 season. After re-signing Williams and now Feliciano, the Bills will return all five starters from last season’s offensive line.
What’s the risk: The Bills’ offensive line owned the fourth-best pass block win rate in the NFL last season, but there was plenty of room for improvement from the unit in the run game as Buffalo had the fourth-worst win rate in the league. Returning five starters should pay off in the passing game, but the Bills will need more cohesiveness from their O-line if they want to become a more complete offense in 2021.
The Bills agreed to a one-year deal with the former Seattle Seahawks tight end.
What it means: Beane said they would look to add competition to the tight end room — but also that the team still has high expectations for starter Dawson Knox. This move for Hollister supports Beane’s words, adding a player who could push Knox and 2019 seventh-round pick Tommy Sweeney to an extent, but one who doesn’t have as high of a ceiling as Knox. Buffalo is also out on trading for Philadelphia Eagles tight end Zach Ertz, with a league source telling ESPN there is “nothing there” between the teams and that the Eagles’ asking price was too high for a deal to be done.
What’s the risk: If Knox takes a step back in 2021 and Sweeney fails to surpass him, Hollister doesn’t have quite the upside Beane alluded to in January, when he stated his interest in getting a dynamic option at the position like Kansas City’s Travis Kelce. Hollister has never surpassed 350 receiving yards in a single season, so the risk of signing him depends on what his role with the Bills ends up being; it’s a low-risk signing for a backup, high-risk if they end up needing him to regularly produce.
The Bills agreed to a one-year deal with the veteran, who played on special teams for them last season.
What it means: The Bills made a concerted effort to improve their special teams last offseason, with a series of moves that included signing Jones to a one-year deal. He’s one of the league’s better special teams players, and with Jones and cornerback Siran Neal back in 2021, the Bills might have the NFL’s best gunner duo.
What’s the risk: Low — Jones’ role is established at this point in his career. He still possesses the speed to make an impact on offense if necessary, but it’s unlikely the Bills use him on that side of the ball.
The Bills agreed to a three-year deal with the former Miami Dolphins punter.
What it means: Despite the best season of his career, the Bills will let restricted free agent Corey Bojorquez test the market, and the length of Haack’s deal suggests Buffalo isn’t likely to match any offer Bojorquez gets. That Buffalo did not tender Bojorquez speaks to its salary-cap situation, as well. But Haack is a solid option at punter, averaging 44.7 yards per punt since entering the league in 2017.
What’s the risk: Bojorquez averaged 50.78 yards per punt last season — the third-best mark ever recorded by a punter in a single season. His ability to flip a field was conducive to Buffalo’s bend-don’t-break defense, and the Bills are hoping Haack can be just as effective.
The Bills agreed to terms with the former Atlanta Falcons return specialist on a one-year deal.
What it means: The Bills seemed to have found their return specialist by re-signing Isaiah McKenzie, but Powell adds depth, or at the very least competition to the position. He doesn’t add much as a receiver, not enough to crack what should be a tough rotation in Buffalo, but it’s likely either he or McKenzie makes it to the 53-man roster after training camp — not both.
What’s the risk: The most likely event here is that either Powell or Mackenzie makes it to the final roster, so this move is Buffalo covering its bases while it finds a replacement for Andre Roberts.
The Bills agreed to terms with the former Cincinnati Bengals offensive tackle on a one-year deal.
What it means: Buffalo is a little thin at offensive tackle behind Dion Dawkins and Daryl Williams — Hart will compete with Ryan Bates and Trey Adams for a spot on the roster. While the Bills do like Bates and Adams, Hart has experience on his side, with 66 career starts.
What’s the risk: There is virtually no risk. Hart is not expected to push for a starting job, but does have starting experience If he needs to be thrust into the role. There is, however, a realistic chance that he does not make the final roster.