Buffalo Bills offseason preview 2021: Wide receivers

The Buffalo Bills have found some reliable top receiving targets, but will need to analyze the options behind them this offseason.

The Position: Wide Receiver
On the Roster: Stefon Diggs, Gabriel Davis, John Brown, Cole Beasley, Isaiah Hodgins
Free Agents: Andre Roberts, Isaiah McKenzie
Reserve/Future: Tanner Gentry, Jake Kumerow, Duke Williams

Stefon Diggs’ first year in Western New York led to the Buffalo Bills’ single-season record book, at least the receiving chapters, to be completely rewritten.

The (Minneapolis) miracle worker made an immediate impact in his red and blue debut, earning 1,535 yards on 127 receptions…each establishing new team records and led the NFL. Buffalo had their passing weapon in Josh Allen but they now appear to have a strong tandem that can cause Kelly-to-Reed-style levels of offensive destruction. Few can question the potential future Diggs has created in Buffalo. An enduring image of the 2020-21 AFC Championship Game is Diggs watching the Kansas City Chiefs’ celebration from afar, the lone man clad in white to remain on the field.

Diggs wasn’t the only one to enjoy a breakout with the Bills. Cole Beasley likewise earned career-best numbers (967 yards on 82 receptions) while Gabriel Davis established himself a valuable day three find, as he was among four others first-years tied with seven touchdown receptions, second-best amongst rookie competitors.

Yet, the unprecedented success the Bills found last season was tough to celebrate because of the lack of Super Bowl at the end. Startling as such a leap would’ve been, Davis admitted that the semifinal heartbreak made it difficult to watch the Big Game.

“I couldn’t watch it because it made my stomach hurt. I feel like we should have been there,” the Central Florida alum told Chris Hays of the Orlando Sentinel. “That’s our standard, obviously, now. We set the standard and we’re playing to be above that standard every single year. So our guys are going to get back to work and we’re going to be ready to go, and hopefully, we get a big one next year.”

While the Bills are obviously pleased with the output from the top of their depth chart, they’ll have to analyze their alternative options this offseason. In addition to McKenzie and Roberts’ expiring contracts, the team also has a decision to make on John Brown. The former Baltimore Raven was unable to capitalize on a career-best season in 2019 as he missed several games due to injury. Buffalo would save over $6.3 million if they were to move Brown through either a release or trade.

Free Agents-to-be

Isaiah McKenzie

In a year where seemingly every Bills receiver was setting new career-bests, McKenzie was no exception, albeit on a smaller scale. He put up 282 yards and became a reliable red zone target with five scores. The man of many talents also earned a passing score through trickery and took a punt back for a score during Week 17 proceedings.

Andre Roberts

Roberts has been a consistent Pro Bowl representative for the Empire State, making the last three and the most recent two as a member of the Bills (he notably caught a touchdown pass from Lamar Jackson in the 2019-2020 game). Roberts continued to make himself a valuable special teams commodity in 2020, despite getting deeper into his 30s. Appropriately, Roberts led the league with a 30-yard average on kick returns.

Will They Draft?

If they do, likely not until the latter stages. Their top three receivers from last season are all back, and they also might try to develop Isaiah Hodgins, a sixth-round choice in 2020 who missed all of his rookie campaign with an injury. Their reserve/future signees could be diamonds in the rough as well. Kumerow and Williams have extensive professional experience (Williams being a CFL All-Star in Edmonton) and Gentry, a draftee of the XFL’s New York Guardians, was Allen’s favorite target during their shared tenures as (Wyoming) Cowboys. Late projects on day three could be Davis’ former UCF teammate Tre Nixon or Michigan’s Ronnie Bell, who could be a slot-mate for Beasley.

Veteran Possibilities

Curtis Samuel, Carolina

The idea of more offensive firepower in Buffalo is the subject of nightmares in East Rutherford, Foxboro, and Miami. But Samuel is an elite target that’s a realistic option for Buffalo (which likely would require Brown’s release). One of general manager Brandon Beane’s final moves in Charlotte was taking the Brooklyn native with the 40th pick in the 2017 draft. Samuel will likely be looking for some stability with his second contract, but he well could be the proverbial “one move away” from truly pushing the Bills into the aura of Super Bowl contention.

Breshad Perriman, NY Jets

If the Bills wind up letting both Brown and McKenzie walk, Perriman would be a solid consolation prize in terms of speed and experience. It was clear last season that Perriman isn’t the type of player who can headline your receiving corps, but there’s hope he can create a good NFL career as a solid support man.

Chad Beebe, Minnesota

In some ways, it’s almost fate for Beebe to don red, white, and blue. Born in Buffalo and the son of a Bills legend (Don), Beebe can be the veteran depth option the Bills need if they’re forced to part ways with Brown or lose McKenzie.

Outlook

Overall, the Bills are more or less set with their top-heavy receiver depth chart. It’s unfortunate that Brown’s Buffalo journey might not continue, but that cap space earned with his moving (Buffalo currently ranks 20th in available cap space going into free agency) might be too much to resist. Expect the Bills to bring in a free agent or two to compete for a roster spot, as well as someone with return skills if both Roberts and McKenzie walk.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

New York Jets positional preview 2021: Secondary

What does the post-Jamal Adams era look like for a New York Jets secondary riddled with free agents? ESM investigates.

The Position: Secondary
On the Roster: Bless Austin, Corey Ballentine, Javelin Guidry, Bryce Hall, Lamar Jackson, Elijah Campbell, Sauqan Hampton, Ashtyn Davis, J.T. Hassell
Free Agents: Marcus Maye, Brian Poole, Arthur Maulet, Bradley McDougald, Matthias Farley, Bennett Jackson, Kyron Brown
Reserve/Future: Zane Lewis

The Jamal Adams roller-coaster finally returned to the loading station for the last time over the summer, as the disgruntled defender was dealt to Seattle. As far as the Jets are concerned they won’t have to think about Adams again, at least for the time being, until the Seahawks visit MetLife Stadium in 2024. The Jets even netted a solid consolation prize in a pair of Seattle first-round picks.

But, a question lingered, almost forgotten in the hullabaloo Adams caused on his way out: what would become of the secondary he left behind?

Leadership duties turned over to Adams’ fellow SEC alum and 2017 draftee Marcus Maye, who took full advantage of a new year in the spotlight. Maye set new career-bests in almost every major defensive category and ensured the Jets at least appeared in the SportsCenter Top 10 with a pair of jaw-dropping interceptions. His efforts were rewarded with the 2020 Curtis Martin Team MVP Award.

But Maye is set to be a free agent this spring and the situation behind him is quite murky. Injuries prevented some of the Jets’ defensive youngsters from taking the next step in their development, though some (like fifth-round rookie cornerback Bryce Hall) managed to make the most of their opportunities.

It’s great to see the Jets managed to make something of an ugly situation, vis a vis Adams’ departure. But it’s going to mean nothing if they can’t settle their own affairs on the homefront.

Free Agents-to-be

Kyron Brown

Brown, who partook in three games (one start) in 2019, spent all of last season on the Physically Unable to Perform list. As an exclusive rights free agent, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him get a camp opportunity.

Matthias Farley

Farley may be brought back for not only defensive veteran leadership, but for his work on the Jets’ special teams. He held special teams captaincy last season and led the Jets with seven tackles on kickoffs and punt returns.

Bennett Jackson 

The versatile Hazlet, NJ native has partaken in ten games over the past two seasons with the Jets and Ravens after a nearly half-decade absence from regular season action. His versatility, having played both cornerback and safety, could warrant him a new opportunity in green.

Arthur Maulet

Another defender who made his mark on special teams, Maulet possibly earned some brownie points with Jets brass when he did a serviceable job at safety over the final games. It’s possible Maulet could return on a third one-year deal.

Marcus Maye

Shortly after his hiring, new Jets head coach Robert Saleh sang of Maye’s praises.

“I know he’s got a tremendous reputation in the locker room,” Saleh said, per notes from the Jets. “From my understanding, he’s a very, very, very talented young man. And within our scheme, safeties are, obviously, they’re important to everybody, but with how we do things, it sounds like he’d be a very versatile piece.”

In terms of the Jets’ own free agents, Maye would likely be at the top of the list of terms of potential returnees. He probably isn’t worth the Eddie Jackson-numbers that Adams was seeking just yet, but the Jets’ plethora of cap space could make him an intriguing candidate for the franchise tag (circa $10-12 million).

Bradley McDougald

In 2020, McDougald became the answer to a New York sports trivia question, as he’s thus far the only yield from the Adams trade with a name. Unfortunately for McDougald, he failed to make an impact in the secondary was one of those afflicted by injuries (seven games). There’s no doubt that McDougald is talented, and the Jets could bring him back on an affordable short-term deal, though he’d probably have to battle for reps with Ashtyn Davis.

Brian Poole

One of the more pleasant surprises of the 2019 season, Poole was brought back on a second one-year deal and posted solid numbers before the injury bug cost him seven games. Through his time in Atlanta and New York, Poole has developed a strong reputation as a reliable slot defender. He’s more than earned another one-year deal, but, set to turn 29 in October, he might be seeking more long-term stability this time around.

Will They Draft?

It’s probably not a question of if, but when the Jets address their secondary on draft weekend. It also feels like these issues can be addressed as early as one of their Seattle picks at No. 23. Top prospect Patrick Surtain Jr. will likely be gone by then, but former receiver Caleb Farley out of Virginia Tech could be around, as well as more of Maye’s fellow SEC options like Jaycee Horn (South Carolina) and Tyson Campbell (Georgia).

Veteran Possibilities

Richard Sherman, San Francisco

The big difference between the hiring of Adam Gase and the modern arrival of Saleh is the difference in who was praising the moves. When Gase was brought in, it was mostly hot-take artists who felt like Gase was an outside-the-box hire. When Saleh came to town, it was the players who were responding positively to the move. No one’s praises have been louder than Sherman’s from afar, as Saleh has worked with him in their shared NFC West stops in Seattle and San Francisco. Sherman told Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer that Saleh would ” turn that entire culture around” and he personally congratulated the Jets on Twitter after the move was announced.

This, of course, raises the question…if Sherman is such a big Saleh fan, would be willing to join him in his first head coaching endeavor? Sherman would be a great fit, as the regaining of his trademark brand of smashmouth football, as well as his championship experience, would be perfect for this team to pick up.

Jason Verrett, San Francisco 

The more Niners the merrier, it would appear, as Saleh comes over from the Bay Area and defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich represented the team as a player for a decade. That concept will probably only increase as players will seek to gain traction and stability in Saleh’s new schemes. Verrett would a comparable option to Sherman, though he’s younger and potentially more affordable.

Xavier Woods, Dallas

While there’s plenty of talent available in this secondary free agent class, many of them are expensive names that are either past or nearing the end of their prime. Woods is nearing the end of his rookie deal after four serviceable seasons in Dallas, but he struggled in coverage in the Cowboys’ beleaguered secondary. While the Jets truly can’t afford to help someone else pen a redemption story, as they’ve spent a decade trying to write their own to no avail, they could make an exception for Woods and his flashes of potential.

Outlook

Already in a tenuous spot, the Jets need to do something to bolster their secondary in the post-Adams age. Bringing back Maye, even if it’s through a franchise tag deal that would allow them a year of relatively consequence-free football to see if he fits in Saleh’s system, would be a vital first step in achieving that goal. Adding Maye back would also combat the issues of a free agent class relatively deep in experience while giving the youngsters whom the Jets have high hopes for (Austin, Davis, Hall, etc.) a familiar face to work with.

Signing Maye probably isn’t going to become the ultimate difference between the postseason and another trip home in January. But, if they miss out on him, the Jets better have one heck of a backup plan.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

New York Jets positional preview 2021: Linebackers

New York Jets, Jordan Jenkins

New head coach Robert Saleh has plenty of questions to address when it comes to the New York Jets’ linebacking corps.

The Position: Linebacker
On the Roster: C.J. Mosley, Blake Cashman, Sharif Finch, John Daka
Free Agents: Jordan Jenkins, Tarell Basham, Neville Hewitt, Patrick Onwuasor, Harvey Langi, Bryce Hager, Frankie Luvu
Reserve/Future: Noah Dawkins

The world was a lot different this time a year ago, unaware of the upheaval and interruption to daily life that 2020 was going to bring. It obviously pales in comparison to other items affected by the past year’s propensity for chaos, but the New York Jets’ situation at linebacker seemed to be trending in the right direction.

C.J. Mosley seemed destined to come back after an impressive debut in Week 1 of 2019, a year mostly most due to injury. Avery Williamson was establishing himself as a leader. Jordan Jenkins, fresh off a career-best eight sacks, was brought back on an affordable one-year deal at just under $4 million. Depth options Neville Hewitt and Blake Cashman were also returning through a new contract and new health respectively. The unit appeared to be trending in the right direction.

But things have drastically changed over the past year, with calamities brought on by both external sources and problems on the homefront leaving the linebacker corps in relative shambles. Mosley (understandably) opted out of the 2020 season due to the ongoing health crisis. Williamson was part of the Jets’ in-season fire sale in a deal with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Jenkins failed to build on the last two seasons and ended up injured reserve with Cashman, who was limited to three defensive snaps by another injury. Hope did emerge in the form of Tarell Basham, who set career-bests in a contract year, but nothing that would truly solidify the Jets’ outlook.

Joining the Jets as defensive coordinator is Jeff Ulbrich, a decade-long linebacker in San Francisco fresh off a defensive coordinator stint under Raheem Morris’ brief watch in Atlanta. Both he and head coach Robert Saleh (having overseen linebackers in Jacksonville for three seasons) have their work cut out for them as they seek to gain clarity on a team in upheaval.

Free Agents-to-be

Tarell Basham

Basham took the most of extended opportunities, setting new career-bests in tackles (36), quarterback hits (13), and sacks (13). He notably served as the main catalyst behind the Jets’ Week 16 win over playoff-participant Cleveland, forcing two fumbles of Baker Mayfield late in the game. At the right price, Basham can serve as a veteran, situational pass rusher.

Bryce Hager

Mostly working on special teams, injuries forced the veteran Hager to start the final two games of the season at linebacker, earning credit for half-a-sack (the first of his six-year career) in the season finale in New England. Brant Boyer’s return could grant him at least a camp opportunity.

Neville Hewitt

Over the past three seasons, Hewitt has established himself as a very reliable depth option in green. Hewitt started all 16 games for the first time in his career last season, leading the Jets with 91 solo tackles (fourth in the NFL). While Hewitt has more than earned a new contract in New York, his strong showings off the bench may lead him to seek more permanent starting roles in a new locale.

Jordan Jenkins

Jenkins’ $3.75 million deal was seen as a steal, especially for a guy that earned 15 sacks over the prior two seasons. But subsequent shoulder issues stifled his 2020 endeavors, causing him to miss four games and earn only two sacks. Fresh off surgery, the Jets will probably let him walk, unless Saleh and Ulbrich view him as a veteran reclaimation project.

Harvey Langi

A restrcited free agent, Langi was another backer who enjoyed career-best number after taking over for fallen comrades (60 tackles) before landing on injured reserve himself. His familiarity with the Jets’ special team works could certainly afford him a new opportunity.

Frankie Luvu

Luvu has turned himself into a bit of a fan favorite over the past few preseasons, earning a roster spot through his tenacious pass rushing from the fringe. As an exlusive rights free agent, Luvu will probably gain another chance this summer in camp.

Patrick Onwuasor

Injuries limited Onwuasor to a mere single game and eight snaps last season…none of which came on defense. The former Raven could get another chance in New York if the team wants to keep some veteran guidance in tow.

Will They Draft?

Depends on what the Jets glean from a sizably talented free agency class, but with so many potential departures, they’ll certainly do their due dilligence this offseason. The threat of seeing multi-talented quarterbacks like Josh Allen and Tua Tagovailoa (who could become Deshaun Watson if Miami convinces the Texans to bargain), outside edge help would likely be the way to go. It’s unlikely that the Jets will use the No. 2 pick on a linebacker, but options with the late first from Seattle could include Notre Dame’s Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah or versatile Zaven Collins out of Tulsa.

Veteran Possibilities

Matt Judon, Baltimore

Through Mosley and Onwuasor, it appears the Jets have studied the Ravens’ linebackers extensively. It’s possible they could return to Baltimore’s fountain of defensive prowess through Judon, who will likely be the most-sought after linebacker prospect on the free agent front. They could go after Yannick Ngakoue again, but considering Baltimore sent over two picks to get him, they’ll likely be all-in on his re-signing, leaving Judon to test the open market (especially with only one franchise tag). At 28, Judon has plenty left in the tank and can give the young Jets a taste of success. The cap hit (over $16 million in Baltimore last season) could scare some suitors off, but Jets certainly have the funds available.

De’Vondre Campbell, Arizona

A former fourth-round pick out of Minnesota, Campbell got his start under Ulbrich in Atlanta. Prior to Campbell’s departure for the Cardinals last offseason, Ulbrich discussed his appreciation for Campbell and just how personal their relationship grew during their shared time with the Falcons.

“He’s a guy where my daughter watches his kids, babysits his kids and we have a deep connection in that way,” Ulbrich said last March, per D. Orlando Ledbetter of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “To see him grow as a player and as a man, it’s a guy that I would love to continue on with.”

With Campbell hitting free agency again, Ulbrich may have a chance to reopen that opportunity.

Shaquil Barrett, Tampa Bay

Tampa Bay’s defense, one fresh off stifling the mighty Chiefs in the Super Bowl, is young enough that they could be poised to be a problem for a long time. But Barrett can be the threat off the edge the Jets have been seeking for a long time, a role he filled in brilliantly during Tampa’s championship run. Barrett can be particularly dangerous in the 4-3 set that Saleh desires.

Outlook

The Jets have some big decisions to make at linebacker, a vital spot with defenseive masters Saleh and Ulbrich taking over. There’s certainly some changes to make in this area with so many names up for free agency. Focus has previously centered on offense, but the Jets have the necessary cap room (and could gain more with some releases) to make a play at some of the big names on the linebacking front. Either way, the relative stability they felt at the end of the 2019 toward the group seems like an attainable, if not vital, goal.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

New York Jets positional preview 2021: Defensive line

The rise of Quinnen Williams and some diamonds in the rough has made the defensive line a rare secure spot on the New York Jets’ roster.

The Position: Defensive Line
On the Roster: Quinnen Williams, Henry Anderson, Folorunso Fatukasi, John Franklin-Myers, Kyle Phillips Bryce Huff, Nathan Shepherd, Jabari Zuniga, Tanzel Smart
Free Agents: Trevon Coley
Reserve/Future: N/A

As if the New York Jets didn’t have enough problems on their homefront, the 2020 season served as a not-so-friendly reminder that they’re going to have to deal with Josh Allen for a long, long time. Cam Newton and Tua Tagovailoa didn’t live up to the hype in their AFC East debuts, but if Deshaun Watson’s not coming to the Jets, he might well take his talents to South Beach (if his Houston employers can be convinced to bargain, that is). New England struggled with Newton but they enjoyed a rushing breakout with Damien Harris and will welcome back a healthy Sony Michel come next season.

Simply put, the Jets need to make sure their first line of defense is fortified moving forward. Despite their endless struggles in 2020, the unit became one of the Jets’ most reliable areas.

Quinnen Williams, for example, was one of the most pleasant surprises in football, recovering from a tough rookie year to become one of the league’s most dominant interior linemen (55 tackles, 14 knockdowns, 10 TFL, 7 sacks). Folorunso “Foley” Fatukasi and Henry Anderson each became veteran breakouts, while John Franklin-Myers became a reliable depth option. While each dealt with injuries, the Jets have high hopes for youngsters Kyle Phillips and Jabari Zuniga. In an uncannily welcome situation, the unit has only one potential departure through free agency (Trevon Coley), though that doesn’t account for potential cap departures like Anderson ($8 million).

Adding to the defensive line’s importance is new head coach Robert Saleh’s dedication to the 4-3 defense. The Jets haven’t run such a formation on a consistent basis since Bill Parcells and Herm Edwards helped ring in the new millennium.

Saleh expects Williams to be the headliner of his unit moving forward. During Saleh’s time in the Bay Area, the 49ers extensively scouted Williams when they picked right before the Jets in the 2019 draft. San Francisco eventually took Nick Bosa but Williams left an impression on his new coach.

“With regards to (Williams) his mindset, his athleticism, his power, his love for football, I’m really, really excited to see him in our system, especially up front with the way we design with that attack style,” Saleh said, per team report Jack Bell. “He’s a game-wrecker. He’s somebody you have to game plan against to keep him at bay, and, obviously, it gives the other 10 guys an opportunity to excel just because of the focus that he’s going to garner.”

Free-Agents-to-be

DT Trevon Coley

Coley was scooped off Arizona’s waiver wire in December and didn’t appear in a game in a Jets uniform. He tallied 14 tackles and a sack over six games with the Cardinals this season. The Jets were his seventh team since entering the league as an undrafted free agent out of FAU in 2016.

Will They Draft?

Adding help to the defensive line is low on the Jets’ priority list for the time being, though the possibility could be raised if they move Anderson through a release or trade. If they had their usual output of picks, they’d probably focus beyond the front four, but they could potentially explore a mid-tier option like Janarius Robinson from Florida State or the versatile Malcolm Koonce from Buffalo. If they want to replenish the interior, they could look at Williams’ Tuscaloosa successor Christian Barmore, though he would likely require a pick over the first two days. 

Veteran Possibilities 

DE Kerry Hyder, San Francisco

Hyder is one of many San Francisco free agents that should expect a call from the Jets. He originally joined the Jets as an undrafted rookie out of Texas Tech in 2014 before latching on with Detroit and Dallas prior to his San Francisco stint. After Solomon Thomas was lost for the year, Hyder put up a career-best 8.5 sacks, leading the team. He may not be a household name, but he would provide an instant boost to the Jets’ edge efforts.

DE Bruce Irvin, Seattle

The Jets’ defensive line has potential, they just need some guidance, a push in the right direction. Irvin was set to somewhat fulfill that role by returning to the Seahawks, where he worked with Saleh during his first two NFL seasons as a 2012 first-round choice. A torn ACL limited him to only two games, but, at the right price, he can be a veteran mentor that happens to know what it’s like to work in a Saleh system.

DT Jacob Tuioti-Mariner, Atlanta 

Having previously worked with Jeff Ulbrich, the Jets’ new defensive coordinator who held the same title in Atlanta, the undrafted sophomore from UCLA enjoyed a breakout season of sorts. He partook in all 16 games and picked up 31 tackles while also recovering three fumbles. If the Jets are looking for an interior depth option that knows what to expect from Ulbrich’s schemes, Tuioti-Mariner would be the way to go.

Outlook

In the grand scheme of things, the front four is one of the rare areas where the Jets don’t have to make too many adjustments. Yet, when you win two games in an NFL season, help from the outside would be welcome up and down the roster. If the Jets opt to let veterans like Anderson and Fatukasi go to earn additional cap space, only then would they perhaps become truly active. Still, with a new regime, namely Saleh and Ulbrich, coming in, it wouldn’t be surprising to see them add a familiar face or two to potentially create a smoother transition.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags