In Defense of Tremaine Edmunds: And Other Thoughts About the 2023 Buffalo Bills Free Agents!

OK, the “in defense” structure is probably not necessary here. After Edmunds’ stellar 2022 season, few fans are calling for his head anymore. However, this has not been the case for most of his career. His slow winning of fans’ favor over his first four seasons has been a large part of his story to date. Fans questioned the 2018 first round pick as a poor tackler with poor instincts and few big plays. And even if many of his detractors have come around to praise him, they still have questions about re-signing him. We’re over the cap and the defense’s hit is already through the roof. He’s not worth it. Spend the money on defense. I’m sure if you search his name on Twitter, you’ll find all of these arguments from Bills fans.

That said, if you do that search, you’ll also discover other teams’ fans salivating about the idea of signing him. While Matt Milano deservedly received a lot of the LB plaudits this year—including Pro Bowl and All-Pro starting nods—Edmunds has earned a reputation as one of the most athletic middle linebackers in the NFL. Opposing teams have to game plan around him as he clogs up the middle of the field. However, they also have to be wary of him suddenly plunging into the backfield and stopping a runner flat. Plainly put, Edmunds affects the QB—even if his sacks are rare.

So, let’s look into what 2022 Bills are free agents and whether we should want them back. We’ll start of course with…

Tremaine Edmunds

By the time this is posted, Edmunds may have signed with the Lions or the Falcons (or even back with the Bills). While teams theoretically cannot sign anyone until sometime on Wednesday when the league year begins, the NFL gave up on policing that one years ago. It probably had something to do with the fact that the speculation equals even more ad revenue. We won’t dwell on that.

When the Bills drafted Edmunds, he was 19 and one of the youngest players ever drafted in the first round. I was ecstatic as he was my favorite prospect. However, given they were drafting a QB there was no way he would be a Bill. And then the Bills traded up to 16 and it had to be for him.

Within a year, Edmunds rose to captain of the defense, a defense that has been top five (except 2020). While many questioned his instincts or inability to make splash plays (sacks, INTs, fumbles), he stoically persevered. Arguably, splash plays were not his function in the defense. He was there to make sure the other team did not make splash plays. Matt Milano was there to run all over the field. Edmunds was the rock that allowed him (and others) to play with more abandon.

That said, early in his career, he could be burned in coverage, often admittedly took the wrong angle, and could miss a tackle. However, by 2022, fans really could not make this argument anymore with a straight face. He held passers to a remarkable sub-70 QB rating–third best on the team behind Milano and Poyer. It’s a fact made all the more remarkable when you realize MLBs cover a lot of middle ground and are often the default scapegoat for many short-to-midrange passes. Even more insane is the fact that Pro Football Reference credited him with one. missed. tackle! As in singular. Uno. It gave him an absurd 1.0% missed tackle rating.

Should they re-sign him? His youth, significance to the team, and constant progression should make this a no-brainer. Brandon Beane has asserted that his philosophy Will they re-sign him? Honestly, at this point, I haven’t a clue. Many have read the tea leaves and believe he’s Swayze, Casper, a ghost. While I’ve come to terms with losing a player who is a defensive cog and my personal favorite player on the team, I don’t think it’s that cut-and-dried.

Yesterday, the team extended Matt Milano. The consensus on Twitter is that this means Edmunds is gone. The team won’t want to spend 30 million or so at the LB position. However, my first reaction to the news was the opposite. Milano’s been feasting the last few years and Edmunds’ growth almost certainly has a lot to do with that. Milano was first team All-Pro last year and it was much deserved. He’s an amazing talent, but he has one of the highest missed tackle rates in football. With Edmunds’ surehandedness, Milano can afford to play with abandon. Will he regress without Edmunds? Possibly not, but why break up one of the best LB combos in football.

Is he too expensive? Off ball linebackers are not considered a premium position, but with his confluence of skills and age, he could be considered a bit of a unicorn and is expected to earn more than Spotrac’s 11.5m per year estimate. There’s even some thought he could earn upwards of 20m/yr. It’s a lot for a team already up against the salary cap. It flouts held notions of what positions should be valued on payroll. However, these “rules” should never be absolute. Any GM should simply strive to get maximum return from his players and his potential players.

Can the Bills afford him given their cap constraints? Most definitely. Well, mostly, anyway. They could fairly easily fit a 2023 number for Edmunds under. Milano’s restructure puts them about 7-10m over, but to quote Bills salary cap guru Cover 1’s Greg Tompsett (quoting Arrested Development), “there’s always money in the banana stand.” As we’re seeing with the L.A. Rams this off-season, salary cap maneuvers can finally catch up to a team. The Bills are nowhere near there yet. Restructuring Allen’s contract would free up 21m alone. Beane designed the contract to be restructure-able. Further, the amounts never stay constant through their duration. Even if you pay Edmunds 17m per year, they can design the hit so that the first year comes in at, say, 7 million for 2023. There’s roughly 60-70 million dollars in salary cap the Bills could unlock if they do EVERYTHING they can.

The other side of it (or problem), though, is the money does go somewhere. Both Allen’s and Edmunds’ hits would be much higher by 2025. Beane would be gambling both that the salary cap balloons as it’s expected. Even if not, potentially they could continue to reconfigure contracts for many more years. It is flirting with disaster to a degree. For example, Milano’s new contract saves six million this year, but also could now be restructured in 2024 or 2025.

However, Milano will be over 30 by then and life comes at you fast in the NFL. He could conceivably play at a high level for many more years after that. But does Beane want to be on the hook if Milano hits that wall suddenly. Of his chaotic playing style could lend itself to injury. Restructuring Von Miller could save almost 11m, but he’s 33 and coming off an ACL. If he never plays at an elite level again, the team would be paying a lot of dead money for many years.

Why do I think they should take that chance with Edmunds? Given Beane’s history, he would likely set the large cap numbers to hit in 2025 & 2026. Edmunds is so ridiculously young that he could just be hitting his prime then. Yes, he plays a non-premium position, but he’s a unique player with a specific value to this team. Finally, there’s Beane’s stated philosophy of “draft/develop/re-sign.” As the Bills have focused on team building, letting a 24-year-old budding superstar like Edmunds walk would be at least a bit disheartening.

We may know in a few hours if Edmunds will still be a Bill. We may already know he’s signed elsewhere. Would it be a fatal blow to the Bills future fortunes if they lose him? Not really. They can probably find a stopgap LB like Lavonte David or, dare to dream, Bobby Wagner, and draft the potential future one next month. That said, losing both Edmunds and Poyer in one fell swoop could rip the heart out of what has been one of the NFL’s best defense. Which brings us to…

Jordan Poyer

Brendan Beane pulled Jordan Poyer off the scrap heap that is the Cleveland Browns six years ago as one of his first moves as GM. Since then, Poyer has grown from a forgotten 7th round pick on the fringes to one of the best safeties in football, winning both Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors in the last few years. It would seem he would be first on the list of players to hold onto.

Sadly, he is not. First off, his departure may be as much about politics as anything. His MAGA model wife Rachel Bush has been loud about not loving Buffalo. Bush has often gone into protracted Twitter battles with fans. Full disclosure: I am blocked by Bush. While less vocal, Poyer has openly talked about going to Florida, citing its lack of taxation as a selling point. If you’re still a Bills player, fawning about Miami is not going to endear you to fans.

Like Edmunds, his contract is likely to exceed his actual worth. Why is Poyer different? Well, first off, he’s about a decade older. While I would bet on Poyer to play at least another five years, there’s the old trope about Father Time. He’s undefeated. And although Tom Brady has challenged the notion, even he is (probably) retired and in a major (and awful-looking despite its cast) motion picture.

Rita Moreno plays Maura, Jane Fonda plays Trish, Lily Tomlin plays Lou and Sally Field plays Betty in 80 For Brady from Paramount Pictures.

In an ideal world, it would be nice to keep the band together. But there is eventually a limit to the banana stand’s contents. Signing both Edmunds and Poyer to the long contracts that will have years that spike over 20 million is likely a bridge too far. Poyer has played his heart out for the Bills. They were 13-1 when he played last year. Nevertheless, it’s assuredly the end of the line for Poyer. Plus his actions would suggest that while he has enjoyed his time in Buffalo, his feet are out the door.

Devin Singletary

Like Edmunds, running back Devin Singletary has been the target of criticism that is often overblown or unwarranted. In his time as a Bill, Singletary has averaged an impressive 4.7 yards per carry and has the ability to use his vision to get extra yards. And he’s done that behind a suboptimum offensive line most of his tenure. However, he’s never been a reliable force in the red zone nor has received the consistant carries of your standard RB1. He’s a conundrum. He’s also almost certainly playing elsewhere next year.

When the off-season started, it seemed possible that the glut of top-ranked RBs on the market could make him affordable. However, with the RB franchise tag being so affordable, most of those top players—Saquon Barkley, Tony Pollard, Josh Jacobs, etc.—have come off the board. Furthermore, the Bills might not even want to bring him back. Surely, they love his ethic and spirit, but a red zone wizard like Jamaal Williams might cost about the same. The 17TD man also may pair better with emerging star James Cook’s serpentine running style.

Jordan Phillips & Shaq Lawson

It’s hard not to put the Bills pair of prodigal sons together as they left for “greener pastures” after the 2019 only to come back in 2022. Jordan Phillips literally convinced Shaq Lawson to return to the team that drafted him in the 1st round in 2016 for the vet minimum. Heck, the twosome even had one of the most meme’d NFL moments of 2019 with their soup-slurping celebration during their signature Thanksgiving thumping of Dallas.

Do the Bills need to bring these two back? Well, not exactly need. Interestingly, it was Lawson who had the bigger contribution. He has always been one of the best defensive ends at setting the edge and stopping the run. That continued in 2022, and his 3.5 sacks were timely ones. Phillips was mostly hurt all year, but would show up for a key stop every once in a while.

Most importantly, they’re likely not too expensive. It also doesn’t hurt that they both play with boundless passion and love it in Buffalo. In a season where they are starting to pinch a few pennies and might lose some big defenders, bringing back these bang-for-their-buck options could be key.

The Rest of the Bills FAs

Beyond those five players, there’s still a ton of Bills out in the open. While I was finishing this up, punter Sam Martin and special teams ace Tyler Matakavich got new contracts. Both are good moves as while there are some advocates of a no-punt philosophy, you still kinda need a punter and Martin has been solid. It’s arguable that the bind they are in means they could sacrifice some of their number one in DVOA special teams unit, one has only to look at the 2010 San Diego Chargers to be reminded the value of not neglecting STs.

Rodger Saffold seemed like a good idea at the time last year as the offensive line looked close at the end of 2021 and Saffold was coming off a Pro Bowl season. Put him between fellow Pro Bowler Dion Dawkins and Mitch Morse and the line should have been set. While Saffold did make the Pro Bowl this year, both PFF and the eye test had him as one of the worst guards in football this year. Saffold seems like an awesome dude and could bounce back, but he’s 33 and betting on him again might not be the smart option.

Case Keenum never had to do much as a back-up QB this year. Allen gutted out an elbow injury so the vet didn’t get anything but mop-up time. He’s a perfectly fine option, but with players like Marcus Mariota, Jacoby Brissett, and others, there might be a cheaper choice. Although, if they sign Adam Thielen, we could recreate the 2019 Minnesota Vikings if we wanted to. That’s not important, but it is kinda neat.

Taiwan Jones has been a special teams standout for a long time, but may hang up his cleats. Offensive linemen David Quessenberry and Greg Van Roten (check his PFF score when you get a chance) were not terrible in spot duty, but hardly essential. Receivers Jamieson Crowder and Jake Kumerow were hurt most of last seasons. Given their likely low price, both could be worth retaining. Kumerow has the added value of being a top gunner on ST.

Cornerback Dane Jackson is an interesting dilemma. He was forced into a starting role last year and was the ultimate feast-or-famine player. Jackson made some key plays, but teams targeted him in many games down the stretch. The Bills do own the rights to him and can retain him for a 2.6 million tag. Tre’Davious White, Kaiir Elam, and Taron Johnson return as the starters. If all are healthy, he’s behind them. That’s a solid price for a 4th QB and a good option to have in the Bills’ pocket.

There’s more (Dean Marlowe, Tyrel Dodson, Bobby Hart), and while I’d love to see any of them back, especially the enthusiastic, hard-hitting Dodson, we’re surfing on the fringes. As painful as this off-season has the potential to be, there’s comfort in the fact that even while the Jets and Dolphins are making some impressive moves, the Bills are in tremendous shape. Even should they lose every one of the remaining players and sign no FAs, the Bills will still be the class of the AFC East and at the very least still a Super Bowl contender. And the flipside of all that is if that happens, the 2024 NFL Draft will be a lot of fun as they would like wind up with upward of 12 picks with three of those in the 3rd round. Hopefully, it will be used for restocking in the wake of a Super Bowl win.

Oh, and Stefon is not getting traded. Stay angry, Stef. Bills fans love your fire!