Bills free agent re-signing priority list: Why Buffalo must keep DaQuan Jones
When it comes to their offseason, the Buffalo Bills need to be selective with how they go about their business. The Bills have a lot of roster holes opening up with upcoming free agents and still, a massive projected salary cap deficit to overcome before they do anything.
Last week, we ranked the top 10 Bills free agents in terms of how much interest they could get on the open market. But today brings a different spin on the group.
Who could, and should, the Bills prioritize to re-sign with what likely will be a modest amount of cap space? Factoring who realistically could return and the feasibility of their new contracts, here is a full look at which players would be most impactful for the money the Bills might spend on them.
If you said the Bills could only pick one player to return from their 2024 unrestricted free-agent class, factoring in all of the roster holes and their salary cap limitations, DaQuan Jones would be my answer without hesitation. The impact Jones made on the field this season was immense. When healthy, not only was he one of their best run defenders who made plays and also helped teammates, but he added a pass-rushing component to his game that wasn’t as prevalent in 2022. Once they lost Jones in Week 5 to a long-term absence, it took the Bills several weeks to figure things out and it forced them to sign 35-year-old free agent Linval Joseph — but the one-technique position was not the same until Jones returned from his injury late in the year.
Even with Jones turning 32 last December, he checks every box the Bills should be looking for to spend their modest cap space this offseason efficiently. He plays a position where the Bills have a gaping hole. Eli Ankou, who spent most of the year on the practice squad, is the only possible one-technique defensive tackle signed for 2024. Jones is an impact player within the team’s scheme and one they know works well for them when he’s on the field. His presence, even if it’s a short-term fix, immediately makes them better for next season as they try to chase a Super Bowl on a budget. Third, Jones could be cost effective based on what they get on the field. His age and long-term injury work against his market this offseason and could result in the Bills getting back a key cog for at least one year, giving them an extra year to figure out the long-term plan at the position.
From where things started for Epenesa, to what he’s turned himself into over his last two seasons, he seems like a player on an upward trajectory. You have to give him a lot of credit, too. He entered the league at the global pandemic’s peak, where NFL teams didn’t get together until training camp that summer and was informed the team wanted him to shed some weight. But without being under the watchful eye of the team, Epenesa’s playing weight crashed to under 250 pounds and he had a difficult time adapting. He slowly built himself back up over the next two years and settled around the 265-pound mark, which has accentuated his skills and helped him reach new heights. Although he had the same amount of sacks in 2023 as he did in 2022 (6.5), Epenesa’s dependability and playing level increased in his fourth season. He made impact plays outside of the statistics, effectively canceling out the option of throwing a swing pass to his side of the field because of how often he batted down the attempt.
Epenesa comes in second on this list because he still hasn’t had a true breakout season, but appears to be trending up at a significant position of need this offseason. The Bills enter the 2024 offseason with only Greg Rousseau, Von Miller, Kingsley Jonathan and Kameron Cline signed at defensive end and there’s a strong chance soon-to-be 35-year-old Miller won’t be with the team in 2025. Epenesa would provide them a potential starting option on the right side to pair with Rousseau and one who might not demand a top-flight defensive end contract. Epenesa turns 26 in September, meaning his best days might be ahead. The Bills could spread out the money in cap hits to make it manageable for 2024. However, given Epenesa’s age, position and how he’s improved every year, there is a distinct chance the Bills could be priced out of his market — especially considering what Rousseau’s second contract could cost.
Much of the justification for bringing back Epenesa applies to Floyd, but the move would be from a short-term perspective that could fall more in line with the emphasis to get the most they can out of 2024 without heavily impacting their 2025 cap sheet. It would return Floyd into a top-three role with Rousseau and Miller, likely with Miller getting a bump in playing time from what he had in 2023. The positive with Floyd is the Bills would be getting a player who thrived early in the season. The negative is Floyd turning 32 in September and his play tailed off near the end of the season.
Floyd did mention during locker room clean-out that he’s going to follow the money in free agency and only wanted to play for a Super Bowl contender. Considering he waited until June to make his decision last year, he clearly seems comfortable with waiting out the market, which worked in his favor last year. He landed in an ideal situation with the Bills, with a big role and good-sized contract. There is a case for Floyd to follow a similar track next year unless he gets wowed by an offer as the market opens. Not only would waiting until June help him make a more informed decision, but good teams that might be holding onto a potential compensatory pick in the 2025 NFL Draft would be able to sign Floyd without it affecting their formula. Conversely, if Floyd waited that late this offseason, he wouldn’t count positively for the Bills’ compensatory pick formula either. The Bills could always cross the Floyd bridge during spring workouts to see if the roster dictates needing him back and if they have the cap space to do so.
4. WR Gabriel Davis
Putting Davis fourth on this list isn’t an indication of how they feel about him as a player. The Bills have long been admirers of Davis for his ability on the field, the role he played over the last two years and how hard he works every offseason. It’s more of a feasibility factor, as it seems likely Davis receives the biggest contract of any Bills free agent in March. Davis already stated that he intends to go to the open market in mid-March, which is never a good sign for retaining a player. It has worked out in the Bills’ favor in the past, like with Jordan Poyer last offseason, but that was a different case of an aging player in a position that isn’t as in-demand as wide receiver. Plus, Davis only turns 25 in April. It would not be a surprise if Davis received a deal easily topping what Jakobi Meyers got last offseason ($11 million APY). Meyers was also a full year-and-a-half older last March than Davis will be at the time of his signing this year.
That price tag, plus Davis’ on-field inconsistency may just push him out of Buffalo this offseason. As the year unfolded, it became quite evident the Bills needed a big-play option at receiver and Davis couldn’t provide that other than in a handful of games. You can’t put Davis too far down the list because of how much they like him as a player and person and should his market fall flat, they could definitely try to arrange something. But with a loaded wide receiver draft class in 2024, the Bills don’t have to force the issue with re-signing Davis. They could probably make a more cost-effective signing for an older stop-gap receiver, draft one in the first two rounds and see if the rookie can become that big play threat they so desperately need. Davis is likely one of their best chances to earn a high-end compensatory pick in the 2025 NFL Draft.
Cam Lewis is a multi-functional player and of all their depth players, he should be one of their priorities. Lewis proved himself to be a trusted special teams commodity all last season, spending time on every core-four unit throughout the year. With the Bills possibly losing Tyler Matakevich this offseason, investing a two- or three-year deal in Lewis, who turns 27 in April, would be a wise choice. On top of that, Lewis can serve as a fallback option at starting safety should the offseason really not go to their plans. At worst, he’s a top four safety, while also having the ability to be Taron Johnson’s primary backup. With that many uses and many years in the defensive scheme, the Bills should figure out how to get this done.
I put retaining one of these two safeties lower down the list because the Bills don’t need to force it. Hyde is 33 and is actively mulling retirement, while Rapp wasn’t as good as they hoped for in 2023 and is better suited to Jordan Poyer’s role than the one they’d lose with Hyde. But should a safety target in free agency or the draft not wind up going their way, Rapp can always be a fallback plan with his one-year knowledge of the scheme. The Bills would likely remain open to bringing back Hyde on a one-year deal for one last go-round with Poyer, whose deal expires after the 2024 season.
The Bills successfully went through the entire season without any of their starting offensive linemen missing a game. It was outstanding luck on their part and something they shouldn’t expect to be duplicated. That’s why bringing back Edwards, who became their top reserve offensive lineman throughout the year, would be a good idea if the price works well enough. Due to his injury-shortened 2022 and being on the bench all of 2023, the Bills could potentially get him back on a cost-effective one-year deal. That way he could be their top interior reserve once again and serve as the sixth offensive lineman in heavy 12, 22 and 13 personnel formations.
Johnson developed into a solid second running back as the Bills’ rushing attack found its way late in the season. As of now, all the Bills have coming back from the 2023 team are James Cook and Nyheim Hines, who is returning from a torn ACL. Getting Johnson back on a low-cost one-year deal would be a wise plan and one they can pivot away from if they drafted one in the middle or late rounds of the 2024 NFL Draft who showed up playing well enough to be ahead of schedule.
Dodson turned in a fine season with a condensed early-down role. However, considering his age (26 in June), potential cost and with the Bills having the quartet of Matt Milano, Terrel Bernard, Dorian Williams and Baylon Spector under contract for at least the next two years, the Bills may be unwilling to sign Dodson for the type of money he may command. Besides, Dodson likely will fish for a starting role somewhere and the Bills simply cannot provide that.
10. CB Dane Jackson
If the Bills move on from Tre’Davious White or Kaiir Elam, Jackson would become more of a priority. But until that point, Jackson would be a bit of an over-the-top signing since the Bills primarily only keep six cornerbacks on the 53-man roster. And the team already has six cornerbacks returning in 2024 with Rasul Douglas, Christian Benford, White, Elam, Siran Neal and nickel corner Taron Johnson. That number would be seven if they retained Cam Lewis, who can double as a backup nickel.
(Top photo of DaQuan Jones: Timothy T Ludwig / Getty Images)